Chekhov on Happiness

I have just finished a collection of short stories by Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) entitled The Wife and Other Stories which has been, by far, the best book I have read so far this year. Even though her translations are being increasingly considered as clunky and slightly archaic, I really enjoyed Constance Garnett. The following discussion on happiness vs. unhappiness is from a story entitled “Gooseberries.”

I saw a happy man whose cherished dream was so obviously fulfilled, who had attained his object in life, who had gained what he wanted, who was satisfied with his fate and himself. There is always, for some reason, an element of sadness mingled with my thoughts of human happiness, and, on this occasion, at the sight of a happy man I was overcome by an oppressive feeling that was close upon despair. It was particularly oppressive at night. A bed was made up for me in the room next to my brother’s bedroom, and I could hear that he was awake, and that he kept getting up and going to the plate of gooseberries and taking one. I reflected how many satisfied, happy people there really are! What a suffocating force it is! You look at life: the insolence and idleness of the strong, the ignorance and brutishness of the weak, incredible poverty all about us, overcrowding, degeneration, drunkenness, hypocrisy, lying…. Yet all is calm and stillness in the houses and in the streets; of the fifty thousand living in a town, there is not one who would cry out, who would give vent to his indignation aloud. We see the people going to market for provisions, eating by day, sleeping by night, talking their silly nonsense, getting married, growing old, serenely escorting their dead to the cemetery; but we do not see and we do not hear those who suffer, and what is terrible in life goes on somewhere behind the scenes…. Everything is quiet and peaceful, and nothing protests but mute statistics: so many people gone out of their minds, so many gallons of vodka drunk, so many children dead from malnutrition…. And this order of things is evidently necessary; evidently the happy man only feels at ease because the unhappy bear their burdens in silence, and without that silence happiness would be impossible. It’s a case of general hypnotism. There ought to be behind the door of every happy, contented man some one standing with a hammer continually reminding him with a tap that there are unhappy people; that however happy he may be, life will show him her laws sooner or later, trouble will come for him—disease, poverty, losses, and no one will see or hear, just as now he neither sees nor hears others. But there is no man with a hammer; the happy man lives at his ease, and trivial daily cares faintly agitate him like the wind in the aspen-tree—and all goes well.

Glory Days

There are many possible pathways through a life. For many, the high point of their lives came early, in high school or college. As they settled down into family life, they rarely ever cracked a book or veered in a different direction. When one talks to them, most of their talk is of their glory days—and their present lives are a long comedown.

Although I was a high school valedictorian who was accepted for a four-year scholarship at an Ivy League college, I never felt I had any real laurels upon which to rest. The first seven years of my life were spent in a Hungarian household, where the Magyar language was the only one spoken. This gave me a slightly different outlook from most others. As I learned English and began to see myself as an American, I also saw myself as something of a hyphenated American who had his feet in two cultures.

During my high school and college years, I was walking around with a pituitary tumor that gave me severe headaches as it pressed against the optic nerve. So my glory days of youth were spent mostly in pain. When I was successfully operated on after I graduated in 1966, I looked like an 11-year-old rather than a college graduate. You can imagine how that affected my self-image.

In the intervening years I had two careers: first, as a computer programmer and director of marketing for a demographic data supplier, and then as a computer specialist and office manager for two tax accounting firms. In both professions, I saw myself as a mercenary who was actually after different game.

Now that I am retired, I am coming into my own as a writer here on this WordPress site. Oh, I am no “influencer.” I have no intention of getting you to buy crap, or anything else. If I am selling anything, it is my thoughts and feelings as a human being living in difficult times. I feel good and am considerably happier than I was during my youth.

It looks as if I am now living through my glory days.

A Cheerful Heart

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) was probably the most influential musical genius of his time. He befriended the younger Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)—and outlived him. He also tutored Ludwig van Beethoven (1779-1827). He is considered the Father of the Symphony as well as the Father of the String Quartet.

For much of his incredibly productive career, Haydn was the court musician of the Eszterházy family in Hungary. He composed in all 104 symphonies and 68 string quartets. Today, as I drove to do some grocery shopping, I listened to one of his early symphonies on KUSC-FM and thought to myself that here was an artist who could genuinely not only feel joy but convey it to his listeners. But then, it was Haydn who said, “Since God has given me a cheerful heart, He will forgive me for serving Him cheerfully,”

Some day I would love to get CDs of all of his symphonies: In their totality, they represent one of the most concentrated collections of artistic happiness in the history of the world. If you are feeling down some day, try listening to his work; and you will see what I mean.

Does Anyone Want To Be Unhappy?

Well, Now, That’s Hardly a Surprise

Happiness is a very fickle thing. At one time or another, we all think that it can be secured and held on to and never let go. Perhaps we associate it in our minds with wealth, or finding (and retaining) the ideal spouse or significant other.

But then I always think of one of our former millionaire accounting clients who entered into a deal from which he expected to lose his fortune. So he blew his brains out. After the funeral, it was discovered that the deal far from depleting his fortune added considerably to it. It helped pay for a first class funeral.

