I am blessed by the fact that my students and other friends are always sending me interesting things to read. One I got recently was an excellent article by a writer I hadn’t heard of named Cody Delistraty on the theme of what he termed the “relentless, competitive” quest for ‘Happiness” and how people today often make themselves miserable trying to obtain it.
I use the word “obtain” pointedly because I think that’s the way many people view happiness: a commodity that can be acquired by pushing the right buttons, pulling monkeys down from the trees and turning them into blue chip stocks, or stumbling across the ideal life-partner. And don’t get me wrong: as I languish in the dried-out grey pie-crust of my peevish dotage, rather like an old beetle crawling through a trail of sawdust, I am inclined to say, “Yep, those are three pretty good ways of getting the job done.”
But I confess that I thought it funny when I heard a comedian who said “Just remember... all the happiness in the world can’t buy you any money!” Definitely the Wrong Thing to Say, but sometimes in life we need to play it for laughs. In all seriousness, I would say that money buys opportunity, and opportunity provides the platform on which the Trophies of Happiness strut their stuff. Moreover, since Happiness is often a blend of pursuit and delusion, why not make your magic in a goose-feathered bed rather than on a park bench? Now, if we are speaking of love, well, that’s a different matter. Many people give up on it eventually; cynicism’s pliers tighten their brains, but these same cynics probably believe that enough instant gratification will trick the inner wretch into believing he or she is Happy.
Anyway, the writer, this Delastraty, hits the mark when he talks about the competitive nature of Happiness in the modern Western world and zeroes in on Big Data and “a digital environment in which algorithmic surveillance is more or less omnipresent.” He further opines that, via such psychological manipulation, Happiness is the “marketing breakthrough” of the past decade.
He is referring to all the manufactured doodads, gizmos, gadgets, and accompanying lotions and fragrances we should treat ourselves to because “We deserve it”, as well as the multitudinous self-help books under which the shelves of the book stores of the capitalist world now sag.
I have known since a very early age that my happiness often depends on the unhappiness of others. If my team wins, it means that someone else’s team lost. If I get the girl, it means that someone else lost her. If the spotlight is on me, others are left sitting in the darkness.
In fact, if you want to try something most would consider morbid, just read the obituaries that appear daily in small town newspapers. Whole lives summed up in several paragraphs as tight as constipation, plus a listing of the names of those who have ‘survived the deceased’. You sit there drinking your morning frappuccino and eating your smorgasbord-berry muffin, safely perched on the god-like throne which seats all of the Living, and for a moment you muse upon that defunct little life which has effectively been balled up into the limited coffin-space of a newspaper column. If you are as prone to impotent speculation as I am, you might imagine all the hopes and dreams and memories which that man or woman thought about, which now, their tanks having been filled up with formaldehyde for the long journey ahead, have drained into prosaic mud, sort of like a shrunken head or a skinned cat, which will then become bony little sticks and dissolve. And now that death has ‘cuffed and stuffed’ them (as I once heard a police officer telling a class of school children while admonishing the little tykes about the inevitable outcome for bad boys and girls), you wonder, and in your wonderment conclude: That’s all he ever was. Or: She was never more than that.
And then you go away, leaving someone else’s obituary behind as you would leave a port-o-let by the side of the road; into the trash bin outside goes the ‘Potville Bulletin’: ashes into an urn. Nothing more than something once held in place by a rubber band.
But was he happy? Was she delighted? And are YOU happy now, you ask yourself as you march away from the cemetery of ‘The Clopstown Daily Standard’? If you insist on looking at it in a competitive sense, you must conclude, “Well, yes, I am happier than they are because I am still alive.”
Well, maybe you are and maybe you aren’t.
The next time — like perhaps five minutes from now? — when a lot of you check your Facebook Bible for the Daily Blessings from the Priests of LIKES, you will not fail to notice how DELIRIOUSLY HAPPY everybody looks. No downcast, “Why don’t they just shoot me?” scowls or grimaces or sour ‘just vomited’ expressions on FB — it’s not allowed! Instead everyone seems to be passing from one Top of the Himalayas experience to the next, as deft and facile as the smooth hand-off of a baton in an Olympic relay race.
