by Eric Le Roy
Content 18+ 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, reading the right self-help books, working 80-hour weeks, winning the lottery, or stumbling across the ideal life-partner. Or maybe just by killing the Boss. And I am inclined to say, “Yep, those ways seem as reasonable as any other.” So why do such strategies so often fail? And worse, why do they fail even when they succeed?
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. So the big movers and shakers behind the walls of the great corporations are now selling happiness the same ways that totalitarian governments sell ‘patriotism.'
He is referring to all the manufactured doodads, gizmos, gadgets, and accompanying fragrances we should treat ourselves to because “We deserve it” – although why we deserve it is never made clear.
I have never come across anything that got better by thinking about it too much. In the country I am from, the USA, it happens all the time. A man and woman (or other combinations) together for the first time or early in their relationship will have sex and then spend the next hour discussing why they did it and what it meant; those who haven't got time for these seminars we accuse of lacking intelligence or just not caring. The brainy types, however, even if they don't care either, feel compelled to analyze why they don't. They have to analyze everything.
I have known since a very early age that at least a measure of my happiness 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 dark. It even works when you walk through a cemetery and feel a spark of life that is the antithesis of death. It is a moment that surely resembles or somehow signifies ‘happiness' or whatever it must be. Look at those poor people in the ground, and here I am striding along above them. Shouldn't I at least be happy that I still possess what they have lost?
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 a pinched nerve or cramp, plus a listing of the names of those who have ‘survived the deceased'. You sit there with your java and jam, safely perched on the thrones where sit 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 the hopes, dreams and memories which that man or woman at some point had, now resolved into the black and white matter-of-factness of pressed print. And now that death has ‘cuffed and stuffed' him/her (as I once heard a police officer telling a class of school children while admonishing them about the inevitable outcome for bad boys and girls), you wonder, and in your wonderment conclude: That's all he ever was. And go, leaving the obituary the way you would leave a port-o-let by the side of the road and tossing the newspaper in the trash bin on your way out, like ashes from an urn. Nothing more than something once held in place by a rubber band.
But was he happy? And are YOU happy now, you ask yourself as, figuratively, you march away from the cemetery of “The Daily Record” or “The Standard-Times.” And if you insist on looking at it in a competitive sense, you must conclude, “Well, yes, I am happier than he is because I am still alive.” As I said before, because at times I need reminding.
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.”
I remember when I was at a community college in palatka, Florida, being in an English class with a man from the Boston, Mass area who I knew as Mr. Mullen. This was back when you didn't need a PhD to catch on at a backwater JC. Mr Mullen, with his broad, common face (he was maybe 40) looked like what they call in the boxing business a ‘ham-and-egger. Like maybe he had been someone's sparring partner and left the game while his nose still looked like a nose. Or maybe I would have imagined him more as a guy trying without much success to sell insurance (having lost his job in the furniture store) than as an intellectual. But he was an intellectual. Once we recognized each other as literature-philes, we became inseparable companions in our love of the make-believe. I used to meet him at lunchtime, and we would talk.
Eventually, I asked him if I could give a recital, by rote memory, of W.B. Yeats' mighty poem The Tower to some other students around the campus who might be interested, including those from our class. They would come at lunch time or just after most of the classes ended for the day. He gathered them in for the ‘performance'-- maybe a dozen of them.
It's a long poem and my rote recital was impeccable. The right pauses and exclamatory moments. And the ending in poignant intonations, as I recall. But right after I finished, Mr. Mullen asked me a fateful (and fatal) question: “Eric, now tell the group what the poem means!”
Looking back, I now see that it was an innocent question that he felt certain I would be delighted to elaborate on. Then, as now, any chance for me to elaborate didn't take much coaxing. But at that moment, I was so emotionally engulfed in the poem itself that something in me rebelled against the task of trying to explain it, which was clearly what Mr. Mullen wanted.
So, like an honest fool, I said, “It meant what it meant.” And said no more. What I meant was that the poem didn't need analyzing, at least not at that special moment. It just needed to be appreciated. I wanted my audience to feel the moment, not immediately start tearing it apart and intellectualizing about it. But my teacher/ friend was clearly offended by what he saw as a lazy, cavalier approach and implicit disrespect toward him. He had listened to the great poem and enjoyed it; I could see that. But I could also see that he wanted more. The recital was the preliminary bout; now he was ready for the main event: the analysis. After all, he was the English professor and I was the student, and now, having listened respectfully to my soliloquy, he wanted me to answer his fucking question. When I blew him off on that one, he kind of shuddered and seethed all at once, if you can imagine it : he was furious. But as I saw it, why wasn't the poem enough? Why was I now obligated to explain to the group what Yeats evidently had not been able to elucidate but which I presumably could, and why had we all become surgeons in an academic laboratory where the dissection needed our maximum attention? AND, as I protested inwardly, How could I explain Yeats any better than Yeats himself had done? (“What Yeats REALLY means here is…”)
I understand now that academic scholarship often has nothing to do with loving the literature on its own terms (as I have often loved women and dogs, for example), and everything to do with amassing abstruse bundles and boatloads of drivel for other academics to get their heads around and compile their own mountains of abstraction in response. They do it for tenure; they do it long after they have lost interest in the literature itself; and they do it because it's the only thing they can do, having failed at producing their own masterpieces. Or at least that's what I suspect.
