Against Joie de Vivre

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Over the years I have developed a distaste for the spectacle of joie de vivre, the knack of knowing how to live. Not that I disapprove of all hearty enjoyment of life. A flushed sense of happiness can overtake a person anywhere, and one is no more to blame for it than the Asiatic flu or a sudden benevolent change in the weather (which is often joy's immediate cause). No, what rankles me is the stylization of this private condition into a bullying social ritual.

The French, who have elevated the picnic to their highest civilized rite, are probably most responsible for promoting this smugly upbeat, flaunting style. It took the French genius for formalizing the informal to bring sticky sacramental sanctity to the baguette, wine and cheese. A pure image of sleeveless joie de vivre Sundays can also be found in Renoir's paintings. Weekend satyrs dance and wink; leisure takes on a bohemian stripe. A decent writer, Henry Miller, caught the French malady and ran back to tell us of pissoirs in the Paris streets (why this should have impressed him so, I've never figured out).

But if you want a double dose of joie de vivre, you need to consult a later, hence more stylized version of the French myth of pagan happiness: those Family of Man photographs of endlessly kissing lovers, snapped by Doisneau and Boubat, not to mention Cartier-Bresson's icon of the proud tyke carrying bottles of wine. If CartierBresson and his disciples are excellent photographers for all that, it is in spite of their rubbing our noses in a tediously programmatic "affirmation of life." Though it is traditionally the province of the French, the whole Mediterranean is a hotbed of professional joie de vivrism, which they have gotten down to a routine like a crack son et lumière display. The Italians export dolce far niente as aggressively as tomato paste. For the Greeks, a Zorba dance to life has supplanted classical antiquities as their main touristic lure. Hard to imagine...
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