In the New York Review of Books last year novelist Zadie Smith wrote an article on the differences between joy and pleasure. I wasn’t made aware of the piece until last Christmas, those long, slow, sometimes empty, sometimes bumpy days of eating and reading and sleeping. I read Smith’s words closely; I read them repeatedly. Are these ideas of joy and pleasure really that hard to get a grip on?
What else to do when something’s on your mind than head to the local pool.
In my lane, which luck would have it I didn’t need to share, amongst the crystal-clear chlorinated water, beneath the hazy but grand Southern Tablelands sky, I thought about Zadie Smith and her joy/pleasure conundrum. She believed that for most people joy is just a more intense version of pleasure. However, she also noted, ‘The thing no one ever really tells you about joy is that there is very little pleasure in it. And yet if it hadn’t happened at all, at least once, how could we live?’ It’s this question that hounded – haunted? – me as I got myself from one end of the pool to the other.
I’m a life-long lap-swimmer; I come from the breed of people who find this sort of thing enjoyable. I can remember my first swimming less as a little boy, which was given in the family pool at home in Sydney by a Jaguar-driving man who prevented me from sinking by gripping the back of my tiny black Speedos. Since then there’s rarely been a time when swimming hasn’t been a weekly activity; not so long ago I could do thirty laps, sometimes fifty, every so often more.
Which is probably why my shoulder gave up the ghost. The physiotherapist told me that if I wanted to swim for the rest of my life then I’d have to learn to breathe ‘on both sides’, which, like jogging, is something I’ve simply never been able to do. So, during the Christmas just gone, with Zadie Smith in my head, I began teaching myself to breathe on my left as well as my right. By the end of the first session I could do it, gingerly, and I had to concentrate, but I made it work.
As I walked home I thought, swimming might be a pleasure but teaching this old dog to learn new swimming-pool tricks is where joy lives.
(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 2 February 2013.)