Animal Joy by Nuar Alsadir book review

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“Animal Joy” is at once prose poem, manifesto, sociological study and therapy session. Poet and psychoanalyst Nuar Alsadir’s first nonfiction book advocates the liberating power of spontaneity, curiosity, humor. The book practices what it preaches. The exposition jumps for intellectual joy, hopscotching from literary criticism to philosophy and psychology to political analysis. Collectively these parts amount to an inspiring endorsement of shredding the filters of propriety wherever they are applied — personally, socially, creatively. Encouraging readers to play, the text’s discrete segments become a game of connecting the dots. The completed picture shows how humor, like any instinctual act, is fundamentally subversive. If ever we needed a reminder of laughter’s transformational ability to upend expectations and disappoint the status quo, now is the time.

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It is our spontaneous expressions — gaffes, jokes, dreams and the candid insights of children — that are the most authentically human, Alsadir contends. These emanates from the True Self, a conception borrowed from psychoanalyst DW Winnicott, who justifiably appears in these pages as something of a hero. All manner of outburst act as conduits to our animal nature, that vibrant sensual essence unconstrained by social code and psychological defense. Creativity, too, arises from this primal place; the book is equally a paean to art, which “recovers the urgency of our basic drives … intensifying life by way of corporeality.” Summoning considerations of poems, dreams and comedy, the author suggests that these are emblems of the same impulse. Namely, to approach the rich, or uncomfortable, complexities of the subconscious with symbolism’s uncanny help: its ability to say more with less.

As Alsadir explains, the best poetry — like the best humor — is astonishingly concise. The mind magically traverses the unspoken stretch between concrete signposts in a split second. We feel a rush of pleasure (technically, dopamine) when we arrive at a poetic closure or a punchline. The moment we “get it,” she says, “the aha! becomes a ha!To explain how, she offers a taxonomy of the joke, including Sacha Baron Cohen’s barbed “undercover character comedy” (which “draws real people into fictional scenarios they believe to be nonfictional in order to reveal their genuine — perverse — feelings and beliefs” ).

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Along the way, she discusses the variety and uses of laughter, as deflection, pressure valve, social glue. Laughter is perhaps the human animal’s most diversified behavior: It can indicate discomfort or affection. It can be genuine and unprocessed or put on, sarcastic and offensive. Alsadir describes multiple examples of the latter, when, during former president Donald Trump’s rallies, he derided various victims, frequently women, to shockingly uproarious laughter from the audience.

Indeed, to demonstrate the destructiveness of public speech composed of dissembling, calculation, hypocrisy or projection — authenticity’s opposite — Alsadir regularly calls on Trump as the perfect all-in-one illustration. She examines his mind-bending rise to the presidency from several angles: as performance, as lie and tour de force of displacement. Of the 2020 Colin Powell-Trump tiff, she writes, “When a liar whose lies are determining our present calls out another liar whose lies determined our past for calling him a liar, the joke is on us.”

Elsewhere Alsadir engages with notables of a decidedly more intellectual bent, including Nietzsche, Sartre, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida and Mikhail Bakhtin. Yet, by sleight of hand, these philosophy-laden pages remain light and graceful. Freud, Jung and Winnicott make repeat appearances; a range of poets and literary works, notably “Anna Karenina,” also inform her layered argument. Although the concepts are sometimes knotty, the writing never is, and after finishing this book, a reader may be obliged to thank the author for clarifying some hitherto unyielding ideas.

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Not that all is high-flown or esoteric. Threaded throughout are accounts both movingly personal and endearingly experiential. She goes to clown school (seminal, fascinating) and laughter yoga (painful, silly). She chronicles several disturbing episodes of the diminution known as others, some of which were directed at her as a woman of Arabic descent. Particularly illuminating are the lessons drawn from her experience as a mother to two precocious daughters who specialize in schooling her in the wisdom of immediacy. Keenly direct, their observations are born of youth’s natural rebelliousness. Find that freshness again, the book implores.

The book is in effect a gift to the brave. It offers an opportunity for self-reflection and growth that, as in psychoanalysis, necessitates a head-on collision with pain. It is no coincidence that Alsadir is careful to establish the roots of empathy in the mirror neurons that facilitate the primal need for kinship care. Authentic art arises from and serves the same function, making us “feel moved by experiences that are not our own.” Great art mainly makes you not think but feel.

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“Animal Joy” made me do both. Its author practices two disparate disciplines — poetry and psychoanalysis — that she argues are essentially the same. In a neat corollary, her book forms a subtly engineered bridge between art and reason.

“Our collective sleep is dangerous,” Alsadir asserts. This book is an alarm, ringing with the “holy intensity” of poetry. Wake up to joy, it entreats, before it’s too late.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson is a critic and the author of “The Place You Love Is Gone,” among other books.

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