But alas, I am very suspicious of these smiles. Or should I say the One Smile, the Face Book smile, the official, fixed poised Smile sent directly from the Hair Spray God -- smiles that have become inlays for some frozen Garden of Eden. It makes me feel like lobbing a hand grenade or two into the mix just to see if a few birds might scatter, for I am sure the steel-girder smiles would not. Isn’t that what Heaven is going to be like: Perfection -- and thus Happiness -- forever undisturbed and unmolested?
I am reminded of the cackling mirth of talk-show hosts, as they and the panel hack and chortle as if in an unbreakable chain of lip-sync jubilation. And in the audience, gasping with glee, the mannequins take the cue -- all protagonists of midnight deserts serenaded by the windy grunt of mummifying sands. Of all conceivable facial expressions, the one that Americans have polished into fine art is the Meaningless Smile. It makes me wish I could stand on a beach among them as the tsunami swims in, gathering speed and amplitude, just to see the moment when the hint of a question begins to trouble the plastic gallery of phony grins.
It sounds cruel to say that, I know, but invariably it turns out in life that happiness does not lie ahead or in back of us, it renders its soliloquy inside us if only we would listen. How many widows and widowers fecklessly reflect on the departed lover and friend, and say to themselves “That was happiness.” But when the moment was ripe, the brightening apple or the juicy melon dangling there for the taking, these mourners forgot to pluck the fruit from the branch. They were too busy doing other things. Like looking for Happiness. It was right under their noses.
Back to the article. For me, the best moment comes when Delistraty quotes fictional advertising executive Don Draper in “Mad Men” as saying, “What is happiness? It’s the moment before you need more happiness.” In today’s world of flimsy, fickle, fleeting, fake emotion, that says it all.
I remember one time reading about a groupie girl who somehow managed not only to get invited to a post-concert Rolling Stones party but also ended up sleeping with none other than Mr. Lips himself — Mick Jagger. Evidently, the girl was astute and opportunistic enough to flog her story to the tabloids, and when she was asked the inevitable question: “Well…uh…what was it like to have sex with Mick Jagger?” — she inadvertently (I guess) answered in a way I have never forgotten. She said, “Oh, it was good and all that, but, you know, afterwards I walked away feeling like I still hadn’t slept with Mick Jagger.”
So, if I have got it right, to her Mick Jagger wasn’t really a man who had the human capacity to make or not make her happy; no, Mick Jagger was an ideal, an imaginary entity on the level of an unattainable Olympian deity; not a flesh-and-bone adversary for this woman’s other lovers to delve deeper and harder in order to ‘out-do’, but a vaporous demigod, a flickering Love Angel that poor old Michael Philip Jagger from Dartford, County Kent, couldn’t hope to equal either !
Though I have personally squandered long segments of my life, I have also clawed my way into experiences — and had the presence of mind to know it — where I said, “THIS IS IT!” And it was. As they say, ‘peak experiences’. Some of these were, surprise, surprise, tumultuous orgasms (wow, those WERE the Good Old Days) with women I loved long or briefly.
Another was crossing the English channel from Ostend (Belgium) one morning on the jet foil (like a big motorboat) when I was jet-lagged and exhausted to the point where I was ready to see ‘visions’. Like those old saints after they had wandered the desert or been stretched on the rack. I went upstairs to use the toilet. There, finding myself utterly alone, I gazed out over the purple waters and imagined that I was in one of Henry VIII’s armies (I had been reading a book about Chop-em-Up Henry and his wives) heading for home after a victorious confrontation with the French. The centuries reversed themselves and for an instant I was there! Talk about out-of-body experiences ! Or maybe I was just tired enough to let the imaginary angels in, blood still dripping from their medieval swords...
Another time, I saw God in the form of a wind-blown tree in a city park in Guelph, up in Canada. I was ambling along on my way to the fitness center that afternoon. And, as the puffing skies suddenly decided to scare themselves up into a gale that ripped through the leafy branches of this very patriarchal tree, a voice said triumphantly, “You see how many faces I have?” And the leaves and branches shook and shuddered. Something in me trembled also, and I can tell you it was a Happy moment, whatever it was. Probably not God, because it never is. But why not? You see how many faces I have? Clever tree.
