Finding Joy in a Terrible World
Author Rax King on Snooki, overcoming suicidality, and getting away from judging yourself and others.
Rax King, the author of the recently-released Tacky: Love Letters to the Worst Culture We Have to Offer, believes in not judging yourself for what you find joy in. After a hard life in college, Rax found ways to experience joys without controlling herself, and, through her book, is hoping to encourage people to do the same. We talked about everything from her love of Snooki to recovering from severe mental illness, and how those things are connected.
Writing this book was in a lot of ways excavating the shame from things I enjoyed doing. Everything in the book are things that aren’t considered cool. The moment I realized that something like the band Creed was bringing me joy, and the moment I realized that someone, or the culture at large, was telling me that joy was inappropriate, I realized I should write about these things.
There’s still this desire to exert control over the tastes of people who you perceive to be in the same group as you. And I think the reason people do that is because we don’t have any control over anything else in our lives. We don’t have any control over whether or how much we work, our politics, everything—but we do have control by making someone feel bad for liking things. And I think we want to exert control, not only on others but on ourselves.
Do you think people limit their pleasures on purpose, like do we shy away from things that can make us happy?
It’s complicated because of course in one sense you have to limit some pleasures in order for your life to function. You can’t do exactly what you want 100 percent of the time, or the laundry’s never gonna get done. But we take a somewhat helpful instinct to be responsible and take that way too far—we have a puritanical attitude toward pleasure, and that outweighs our desire for it. We look upon pleasure suspiciously and we find reasons to get out of feeling good. When something feels good we don’t trust it.
Do we have to… hashtag LeanIn...to these pleasures? How did you overcome your fear of pleasure?
I think eventually I grew up and realized that these insecurities about having the right taste were limiting my own life. When something really does bring you that immediate joy, it’s eventually impossible to deny that for yourself—you can exert some form of control over that, but you can’t argue it away.
You have two quotes at the beginning of your book. The first is from Horkheimer and Adorno: “Pleasure, so to speak, is nature’s revenge. In it human beings divest themselves of thought, escape from civilization.” The second is from Nicole “Snooki Polizzi (the MTV reality star): “Do every sin that you can, you know? Have sex with an old man and steal a plant and get arrested.” Why are these equally important quotes?
Those two quotes are about the same phenomenon, just one from an analytical perspective and one from an experiential perspective. There have been times in my life where I’ve talked myself out of experiencing things that I wanted to experience because I was worried about their implications, or I felt I needed to weigh every single pro and con first. And to a certain extent that can protect you from the world, but sometimes you have to really listen to what Snooki says.
In my favorite essay in the book, you talk about watching Snooki and the Jersey Shore on TV with your dad. What pleasure did that bring you?
Television was a tentpole of our relationship, it was the number one activity. And we developed a kind of lingua franca through our television watching. We had the language to make anything we were watching really fun. We watched Jersey Shore together religiously for the entire four-year run of the show. When we were watching it, my father was at that point beginning to get very sick, and that limited what we could do together. What we had left was watching TV together at his house, which we did vigorously. My dad for a long time did try to push to have a kind of deeper relationship by talking about all the typical things, traumas and childhood stuff. But that’s not what I wanted at that time—I wanted this uncomplicatedness, which doesn’t mean it was superficial. Under the surface of us laughing at Jersey Shore together there were two decades and some change of some real serious history. It was better that way, for me and him to quietly take joy in something. There was something almost alchemical about how much he and I were engaged with the show. And that transmuted a closeness between the two of us.
By reading your book, I really understood the importance of finding pleasure, but can you overdo it? Can you go too far with pleasure?