Archive | July, 2013

Anton Chekhov: does happiness matter?

28 Jul

170px-Stachelbeere_(Ribes_uva-crispa)   In his play Three Sisters, produced in 1901, Chekhov tested out various theories about the possible sources of happiness. Might it be gained through work, or through love, or by striving selflessly for the wellbeing of future generations?  In the play, all of these routes to happiness are shown to be questionable (See BLOG, April 28th).

Three years earlier, in his short story ‘Gooseberries’, Chekhov had presented what was possibly his own view of the matter. In it one of the characters, Ivan Ivanich, tells the story of how he reached the conclusion that happiness is simply not the point. He is describing to two of his friends how his brother, a minor civil servant, had dreamt all his working life of owning a small estate, with a residence, a bath-house on the river, an orchard, and beds of gooseberry bushes. Eventually, after scrimping and searching and denying himself many comforts, he managed to achieve his dream. True, there were no gooseberry bushes on the estate that he purchased, but he bought and planted two dozen of them.

When Ivan Ivanich visited his brother, he could see that he was indeed happy. He had grown fat, he expressed many shallow and clichéd opinions, but he was happy. When he popped a gooseberry grown on his own estate into his mouth, he became speechless with emotion. “Confronted by a happy man, I was overcome by a feeling of sadness bordering on desperation.”

All around us, Ivan Ivanich reflects, people go to market to buy food, eat, sleep, talk, marry, grow old, and are happy. Only statistics, which are dumb, protest: so many people have gone mad, so many barrels of drink have been consumed, so many children have died of malnutrition. “Apparently those who are happy can only enjoy themselves because the unhappy bear their burdens in silence, and but for this silence happiness would be impossible. It is a kind of universal hypnosis. There ought to be a man with a hammer behind the door of every happy man, to remind him with his knocks that there are unhappy people, and that happy as he himself may be, life will sooner or later show him its claws, catastrophe will overtake him – sickness, poverty, loss – and nobody will see it, just as he now neither sees nor hears the misfortunes of others.”

That night Ivan Ivanich understood that he too was happy and content. He too had shallow opinions, he too talked about freedom, how important it was for everyone, but how unfortunately many people would have to wait for it – the time was not yet right. “Ever since, I have found town life intolerable. The peace and order weigh on my spirits, and I am afraid to look into windows, because there is now no sadder spectacle for me than a happy family seated round a tea-table. I am old and unfit for the struggle, I am even incapable of feeling hatred. I can only suffer inwardly, and give way to irritation and annoyance …”

Then he turns to the younger of his two friends and wrings him by the hand. “Pavel Konstantinich, don’t you fall into apathy, don’t you let your conscience be lulled to sleep! While you are still young, strong, active, do not be weary of well-doing. There is no such thing as happiness, nor ought there to be, but if there is any sense or purpose in life, this sense and purpose are to be found not in our own happiness, but in something greater and more rational. Do good!”

Ivan Ivanich says this imploringly, as if he were asking for something for himself. But sadly his friends are not particularly impressed by the story of a poor clerk who ate gooseberries.

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let’s be cynical

15 Jul

Last week in ‘The Guardian’ (Thursday July 11, 2013) the philosopher Julian Baggini celebrated the virtues of maintaining a healthy cynicism. At the same time he had a swipe at those peddlers of ‘sun-kissed fantasies’, the gurus of positive thinking. At its best, Baggini argues, cynicism is a greater force for progress than optimism. Why should we mindlessly try to convince ourselves that the world and everything in it are wonderful, when clearly they aren’t. That’s hardly rational, and isn’t going to promote worthwhile change. ‘We can’t make things better unless we see quite how bad they are, or do our best unless we guard against the worst.’

I agree with Baggini almost entirely. But I have just one reservation.  While it’s right to maintain a critical attitude towards institutions, groups and ideas in the world at large, perhaps we can be a little kinder towards the individuals with whom we come into personal contact (including perhaps ourselves). Being tolerant and forgiving as well as critical seems like another good rule for a healthy and intelligent approach to life.