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...
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.