Another was arriving in Venice for the first time — again at daybreak and totally worn-out from travel — and simply striding from the blackened old train station into the faded gold and gilded mirage of the Renaissance. And walking with my heavy suitcase along the canal, the banks of which were teeming with watchful cats there to keep the rat population down. And riding in a vaporetto on the lagoon of the Pearl of the Adriatic. And spying a young Sicilian-looking woman with her man as she lifted her arm to point out something across the water and revealed a crisp little crop of jet-black hair in her underarm that was so erotic I nearly spent myself in my jeans and fell off the boat into the pond.
Another was in Rome when I was making love to the greatest woman I ever had, the Italian goddess Lucia, in a hotel room where we had unwittingly left the curtains and windows open, and a small crowd on the balconies of the other side had gathered to watch and cheer us on. Everybody was laughing, and we started laughing too. “Quanto siamo belli, vero?” we called from the open window. That unsurpassable, blessed day. All in a perfect moment.
Yes, that was happiness.
Likewise, those very rare moments in sports when I was “hot” on the basketball court and understood that everything I threw up at the hoop would go in; the single time playing pool when I got into some kind of mysterious zone and ran the table… These were moments — I understand it now — when somehow or other the universe and I were linked up, hooked-up, intertwined…aligned immaculately together. Those were unaccountable fugues of sheer harmony and grace that somehow I was in the middle of. It was like being with God and playing a duet together on the piano. As one.
Harmony and grace. This is not a smile on Facebook; it constitutes instead what some would call a ‘privileged moment’ where the dancer and the dance are a single, united element, and when, for an instant, you can see beyond the sky. I have had these moments and I confess that I do not know what they mean. Was I seeing eternity or was it just a wondrous aberration? And how did it matter?
Americans often associate happiness with pleasant and morally ‘correct’ outcomes. You see this in American movies all the time, especially those that come out of Hollywood. They usually try to be ‘life affirming’ — demanding that we Get the Point that life, however negative it may appear at times, is Worth Living. These films have resolutions. And their results always Make Sense.
I was struck at one point, while living in Italy, that many of the best European films do the opposite. They end without resolution. Something happens of undetermined importance and then it just breaks off; suddenly the credits start rolling down the screen and one’s first impulse is to say, “WTF??” It took me a while to appreciate that the films in question HAD reached an end of sorts, a stopping point in the unresolvable impasse that is life, just not the tidy fluffing of pillows I wanted and had been conditioned to expect.
I remember being mesmerized by the way Haruki Murakami’s magnificent book of short stories called “The Elephant Vanishes” maintains this elusive, enigmatic way of completely engaging you with the matter-of fact, rat-a-tat-tat commentary of the various narrators before they simply wander off into some strange nether-space of infinite fancy and perhaps unsaid longing but without any destination at all. Alas, I see that Murakami has since become a writer of “affirmative” novels, and — though I have tried — I am unable to finish them.
Back in my college days, I remember reading Albert Camus’ famous short novel “L’etranger'' whose doomed protagonist Meursault spends most of the book as a laconic iconoclast who refuses to acknowledge any of the moral precepts by which most societies (certainly his French one) erect their social pillars. Meursault has led a life of studied uneventfulness until he gets involved in a conflict along a beach and kills some miscellaneous Arab, for which he is brought to trial.
Ultimately Meursault is condemned to the guillotine, not because of the ‘murder’ which he could easily have rationalized to the court, but rather because of his ‘inappropriate’ responses in the aftermath, starting with his seemingly indifferent reaction to his mother’s death. (After hearing the news, he took his girlfriend to see a comedy at the local cinema and made love to her later on.) Meursault, because of his atheism and unwillingness to give the ‘right’ answers to the prosecutor, is seen as a danger to decent society. He must be eliminated, disposed of.
But as he awaits his execution, he has an epiphany of sorts. He recalls how his mother, late in her life, took on a ‘fiance’ at the Old Folks Home where she was concluding her days, and, although throughout the book he has downplayed any meaningful bond between them, he finds that the thought of her belated contentment brings him happiness; indeed, as he contemplates his by then unalterable fate and the night sky of the universe, he realizes that he is ‘happy’ and has always been happy. But not happy in a ha-ha sense. Rather in the existential sense of accepting that the universe is meaningless — which consigns all human aspiration to absurdity — yet one in which we must live authentically anyway.
His mother sought the companionship of another person, even as she and her new ‘paramour’ understood they had no future at all. Meursault likewise remains undismayed even as he recognises that he has ‘no future’ either. ‘Futures’ do not exist for him. He is too busy living life on life’s terms. He is made even happier when he imagines the morning of his execution and considers the prospect of being greeted by the mob of witnesses, his fellow human beings, who will enjoy the decapitation, and fill the air with “cries of hate.”
