gall and gumption

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Would You Call It Happiness?

Via email from Max, this note. Of course he’s completely right to be puzzled by what I said. Ignore all the pro-Kia bias, of course...

Dear Kia,
I tried to send a comment, but God knows where it went. Your piece about Marvin Mudrick is terrific, I think--I should say "your piece about book reviewing" but of course I love reading what you say about
M. It puzzles me, though, in one place, and I'm hoping you'll say a little more. I'm taken aback when you say, with great emphasis, that M was a happy man. If you were to say that Boswell was happy, or Johnson, I'd have the same reaction. I think you wouldn't say that, I think you'd agree that both of them were constantly fending off a kind of bleakness which always came back. As Boswell puts it, this lowness of spirits was the ground of his mind.
It seems to me so clear that MM was like this too (he often said so himself, as you must remember), that I'm puzzled when you say what you do. The truth is probably that I just don't quite understand how you're using the word happy or just what you have in mind. Therefore, I repeat, I wish you'd say a little more.
Anyway, many thanks. Among the many things I'm grateful to M for, what gives me the most pleasure these days is remembering some of the thousands of time he made me laugh. Only, I wish I could remember better! People are, in other people's memories, such pale shadows of themselves.

So what did I mean?

I once told him that I often felt that the ground under me was like the crust of a volcano, and I walked in fear that it would give way any minute. He told me he experienced a very similar feeling, and the only way he had learned to cope with it was to get everything done: pay the bills as soon as they arrived, meet deadlines, get all the administrative work done by 11 a.m. Which, as you know, he did. He made it clear that doing these things would not cure this disposition to melancholy. He said something like, “At least I won’t have to worry about that.” Well the end result of that way of coping was that he was the most-published scholar in the department, while teaching six courses a year, and he had a college to run, and he did all of that and had lots of available time to spend talking with students. And he never went around complaining about how tired he was. And occasionally I think he recognized that as far as his work went, as far as being a literature major went, he had been very lucky in getting to do exactly what he wanted to do. But that is a sort of intermittent satisfaction you can get looking back down the road you’ve walked, but it’s not the same as what one feels about one’s own existence. And I should have made that clearer.

But there’s something else that is harder to get at, and I think it relates to him, and to Boswell and Johnson and it’s part of what made him feel such an affinity and love for them. My favorite of Blake’s proverbs is in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Actually it might be my favorite proverb of all: “Energy is eternal delight.”
MM had energy in this sense. And so did Boswell, and so did Johnson. It had nothing to do with being cheerful or happy-go-lucky or thinking positive thoughts and never having negative ones. It was just energy and it was large and mysterious and more than their personalities.

I love that Boswell expression. I think you can have energy and feel that lowness of spirits is the ground of your mind. And yet, while you believe this, you are breaking out, you are revealing the activity of this energy. There’s Johnson feeling low, and he’s in a conversation somewhere, and somebody says something and he fires back blam! He’s totally present, like (to put it in a rather crude metaphor) like a dog that suddenly wakes straight up out of sleep and runs across the yard barking. Fully awake. I’m aware when I read Boswell of this energy; Johnson has it too. And so did MM. I could call it the life force, I guess. He would have called it vitality and then spent 20 minutes trying to explain why he didn’t mean mere physical vitality but something that was also related to consciousness, then he would have given up without having explained it to his own satisfaction. He would never have used an expression like “the life force.” Come to think of it neither would you, Max. It is a sort of inwardly generated exuberance that somehow leaves no emotional trace or thread that you can pick up and continue with once the mood has passed. Not really the basis for a philosophical happiness. But it is energy that delights in itself and in its own expression. Solving problems doesn’t bring it into being, unless it takes an interest in the activity, and it doesn’t apparently solve anything, not even anything related to itself. It exists for its own sake. And it can exist, as it did in Boswell and Johnson, in people who experience a large part of life as the avoidance of wretchedness.

Well, this is what I've got. If anyone else wants to take a whack at this, please do.


At 11:59 AM, Blogger L7 said...

I don't think anyone could put it better. Thank you for this and for the earlier post.
And--maybe part of what you are talking about must be the willingness to be happy and experience delight?

At 8:52 AM, Blogger buckner said...

