In this essay, Mark McConaghy asks the question: what is happiness in this day and age of bourgeois normalcy? Is being happy possible? And should it be considered the very point of existence itself?
The new semester is upon us and the old familiar rhythms have returned. For those readers of ours who have worked in an academic setting, they will know what I am referring to. Where academic departments during the summer can seem like such lonely places, with professors and students scattered across the world, once the month of September rolls around the quiet hallways and empty classrooms fill up once again.
Here in Canada, September is not a particular warm month of the year, despite its classification as being part of late summer. Indeed, it’s incredible how quickly humid summer changes into the grey-sharp days of autumn. A crispness greets us every morning on our walk to work. Fresh-faced undergraduates mill about in front of offices, replete with bold questions of moral and historical complexity…or maybe they’re just around to ask about enrollment procedures.
Either way, our days are filled with class planning, office hours, itinerant conversations in hallways. If we are lucky, we may get three or four hours a day for our own research, where we are greeted with the bewitching coldness of documents from the past. These scraps of paper cannot speak on their own- we are here to interpret and translate them, to guide them back into the light of the contemporary day, back from a historical oblivion few people care to recognize.
The past is not just what we know happened way back when. It is also what we are utterly blind to, those voices of a prior time that have been completely forgotten, titans in their day, but now nothing but names on the spines of books locked deep in the recesses of libraries that few people care to enter. When those names are in Chinese and Japanese, and their writings incomprehensible to English-reading audiences, our job of translation and rescue is even more immense.
So this is what late September in the academic world is like. The fresh-faced enthusiasm of the young students, so full of hope and ambition, so unaware of the inevitable disappointments they will endure by simple virtue of growing up. And the pressure of our own scholarly pursuits all around us- those anxieties over intellectual direction, political value, and personal contribution that stalk us ever so forcefully.
September, then, is a time of transition. Because of this seems like an opportune moment to reflect on a word we have not often used on this website, but one that probably deserves much more critical attention that scholars have previously given it: happiness.
What does it mean to be happy? How do we know when we are happy? Have we become so enwrapped in the pressure to gain material wealth, social stability, and professional identity that we have forgotten entirely how it feels to be happy? And is this the goal of life itself- to simply be happy?
The irony of most contemporary societies, be they found in Toronto or Beijing or London, is that we live in a world in which “happiness” is the catch-all word to define the purpose of life itself. From credit card companies trying to sell us visions of a life of endless material splendor, to pop music videos which present utopic visions of youthful freedom, to educational curricula that encourages each and every student to find their inner self and pursue the passion that comes innately to them, “happiness” we are told is the entire point of being on this earth.
Often, such “happiness” is defined, subtly or not, via material wealth and social prestige. The good life we are told to imagine is one where the mortgage is payed off, the kids successfully in university, grandkids are on the way, with the cottage beckoning us for lush summer months spent in idyll reverie. While the Chinese nuclear family in Beijing may never be able to buy the cottage, their vision of retirement looks surprisingly similar: money, apartment, a prestigious position in the social order, with industrious and productive offspring.
This status-oriented vision of happiness is no doubt a dominant one in many societies across the globe. While people can make small changes here or there to it- maybe you don’t want kids, or maybe instead of the second home you invest in plenty of travel- its basic contours are by and large set. This is a vision of happiness that is not incompatible with a commitment beyond self and family- certainly as you pursue bourgeois normalcy you are encouraged to volunteer at charity organizations, get involved in one or another political party, and make your community a better place. You can be concerned about your fellow man, or the polis as a whole, and still work hard for your own welfare. The private and the public, the self and the Other, need not be in constant opposition.
Grounding this vision of bourgeois happiness is a basic conception of the human being as a complex soul, one with innate drives and passions, who through study and experiment will come to know what makes him or her happiest. There is an inner-self, a true self, that longs to be expressed, which becomes a critical part of the journey to self-realization. We are thus happiest when our labor matches our desire for self expression. As such, we are often told, “you gotta love what you do…” or “you have to pursue your passion…”
If our inner self is interested in painting and art, we are told to study those in college; if the seamless flow of international derivatives markets catches our fancy, and we want to make a ton of money, then our inner-self will be expressed by endless analysis of flow-charts and financial models on Bay Street.
The point is that whatever avenue we go down, we are expected to know, internally and innately, what will make us happy. And it is the pursuit of this happiness that is the great drama of our lives.
There are, of course, radically different ways of conceptualizing happiness. In Maoist China, submission to the cause of collective material revolution, and the submergence of individual concern to the larger missions of building a modern socialist nation, was the basic framework in which happiness was conceived. Likewise, in theocratic societies both past and present, it is submission to the will of God, and the strictures of the Church that represents God on earth, that is the righteous path. In such societies, individual happiness cannot be thought of without service to a non-physical God whose ultimate love for you will be expressed on the moment of death.
