Friday, June 15, 2007

Happiness is an Absence

"'Can't you hear? Can't you hear the uproar they make? My ears are bursting from it. They all talk at the same time...'" --Librarian Chaudesaigues, on his books

"Success brings hope, hope/ It's not good" --"Happiness" Tones on Tail

It's hot and dry here on the ranch. Hot and dry. My plants are scraping by. Finished up on a novella by Anatole France this evening while I waited on the porch for my house to cool down. As the evening went to night the air became the most luxurious rich wonderment I could hope for, and, in spite of the fact that my porch was essentially a lit stage for the neighborhood, I stayed there with a glass of wine and my book until I finished both, not too long ago.

Anatole France isn't read much these days--I'd found quite a bit of him in various used bookstores and then tapped the mother lode in Cincinnati where I found practically all of his collected works in translation for two to three dollars a volume. I found out later that he was officially banned reading material by the Catholic Church, which certainly upped his cache. At that time I'd read only Thais. Some of his output, certainly, consists of bagatelles, but he does dig down further. It's been hard making myself sit down and read anything, what with all the things to do, the caffeine, the things to do, the caffeine. After finishing a window today I said my next task was to read on the porch. I managed about 10 minutes before I got a brush and put varnish on one of my wicker chairs, started a mental list of things I should do tomorrow, estimated how much time doing another window would take, estimated if the empty flowerpots I had would amount to a full flat of flowers at the garden store. But finally I got to sitting on the porch with the breeze, the candles, the book, and couldn't imagine a better place to be.

The France novella hinged on finding the shirt of a truly happy man for its therapeutic effects on an ailing monarch. Which brings the reader to think on what actually constitutes "happy." It's rather difficult to categorize. The protagonists of the novella have a far harder job of it than they expected. Arthur Schopenhauer--not right about everything, admittedly--seems to be on the right track in stating that happiness is not a positive, but a negative state, meaning that happiness is not the result of the presence of something, but the absence of it: "To measure the happiness of a life by its delights or pleasures is to apply a false standard. For pleasures are and remain something negative; that they produce happiness is a delusion, cherished by envy to its own punishment. Pain is felt to be something positive, and hence its absence is the true standard of happiness."
Happiness in his eyes, then, is a vacuum of sorts. It isn't that happiness comes, it's that the things that bring unhappiness aren't around at the time: "A man who desires to make up the book of his life and determine where the balance of happiness lies, must put down in his accounts, not the pleasures which he has enjoyed, but the evil which he has escaped." In other words, we, in relation to happiness, "must begin by recognizing that its very name is a euphemism, and that to live happily only means to live less unhappily--to live a tolerable life." How north-German. But is he all that far off-base here for all his pessimism? Even Sherman Alexie, in his "pep" talk with us writers in that catacomb of a library section we have our readings in, said that we should not "expect" things or take them for granted once we get out into the great world of the professional writing circuit; to do so will only end in tears. It fits in quite well with Schopenhauer's statement that "the safest way of not being very miserable is not to expect to be very happy." Is the best way to avoid heartache to lower or remove our expectations? Even Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in his humongous Gulag Archipelago mentions that, upon arrest, Soviet citizens, to best survive, were best served by abandoning all thought of returning to the life they once knew. The reality they were in was their reality, piercing fleas with the pressure of a thumbnail. If doing so meant they were alive another day, that was enough. Is it?

3 comments:

Kristen said...

Perhaps a switch to green or white iced tea is advisable. ;) I've found green tea with mint or lime to make a lovely, refreshing hot day beverage.

Tess said...

Well... there are those who believe they can be happy even in the face of great suffering. (Go, Siddhartha!) I'm not always one of them, but I do believe in the power of contrast some days (if a migraine's gone, all of life is wonderful), the power of escapism other days (I'm not sitting in traffic, I'm on a lovely European side street- no, not all of my fantasies are quite reasonable), and the joys of mitigation (sure, my broken arm really hurts, but what a great movie). I'm sure I believe in other things, too. I definitely believe, along with Schopenhauer and Alexie, that having precise, stringent expectations can be devastating to the psyche. I might even believe that despair can be a good first step towards peace.

brizbrizuri said...

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I don't know if the link will work by clicking, or if you need to cut and paste (which does not involve a heat gun, or nasty chemicals.)

(If it makes you feel any better, I don't wear gloves when I use oil paints, and don't recall wearing gloves doing lithography.)