A wedding is one of those universal events that everyone has claim to and/or an opinion about: how to do it, when, with whom, the politics of not doing it, how much to spend, how to document, how to invite, what food to serve, what prayers to offer, what poems to read, what sacrifices to make, what to wear, what to give, where to go, what toasts to offer, even what jokes to make. The internet only makes matters worse; even the seemingly simple matter of selecting a cake turns into a weeks-long process of reading Yelp reviews, considering designs, and constructing pro-con lists for buttercream versus fondant. Indeed, weddings are a perfect example of what American essayist Phillip Lopate once called the “bullying social ritual” of joie de vivre.
In “Against Joie de Vivre” (1987), Lopate offers a poignant and playful critique of what is commonly translated from the French as “the joy of living,” which he renders as “the knack of knowing how to live.” However curmudgeonly or perverse this may sound, Lopate’s piece is neither, and neither is the point he’s trying to make. It’s not so much deriving joy from living that’s the problem, but the heavily scripted, artificial, and exhausting nature of having to display one’s joy. It’s not so much knowing how to live that’s the problem, but the formulaic and clichéd modes of so-called knowledge that come to regulate our experiences of living. As Lopate writes, “The joie de vivrist is an incorrigible missionary who presumes that everyone wants to express pro-life feelings in the same stereotyped manner.”
I had my first encounters with wedding-specific-joie de vivrism when my fiancé and I announced our engagement last year. After celebrating with family and making the requisite calls, we notified a number of friends by email with what we intended to be warm and light-hearted messages. Maybe it was the joke about tearing my hair out over the planning, or it could have been the bit about chucking our phones and running away to the Berkeley Hills, or the phrasing that we’d decided at last to honor our relationship and our families, but something in our announcements rubbed more than one person the wrong way. A perplexed relative asked my mother about our motivations: Were we really doing this for “the family,” and was that a legitimate reason to get married? A concerned didi lectured me about the meaning of marriage and the nature of weddings, suggesting that I hadn’t sounded properly or sufficiently enthused.
I have since calibrated my commentary to reflect, if not the stereotypical attitude toward weddings, then at least something a little more palatable to the rest of the world. I continue, however, to find that initial burst of “concern” exceptionally provocative. Clearly, other people had other ideas about how we ought to have 1) made the decision to get married, and 2) expressed our feelings about said decision.
First things first. So what if we had decided to get married “just” to honor our families? Who’s to say what’s a valid motivation for making any major decision, never mind one that affects everyone in your life? We all have to make decisions that we can live with, for reasons that resonate with us, and we account for our decisions in terms that we choose, with words that may not ever fully capture our experience, but which we nevertheless offer up to the world, however conditionally. I, for one, don’t know that I could ever fully account for the reasons I do the things I do. I know, however, that honoring my parents, grandparents, and my great-grandmother with a union, a celebration, and a sign of the future that will succeed them is one of the greatest reasons I can articulate for a decision to marry.
I suspect, though, that the joie de vivrists wanted to hear how very happy we are, how rapturously in love, how excited about the wedding. Not choosing to say any of that does not mean that we are unhappy, miserable cretins. It doesn’t mean that there’s no love. But those are not my words; I can’t be bullied into saying them.
And anyone who tells you how much fun it is to plan a wedding…well, good for them, but don’t you be fooled. For months I consoled myself with the thought of the cake tasting we’d be able to do once we’d hammered out the more mundane wedding details. All that chocolate mousse and marzipan and fresh cream! Could anyone be so much of an ingrate as to dislike cake tasting?
Yesterday, my fiancé and I tasted a dozen cakes at an award-winning bakery and saw the most exquisite designs. The cakes were delicious, every one, from the unusual green tea chiffon to the classic cream cheese frosting of a luscious red velvet. As we played at discussing the merits of chocolate raspberry versus white chocolate raspberry, I had to laugh. Good cake is good cake, but how good can it be after three glasses of wine and 200 distant relatives? The well-meaning pastry chef seemed put out by the fact that we didn’t have a wedding theme or set colors, that I hadn’t come with a design in mind, and that we answered most of her questions with, “whatever you recommend.” We couldn’t speak her language because it wasn’t ours to speak, and I’m sure she found our ambivalence annoying. But I did have one clear request, an assertion in no uncertain terms:
No nuts. My cousin is allergic.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is spending more time cake-tasting than working on her Ph.D. in Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley.