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Surprise!

A French tarot card


I have a tendency to believe in chance over direct and linear divine intervention. Maybe they are different ways of talking about the same thing.

But just last night I was bemoaning to Bruce how we have ended up where we are socially and politically today, and how I can’t believe that we could arrive at this situation after the sixties, the seventies, and even the eighties and nineties. So much for progress (though I have to admit I was always suspicious of that idea). I wondered aloud if the 9/11 terrorists have, after all, succeeded in their goal in destroying any semblance of shared values in this country and of emboldening the devil of hate.

Bruce and I were talking about the letter sent by Governor Rick Scott to university officials all over the state of Florida requesting—no, demanding—certain “information” about various courses of study. On the surface, like so many things, it looks not unreasonable. But there are two things disturbing about it: first, most departments and other units at state universities have never had a budget or staff to collect this kind of extensive data, which Scott demanded in one month. More disturbing is the fact that Scott’s letter doesn’t just make it clear what he intends; rather, he has assumed that we will all fall in line with his intention, and the mission he intends to force is that of vocational training for our students. I have nothing against job-production, and higher education is key in that effort, but to define it as the main or only mission for universities is scary. And changing the game on faculty and administrators everywhere without even saying that’s what you are doing—just slipping it in—is downright imperialist.

Another one of my tendencies is to careen downhill like a snowball collecting snow. Last night, the horrors of being an educator in Florida these days picked up my more personal dissatisfactions with my work and employment situation. At one point I said to Bruce these exact words: “I never imagined my life would turn out like this.” (I know, big violin.)

In the wee hours of the morning, when my insomnia becomes the provider of quiet reading time, I was therefore extra delighted to find this passage in Pascal Bruckner’s Perpetual Euphoria, which I’m also delighted to still be reading. Unlike so many books about happiness that I read, and so many of the books published now in the U.S., it is actually taking me days and days to read instead of a few hours. It has substance and breadth. I thought I would wait to mention it again until I was finished, but this coincidence (or divine intervention—take your pick) was just too good to pass up.

And chance goes beyond the juxtaposition of last night’s conversation with this morning’s reading. I discovered this book by sheer chance, not by some plan of information-gathering related to the subject of this blog (though I have been doing that). No, I was working on another project, a proposed textbook, and was thinking about Paul Auster in relation to a discussion of memory and memoir. When I looked at my decades-old lesson plans about Auster, I found a quote from the introduction to The Invention of Solitude that I had copied out. It was by Pascal Bruckner, and I wondered who the heck he was since the name was unfamiliar and he’s definitely not one of the literary creative writing insiders in the U.S. So I looked him up, and as chance has it, his book on happiness was just translated and published in English earlier this year. That’s what we call serendipity.

Lost illusions: since the Romantic period, they have been frequently contrasted with the heroic dreams of youth. Life is supposed to follow an inevitable itinerary from hope to disenchantment, a perpetual entropy. However, it is possible to oppose to this commonplace of dashed hopes another model: that of the blessed surprise, illusions rediscovered. The world of dreams, contrary to what is usually said, is poor and mean, whereas reality, as soon as we begin to explore it, virtually suffocates us with its abundance and diversity. “I call spiritual intoxication,” said Ruysbroek, a Flemish mystic of the Renaissance, “the state in which pleasure transcends the possibilities desire had envisaged.” To the principle of anteriority, which judges life in relation to a program, we must oppose the principle of exteriority: the world infinitely surpasses my ideas and expectations, and we have to get beyond them to begin loving it. It is not the world that is disappointing, it is the chimeras that shackle our minds. Answered prayers are dreary: there is something very profound in the wisdom that warns us never to find what we are seeking. “Preserve me from what I want,” keep me from living in the Golden Age, the garden of wishes fulfilled.

There is nothing sadder than a future that resembles what we had imagined. We are disappointed when our wishes coincide with what we are experiencing, whereas it is especially moving to see our expectations diverted by particular incidents. (The literature of happiness is usually a disabused literature: hopes have either been betrayed or, more disturbingly, fulfilled, and desire satisfied, that is, killed.) Pleasure arises more from a project repeatedly thwarted and turned in a different direction than from a realized desire. While boredom is always associated with equilibrium, joyous overflow occurs when the imagination has to yield to the greater marvels of the real: “I had to choose between the hammer and the bell; what I remember now is mainly the sound they made” (Victor Segalen). Every inspiring life is both an achievement and a defeat, that is, a marvelous disappointment when what happens is not what one desired, and one becomes sensitive to everything that makes life opulent, fervent, and captious. The defeat of an illusion always opens the door to miracles.

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