Saturday, June 11, 2011

not my idea of happiness

This is getting up late this week, and believe you me, there are a lot of excuses. I almost waited to revise it through the next week, but I decided that the blog is designed to prevent me from being able to polish things. Next weekend I'll be up north, so there won't be a new post until the 26th. If you missed getting up at 5:00 am this week and reading your McCarthyism with a bowl of plain oatmeal before your 10 mile run, you could just pretend I took this week off, save this one, and come back for your brand new post next weekend. Otherwise, please check back in two.

16th-century representations of Happiness typically feature her bearing symbols of health and wealth, as in Agnolo Bronzino’s painting from about 1567. Yet wealth and health, it would seem, are not always enough. In his 1970 State of the Union address, Richard Nixon turned from an extended meditation on law, order and authority to ask a question that might seem surprising against faded memories of the disgraced President. "In the next 10 years we shall increase our wealth by 50 percent," he said, "The profound question is: Does this mean we will be 50 percent richer in a real sense, 50 percent better off, 50 percent happier?" Here Nixon relates happiness to some kind of genuine wealth, not as dollars and cents but as a richness of living.

There seem to exist somewhat contradictory ideas about happiness, and in this entirely ahistorical assemblage of fragments I just want to call attention to some of them in a haphazard fashion. If in Nixon’s quotation happiness is related to a true richness, there is also a way in which happiness gets depicted as emptiness. Ned Flanders is arguably the happiest character on the Simpsons, and in part for good reasons: he takes good care of himself physically and respects his neighbors and family, so Homer’s hatred for the guy appears to be a depiction of a dark human tendency to despise goodness. At the same time, there are more than fleeting hints that Ned’s happiness is founded upon willful ignorance and that at a deeper level he suffers in ways that his happiness can only barely veil.

Happiness is not always considered to be so superficial. On the contrary, there exists a whole set of ideas about happiness as something genuine and as something that trite wealth can actually destroy. This way of thinking raises a number of problems that I can't entirely get into here; I tend to think that the irony of the Beatles’ performance of the Motown hit “Money (That’s What I Want)” is that the good listener is supposed to know that some things are more important than money and hear the song as ironic, when in fact the sentiments expressed seem unexpectedly earnest. Be that as it may, one of the main theses in Roseanne was that, even in the face of degrading conditions, the Conners find a true happiness that money cannot buy. In the clip presented in the video below, happiness is explicitly linked to two things, interpersonal connections and pleasure, and the wealthy Mrs. Wellman is excluded from both.

Yet if this kind of happiness holds any kind of truth, it is certainly only because it is a happiness that doesn't come easy. They say that it takes more calories to frown than to smile as if you should smile because it doesn't take as much effort, but one could ask if this fact might also explain why there are so many ponderous oafs plodding about with fleshy grins tucked beneath their ruddy noses. Smiling, they claim, makes you feel happy, but to put it another way you might say that madness begets madness. "Happiness," is supposed to be the right choice for everyone, a virtuous and transcendent detachment, if not a moral responsibility. There is, however, another way of coming at the same thing, as when they say that ignorance is bliss. Every day, goes the exhortation, you make a choice of whether or not to be happy, but is it an informed choice? Or better yet, how might happiness refer to something that excludes pleasure (how did Heaven come to be represented as sanitized and dull)? How does the overwrought incantation of one's own happiness substitute for the physical thrill of playing, or discovering something new, or getting close to someone? Only truly miserable people sincerely believe that life is too short, since after escaping the painful joys of a tumultuous life they suddenly find themselves caught rushing headlong toward a void. Getting down to the marrow does not always lead to happiness, but why should happiness be so precious?

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