Happiness, then, is historically determined, as everything else is, its definition changing according to the particularities of the historical moment you happen to find yourself in. And yet in this age of globalized capitalism, where the commodity form has pressed the secular, bourgeois definition of happiness to unprecedented levels of global reach, it seems impossible to think of happiness without some notion of individual actualization being imbedded in the concept: “Be Yourself” “Express Yourself” “Define Yourself!”
And let me be very clear: given the tremendous social, cultural, and physical violence that the preceding centuries of our history have witnessed, a language of authentic individualism is an incredibly progressive step forward. It would be impossible for us to produce a list of all the forms of violence our human history has witnessed, from the enslavement of subaltern bodies to the moral abomination of the gas chambers to napalming of naked villagers by military empires who dominate the sky. The images of human atrocity that have been seared on our collective consciousness- from the mangled bodies of Auschwitz to the gun-ridden anonymity of urban-city decay- is more than we can bare.
A world in which individuals respect each others delicate personalities, in which we care for one another at all times, in which our vulnerabilities are not a source of division but a source of strength, and in which we are encouraged to mine our own inner-worlds for the key to what makes us happiest…this is a humanistic dream that is still incredibly powerful. For such an understanding of the human individual will have to, if it is to be realized, lead to a discussion of individual rights, democratic representation, and a flexible responsiveness of power. That is to say, it will force upon us the necessity for democracy as an institutional value, which to this day remains the basic political struggle in so many societies in our time.
Yet if we understand the absolutely progressive nature of defining happiness in terms of individual self-actualization, there still remains the question: in societies in which we are lucky to have a requisite amount of material stability, educational opportunity, and political freedom, why does there remain so much lingering unhappiness? Why are so many of us haunted by the specters of what could have been, of what did not happen, of the avenues in life we did not pursue? Why is their a general resignation, a kind of zero-level depressivness, that defines bourgeois existence as such?
This, to me, is the fundamental question that Jonathan Franzen’s epoch-defining novel Freedom revolves around: once a society reaches a modicum level of social and political development, when we are not fighting for sheer brute material survival, why is it that we are still plagued by feelings of utter inadequacy? Why are we existentially wracked by the sense of having failed to make good use of the tremendous historic gifts we were giving?
It was this sense of utter inadequacy, this existential exhaustion, that defined modernity as an historical epoch for the great 20th century philosopher Georg Lukacs. He could only look back upon prior epochs with nostalgic reverence for the ontological plentitude they held. As Lukacs famously put it, at the start of his pathbreaking 1915 work The Theory of the Novel:
Happy are those ages when the starry sky is the map of all possible paths- ages whose paths are illuminated by the light of the stars. Everything in such ages is new and yet familiar, full of adventure and yet their own. The world is wide and yet it is like a home, for the fire that burns in the soul is of the same essential nature as the stars; the world and the self, the light and the fire, are sharply distinct, yet they never become permanent strangers to one another, for fire is the soul of all light and all fire clothes itself in light…”Philosophy is really homsickness, says Novalis: “it is the urge to be at home everywhere.”
That is why philosophy, as a form of life or as that which determines the form and supplies the content of literary creation, is always a symptom of the rift between “inside” and “outside,” a sign of the essential difference between the self and the world, the incongruence of soul and deed. That is why the happy ages have no philosophy, or why (it comes to the same thing) all men in such ages are philosophers, sharing the utopian aim of every philosophy. For what is the task of true philosophy if not to draw that archetypal map?
We are today without an archetypal map, the world and the self having become permanent strangers to one another. For the world could not seem more callous and insensitive to our own tiny individual fates, caring not a lick that we once had dreams of a better life. The world consistently reveals itself to us not as a place of comfortable acceptance, but a place of profound division, a non-home of constant struggle. Everyday we are bombarded with news of the latest senseless rounds of innocent death, the most recent military intervention from the great empires of the world. Enter the job market and you will come to realize that class connections are alive and well in the world, critical components for gaining the social stability and prestige so many of us seek. This is a world defined by vast material wealth that remains barred off from the majority of us, unevenly distributed in pockets of largesse and poverty that makes strangers of us all.
As such, the most sensitive of us long for a utopia we do not have the language to express. In fact, we scarcely have the ontological capacity to imagine it anymore. We are wracked by a profound homesickness for a birth place we never knew- a shadow-home we sense but cannot articulate. For surely there must be a better place than this world where we collide and fight with everyone, where life is one dogged struggle of Will, where there is no collective project we can believe in (not God, not Nation, and perhaps not even self, which remains the most illusive multiplicity of all).
While we seem to have solved the problem of sheer material survival, we are existentially impoverished to an unprecedented degree. The materialist in me must insist, of course, that for many people around the world, and even within Canadian society, they have not overcome the challenge of brute material survival in an ultra-competitive capitalist world. When you are working two jobs a week simply to pay rent, one you have huge student debts you were forced to take on simply to get a bachelor’s degree, it certainly does not seem as if the question of sheer material survival has been solved.
Even recognizing the hardship that people live within today, the question still remains: if happiness is ultimately a matter of finding our true-selves, then why is it that authentic individual so illusive to find, even if we have the material means and social stability to pursue it?
Is is simply a question that economic necessity forces us into jobs that we dislike, thwarting our ability to pursue our inner selves? Or is that, even given all the opportunities in the world to capture who we truly are, that authentic self is just a mirage, becoming ever more elusive the closer we get to it, exploding on impact the moment we try to reach out and grasp it?
These are difficult questions, ones that can easily lead us into metaphysical discussions concerning the nature of being. I have tried here to keep these discussions firmly with an historical perspective, which provides us context, but still does not help us answer the question- how to be happy in the age of bourgeois modernity? As I’ve indicated above, I’m generally sympathetic to that bourgeois vision, even if I recognize that it can (if not critically understood) lead to an incredibly reactionary politics.
We will return to this problem of happiness many times in the next couple of months on this blog. I would simply end this round of engagement with the issue by looking at one particularly affecting film whose themes relate to much of what I’ve discussed above.
If any of our readers has the opportunity, I would encourage them to check out director Joe Maggio’s The Last Rites of Joe May. It’s a gritty portrait of a lifelong hustler from Chicago, played in a tour-de-force performance by the late great Dennis Farina. Joe May is the type of guy we rarely see in movies about the Mafia- far from the Don, far even from the upper-echelon of made men. He is a bottom feeder, a short money scam artist who bounces around from scheme to scheme, with delusions of wise-guy grandeur. But he never possessed enough brute intimidation or intelligence to really break into the criminal economy in a significant way. So Joe is the type of guy who has spent his whole life mimicking the wise-guy, complete with buffed leather shoes and a pocket roll of cash, without ever really gaining respect in the underworld.
From the quiet ferocity of Farina’s performance we can wholly appreciate what kind of guy Joe May is and the long history of small-time criminality that has sustained his self-mythology. From Joe’s weathered face, his resigned sighs, his drinking lounge courage, we know it all. Joe has alienated all those who were ever close to him: he has a grown son that won’t talk to him, and is subtly pitied by former street-friends who have long since retired. Up and coming gangsters look at him as a cautionary tale- when you stay in the game too long without putting anything away, when you don’t even have the brains or the savvy to fully establish yourself in the life, this is what you become: a pathetic victim of self-delusion.
So what does Joe May have at the end of his life? A tiny railway apartment devoid of love; the daily trip to the local watering hole, a shot and a beer; listless bus rides to nowhere.
He is a forgotten man, an absent presence.
If The Last Rites of Joe May teaches us anything, it is that we cannot lead lives that will leave us alone and unloved at the end of our time on this earth. Regardless of how difficult human connection ultimately is to sustain, we must do so, as an ethical act that will ensure our own sense of place in the world- particularly given what a brutal, existentially aimless, socially fractured modern world we live in.
I will not piously declare that we need all get married, that we need all have kids, that we need all show the staid formalism of Confucian or Christian piety to our elders. But we need to foster human connection- we need to invest in others as they invest in us, regardless of what forms those investments take. For it is only through such actions that we will avoid what, to my mind, would be the worst fate a bourgeois subject could imagine: to be, like Joe May, utterly alone, with nothing but old Opera records and the quiet desolation of an empty apartment at the end of our time.
With the shadow of death hanging over us, in the sombre stillness of that night, we see that it is not the amplification of the self, the discovery of its true essence, that leads to happiness. It is the sacrifice of the self, the deep burying of our selves in others, that alone can ensure we escape the fate of Joe May.
We need not be existentially homeless. But that homelessness cannot be fought off via wealth and social prestige. It cannot be bought back via awards, tenureship, or a social Will to power. It can only be beaten back by sacrificing the one thing we think is crucial to our happiness: our very self.
Thus, we arrive at the most profound paradox of happiness in our day and age: the death of the self is the only true path to its revelation. We all need to die once, so we can ensure we need never die alone.
Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at the University of Toronto. He studies political economy, aesthetics, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century. An avid cinephile, he also reviews films for the Toronto Review of Books.
Note: The visuals used in the following post include paintings by Ricky Romain, which can be found at http://www.triarchypress.com/Ricky_Romain/pages/gallery.php
Other visuals used can be found at the following websites: