Jia Tolentino on navigating joy and transcendence

Jia Tolentino sits on stage speaking into a microphone and gesturing with her hand.
Jia Tolentino in conversation with Kevin Dettmar. (Courtesy: Emma Fang)

“I do think of adult joy as the kind that is hard-won … it’s jagged and it encompasses sorrow. It’s not a flat happiness …  I think joy is something that encompasses its opposite,” writer Jia Tolentino said.

On Nov. 9, the Pomona College Humanities Studio welcomed Jia Tolentino to Rose Hills Theater for the third installment of the Joy Speaker Series.

Tolentino is a staff writer for the New Yorker and author of the essay collection “Trick Mirror,” a New York Times bestseller. She spoke with Kevin Dettmar, Pomona English professor and the director of the Humanities Studio.

Dettmar opened their conversation discussing the song “Infant Joy” and its counterpart “Infant Sorrow” from poet William Blake in the book “Songs of Innocence and Experience.” Dettmar explained he expected the idea of “adult joy” to follow “infant joy,” but Blake does not believe in the existence of joy beyond childhood at all.

“Most of my questions tonight are really just the same question: What is joy after innocence?” Dettmar said.

Tolentino said she was intimately familiar with “infant joy.” As a child, she had pure, ecstatic experiences, such as bike rides in summers with no responsibilities.

“Joy for me was almost reflexive,” Tolentino said. “I would have these spikes towards an extreme joy. I would court it, first through religion … this feeling of transcendence. And then later I found it through drugs, … music and being packed rooms with other people.”

Now, as a mother of a three-year-old and a three-month-old, she understands joy from a new perspective.

“I had kids and this tendency that I thought was so baked into me changed,” Tolentino said. “I was put on a morphine drip of joy, and it was a simpler joy. It was an infant joy.”

“Joy for me was almost reflexive. I would have these spikes towards an extreme joy. I would court it, first through religion … this feeling of transcendence. And then later I found it through drugs, … music and being packed rooms with other people.”

Tolentino believes life comes in seasons. She believes we should accept these shifts in our relationship with joy, rather than chase past iterations of joy that are long gone. This idea resonated with Emily Applbaum PO ’24.

“I feel kind of emotional, because she spoke to a lot of things that I’ve been thinking about,” Applbaum said. “I’m about to graduate, so I’m just thinking about my life.”

The title of the event, “Jia Tolentino on Joy and Ecstasy,” references the essay “Ecstasy” from her book “Trick Mirror,” which explores her transcendent experiences with religion and psychedelic drugs.

Tolentino spent much of the talk reflecting on her complicated relationship with organized religion and its impact on her life. Although she said she is continuously walking away from organized religion, she didn’t renounce her experiences within it.

“I still subscribe to the idea of kind of supplication and mystery and kind of prostration in various forms,” Tolentino said. “I’m still really grateful for them.”

Kai Carse PO ’24, a longtime fan of Tolentino, expressed admiration for her philosophy.

“The way that she lives her life constantly obsessed with revelation and devotion and ecstasy and these extremes, but also long-term conclusions … I think is really profound,” Carse said.

Elisa Membreno PO ’24 appreciated the sense of openness cultivated in each talk of the Joy speaker series.

“I think the Joy lectures have created spaces for everyone in the room to be in a community with each other in a way I haven’t found in other talks,” Membreno said.

After two hours of discussion about joy in life, the last question of the night centered upon death: how it embodies the unknown and how the awareness of our own mortality makes each moment more meaningful. Tolentino advocated for reaching into the unknown.

“People say, ‘accept Jesus Christ, just in case’ … I found that really offensive,” Tolentino said. “Why not pretend that this is it? This is all you have to do good and be good. I find that joyful, and I find that freeing.”

For Tolentino, the unknown –– death and life, joy and sorrow –– are all intertwined. Tolentino, who had recently put down her dog of 12 years, started to tear up as she answered the final question about joy and mortality.

“One of the most beautiful and important human experiences you could ever have is to be with someone you love when they die,” Tolentino said. “And I wouldn’t say there’s joy in that, but there was a beauty to it that’s inaccessible without death … They’re so related that they can’t be separated at all. They’re the exact same thing.”

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