I too was going to say before that one of my strongest memories of Mudrick is how funny he was. He often used to have the class roaring with laughter. I'm not sure I've ever known anyone who has "happy" as a character trait. I think such a person would mostly be annoying. (I remember Mudrick sneering at the character Ruth Gordon plays, for example, in Harold and Maude.) But, happy or not, he certainly could be fun.

At 9:32 AM, Blogger buckner said...

He was also disgusted with Tom Hulse in Amadeus playing Mozart as a "giggling idiot".

At 10:15 AM, Blogger buckner said...

One more thing: I remember an extended discussion in the Johnson/Boswell class about personal happiness being something you only recognize in retrospect. None of us are "happy" in the present.

At 12:36 PM, Blogger Kia said...

L7 I think you'd have to explain the willingness idea a little.

Buckner I was thinking too about all the laughter in his classes, and I think that illustrated for me the energy I mean. I feel sure he was enjoying himself, but you know, I can remember teaching roaringly funny classes myself and then going home right afterwards and curling up in bed and feeling doomed. I don't think energy has a cause.
And remember that guy in The Life of Johnson, the old school friend of Johnson's who B and J meet by accident, and he's very nice and he hangs out with them and after listening to them for a while he says "I tried to be a philosopher but cheerfulness was always breaking in." And Mudrick loved that statement, but he also understood why this was unsatisfactory somehow.

At 3:03 PM, Blogger L7 said...

As opposed to keeping depression like a spoiled pekingnese. It just seems like there's a difference between being sad or melancholy--whether from circumstances or temperament--and being an unhappy person.

(Still, I think Buckner's right, that "happy" as a character trait in that way would be annoying and also seems naive or fake.)

At 5:23 PM, Blogger Kia said...

L7, there's another passage in the Life of Johnson where Boswell tells Johnson about trying to think his way out of one of his bouts of depression. And Johnson says, no, no, don't try to think your way out of it. Trying to do that usually makes it worse. You really can't will your way out of the kind of thing they are talking about. I don't know if you ever read William Styron's account of his own depression (very short book) called "Darkness Visible." As it opens he's just sitting at a dinner table with friends, every material circumstance in life is pretty good, and yet despite all of that he is sinking into a paralytic state of terror and he can't think or will himself out of it. This is what Boswell and Johnson were afraid of. And they really couldn't think of a good reason why you shouldn't feel this way; you were full of sin, you were vain, weak, an idiot, you were going to die and probably go to hell, given everything you knew about yourself -- and that's just for starters. What works is distraction and diversion. It's what made Johnson so sociable. Horror waited at home. I see a great truthfulness in it myself, a total incapacity for self-deceit among other things. And you know this great moral energy (because that is really what it was, I believe)got a chance to express itself in the world. Hence Johnson's conversation. And hence Boswell's ability to ask any question, his candor. Whatever moments of happiness they achieved had to overcome that melancholy in a conscious and intellectually persuasive way. Hence the hunger and energy of their critical drive, their need to judge rightly, the way they ate up experience.

I'm back to where we began. I think Max is right, that these things were true of MM as well, so why did I say he was happy?

At 5:35 PM, Blogger Kia said...

As opposed to keeping depression like a spoiled pekingnese.

I think, on further reflection, that this is self-pity. Just as incapacitating but different, yes. I mean, the spoiled Pekingese kind of wants you to come over and try to take the biscuit, just so he can give you the nip he believes you richly deserve.

At 8:21 PM, Anonymous buckner said...

Well, shoot.... although I often worry about my future, and sometimes experience anxiety, emptiness, and depression, I never experience paralytic terror. I feel so shallow!

At 11:17 PM, Blogger Kia said...

Hmph. Well you know buckner I have on occasion suspected you of latent hopefulness.

At 10:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think of MM as a joyful man, which is not at all the same thing as a happy man. I wish I could remember more, but I remember how he rejected "thoughts" in favor of "thinking": in some way that was a bit of manipulative word-play -- not fun if you're trying to think, and have your struggles dismissed as "thoughts" -- but it was a way to keep pushing. And recently I remembered one of his jokes, a little grammar thing about "lie" vs. "lay" which was something like "if you say you will lay on the bed, be sure you are laid." A more attentive student can correct the actual line. Point is, he took joy in things, small and large: he was willing to be happy. And that's what he tried to teach.
BTW Kia, thank you for the long-ago-now Howling Wolf clip.

At 10:25 AM, Anonymous buckner said...

If you lay on a bed, make sure you're getting laid?

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