Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Cult of Happiness

“We all carry within us our prisons.”

- Albert Camus

We haven’t been diligent about posting on our blog. It is not for want of material, that is for sure. We find bits of absurdity every day. And sometimes we think we could write something every day, a project of the kind pursued by what’s-her-name in Julia & Julia, when the protagonist sets out to make every recipe in Julia Child’s famous book.

Our daily venture would catalog and collate little snatches of absurdity encountered during a day… nuggets picked up on the radio or in a conversation with a colleague or in the pages of a book. Quotes, articles, anecdotes, episodes… a seeming endless stream of stuff.

Ah, but life intervenes, we suppose, and we fall back into the flux of daily events. Before we knew it, February was in the books and March had begun. My how time does fly when one is pushing one’s rock!

Posting to this blog is somewhat cathartic to us, though, even if no one ever read the words, or even if they should disappear forever soon after we wrote them. Writing is like that.

Graham Greene once wrote “Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human situation.” We agree that these means of expression can be therapeutic, but we don’t look to escape.

Escapism is not absurd. The absurd man accepts life as it is. Life is meaningless and nothing matters, as we like to say. Including, we should add, happiness.

The quest for happiness has become its own industry. We recently read an insightful essay on the topic by Pascal Bruckner, titled “Condemned to Joy.”

More than an industry, it has become a “new moral order.” As Bruckner writes, “We now find ourselves guilty of not being well, a failing for which we must answer to everyone and to our own consciences. Consider the poll, conducted by a French newspaper, in which 90 percent of people questioned reported being happy. Who would dare admit that he is sometimes miserable and expose himself to social opprobrium?”

This also extends to our obsession with health, as Bruckner points out. “Duration—holding on as long as possible—becomes an authoritative value, even if it must be achieved at the cost of terrible restrictions, depriving oneself of some of the best the world has to offer.”

So then we make ridiculous choices, like taking extraordinary steps to keep the aged alive, even when the mind is long gone and the quality of life poor – something none of us would choose for ourselves.

Alternatively, we might accept our lot as flawed, sometimes broken, sometimes miserable, sometimes thwarted, mortal agglomerations of chemicals going through pointless motions in a vast undefined space.

Acceptance… and, Bruckner advises, humility.

“What is needed is a renewed humility. We are not the masters of the sources of happiness; they ever elude the appointments we make with them, springing up when we least expect them and fleeing when we would hold them close. The excessive ambition to expunge all that is weak or broken in body or mind, to control moods and states of soul, sadness, chagrin, moments of emptiness—all this runs up against our finitude, against the inertia of the human species, which we cannot manipulate like some raw material.”

Indeed… The absurd man aims to accept life it is, like a golfer who plays his ball where it lies without complaint. There is no good or bad. Life just is. We accept it. We feel a sense of equanimity with our mysterious existence and we view our ceaseless striving with irony. As Thomas Nagel wrote, we are full of doubts we cannot answer and purposes we are unable to abandon. “In viewing ourselves from a perspective broader than we can occupy in the flesh, we become spectators of our own lives…”

Life is funny and strange and surprising and many other things besides. But above all, life is absurd. We are (paraphrasing again from Nagel) an unconvinced transcendent consciousness dragooned into the service of a limited and meaningless enterprise – a human life.

We find this view very refreshing. It lifts all burdens. It is freeing, like a bird who realizes suddenly that there never was a cage... Or the prisoner who realizes the only prison is the one in his head...

And so we go happily back to pushing that rock!


  1. I just love reading your blog. It gives me lots of courage and consolation in my everyday life. You have to compile a book based on your blog. I would be the first to buy it. I am not kidding you. Think about paper version of it! Looking forward to more of your absurd thoughts...

  2. I think this watch should be the official watch of this blog:

  3. Firstly, let me say this is a fantastic blog.

    "like taking extraordinary steps to keep the aged alive, even when the mind is long gone and the quality of life poor – something none of us would choose for ourselves."

    I would agree with most everything you say and all that this blog stands for; and I used to watch with chagrin as the rest of my family struggles to keep an ailing elderly parent alive. Yet, this recent article now gives me pause when it comes to taking care of the elderly.


  4. Thank you once again, Inigo.

    I love you.