The Perpetual is Hellish
Review of Perpetual Euphoria: On the Duty to Be Happy
(English translation ©2010, Princeton University Press)
Citizens! Loose the surly bonds that require you to beam with happiness each waking hour! Escape the dictate that happiness is your duty! Cast off this obligation, and let happiness arise naturally, as dolphins leap from steel-grey waters!
Pascal Bruckner’s thesis is that, having replaced belief in God with belief in humanism, we have incorporated a prime directive to move towards pleasure and away from unpleasantness, thus becoming more like amoebae. Once we held that this life was a vale of sorrow, an ante-room to a splendid afterlife, our reward lay in a future that would happen after death, and all because we ate the apple. The body a contemptible garment fit only to kneel in prayer, all life’s pleasures snares.
Then came the Enlightenment, “like the outbursting of a trodden star”, as Beddoes says, and all was gas and gaiters, beer and skittles, our lives our own to own complete, to make our mortal span a heaven. Or a hell. Our present and our future here, in this our only lifetime; life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness our inalienable rights.
How did the right to chase happiness, that glittering star, become a duty?
How has that duty come to burden us so heavily that we flag beneath it, punished by our failure to push the boulder of unhappiness to the mountaintop?
It’s always jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, but never jam today. In the socio-political sphere, we must always put our shoulders to the wheel now for a brighter future. We have to destroy the village in order to save it; that is, to tear down the unhappy present, with all of its richness, to create a brave new world tomorrow. Every cliché in this paragraph demonstrates the prevalence of our shared assumption that our heaven is in our keeping, our heaven’s in our future.
“The body has become suspect if it is not radiant.” The revolutionaries of the 1960s and 70s thought they were upending the stifling bourgeois life of consumerism, freeing body and mind to glow. But their cries for everything, every freedom, now, immediately, became the orthodoxy of a new consumerism — every pleasure right now. These are appetites, not desires. “It is in the domain of hunger and thirst that everything must be immediately available, whereas the heart and desire have their own rhythms, their intermittencies.”
Has yielding to these appetites brought on the new Jerusalem? Is happiness an idol we can worship with profit? Are we not guilty when unhappy?
The elevation of happiness to the supreme Good means that we often punish ourselves for being unhappy. We try to spin gold happiness from straw, with the usual success. Happiness does not, despite our best efforts, pervade every cell and corner of our lives. So we busy ourselves with fun, that frothy surface that belies the merciless sifting we must rigorously perform to create “an aseptic environment in which I take pleasure in the world without giving it the right to wound or punish me in return.” A playland lacking vital consequence. We may try instead to escape our hollow lives by practicing stillness, whether with meditation, yoga, or Prozac. But “we need tranquility less than authentic activities, important and meaningful events, dazzling moments that prostrate us or transport us”
The sheer number of possible lives we might lead is intoxicating. Yet if we do not choose among them, we are as imprisoned as if we remained in a stifling life. Bruckner says there are two kinds of possibility: “a possibility-sarcophagus or a possibility-chrysalis: … in one case life succumbs under the weight of the unlimited, in the other it liberates all its latencies as the sun actualizes and awakens all colors.”
For many, the idea of original sin has been reborn; now, it holds that “life is fundamentally guilty of being everyday, and anyone who endorses it is an accomplice in the supreme crime,” whereas we need the quotidian. We require it. It’s only in contrast between dailiness and “great surges of elation” that the latter are defined.
Without fun or tranquilizers, without the endless pursuit of happiness around the corner, with only the everyday routine before us, we’ll be bored! Well, boredom is part of real life. Only children can’t accept that. Boredom spurs us to change our lives, its endless deserts bloom when watered with such changes. It is as evanescent as happiness.
This happiness is a Loki-figure, essentially mischievous, appearing and disappearing, outside our control, a white tiger we may stalk for months without sighting. To observe happiness is to alter it. To stalk it successfully we must cease stalking, become one with the background landscape.
A dread fear arises. Shall we not, thus, become bourgeois? This, I think, is a very French fear. Middle America is how I’d put it. If we make our peace with the quotidian, won’t we find ourselves sitting on a sofa, night after night, consuming media? But let’s use Bruckner’s word. He’s French, he gets to use it. The bourgeoisie commit three great crimes, which both right and left agree on: they are mediocre, they are vulgar, and they are rapacious. They are, in short, mundane. They are nothing to aspire to, unexalted as they are. But “beware those elites [who] curse the pettiness of their lives, and covetously long for apocalypse and death.” We just observed the tenth anniversary of 9/11. One result of that curse is obvious enough. Look also, though, at the collapsitarians of the right, mostly religious believers, and the left, anarchists and so on. Are they welcoming doom to escape a dull routine, like that surrealist — you well-educated readers must supply his name — who found himself about to be run over by a truck and rejoiced that at least, at last, something was happening.
When this illusion, as others, is shattered, and disappointment rears its head, echoing our childish plaint, “Do I haaave to?”, then, oh then, “one becomes sensitive to everything that makes life opulent, fervent, and captious. The defeat of an illusion always opens the door to miracles.” Note that “captious”. Delight, joy, bliss — being happy, knowing why you’re happy, and still being happy, and that’s Henry Miller quoting someone, never mind — have their intermittencies. They are not tame lions.
To rid oneself of the three crimes of the bourgeoisie, one must recognize them in oneself. Gnothi sauton! Know thyself! Useful advice from the Sophists to Psychologists.
Bruckner goes on about capitalism and the role and burden of money, which those of you affected may read about in his book. This review shall continue with his final chapters on modernity and education. “To be modern is to be incapable of playing the hand we are dealt.” Step back from that sentence. Is it not a wondrous thing? Doesn’t it gladden you? To be modern is to lack gumption. Before the Enlightenment, which is a real date point for many French writers, suffering claimed so many parts of life; it was accepted, part of the donnée. Now that we have eliminated so much suffering, so many early deaths, so much bodily pain, now that we have so much lessened the cramp of hunger and the narrowness of the ill-educated mind, now we expect all suffering to disappear as smoke. “…anything that checks our forward progress towards happiness is a personal offense…” A personal offense. An insult, really. “…we even have changed our educational focus from imparting knowledge to ‘helping students bloom’ ”. Teachers and parents, fellow citizens, I ask you, stand back and admire a clause that so succinctly sums up our current educational process. The pursuit of happiness has become the right to happiness, however a student chooses to find it, certainly through high school, for the most part, right up until university, or graduate school, right up until some institution or workplace demands that student possess knowledge. This is folly, you may cry, and I have no arguments to refute you.
But let us turn from the state of schools today, to Bruckner’s closing statements. Again, he harps on intermittency, “pleasure dies when the piquancy of resistance evaporates and everything is attained immediately.” Though this sounds like one’s mother’s dating advice, haven’t you found it to be true in general? Anticipation is sweet. Life is promise, not program, as the author says. Tolerate ambiguity. Accept the mundane in a state of alertness. Be ready, but not impatient. In this way you will have a good life.
“The ‘secret’ of a good life is not to give a damn about happiness: never to seek it as such, to accept it without asking whether it is deserved … not to cling to it, not to regret its loss; to let it retain its fantastic character, which allows it to emerge in the middle of ordinary days or to slip away in grandiose situations.”
To treat happiness, then, as a revelation. Grasping for it, it will not arrive; trying to retain it, it will nonetheless depart.
I don’t dare use the word “happy” to describe how content, how elevated, how illuminated and expanded this book made me feel. Buy it. Borrow it. Read it in snatches at an independent bookstore. It will make you feel ha—, that is, harmonious.