In Buddhism, there is something called the Four Noble Truths, expressed by Gautama Buddha as follows:

Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering.

Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving [taṇhā, “thirst”] which leads to re-becoming, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there; that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for becoming, craving for disbecoming.

Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering: it is the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, non-reliance on it.

Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering.

The term “bhikkhus” refers to the Buddhist monks to whom this teaching was addressed.

Essentially, desires and cravings lead to suffering. Happiness is something that just happens and is not necessarily linked to our desires. But it is almost always transitory. In my life, I am sure I have been happy for minutes at a time in my 75+ years of existence.

So I hope that Sharon Stone appreciates what happiness passes her way.

The Happiness Trap

Ernest Hemingway Poses with a Water Buffalo in Africa, 1953-1954

Having just read Ernest Hemingway’s The Green Hills of Africa, I begin to understand why he shot himself in 1961. I had not read any Hemingway for over thirty years, and I realize now there was a reason for this. There was Papa H in Africa, frequently asserting how he loved the place and the people. Yet he is envious of another member of his hunting party, Karl, who is more successful in grabbing the big trophies. Even when he kills a kudu, which he has been trying to do for the whole length of the book, he has this dialog with Pop, the leader of the group, conscious that Karl has bagged a bigger kudu:

“We have very primitive emotions,” [Pop] said. “It’s impossible not to be competitive. Spoils everything, though.”

“I’m all through with that,” said. “I’m all right again. I had quite a trip, you know.”

The only problem is that I didn’t believe him. Again and again, Hemingway is hyper-conscious of competing, of looking good in the eyes of his fellow hunters and his native assistants. He talks about Droopy, a native tracker:

M’Cola [another tracker] was not jealous of Droopy. He simply knew that Droop was a better man than he was. more of a hunter, a faster and cleaner tracker, and a great stylist in everything he did.

At another point, Papa talks of his “wanting to make a shot to impress Droopy.”

Hemingway, too, was a great stylist—in his own way. The prose of The Green Hills of Africa at times rises to the level of poetry. In this, he falls victim to the happiness trap, of always wanting to be happy, of always overcoming hurdles and progressing from one triumph to another. But life is not like that. One must appreciate the little things, to behave prayerfully and thankfully when he has taken the life of some splendid game, to grab at the moments of happiness that are fleeting and resolve to slog manfully through all the merde with which a life is interlarded.

 

 

Martial 10.47

Roman Poet Marcus Valerius Martialis

Roman Poet Marcus Valerius Martialis (Martial)

I haven’t quoted any poetry from Laudator Temporis Acti for altogether too long a period of time. The following is a recent translation by James Michie (1927-2007) of Martial 10.47 on the subject of happiness:

Of what does the happy life consist,
My dear friend Julius? Here’s a list:
Inherited wealth, no need to earn,
Fires that continually burn,
And fields that give a fair return,
No lawsuits, formal togas worn
Seldom, a calm mind, the freeborn
Gentleman’s health and good physique,
Tact with the readiness to speak
Openly, friends of your own mind,
Guests of an easy-going kind,
Plain food, a table simply set,
Nights sober but wine-freed from fret,
A wife who’s true to you and yet
No prude in bed, and sleep so sound
It makes the dawn come quickly round.
Be pleased with what you are, keep hope
Within that self-appointed scope;
Neither uneasily apprehend
Nor morbidly desire the end.

Happiness vs. Contentment

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Happiness is a lasting state which does not seem to be made for man in this world. Everything here on earth is in a continual flux which allows nothing to assume any constant form. All things change round about us, we ourselves change, and no one can be sure of loving tomorrow what he loves today. All our plans of happiness in this life are therefore empty dreams. Let us make the most of peace of mind when it comes to us, taking care to do nothing to drive it away, but not making plans to hold it fast, since such plans are sheer folly. I have seen few if any happy people, but I have seen many who were contented, and of all the sights that have come my way this is the one that has left me the most contented myself. I think this is a natural consequence of the influence of my sensations on my inward feelings. Happiness cannot be detected by any outward sign and to recognize it one would need to be able to read in the happy person’s heart, but contentment is visible in the eyes, the bearing, the voice and the walk, and it seems to communicate itself to the onlooker. Is there any satisfaction more sweet than to see a whole people devoting themselves to joy on some feast-day and all their hearts expanding in the supreme rays of pleasure which sign briefly but intensely through the clouds of life?—Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Reveries of the Solitary Walker, “Ninth Walk”

“All Here Are the Same”

Human beings by nature want happiness and do not want suffering. With that feeling everyone tries to achieve happiness and tries to get rid of suffering, and everyone has the basic right to do this. In this way, we all here are the same, whether rich or poor, educated or uneducated, Easterner or Westerner, believer or non-believer, and within believers whether Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and so on. Basically, from the viewpoint of real human value we are all the same.—The Dalai Lama, “Kindness, Clarity, and Insight”