To be sure, this is a novel much open to debate, and at times Meursault is exasperating. But I think I grasp the main points.
After these many years, I find, alas, that I am nearing my own end. The past has become like a great roaring city I have left behind: all its violence and pleasure, its strange men and illustrious women, all bound up together in a cacophony that seems like a spool of noise trying to be meaningful which I know will grow fainter gradually. The future, on the other hand, is small. Meursault would say it doesn’t exist. Imagine the cliche-image of an hourglass; well, then, my sand is running out. And so when I look up at the stars and try to pluck reasons out of the light beams, I come to grief. And, reaching for melons that might be hanging in the darkness or apples delivered on the wind, I find I draw the same stalemate as always: I do not know.
And because I do not know the outcome, and therefore can not place what I do know in any context that I might imagine to be accurate, I say to myself that, yes, I suppose I have been happy… sometimes —and that certain moments when I could have said “My cup runneth over” remain fixtures in my memory.
But my life was never a Facebook life and neither, I strongly suspect, is anyone else’s. Oh, I suppose that Mick Jagger — the Mick who Never Was (in a certain lady’s mind at least), could total up the thousands of women he has bedded and say, “Sure, I was happy. VERY happy.” Was he? Or has he spent his life searching for the Marianne Faithfull that Marianne Faithfull herself never was? Does Mick Jagger, now older than I am, sometimes look up at the sky and the stars and tremble before their majestic indifference?
I get up at 5.30 and walk my dogs in the Bulgarian village darkness. No one else is ever around at that hour, and as I make the circle we always make, me and my beloved beasts — these creatures that I love without the interference of ‘conversation’ -- though speak to each other we certainly do -- I may actually open my mouth and say to them, “Well, Casper and Poppendoshka, so tell me: Is there a God or isn’t there?
They never answer. They are too happy sniffing the golden turds left by the horses.
And I realize that, then and there in those virginal hours of the dew, IT DOESN’T MATTER.
It doesn’t matter if the universe ultimately translates itself into terms of human reckoning and comprehension or not.
Sometimes I imagine myself, once dead, being able to meet all the other dead people I would like to have known. I have so many questions I would like to ask them. Some, who lived before painters and the camera could come along to record them for posterity, would open their faces to me at last, as if lifting veils from all the centuries. I would love to have this picnic of the dead at my disposal.
More and more, I think of my parents and grandparents, all of them deader than the stone images and statue shadows that are the 4 o’clocks of afternoons in small towns. More and more, I replay the scenes I knew them in, and their voices have lately begun to seem louder. At times, they are very loud. And near. What does this mean?
Mostly, however, I see the universe as Meursault would have seen it: a place that has no conception of my bleating and stirring existence whatsoever…this huge canvas over whose faceless impassivity I would try to attach a mask. The disguise falls. Simply…a wonderful nothing. There are no crowds there. No concerts or ball games. Nor any history. Imagine that: a universe without a history.
““You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
“They called me the hyacinth girl.”
— Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.”
(‘The Waste Land’ — T.S. Eliot)
I lie in bed and dream. Once I dreamed that I was looking at a candle in the darkness. And a bright, glowing candle it was, except that I noticed it had started moving further away from me, as if it were sitting on a table and some silhouetted, silent, meticulously efficient usher, wearing a prim, formal suit, had been assigned to wheel this table away.
And gradually it came to me that the candle was the earth and in fact the earth was nothing more than a UFO, the kind many people claim to have seen.
It made me happy, although I confess my happiness was commingled with an inexplicable sadness, watching the flame get smaller and smaller until it finally flashed once more, like a dying match in the wind, no longer able to light so much as a simple cigarette. And went out.
Yes, the light went out, and I knew it was the human race which had been flickering in that flame, and that this prolonged endeavor — and all its fabulous stories — were now shut up inside some vast book that must have seemed big and heavy once, but now was lighter than the quick breath of a deer. Then there was no breath and no deer. Only darkness. The Book of the Dark. Its covers then dissipated away into gas. Strangely, it made me joyful to think so, as if I had come to the end of a marvelous fairy tale.
===By Eric Le Roy===