The limits of joy

By Ingrid Fetell Lee


This morning, the driver of my taxi here in Montreal advanced his own theory of joy. “Joy,” he said, “is anything you love to do.” But this theory of his has attenuating complications. As my driver said, “When a serial killer murders people, he feels joy too.”

Can this be possible? We think of joy as a wholesome, innocent sort of feeling — how could something so horrific bring joy? It seems to violate one of the key premises of joy, that joy comes from things which are generally good or at least neutral for humanity, not things with damaging consequences. There are joys that have a mischievous feel which I call transgressions, but these transgressions are notable for having no real harmful consequences: the trivial destruction of bubble wrap, the illicit pleasure of jumping on the bed, the forbidden delight of dessert before dinner, where the only thing ruined is an appetite. (And as Jerry Seinfeld says, it doesn’t really matter if you ruin your appetite because there’s always another one right behind it.)

Joy may not always be universal, but it usually has the potential to be shared and appreciated by others through participation, observation, or retelling. I may not myself enjoy spinning until I’m dizzy, but watching a trio of girls do so probably would bring a smile to my face.

Not so with murder, which makes me say that while a serial killer might feel pleasure from his actions, he doesn’t feel what we call joy. It may feel good for him, but it’s not transcendent, it’s not taking him out of his everyday prism and changing his perspective. If anything, like an addict, it’s only deepening his narrow field of existence. In that case, we might say the serial killer feels a sort of euphoria, an emotional high that does not shift your perspective, but just provides a temporary peak.

My thinking on this is evolving, but it is a worthwhile practical challenge to the theory. I’d love to know what people think. Do serial killers feel joy?

June 3rd, 2009


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    Discussion (2 Comments)

  1. Icy on June 21, 2009

    I think serial killers do feel joy. I’m not talking about your regular, everyday murderer who kills for money, or love, or revenge. I’m also not talking about those who start killing for a “normal” reason, and who then get out of hand; these would be the one’s you describe as an “addict”.

    I think that there are people who find joy in many things that are beyond what I appreciate. There are those that find joy in pain (physical or psychological), either to themselves or others; joy in taking risks (jumping off a cliff is not my thing); joy in worship of a higher power; there are even those who take joy in cleaning ^_^.

    With all these many types of people around, why wouldn’t there be those who find joy in taking life? For a true serial murder I imagine that killing is transcendent for them, is taking them out of everyday life and changing their perspective.

    This was a very interesting post. Thanks for making me think.


    P.S. Oh, and by the way, I take great joy in stripy socks. I have many pairs and I always feel happy when wearing them ^_^.

  2. Jen McGahan on February 28, 2010

    No, no, no. Evil never elicits joy. Pleasure, often; Joy, never.

    “Transcendent” or mind-altering behavior is rarely shared or “appreciated” by groups of people; it is specific to the deep caverns of an individual’s mind and soul, whether that behavior tips toward good or evil. Joy, however, is common; personal, but universal. You know it when you see it.

    Furthermore, joy stands on the positive, light side of natural law.

    Finally, joy is simple. If you have to scratch your head and wonder whether it is or isn’t, it probably isn’t.

    (My two cents.)

    I like your blog. When does the book come out?


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