About Joy In The East And In The West

Minimal Joys  To fully take delight in minimal joys – here is one of the irreducible experiences of joy in the East of Europe before 1989. The minimal joys mustn't be confounded with the "simple joys." It is one thing to enjoy a piece of hot bread and a glass of wine turning your back to the restaurant across the road and another thing to simply enjoy the fact that you have bread and wine. I should say that the simple joys were accessible to the West to a greater degree than to us. We were in the condition to be contented with the minimal joys. The totalitarian regime couldn't take from us the great joys, the joys that every man has his share of, irrespective to the life conditions: the joy of love, of friendship, of creativity. But forcing us to concentrate upon the minimal joys, it took the simple joys from us. It was not the luxury that was forbidden to us, but the natural, the smooth living, the calm noblesse of the humane. I have to add that one of the paradoxical effects of the penury was the monumentalisation of the minimal joys. The joy of clandestine acquisition, of the super-human mobilization in order to obtain a good meal became a veritable national sport. One of the forms of resisting dictatorship was the "resistance through food." We sabotaged the communist furor of austerity through a huge effort, organized and solidary, whose result was the settlement of an ample and efficient black market of food. To laboriously procure the things needed, to watch for the moment (and the place) of the flashing distribution of merchandise (of olives for example), to preserve the domestic ritual of the meal and the celebrations, to offer the foreign guest a lunch good enough so that he couldn't understand a thing out of the host's discourses about poverty – all these (plus the endless queues, boiling with subversion) were forms of resistance more widespread that one would believe. In Romania, where having a typewriter became a potential crime, there was but one samizdat: the samizdat of clandestine feeding. The difference between the two halves of Europe had, for the fortunate who happened to travel towards the West, inevitable comical connotations. At my first contacts with the "capitalist" market, I aroused the perplexity of many merchants asking questions that were not comprehensible for their way of living. I would enter, for instance, in a bakery and ask: "Do you have bread?" At first, the one being asked remained speechless. Was I joking? Was I an idiot? Was I mocking him? "Of course we have bread! What else do you think we're selling?" The man had no means of knowing, that, in the limits of my experience, the existence of bread in a bakery wasn't at all implied. When I asked him what exactly in the everyday occidental life impressed him the most, a friend who had managed to leave the country and had settled in Paris answered without even blinking: "The most amazing fact is that if you enter an ale house and ask for a beer, they bring you a beer!" Want came to be, in a way, for us as customary as the air we breathed. And with it, the ability to be happy with almost nothing. In fact, we ended by not perceiving the catastrophe of want. I remember that, in February 1992, being invited for a few months at Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, I noticed, as I was unpacking in a very agreeable apartment in Grünewald, that the light wasn't working. It was noon and I went about my business undisturbed, forgetting about the incident. After two hours everything went back to normal, anyway. In Bucharest the lights went off often, especially in the evening, when it was absolutely necessary. But in Berlin the incident caused an acute political crisis. The electricity breakdown disorganized everything: the televisions almost went bankrupt, the mothers couldn't warm the milk for the babies in time, the products in the refrigerators melted, hot water was cut off and so on. The government almost fell. My old philosophy teacher in the country was, after all, right: "You'll see, he said, the end of the civilized world will not follow some great catastrophe; everything will start from a trifle, from a current leisure suddenly suspended. The mineral water will disappear for a few days, or the toilet paper, or the lead-free petrol. And all the people for whom these things are part of the goes-without-saying necessary things will end, alienated, in physical and psychological confusion. Not the great apocalypse will be the ending, but a little apocalypse slightly ridiculous but fatal…" In the eve of an alleged "great" apocalypse, the West will be the one that, with its wonderful technology, with its extraordinary specialists, with its financial resources, will be able to save mankind. But if what menaces us is a little apocalypse, count on Central and Eastern Europe! We will teach you, rapidly, the technique of living on just a few things, of capitalizing the Ersatz, of enjoying the trifle. Negative Joys Alongside minimal joys, the citizen from the East had his share of plenty of "negative" joys. The minimal joys are the euphoria of the strictly necessary. The negative joys derive not from the satisfaction of having an agreeable experience, but from that of not having a bad experience. The negative joys are expressed by the expression "it could have been worse." They occur on the background of a somber expectation and derive from the unfulfilling of this expectation. Obviously, neither the Westerner is a stranger to such joys. They are, in fact, generally human joys: the joy of not being sick, the joy of not losing your job, the joy of not living with your mother-in-law, etc. But as the "normality" of the Westerner was different from that of the easterner, the negative joys of the latter had a special colouring. The Westerner is happy that nothing "abnormal" happens to him. The Easterner was happy that he was exempt from the "normality" of dictatorship: he was happy because not too much was cut off from the book that he handed to a publishing house, that his house or his church wasn't demolished, that he wasn't reported to the security or that, even if he was reported he wasn't (yet) sanctioned, subject of an enquiry, or arrested, etc. The Westerner is happy when the anomaly of evil doesn't happen, the Easterner was happy when the "anomaly" of good happened. In other words the Easterner's negative joy was more intense and, so to say, more "positive": the joy of coming out uncensored or unpunished was more acute and more "actual" than, let's say, the joy of being healthy which, as long as the illness doesn't occur, is, in general, relatively feeble. Forbidden Joys Let's remind a third category of joys, felt differently by the two European worlds: the forbidden joys. Rapidly saying, in the West, interdiction as an expression of a unanimously accepted morality, is legitimate, which makes its transgression to be malefic. In the East, the interdiction was illegitimate, so that its transgression was an act of moral courage, a pure form of spiritual joy. To read in secret a great forbidden author, to have a religious life, to listen to Free Europe, to host foreign friends, to make jokes about the totalitarian government, not to declare to the police that you have a typewriter –were just as many victories against the dictatorial abuse. The forbidden joys are dangerous joys. The pleasure is doubled by the thrill of risk. Excerpted from Dilema, 8-14 August, 2003

by Andrei Pleşu