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Happy only before you’re happy?

8 Sep

A great paradox concerning happiness, expressed by the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his novel Julie or The New Heloise: once we feel we’ve achieved happiness, we stop being happy. 

“As long as we desire, we can do without happiness: we expect to achieve it. If happiness fails to come, hope persists, and the charm of illusion lasts as long as the passion isabelle-huppertthat causes it. So this condition is sufficient in itself, and the anxiety it inflicts is a sort of enjoyment that compensates for reality …Woe to him who has nothing left to desire… We enjoy less what we obtain than what we hope for, and we are happy only before being happy.”  (Part 6, Letter VII)

Tant qu’on désire on peut se passer d’être heureux; on s’attend à le devenir: si le bonheur ne vient point, l’espoir se prolonge, et le charme de l’illusion dure autant que la passion qui le cause. Ainsi cet état se suffit à lui-même, et l’inquiétude qu’il la-nouvelle-heloisedonne est une sorte de jouissance qui supplée à la réalité …Malheur à qui n’a plus rien à désirer!  On jouit moins de ce qu’on obtient que de ce qu’on espère et l’on n’est heureux qu’avant d’être heureux. 

Nathalie, played by Isabelle Huppert, reads out this passage to her students in the film L’Avenir, by Mia Hansen-Løve, which opened last week in London. A philosophy teacher in her fifties, Nathalie sees her life slipping away from her. Her husband leaves her for a younger woman, she crosses a picket line because her former communism apparently means nothing to her, her publisher decides not to reissue her books, she hates the idea of retiring, her mum dies, her former student and protégé Fabien tells her she’s bourgeois, and she eventually gives away the cat which she reluctantly inherited  and seemed to be growing to love. 

Though the film is very good, it’s also fairly bleak. But perhaps we can take something positive away from it. Hansen-Løve may be suggesting that there’s a new beginning for Nathalie in all of this. Is the Rousseau quote making the point that in losing the whole world Nathalie can regain her soul? – or in Rousseau’s terms, she can regain her desire, her hope, her anxiety, and her happiness?  In other words,  can Nathalie only be happy if she stops being happy?