QE review: The Happy Life

Quarterly Essay 41
The Happy Life: The Search for Contentment in the Modern World
David Malouf
Black Inc.

QE41Clichés rendered by the deft literary hand of David Malouf must inevitably be far more eloquent than those bashed out by the average typing monkey, but it doesn’t mean they have changed in substance. In the first Quarterly Essay for 2011, David Malouf looks at happiness – The Happy Life to be precise – and the clichés are right there in the first paragraph:

There can be no one, however miserable the conditions of their daily existence, who has not at some time felt the joy of being alive in the moment; in the love of another, or the closeness of friends or fellow workers; in a baby’s smile, the satisfaction of a job well done or the first green in a winter furrow; or more simply still, bird-song or the touch of sunlight.

For all that the title implies, ‘the search for contentment in the modern world’ in Malouf’s hands is more of a meditative retrospective – a search for the meaning of contentment as drawn from the expression of it in art and literature of the past. Beginning with ‘The Character of a Happy Life’, Malouf intersects examination of the concept of what he calls the ‘good life’ – ideal material comfort and enjoyment – with what he sees as the reality of the everyday. He then delves into an exploration on the pursuit of happiness, beginning with Thomas Jefferson’s use of the phrase and what that phrase might have meant in practical terms – for Jefferson and for the future generations of Americans. This is followed up with discussion on the concept of unrest, of the representations of desire and physical pleasure in the art of Rembrandt and the poetry of Ovid, among others, and how all of these things might be reflected in ‘The Way We Live Now’. It’s trademark Malouf prose, clichés notwithstanding – precise, expressive, always with a lofty turn, contemplative and employing subtle poetics that result in perfectly balanced sentences and beautiful turns of phrase.

However, running through the entire meditation is a narrative of human social and cultural development that I find unsettling. It is this assumption of progress – not a change in the passage of time but the implication that there is a single linear trajectory for human social and intellectual change, that implies not only a beginning but a necessary and ideal end, that posits all human societies somewhere along this route. ‘The truth is,’ he writes, ‘that though we are all alive on the planet in the same moment, we are not all living in the same century.’ This not only implies a concept of human perfection that is, I think, both culturally embedded and socially problematic, but serves to anchor Malouf’s discussion on the nature of happiness in a specific frame of reference and social positioning. The we of this piece are the upper-middle-class: we, educated in a certain way; we, the ones who find Montaigne accessible and have been exposed to the details of Renaissance art. This is not to discount the obvious worth of time spent with the classics, or even solely to the exposure that Malouf gives them in this piece. But there is a class gap as well as generational gap here, I think, that says much about the audience who will find the most to relate to in The Happy Life:

We do complain, of course, but our complaints are trivial, mostly ritual. Our politicians lack vision, interest rates are too high, the pace of modern living is too hectic; the young have no sense of duty, family values are in decline.

To a certain extent I think it is inevitable that an essay on happiness as seen through the eyes of the author with a disposition so rooted in classical literature and philosophy is going to approach the concept through these filters. By the same token, conception of happiness is an individual matter. But in a way, the individual nature of the concept dooms the topic from the start. Any essay on it is guaranteed, almost by necessity, to be bookended by clichés (and the subsequent deconstruction of them, which is itself a bit of a cliché) to devote a certain amount of time to semantics (although to be fair there is less of that going on in The Happy Life than might be expected, and more analysis of the concept), and to inevitably be caught in the tension that comes from attempting to conflate the definition of a very individual and personal experience and ideal with a collective experience. Any attempt to illustrate the general is going to pull it right back to the intimate and specific. In this way, The Happy Life represents precisely the problem that it is grappling with: the impossibility of explaining first how a generic ‘happy life’ might present itself, and secondly, how to achieve it if it doesn’t.

Inevitable as it might be that Malouf’s treatise on happiness will focus on classical sources, it is perhaps likewise inevitable that a member of a generation that grew up with the internet, that can more easily analyse an action film than a seventeenth-century painting, that takes notes on their laptop more often than she does with a pen – ‘I happen to have set that sentence down in the old, slow way by hand’ Malouf makes a point of noting – may not feel that this essay is particularly conversant to their experience. Malouf writes like he isn’t sure what to do with this world, as though he is distrustful of technology, of new media, of contemporary forms of expression and art and their sociocultural functions. Passing, almost obligatory references to contemporary technology and our negotiation of it – ‘in a century of iPods, mobile phones, multitasking; of YouTube, Facebook, Twitter; of news bites, 24-hour news cycles, jump-cut video clips; and the stimulation of our senses at every moment’ – serve more to frame the discussion of a concept of happiness that is somehow incompatible with this context, rather than to discuss how it might be presented or achieved within it.

Finally, The Happy Life begins and ends with the image of a ‘happy’ worker in a Soviet Gulag, as represented by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich:

Shukhov went off to sleep, and he was completely content. Fate had been kind to him in many ways that day: he hadn’t been put in the cells, the gang had not been sent to the Socialist Community Centre, he’d fiddled himself an extra bowl of porridge for dinner, the gang-leader had fixed a good percentage, he’d been happy building that wall…

Bookended thus, it’s hard not to see the thrust of the piece being that one should just, well, suck it up: that you should make happiness out of what you’ve got, and that to strive for change or ‘something better’ is counter to the very concept. Fair call, I suppose, but there’s something pretty fatalistic about that.

Stephanie Convery

Stephanie Convery is the deputy culture editor of Guardian Australia and the former deputy editor of Overland. On Twitter, she is @gingerandhoney.

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  1. Great review, Stephanie.

    I’m bothered about the way we put happiness on a pedestal as if it’s the most valid or important human emotion. Sometimes it feels as if we have to be happy and pumped, light-hearted and frivolous all the time – it’s exhausting.

  2. It seems to me that everything that has ever been written on ‘How to be Happy’ etc is at once very interesting and completely individual. A good question I think is: does reading/researching/thinking about happiness (and the subsequent awareness of what both general and your own personal happiness might entail) make you a happier or sadder person? Or are even these words (happy, sad) just part of the language-game?

    Also, what are your favourite action films Stephanie? Mine are:
    – Oldboy
    – Cliffhanger (and all other films with John Lithgow as a bad guy)
    – Maid in Manhattan

    1. Every time I read about people tackling the subject of ‘happiness’ I always just come back to, well, it’s a label, the denotation of which is only clear when applied to a specific situation and a specific person’s evaluation of their feelings at a specific time, so why are we trying to make these sweeping generalisations?

      My favourite action films are ‘Die Hard’ and ‘Speed’. I mean, if we’re going to talk about classics!

      I always presumed ‘Maid In Manhattan’ was a horror film.

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