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Happy as sandboys

9 Dec


The other day I mentioned to my friend Janet that Brexit still isn’t making UK citizens unhappy, at least not according to this year’s well-being stats. Her immediate response was, ‘Well that’s because they’ve got their heads in the sand, isn’t it?’

A good point – and one that for me reawakens the whole ‘Is happiness a good thing?’ debate. Few people in Britain can pretend that Brexit doesn’t exist as an issue – it’s been well nigh impossible to avoid the topic during the last three years. But many of us have found that it’s had little impact on our individual happiness levels.  It’s generally the stuff that directly affects us  which governs our sense of well-being: the things that really matter to us are our mental and physical health, and our relationships at home, in our workplaces and in the wider community (see Richard Layard, this blog, 7 June). So far Brexit hasn’t changed anyone’s life in these areas – perhaps because it hasn’t happened yet.

The writer and humorist Clive James wouldn’t have been surprised by this. When he paused to reflect on periods in the past when he was probably happy, he used to find happiness so absurdly self-centred that it made him unhappy just to think about it. ‘Your moments of happiness are not only fleeting, but meaningless in the context of the sufferings of others,’ James concluded (Is happiness enough? A Point of View, 2007, repeated on Radio 4 on 1 December 2019). 

As usual, this kind of reflection puts me in mind of Anton Chekhov, who believed that we’re only able to enjoy happiness because the unhappy bear their burdens in silence (this blog, 10 September 2016, 28 July 2013). And though you’d need a mountain of sand to hide the Brexit issue from the British people, climate change is another matter – most of us find it pretty easy to ignore the problem. As one of the contributors to ‘Start the Week’ said on the radio this morning – in a discussion of  all types of inundation –  ‘If it isn’t happening to you, you don’t think about it.’  While Janet and I were having our conversation about heads in the sand, parts of South Yorkshire were under water, Delhi was smothered in deadly smog, and in Venice  the floods had swept into St Mark’s Basilica. But these events didn’t stop us having a lovely lunch, and finding pleasure in each other’s company. This failure to be downhearted may be inevitable. Hopefully it won’t prevent us from taking action. 

Footnote  Ostriches, I learn from the net, probably don’t hide their heads in the sand, they just look as though they’re doing it. And sandboys were happy because in the 19th century they were employed to spread sand on pub floors to absorb the spills, and were paid in ale. (Which may have been preferable to being sent up chimneys.) I’m rather resistant to the notion that people may need to be drunk in order to be happy, but I do know that in my case a drink or three certainly helps. 

The Danes, again …

10 Sep

Consistent frontrunners in the happiness league tables, the Danes are happy-danish-personensuring that their state of mind stays in the news. Personally, I think I’ve heard quite enough already about ‘hygge’, but it seems that five books on the subject are to be published in English in the next few weeks (The Observer, Sept 4). ‘Hygge’ means something like ‘doing inexpensive and pleasurable things with nice people in snug surroundings,’ and you can’t really knock it. We all like a bit of that from time to time. But is it what we should be striving to achieve?

When reading about ‘hygge’ I immediately think of Chekvov, who would have found all this bourgeois contentment disturbing. “These days,” one of his characters tells us, “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.” (Gooseberries)  ‘Hygge’ is not for Chekhov, then. The narrator in his story fears that he is lapsing into contentment himself, but he also believes that those who are happy are only in a position to enjoy their mental state because the unhappy bear their burdens in silence. (See this blog, 28 july 2013)

My sense that ‘hygge’ is not the solution is confirmed when I read in The Observer article that “it is rarely hygge to talk about politics, or indeed anything controversial.” So how on earth is anything ever going to change, then?  Or is the world of hygge so perfect that it doesn’t need to change? Perfect, that is, for those who belong to it. 


Not a happy superman

14 May

man and superman

I love Bernard Shaw’s plays, mainly for their wordiness and their single-minded focus on ideas. The wordiness in particular means that these days they are not performed very often; but last week I saw the outstanding production of ‘Man and Superman’ at the National Theatre, with Ralph Fiennes playing the part of the anti-hero Jack Tanner.

The desirability of the pursuit of happiness is one of the many themes of the play. Shaw expresses a mistrust of the concept that is similar to Chekhov’s, but with a far more cynical edge to it. When Jack Tanner tells his friend Tavy that he is trying to save him from the clutches of the woman he wants to marry, Tavy says that in that case he’ll be saving him from his highest happiness. ‘Yes, a lifetime of happiness,’ Tanner responds. ‘If it were only the first half hour’s happiness, Tavy, I would buy it for you with my last penny. But a lifetime of happiness! No man alive could bear it: it would be hell on earth.’

Like Camus and Ionesco, Shaw also questions the value of hope. Tanner dreams that he has gone to Hell in the guise of Don Juan, and there he meets the Statue of the irate father whom he killed during his life on earth. The Statue has grown tired of Heaven, and is on a visit to Hell. ‘Written over the gate here,’ he tells Tanner/Juan, ‘are the words “Leave every hope behind, ye who enter.” Only think what a relief that is! For what is hope? A form of moral responsibility. Here there is no hope, and consequently no duty, no work, nothing to be gained by praying, nothing to be lost by doing what you like. Hell, in short, is a place where you have nothing to do but amuse yourself.’

Camus and Ionesco identify hope with an absurd insistence on meaning and purpose in life. Shaw seems to agree , but for him the quest for meaning is not absurd.  Tanner/Juan chooses the moral responsibility which is abjured by the Statue: when he gets the opportunity, he decides to abandon Hell, where he is free to practise ‘the tedious, vulgar pursuit of happiness’, and to exchange it for an eternity of contemplation in Heaven.

This is the dream. Back in his dramatic real life, conventional romance wins out, and Tanner finally agrees to marry the woman he loves. But he rejects the idea that the object of marriage is  happiness. ‘I solemnly say that I am not a happy man. Ann looks happy; but she is only triumphant, successful, victorious. That is not happiness, but the price for which the strong sell their happiness. What we have both done this afternoon is to renounce tranquillity, above all renounce the romantic possibilities of an unknown future, for the cares of a household and a family.’ The lifetime of happiness Tanner warned Tavy about is not to be his. The visit to Hell has shown him that moral responsibility is far more important. So the convoluted outcome of the play is that Tanner embraces marriage because it will save him from happiness, and position him firmly in the arena of work and commitment.

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.

Work, love, or progress – or should we just go to Moscow?

28 Apr

three sisters

Yesterday I finished reading Chekhov’s Three Sisters, inspired by the Benedict Andrews version of the play which I saw last autumn at the Young Vic. I noticed at the time that there were many references to happiness in the play, and they’re present in the English translation of the text as well.

In Act 1 the youngest of the three sisters, Irina, is seeking happiness in work. She believes that a privileged young woman like herself, who wakes at twelve, has coffee in bed, then spends two hours dressing, cannot possibly be happy.

“A man ought to work… all the purpose and meaning of his life, his ecstasies, lie in that alone.”

The sisters’ brother Andrey feels happy in Act 1 because his heart is full of love. And for Vershinin, a military man and progressivist with a miserable domestic existence, the truly happy life is something which we must strive for but which is always out of reach. Work brings happiness, but not to us.

“It seems to me that everything on earth is bound to change by degrees and is already changing before our eyes. In two or three hundred, perhaps in a thousand years — the time does not matter — a new, happy life will come. We shall have no share in that life, of course, but we’re living for it, we’re working, well, yes, and suffering for it, we’re creating it — and that alone is the purpose of our existence, and is our happiness, if you like.”

Vershinin is willing to suffer for the future happiness of others:

“…there is no happiness for us, there ought not to be and will not be. . . . We must work and work, and happiness is the portion of our remote descendants… If it’s not for me, at least it’s for the descendants of my descendants. . . .”

And he adopts the uncomfortable position of telling others that the happiness which they think they’re enjoying is illusory. When young Tuzenbakh interposes with ‘But what if I’m happy?’ Vershinin’s prompt rejoinder is, ‘You’re not.’

All three sisters, Olga, Masha and Irina, dream of moving back to Moscow.

“Go away to Moscow. Sell the house, finish with everything here,
and go to Moscow …”

For them, as for Vershinin, the happy and meaningful life which they dream of is always out of reach, always unattainable.

It isn’t a cheery play, and all these definitions of happiness are shown one way or another to be deeply flawed. When Irina does find work in the local telegraph office, she feels that it is purposeless, and without poetry.

IRINA I’ve been a telegraph clerk and now I have a job in the town council and I hate and despise every bit of the work they give me. . . . I’m already twenty-three, I’ve been working for years, my brains are drying up, I’m getting thin and old and ugly and there’s nothing, nothing, not the slightest satisfaction, and time is passing and you feel that you are moving away from a real, a beautiful life, moving farther and farther away and being drawn into the depths.

Irina’s sister Olga, a teacher, and their old nanny Anfisa are both worn out by their working lives. And the plight of the 81-year-old Anfisa illustrates one problem with pinning all your happiness on the work ethic: what happens when you can’t work any longer? Anfisa is terrified that she will be sent away from the house, and if the three women’s awful sister-in-law Natasha gets her way, she will:

NATASHA She’s not fit for work. She does nothing but sleep or sit still.
OLGA. Well, let her sit still.
NATASHA How, sit still? Why, she’s a servant. I don’t understand you, Olya. I’ve a nanny to look after the children as well as a wet nurse for baby, and we have a housemaid and a cook, what do we want that old woman for? What’s the use of her?

Love is equally unreliable as a source of happiness. Andrey’s wife Natasha has a lacklustre affair with her husband’s boss, the chair of the district council. At the same time Andrey’s sister Masha, who despises her husband Kulygin, has been falling in love with Vershinin, whose work is about to take him away from her.

MASHA. When you get happiness by snatches, by little bits, and then lose it, as I’m losing it, by degrees one grows coarse and spiteful . . . I’m boiling here inside . . . Here’s our Andrey, . . . All our hopes are shattered. It’s like thousands of people raised a huge bell, a lot of money and of labour was spent on it, and it suddenly fell and smashed. All at once, for no reason whatever. That’s just how it is with Andrey . . .

Perhaps there is a way through all this. Irina decides eventually to marry Tuzenbakh, although she doesn’t love him.

IRINA. I’ve made up my mind, since I’m not fated to be in Moscow, that so it must be. It must be destiny. …He’s a good man, it’s wonderful really how good he is. . . . And I suddenly felt as though my soul had grown wings, my heart felt so light and again I longed for work, work …

But at the end of the play Tuzenbakh is killed in a senseless duel.