Poets words as such, sense they haven’t much
But childlike gladness, and a child’s sadness,
But truth all-pleasing, and truth uneasing,
But heavenly love, oh heavenly love.
Let him not hunger that he may call,
Let him not thirst that his tears may fall.
The path to heaven, the pathway to hell
He will show you.
15th century Aragonese song
This book often speaks of joy, sweet companion of long journeys. Joy turns dusty paths golden, and makes rainy lands bright. Just like people, trips also have two faces, and you can have your pick. Either you journey joyfully, remembering only the most beautiful aspects, or you walk in apathy and misery, taking home wretched, useless memories. Joy is the penultimate rung on the celestial ladder. It radiates from you brightly, promising to take you far. You feel the best is yet to come. In that way it differs from the highest rung, illuminated by the still, rosy light of beatific bliss and the knowledge that this life has come to absolute fruition. From there leads but one path – back.
Where is joy to be found, my grumpy little brother? Almost everywhere. It sits by the wayside and beckons to passing pilgrims, but few ever notice it, few are of pure and open heart. Those who do are rewarded, for it flies into their hearts and dances in their eyes, mouth, arms, and legs before rushing out again to await the next pilgrim. Eyes gleam, but they don’t know why. Mouth speaks words without meaning. Feet stomp, fists clench, tears well in the eyes. A truly remarkable game!
Yet I do not know why joy leaps to the heart. High spirits are often its only residue. The highest joy neither rushes nor dances. At times, it rearranges the darkest, most despairing of thoughts like fragments in a kaleidoscope. The concerns that worried you for hours miraculously dissipate, and radiant joy bounds into your freshly swept heart. It only needs space! It leaps into your arms, and you wave to the sun. It leaps into your feet, and you do a pirouette. It leaps into your mouth, and you sing and shout for joy.
Everyone likely has different experiences. I was seized by pure joy in a little town at the foot of North Bohemian mountains. It was just a few hundred meters to the border. Irritable and unhappy with myself (I had hurt someone but didn’t want to admit it), I wandered the little town, having never been there before. Out of despair, I entered the rather derelict municipal museum. A little man bowed in the doorway, nose red from years of colds, two scarlet, slimy tracks etched onto the upper lip. And you know what, little brother? It was precisely him, an insignificant, neglected little man, who brought me joy. The museum was strange, old-fashioned. Sometimes I couldn’t distinguish between the collections and the rest of the rubbish that lay, left during cleaning, in piles on the floor. Broken bayonets, piles of dead flies, fragments of a pot (perhaps of ancient origin?), antique, rusty fire brigade helmets, chipped porcelain, crumbling photo albums of long-dead locals, tarnished gold rings, military bugles, stuffed animals, trash, treasure. There is not such a wonderful museum in all of Czechoslovakia! The little man, encouraged by my excitement, described how good people from near and far bring him things they have no use for, and how he himself visits the dump to discover wonderful objects and return to them their vitality. The exhibit displays were all open, but when I asked, “Do visitors ever steal exhibit pieces?” his answer was peaceful. “They do, they do, but others keep on bringing.” There was nothing else to add, it was a lovely museum.
“I’ll show my most precious possession,” the man said finally. He drew back the curtain to expose a niche where a small engraving hung. Ancient. Dead horses lay on their backs, feet in the air, dying soldiers in their midst. Flying banners, flashing flames. The battle was over. A solitary mercenary knelt bareheaded in the corner. Beneath the depiction, two sentences had been written in strange letters. “Dear God, give us the courage to risk and strike in life’s battles, and if we are to win, let it be according to the law and with untarnished faith and honor. And if we are to lose, endow us with the humility to stand at the wayside and greet the victors as they pass.” And suddenly it happened. Tears welled up in my eyes and I was overwhelmed by indescribable joy. Suddenly, I saw my iniquity and wretchedness juxtaposed to the glory, beauty, and grandeur of the world. An inexpressible sensation. The little man stood there at attention like the last sentinel, the faithful guard. Bidding him a hasty farewell, I ran out into the silent streets, no longer dreary but flaring in flame. In joy’s embrace, I sang at the top of my lungs. Like a Chasidic saint, I danced down streets to the forest’s edge. Out of that glorious town I waltzed, all the way to the border. Out of the town that had given me so much. At the forest’s edge, far from people, I fell to the ground for sheer joy and rolled in pine needles.
But joy comes to me most often with music or girls or a combination of the two. A South Bohemian village at noon. The summer fragrance of linden trees and Sunday dinners. I walk alone, not a soul to be seen. Sleepy village, goose droppings, afternoon so hot not even dogs bark. I limp along dismally. Stillness. Suddenly, sweet song soars, wild yet gentle. I cannot hear the words, but the girl’s voice electrifies me. It rises sharply and suddenly, amicably, then falls meekly away, as if the woman were laying her head on someone’s shoulder. I stand on the square glued to the spot, listening to the invisible girl, absentmindedly toeing grassy goose droppings with my foot. Rising above the deserted village, swelter, scents, and song. I clench my fists as reckless joy overwhelms me. Immobilized, I listen and listen. I wish to remain with that singing girl for all eternity, to sail with her across the sea. Strange are the ways of joy!
Enough about these experiences, everyone has their own paths. You might rejoice at a great fire, little brother, or an immense flood, shouting for joy at the sight of something so remarkably powerful. At the fullness of earth’s intensity. Yet the roaring of flames, the rushing of water drowns out your voice. Perhaps looking up into a circus dome moves you to tears as slender acrobats, like hummingbirds, flit high above earth, unafraid of death. Though perhaps clumsy or overweight, you suddenly rejoice in your humanness, in belonging to a race of beings capable of such unbelievable stunts. Or perhaps one autumn day, you enter an empty countryside church so still, only leaves rustle in the rectory garden. Sepulchral smells stray through the air. Your greatest desire: to lie beneath it. Such sorrow for a futile, useless life weighs upon you. Into that silence and despair, an organ unexpectedly thunders. Freezing, chills run down your spine. Music, striking with its silvery hooves, soars heavenward in a cleansing cascade. Suddenly the sinfulness and triviality of your sorrow become clear. You leave the church transformed, joy in your heart.
Only joy, my fervent little brother, permits you to speak and act like a madman. People will forgive you if it radiates from you. I write this because there are many like you, feel not ashamed! Only ecstatic joy permits you to spontaneously do otherwise impermissible things. To thrust a penny into an unsuspecting stranger’s mouth; observe close up the faces of fellow passengers with hands like a telescope; knock a superior agreeably over the head with a roll of paper; play air violin in the middle of a shopping center; roll about in the town square calling, “By God, constable, do thy duty!”; address an old woman selling onions at the market, “Fair lady, what makes thee so exquisitely plumptilian and fuzzilicious?”; with an apologetic smile, press a glass pig into a strange girl’s hand. And hundreds of other forbidden things.
Nonsense words occur to you in joy, little brother. Hymen Thimblefist: a tiny, tight-fisted, lecherous tailor. A wordplay poem while picking sesel: Nestle sesel in a vessel. Wrestle vessel to a pestle. Pestle sesel then re-vessel. Joy reassures you it is better to write a poem than a book about mice or chemistry. Those who know can take no offense. You can spend hours, even days lying joyously on sandy beaches in apparent idleness, laziness, and dawdling without the slightest feeling of wasted time. Time vanishes in happiness. You live as cheerfully as a gypsy. Such carefree people, it is said their language does not even possess the future tense. They live here and now, in the present moment.
Joy – the barometer of the soul. What you do in joy can be neither wrong nor sinful. In doing wrong, you feel no joy. That is the justice of the universe. Immediate, merited. Joyless deeds – iniquity and hell. Were you unfaithful? Did you ride that dusty horse? Your punishment was swift. You were not happy, even if you thought you were. In the depths of your soul, there was sorrow. In joyful lovemaking, you feel your love must last until death, not just one beautiful hour, night or year. I think a joyful death must be beautiful too. So easy, so alluring. For death has two faces, little brother! One clear, honey-gold spring day, I walked through a city. There was a fair on the square full of laughing, joyful people. The April air drew my soul from my body, and I yearned to melt into the blue distance. Banners waved, trumpets played with martial tone beneath wafting breezes. I would follow them to hell, such was my joy. Someone beckoned, girls smiled and laughed, blowing each other kisses. At that moment I felt the joyful inclination to die. Right there and then. To soar into the air and simply vanish. How beautiful! There would be music playing, bagpipes and whistles wildly wailing. Like a hero, I’d stand upon the podium. Soldiers would smile, merrily aiming their rifles at me. Wind, wind! I would cry something beautiful and reassuring to the people, call to the girls, dance a final dance, laugh a last laugh and boom – I’d fall vanquished by sister death. Death on such a day! Haha! Let her come, I haven’t made love to her yet!