Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Friday, March 4, 2011

Is happiness boring?

A book by philosopher David Loy, is reviewed at this post on thinkBuddha (and you've got to love a Buddhist-flavored review that opens with a citation of Blanchot's Madness of the Day). The book asserts in its title that The world is made of stories. The assertion derives from a slight mis-citation of Muriel Rukeyser's passage in "The Speed of Darkness":
Time comes into it.
Say it. Say it.
The universe is made of stories,
not of atoms.
Amod Lele has made a welcome return to blogging, and his first post riffed on Penelope Trunk's question as to whether happiness is "all there is" to life. Trunk answers No; one also wants an interesting life. (Actually, Trunk hyperbolically asserts that one cannot have both, but must choose.) And this makes me wonder: what is it that makes something interesting at all? And is it inherently opposed enough to happiness to warrant being thought a completely different pole?

In what is surely one of the most over-quoted literary openings, Tolstoy declares famously that "All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." This is what makes Anna Karenina's life worth telling, what makes it, in fact, a story; this is why stories that reach "happily ever after" do so at the end. In this world, we experience conflict as the matter of narrative. There is no requirement for a story to end happily, but permanent happiness is nonetheless the end of a story. Without dissatisfaction, without conflict, without tension to be resolved, there is no story to be told. No wonder, then, that Trunk sees remaining interested and being happy as divergent ends. And it strikes me that this is really one of the great symptoms of our time, or perhaps of the human condition: that we are torn between an idea of what is worth attending to, and one of the fulfillment of our being.

What is a matter for story is a matter for memory. Nietzsche claimed that cruelty was the mode of all human mnemotechnics. Christianity, on the other hand, asserts: Memory Eternal, in a mode almost diametrically opposite Nietzsche's. Here is the early 20th-century Orthodox theologian and martyr Pavel Florensky, in his great work The Pillar and Ground of Truth, p.144:
What did the wise thief ask for on the cross: "Lord, remember me (mnestheti mou) when Thou comest into Thy kingdom." He asks to be remembered, that is all. And in answer, in satisfaction of his wish, the Lord Jesus answers: "Verily, I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise." (Luke 23:42) In other words, "to be remembered" by the Lord is the same thing as "to be in Paradise." "To be in Paradise" is to be in eternal memory and, consequently, to have eternal existence and therefore an eternal memory of God. Without remembrance of God we die, but our remembrance of God is possible only through God's remembrance of us. ...
For most of human history, our mode of memory was precisely the religious. In their book When they Severed Earth from Sky, Elizabeth Wayland Barber and Paul Barber update the argument that the mythological mode of thinking is a compressed way of preserving the significant historical, political, or natural wisdom of a people in preliterate conditions. One need not concur with the Barbers' leveling Euhemerism to see the pertinence of this thesis. The knowledge preserved, according to this model, is preserved under a cosmology that is itself also narrative. Science replaces this memory. The language of science is designed for utmost communicability, but it is not narrative. It is, in a sense, an anti-story; its principles may be elegance, or symmetry, or explanatory power, but in any case they are not those of story, which belongs to a different order of discourse, at whose limits science sets up shop. A narrative says, this happened. Science says, if X happens, Y will happen, unless Z intervenes.

Science thus understood was the purgation of narrative from memory. Its limits are two. On the far side, there is an irreducible brute-ness to the facts it must account for. Chaitin's absolute randomness is one face of this; Meillassoux's hyperchaos is another. Nobel Prize-wining physicist Robert Laughlin suggests that we may have to entirely relinquish dreams of understanding the fundamental substratum of matter. But on the near side, Latour, Bloor, Pickering, and others have also shown that science does not extricate itself entirely from its roots in narrative; science is also always its own story.

Narrative is irreducibly plural; there is always the possibility of a different story, and in fact some stories are, as I have argued before, incommensurable with each other. Science aspires to a single account, and when we call this aimed-at account "theory," not story, we are pointing out this difference; this is why science would, if it could, purge itself of its own history (for of what interest is it to know that the theory of General Relativity is Einstein's?). But the cosmological contexts of a religion point to an aspiration after a single story, a sort of meta-story perhaps, in which all our stories would resolve. John Berger in G. writes (p. 133), Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one. (The line may be his most-quoted sentence: it serves as an epigraph for both Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things and Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion.) What the declaration of "Eternal Memory" pines for is a preservation of these stories in all their specificity, but without dissipating in a mere open pluralism; its longing for a single story, a True Story, is an eschatological promise and hope, not a premise.

A single story, a "True Story;" I suggest this pace David Loy, who says:
Big stories are the overarching ones that explain everything, including our role within it. God is the best example, although scientism is a secular equivalent when 'science can explain everything that can be explained.' Scientists generally agree on how to confirm or disprove their stories, for that is what distinguishes science from speculation. But how does one evaluate the Biggest Stories? God is a unique narrative device: he creates his own stories, not being inside any bigger one. God is the story that trumps all others because the whole cosmos is within it. His story puts limitations on our own but there is the security of knowing that he controls all stories. God is thus the guarantee that life has meaning, that our stories are meaningful. We want to believe that there is a transcendent plot, an all-encompassing storyline that makes sense of everything, that will (or can) have a happy ending. Essential to the God story is the denial that it is a story.
Loy wants to ask us, and wants us to ask: What happens when we realize our stories are (just) stories? ThinkBuddha's Will Buckingham, in the review I link to at the beginning, suggests that Loy, too, has given us a "big story" of his own in this narrative about how we tell stories and ultimately need to let go of them when they cease to serve. (For some of Buckingham's own approach to how story serves us, especially as regards ethics--a question close to my own concerns--see this review of his book Finding our sea legs.) I think Buckingham is right, that the longing for such a Story that will make sense of our stories is indeed what religion responds to or grows from, and that insofar as Loy is right, it's in pointing to the possibility of a story that "undoes itself," so to speak--not, however, in the too-clever-by-half postmodern mode which plays at renouncing the longing, but in gesturing to a world that is more than, not less than, a story.

In his essay On Stories, C.S. Lewis lays out a distinction between theme and plot:
The art of story as I see it is a very difficult one. ...its central difficulty is...[that] the idea that really matters becomes lost or blunted as the story gets under way.... there is a perpetual danger of this happening in all stories. To be stories at all they must be series of events: but it must be understood that this series--the plot, as we call it--is really only a net whereby to catch something else. The real theme may be, and perhaps usually is, something that has no sequence in it, something other than a process and much more like a state or quality.
Every reader knows what Lewis means here. It's why we sometimes leave books alone for a long time before we read them-- because we are savoring the theme and want to breathe it is a long while, before the plot gets in the way. But Lewis very shrewdly goes on to suggest that
this internal tension in the heart of every story constitutes, after all, its chief resemblance to life.... In real life, as in a story, something must happen. That is just the trouble. We grasp at a state and find only a succession of events in which the state is never quite embodied. The grand idea of finding Atlantis which stirs us in the first chapter of the adventure story is apt to be frittered away in mere excitement when the journey has once been begun. But so, in real life, the idea of adventure fades when the day-to-day details begin to happen. Nor is this merely because actual hardship and danger shoulder it aside....All that happens may be delightful; but can any such series quite embody the sheer state of being which was what we wanted?... In life and art both, it seems to me, we are always trying to catch in our net of successive moments something that is not successive.
Loy is of course right that no story, plot-wise, can be true in the way our heart longs for when it longs for a True Story. But the question is not of plot at all, but of theme. And this brings us, like Odysseus, back to Penelope Trunk's question about being happy, or being interested.

At one point I might have made an easy equation: interested = plot; happy = theme. Would that it were so simple. Trunk notes (citing Barry Schwartz) that prioritizing being interested means prioritizing having options--i.e., things to do, things that may or may not happen--whereas prioritizing happiness does not. Schwartz is a social psychologist who (like several others, e.g. David Myers and Robert Lane) argues that the plethora of "choices" facing consumers in late-capitalist cultures contributes to rising anxiety. So far, this seems to support the notion that "being interested," at least in its consummerist mode (which descends, I think, from the old vice--at least it used to be called a vice--of curiositas) is aligned with "plot" in Lewis' sense (and along these lines it's instructive to compare Augustine's views at the link just given, where H.J. Hodges reads Augustine writing not about scientific inquiry but about, of all things, stage-plays. Hodges actually has several excellent posts up in the same vicinity about ancient and medieval views of curiosity.) But there's more to it.

The desire to "be interested" in one's life is closely entwined with the construal of oneself as being in a kind of story. Deep down the expanding interest in the "stories" of others is partly a hunger for something else to distract us from our own. There's a legitimacy to this as well as a hidden sin. Are we aiming to be snapped out of our narcissism? or merely to get new fodder for it? Are we trying to be interested in the world, or just looking for another way of seeming interesting? (This, by the way, is a distinction that Trunk is careful to make, in a from-the-hip way, which may be the only way one can.)

In a poetry review I once wrote, I had occasion to cite Alan Finkielkraut in The Defeat of the Mind:
The followers of postmodernism do not dream of an authentic society, where people live comfortably in their cultural identities, but a polymorphous one, a multicolored, heterogeneous world in which individuals have many lifestyles to choose from. They have less interest in promoting the right to be different than the right to have access to the differences of others. For the multicultural means a storehouse of options.
I compared this, at the time, to Kierkegaard's conception of the Aesthetic stage, in which the pressing question for anyone is "does this decision make a good story?" (This is my gloss, not Kierkegaard's, and it oversimplifies things, but I'll stand by it). But one can live like Kierkegaard's Aesthetic man with reference almost purely to what Lewis means by "theme" rather than "plot;" in fact, I would guess this is more often the case. One isn't so often concerned about whether one is really living a series of events analogous to the life of Holden Caulfield or the vampire Lestat or Anne of Green Gables or Anna Wulf, as one is about seeing oneself through the aura of the theme of the world and character of such a figure. What this means is that theme no less than plot can be about the consummerist sort of "interested"; such worlds become just more options in the late-capitalist multicultural storehouse.

I think what Lewis means by "theme" in his essay is very close to what I have called "a world". E.g. in the poem by Auden I analyzed before: the abjection of the line "nothing now can come to any good" is irrefutable inside the [world of the] poem; this is the theme. One can live, or try to live, one's whole life within such a world. But one can also live in such a way that every such world opens up onto another, and another, and another; and ultimately returns one each time to The World, what I have called the indelimitability of experience.

I want to steer clear of valorizing either the desire for happiness or for being interested. Although I want to distinguish carefully the latter from the astonishment or wonder which is the root of philosophy, I think such wonder can be provoked by the experience of interest, and in any case the desire for and experience of freedom is bound up with philosophy every bit as closely as is happiness; and happiness, in any case, is also more than one thing, as Amod's blog post makes some headway in clarifying. Happiness? Pleasure? Contentment? Joy? Blessedness?

But I have gone on for such length about the question not just because (I admit it) I'm a bookish fellow myself and am endlessly diverted by the question of the relation between books-and-life, but because I think the question (and it is of wider application than books) has ramifications for our understanding of ethics:
Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating. Therefore 'imaginative literature' is either boring or immoral (or a mixture of both). It only escapes from this alternative if in some way it passes over to the side of reality through the power of art--and only genius can do that. (Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, p. 120)
The question, then, cannot be just that of theme versus plot (and Lewis would not have thought so); but of which theme. Nietzsche's remark about the mnemonic value of suffering is one index here, and so too is the liturgical prayer, memory eternal. For there are themes of misery, despair, Promethean rebellion, as well as of happiness or contentment or blessedness. The tension, not between art and life, but in both art and life, is the tension of time and eternity.

[Update 4/13 Follow-up post here.
And see Amod's post reflecting on the Finkielkraut quotation above here.]


  1. Dear Skholiast,
    I just came back to this post to check whether you had answered to a comment I left here… and found out it disappeared. I hope I will be able to rephrase it now:
    It seems that you oppose on the one hand happiness (understood as "contentment", in a non-dynamic way)/eternity and on the other tensions/curiositas/interesting life (which might be said to be "happy" insofar as it is meaningful, by the way, so that P. Trunk's thought seems more provocative than accurate).

    Well, as shown by M.Yourcenar in "Tous les hommes sont mortels" and by J. Swift, eternity would be a condemn for us (who would not hate life if s/he had to live forever and hence to do the same things forever? But the point is that eternity is not interesting for us not because it is intrinsically boring, but rather because it is unconceivable. We imagine it as if it were protracted temporality and hence imagine we would get bored. How could we imagine something extra-temporal if our experience is intrinsically temporal and linked to its finitude?
    (I am sorry if I have banalised your thoughts, I just want ot be sure I got it right)

  2. Elisa,

    Reading your comment I understand my own points better. There is a double tension. On the one hand, happy v. interested. On the other, eternity v. time. These are not the same, but get tangled in the reflections of we who, as you rightly indicate, cannot justly conceive of eternity at all. An endless succession is not the same as the "eternal now" at all. The denunciation of a so-called "eternity" conceived of as just (what Hegel called) "bad infinity" is just off-target. ("Yawn... what, to spend forever playing a harp and telling God how great he is? Bo-ring!") (Weirdly, the most concerted critic of Christianity, and still the only one who matters, is Nietzsche, who called for precisely a Sempiternal (and not at all an Eternal) Return. There's something deep in this.) But of course the problem is that all our images of eternity are temporal. The closest we get, I think, is in music, which as Jankelevitch says, communicates "something in general without saying anything in particular," and yet music is also often called the most temporal of the arts.

    Wittgenstein says somewhere in the Tractatus that the idea of the immortality of the soul will not do what is usually thought-- for no mystery is solved by imagining an endless existence instead of a finite one. The mystery is not why it must end but how it is at all.

    I am puzzled and a little alarmed by your comment vanishing. I checked to see if it had been unaccountably put into spam, but i don't find it anywhere. Sorry for that frustration for you.