Happiness, like sanity, is something we have very few definitions of. We’ve got any number of ways of describing what it looks like to be crazy, and probably as many to describe all the variations of misery. Stephanie Convery’s review at Overland a while back of David Malouf’s Quarterly Essay on happiness showed very clearly how even the writers we have been told are literate flounder when trying to philosophise about happiness, either falling back on hackneyed definitions derived from the classics, or fumbling around on the edges of the trite language of self-help manuals. Life is unfortunately not a metaphysical exercise, just as Christmas is not a time of unalloyed bliss. Christmas is in fact a crap time for a lot of people, and family violence tends to spike at Christmas. Whether they are writers or salesmen no-one looks so foolish as the person who says they will now tell us all about happiness, as though they know what it is, as though happiness is a quality that can be acquired by buying particular objects, or reading certain books.
Discussing happiness can make a lot of people miserable. If I have a definition of happiness that insists that it be subscribed to by others, or holds that an inability to be happy is a sign of moral failure, I have probably just invented a somewhat insidious form of fascism. From the point of view of the really happy, whoever they are, happiness is no doubt something of a problematic idea. Asking the happy how their happiness is playing out today, would probably be akin to asking someone how Australian they’re feeling this morning. And what is definitively Australian is something only the deranged would try to measure.
Maybe happiness is an idea that needs something of a rethink, or needs to be junked entirely in favour of other ways of thinking about being alive. Even the emperor of positive psychology, Martin Seligman, a man not noted for considering the politics of what he is doing, has decided to rethink his bizarre idea that happiness is something that can be adequately measured by mood. Defending yourself against misery is not the same as being happy. Recently I stumbled across the following on an Australian literary blog somewhere, written post-Fukushima.
Sometimes, in the face of terrible events about which you can do nothing, it’s hard to keep going with the everyday things. It’s easy to come to work and ask, who cares about this comma? Why is this cover important? What do books matter when so many people’s worlds have fallen apart?
But then we rally, and we remember that every day life is for living full and well, and that books can offer great comfort in difficult times.
This is what might be called a manic defence, an example of all the somewhat feverish methods and sleights-of-hand we use to prevent ourselves from reflecting upon suffering’s often blatantly political causes. A half-arsed desperate defence against the bleeding obvious as a way of accepting one’s own powerlessness doesn’t make it alright. Is life really just ‘for living full and well’? What on earth would that mean, and who would decide? Going to work and asking ‘who cares about this comma’, if you are a person who works with commas, is in fact a perfectly valid question and one that the comma-burdened could ask themselves every day. I’d argue that it takes some courage, a stubborn refusal to submit to regimes of the normal to keep on asking that question. It’s easier in fact not to ask the question, and if a terrible disaster or crime that destroys the lives of other human beings causes me to stop and think, ‘Why does my comma-arranging matter?’, that might be because I urgently need to do something I have been frantically ignoring – ask some questions of myself, questions to which the answer is unlikely to be that I should keep doing more of whatever I was doing before the question.
Why we might want to take refuge in books in order to be comforted when confronted with the pain of others is another question entirely. But a book that I grasp at to keep me afloat in a crisis is probably what is called a bible, and religions of the book have something of a sensitive and problematic history, skewed with more politics than the book-ish are prepared to admit.
This is not to say that books can’t adventitiously fall into our lives at difficult moments, just as a whole lot of things can – cups of tea, warm blankets, a kiss, a song, a phone call, a joke – but the idea of books as a refuge from thinking about the pain of others seems to be somewhat problematic. Once upon a time when I was very tired of a whole lot of things, I came across an ancient copy of Treasure Island in a secondhand book shop, and enjoyed it more than any book I had read in a long time. But to run to Treasure Island when others are in extreme distress might be an act that says more about what is happening to my mind than it does about the magical healing power of books.
In Alan Bennett’s novella An Uncommon Reader, the Queen discovers reading. Beginning randomly with Ivy Compton-Burnett she works her way circuitously through various canons, enlarging her knowledge of the world and at one stage attempting a conversation about Genet with the French President, before concluding that the thing about books is that we read them to confirm what we think. The more Our Royal Sovereign thinks and reflects on what she reads, the more she writes, and the more she writes the more she is troubled, and the more she is troubled the more enlivened she becomes. Being troubled is what happens when we stop compromising, and being able to tolerate and bear the state of being troubled might be more conducive to an enlivened state than seeking ‘happiness’.
‘I very rarely have the feeling in the present of being happy, of loving simply what I am living,’ said Jacques Derrida in an interview. ‘But in the past everything seems to have been loved, and to have been reaffirmed.’ He seemed very surprised by this statement, as though he’d suddenly discovered that his mind was simpler than he thought it was.
Rather than trying to work out what would make us happy, rather than continually juggling our failures under the disguise of ‘compromise’ it might be enough to know that just about everyone is anxious all the time. That the suffering that seems to cover the world is for the most part caused by the choices and priorities or political systems that devalue what is human and celebrates a worth that appears to be contained in objects, in money, in status, in despotic acts, in consumer goods, in careers, in oil, in real estate, in military strikes, in fame, in blockbuster sales, in sovereign power. And, given that knowledge, to understand that there is work to do. How we carry out that work is probably up to each individual’s intelligent use of their own creativity and to the sharpness of their sense of the political and the structurally violent concealed in what is absurdly called normal life. Arranging commas is a perfectly valid occupation, though understanding the political nature of commas, how we have made them and what they can be used for, is something else again.
Happiness, like commas and reading and wars, always has a subtext, a raft of unheard assumptions, and if we think of happiness this way happiness can become a kind of idea we can begin to examine the roots of, to ask who decides what happiness is and why, so that questioning the political causes of misery and the definitions of happiness can become a fundamentally troubling act.
And just because I can (and because whatever looks like it could make you happy you should look at closely, repeatedly) check out this ripper performance by Stevie Wonder of Superstition on Sesame Street in the early 1970s, back when Sesame St was cool. Have a good Christmas.