Why must we analyze everything to death? When you have great sex, isn't that enough? Or do you need a psychological print-out? A smart watch to tell you the intensity of your orgasm and how many calories you burnt in the process? When you find a new friend, even a kindred spirit maybe, do you need to run a background check?
Oh, how I ramble like an old man in a nursing home, talking about a guy like Mr. Mullen (never could remember his first name, but now it comes back that maybe it was Ray). But I find that life is assembled of such memories, and they sometimes stand like beacons of what was good, just like headstones in the cemetery stand for what is dead but once was alive. Happiness in dead hours.
To carry this seemingly disconnected point further, I would say that it comes to all men and women, even as they see the ‘progressive' dystopia turning them and all they ever were, or believed, into a ‘sensitivity training' algorithm, and that in the end people are little more than the sum total of their memories, even those which are much regretted and some about things that never actually happened. (Indeed, those may be the most profound ‘memories'.) And blessed is the one whose memories are good and fond, fulfilled with the retained ardor of accomplishment, and the afterglow of the fecundity of the reflection.
Afterwards, when the others had gone, we had a furious argument, and he actually became rather threatening. For once in my life I had the good sense just to back off. But, even though his wife approached me, and deep down maybe I wanted to reconcile, the friendship was over. The great lunchtime conversations ceased.
Looking back, I know that Mr. Mullen was remorseful; he had overstepped his bounds, and he knew it. Normally, I would have forgiven that in a heartbeat; I have forgiven drug dealers who ripped me off and women who deceived me. But, well, it was like I was no longer his golden boy. No longer his ‘prodigy'. And for some reason that now shattered status had truly mattered to me. Ah, how heaven on earth wavers before our eyes, and we evict it with a curse, like a landlord getting rid of a penniless tenant. Mr. Mullen and I, having been happy together, had seen the ugliness in each other, and that ended it. As Yeats also wrote: “We have fallen in the dreams the ever-living/ breathe upon the tarnished mirror of the world/and then smooth out with ivory hands and sigh.” No explanation needed.
And yet I look back on those scintillating conversations we had during the lunch hours, and I understand that the teacher-student, mentor-pupil relationship was never better, not even for the Romans and the Greeks. So that's how I choose to recall Mr. Mullen. With happiness.
As I write this, rather at a length I had not intended, I realize that I hadn't thought about it for 50 years as intensely as I feel it tonight. For one thing, I would like to have one more class with him. Or lunch most likely.
I would tell him that it was a waste of time analyzing a great poem too much. It would be like analyzing the bird that flew to the fencepost to sing you the poem, and then flapped his wings and caught the next wind into eternity. What did that mean? I would tell him that great epiphanies are like privileged glimpses when we see what isn't there except by sheer force of our own eyes beaming out with visions of our willed existence. Or is it some god flinging open his window and door? I try to imagine.
And he would say, “Cut the malarkey and explain what the bird meant, since you like these birds so much. Even the birds mean something. They are singing to others, not just to themselves. They are part of a flock, not something that stands apart. They are not ivory or metallic birds among normal feathered things that will die even as the great icon sings and sings. They fly from north to south, from balcony to valley. Don't you care what they are singing about or is it just their voices that beguile you?”
OK, I'd say to Ray, “Call them back and when they start singing, I'll explain.”
“Too late for that, Buddy. Here, you want some of my sandwich? Ham and egg.”
“I used to eat them back when I was selling insurance.”
“For me it was pastrami and Swiss.”
“You're shttin' me!” You sold insurance too?
“Yeah, but I was a total, abject failure. Not one fucking policy did I sell.”
“Ah, don't worry about it. The motherfuckers don't know what's good for them.”
“They'll miss me when they're gone. I tried to help them.”
“ That's how I became a college professor. When I found out I couldn't sell insurance. I didn't do any better at the furniture store. They'd take one look at me and say, ‘Fuck the sofa, let's get outta here ”
“Same thing happened to me. It's why I became a college student.”
“I see. So…how's the sandwich?”
“Just like Mom's home cooking.”
“But just tell me one thing, OK? Just for old time's sake.
“What did that damned poem mean? You know –”The Turnkey” Or “The Brewer”. Whatever it was. You remember?”
“Ah yes, you mean “The Tower!”
“That's the one. What did Jakes mean by it?”
“Yeats. Well, I think he meant that an Irishman always likes his pint. And his dram of whiskey on the side.”
“Well, I'll be a son of a bitch. So that was it.”
“It's all I could ever get out of it.”
“Well,” Mr. Mullen said thoughtfully, rubbing his chin, “thanks for setting that straight.”
And then he said, in a voice that contained all the comforts of eternity: “Now shall I make my soul/compelling it to study in a learned school/till the wreck of body, slow decay of blood/testy delirium or dull decrepitude/or what worse evil come/the death of friends or death/of every brilliant eye that made a catch in the breath/seem but the clouds of the sky, when the horizon fades/or a bird's sleepy cry among the deepening shades.”
Then he said: “You see, Eric, I heard the birds too.”
After that, we were happy, and we in our friendship, singing in our souls, trotted off into eternity like two old horses on a dusty road, or field mice in a meadow after the rain.