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Dostoevsky: well-being versus suffering

19 Nov


You can always rely on a Russian writer to throw cold water over the idea that the pursuit of happiness is a good thing. As far as Chekhov is concerned, happiness is a smug, selfish and ultimately debilitating project (see this blog, July 28 2013). Turgenev sees it as a psychological impossibility, while Vasily Grossman identifies a situation where the very idea of happiness seems utterly immoral (August 18 2014). 

 Feodor Dostoevsky is if anything even more negative. In Notes from the Underground (Part 1, chaps. 9-10) the anonymous narrator asks the reader, 

“…why are you so firmly, so triumphantly, convinced that only the normal and the positive – in other words, only what is conducive to welfare – is for the advantage of man? Is not reason in error as regards advantage? Does not man, perhaps, love something besides well-being? Perhaps he is just as fond of suffering? Perhaps suffering is just as great a benefit to him as well-being? Man is sometimes extraordinarily, passionately, in love with suffering, and that is a fact.

As far as my personal opinion is concerned, to care only for well-being seems to me positively ill-bred. Whether it’s good or bad, it is sometimes very pleasant, too, to smash things.”

Dostoevsky was very cynical about the claims to clarity and universal rationalism represented by the new Crystal Palace in London (first erected in 1851), and he makes the narrator in Underground share his negative view. 

“In the ‘Palace of Crystal’ (smashing things) is unthinkable; suffering means doubt, negation, and what would be the good of a ‘palace of crystal’ if there could be any doubt about it? And yet I think man will never renounce real suffering, that is, destruction and chaos. Why, suffering is the sole origin of consciousness…

You believe in a palace of crystal that can never be destroyed – a palace at which one will not be able to put out one’s tongue or make a long nose on the sly. And perhaps that is just why I am afraid of this edifice, that it is of crystal and can never be destroyed and that one cannot put one’s tongue out at it even on the sly.”

 It seems that for Dostoevsky, as for Chekhov, being fully human means accepting the necessity of suffering – accepting that destruction is as vital as creation, that rejection of the norm is more crucial than embracing it. The Greek tragedian Aeschylus would have agreed, for “man must suffer to be wise.”

And after all, we know that the Crystal Palace could in fact be destroyed all too easily. 



Living in the moment

18 Aug


In Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (1862), the beautiful, dissatisfied landowner Odintsova says, “Tell me, why is it that even when we are enjoying music, for example, or a beautiful evening, or a conversation with people we like – why does it all seem to be a hint of limitless happiness existing somewhere else, rather than genuine happiness, the kind, that is, we possess ourselves?  Why is it?” (chap.18)

“You know the saying,” the young radical Bazarov replies. “Happiness is where we are not.”

I know just what Odintsova means. Her dissatisfaction speaks of a nagging perfectionism, a feeling that any snatches of  happiness we manage to experience are offering us mere glimpses into a seamlessly  happy existence that is always going to be beyond our reach.

It is this sort of mentality which the disciples of mindfulness  are attempting to combat when they advise us to live in the moment, without  being always on the look-out for the worm in the bud or the future fall from grace.  Whenever I’m feeling particularly at ease with the world I often find that I have to suppress the urge to stop and write down the recipe. “This is how I ought to be conducting things all the time,” I say to myself. More strolling, more music, less talking, fewer glasses of wine. It’s as if I’m trying to make a rule for life out of the moment rather than just experiencing it. And that is probably not a good idea.

But  there must be limits to our enjoyment of the happiness of the moment, surely. If our sense of present well-being is bolstered by an awareness of the suffering of others (‘We’re so much better off than ….’), then it probably should  be resisted. The Ukrainian/Russian writer Vasily Grossman gives an outline of just such a moment in his story ‘The Old Teacher’, first published in 1943. It’s an exceptionally grim counter-example, an episode in which the mass execution of Jews is presented as a ploy to make other races feel that their sufferings could be a great deal worse.  In the story, an old Jewish scholar in a small town in the Ukrainian part of the Soviet Union is analysing the tactics pursued during the wartime invasion by German forces. “‘The Fascists have created an All-European system of  forced labour, and to keep the prisoners obedient they have constructed a huge ladder of oppression. The Dutch are worse off than the Danes; the French are worse off than the Dutch; the Czechs are worse off than the French. Things are still worse for the Greeks and the Serbs, worse still for the Poles, and last of all come the Ukrainians and Russians. … The further down you go the more blood, the more sweat, the more slavery. And then, at the very bottom of this huge, many-storeyed prison is the abyss to which the Germans have condemned the Jews. Their fate has to terrify all the forced labourers of Europe, so that even the most terrible fate will seem like happiness in comparison with that of the Jews. … The Germans will say, ‘Don’t grumble! Be happy and proud, be glad that you are not Jews!’”

This was not of course the right moment for Ukrainians and Russians to be feeling happy or proud. It was a moment when the very notion of happiness had to be rejected, and general suffering embraced.

So there have to be limits to living in the moment. But knowing where those limits are to be set in our own world isn’t easy.  Staying in the moment and resisting the yearning for a more complete happiness  is probably good for our individual peace of mind.  But that doesn’t mean we ought also to be resisting the intimations of unhappiness which the prospect of other people’s suffering evokes in us. We shouldn’t  be staying in the moment if that means shutting our eyes to painful or unjust events taking place beyond our immediate horizons.

Suzanne Moore, I find, has similar reservations about the value of mindfulness. In The Guardian recently (Aug 6 2014) she announced, with deliberate irony, “Most of what is wrong in the modern world can be cured by not thinking too much.”  Clearly, Moore believes that the problem is too little thinking, not too much. Mindfulness, in my view, has a lot to offer stressed or depressed individuals. But, as Moore argues, it would be  a mistake to see it as the ultimate panacea for the world’s ills.


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.