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The Will to Happiness is Contra-indicated

Dear Readers,

In my continuing attempt to try new things, I present to you today a guest blog post. A while back, my friend and colleague John King (also one of my most faithful readers and commentators on the blog) emailed me separately a longer series of thoughts he’d had in response to one of my posts. Casually, I said that I should make him a guest blogger, and, lo and behold, he then sent me this erudite little essay.

Don’t worry. I’m not abandoning my responsibilities. The discipline has been too good for me. But I’m hoping to post maybe one guest blog a month to bring more variety to the contemplations here. So here’s to a spirit of experimentation. Let me know what you think.


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The Will to Happiness is Contra-indicated

by John King

I am not certain that, as an ad for The Secret proclaims, Shakespeare actually knew “the Secret,” but I am quite sure P. T. Barnum knew the secret behind “the Secret.”

“Smile and the world is yours,” Henry Miller writes in Black Spring. “Smile through the death rattle—it makes it easier for those you leave behind. Smile, damn you! The smile that never comes off!

The Will to Happiness, a.k.a. Positivism, is a willful disengagement with the real world, a form of denial, of censorship. This is precisely the sort of thinking that led the Bush administration to scoff at “the reality-based community” as it planned its war in Iraq. Death toll of the Iraq War: 162,000. This fact would be shameful, if reality is a meaningful entity. But the mainstream media machine, including the mainstream punditry, has never reported the actual death-toll, treating this essential statistic like a psychological tar baby.

This is an affirmation of the unexamined life.

Phobias about negativity, about depression, bad news, agita, and strife, are based on a fear of psychic vampirism, that others will drain you of your vitality, your confidence, your mental health. Schopenhauer believed that the boundaries between others and ourselves is illusory, and in moments of moral clarity, heroes see how contiguous we are with humanity, and behave accordingly. But it takes a profoundly strong person to acknowledge this truth, and there is not always something such a person can do to help others, relieve them of certain brutalities and cruelties of existence.

“Can the world be as sad as it seems?” asks the narrator of Throbbing Gristle’s “The Old Man Smiled.” Marlow loses his mind and his humanity when he sees enslaved Africans in Heart of Darkness. His racism and inability to cope with his experiences begins there and then.

The world of business is systematically skewed towards simplicity and optimism in its communication. According to Kitty O. Locker’s Business and Administrative Communication, business writing should exhibit something called “you-attitude,” a focus only on the immediate concerns of the recipient of a message, without burdening the recipient with any of the sender’s extraneous concerns. And all messages should also feature positive emphasis, whenever possible. On The Simpsons, Mr. Burns re-labels a nuclear meltdown at his power plant as an “un-requested fission surplus.”

The opposite of the Will to Happiness, what we might call Romantic melancholia, is of course also ridiculously out of touch with reality. Shakespeare mocked that self-indulgent impulse in 1602, in Twelfth Night, in the character of Count Orsino, who pleads “If music be the food of love, play on; give me excess of it, that, surfeiting, the appetite may sicken, and so die.” (This is, incidentally, more or less how I feel when I hear nearly anything by Abba.) Unfortunately, unlike Shakespeare, Goethe wasn’t kidding about the Romantic sorrows of young Werther, and today’s goth kids lack the sense not to stew in their own weltschmerz as an actual lifestyle choice.

According to the early twentieth century philosopher Henri Bergson, the most primal laughter is a manifestation of the incongruous knowledge that our minds exist in something like a pure mode of being, godlike, but our minds are, nonetheless, attached to a body that is destined to fail, to decay, to die. This is the foundation of Samuel Beckett’s entire literary and dramatic career. This is the foundation, too, of the mythos of Beckett’s beloved idol, Buster Keaton: the expressive consciousness of his face, juxtaposed with the improbable feats of his body as he strives to contend with the gross, sublime physicality of the world. This philosophy is also the core of the dark, ranting comedy apparatus of Denis Leary’s No Cure for Cancer.

I often find myself drawn to the honesty of cartoons, a genre in which the content is considered culturally debased, and so can afford more satirical gravity than what supposed grown-ups watch. (An inexpensive observation: The Simpsons offers profoundly more reality than Undercover Boss.)

No cartoon I know of has more to say about this subject than that 1990s counter-culture classic, Ren and Stimpy, in particular an episode called “Stimpy’s Invention.” It depicts the terror of the Will to Happiness in a way similar to Henry Miller in Black Spring, but far more disturbingly, in Bergsonian terms. Stimpy, the ever-optimistic and cheerful orange cat, is wracked with empathetic sorrow when his companion, Ren the chihuahua, is not happy. So he builds a helmet that alters Ren’s brainwaves that force Ren’s mind into a happy state. The helmet that never comes off! The pressure of the Will to Happiness escalates.

Ultimately, the ability to voice discontent, pain, and sadness is cathartic. To silence such speech is to deny who and what we are, to deny even the possibility of knowing who and what we are, and so it diminishes who and what we can be.

John King is a creative writer, literary scholar, and journalist. His creative writing has appeared in Turnrow, Palooka, Gargoyle, Pearl, and Painted Bride Quarterly Annual, and is forthcoming from The Newer York. He regularly reviews books for The Literary Review and theater for Shakespeare Bulletin, and is a contributor to Celebrations magazine. He is currently serving as a composition sherpa at the University of Central Florida. His most recent works, a short-short story called “Perfection” and an essay called “The Muse of Florida,” will appear in the new book 15 Views of Orlando.

Angel from Montgomery

This is one of my favorite songs that plays with persona and identity. Serendipitously, my brother reminded me of it this weekend, just when I’d been thinking about how it is that art can transcend identity categories. It’s a beautiful, wistful song, and, as John Prine points out in this video, it’s in the voice of a “47-year-old housewife” even though it was written by him. I might add that it was written by him when he was young enough to think that 47 is old.

Bonnie Raitt, of course, is the person who made it famous. She has a voice like no other and that has transcended genre and made many a convert to country and blues. So, I offer her version, too, even though I put the Prine one first, on the basis of authorship, the lovely video of him on the river, and the way he describes his imaginative process.

The Sweet Hereafter

Today’s post commemorates Mychael Danna‘s soundtrack music, but also the film it was written for, The Sweet Hereafter, directed by Atom Egoyan, and the novel of the same name by Russell Banks. The novel and the movie, though distinct, both illuminate the aftermath of a tragic accident of a school bus and how it changes the people of a small town.

This is as wintry a tune as can be, and, though we don’t have much in the way of cold weather in Florida, I know that many are going about new semesters at school (or just another work week) in the snow or chilly rain or snappish air today. May this song make us all take a moment to remember to be careful in all our rushing around.

All of us, no matter the weather, suffer the blame game. We give it and we receive it from others and ourselves. At times designating responsibility is perfectly appropriate, but often the anger that goes along with blame masks the emotion that’s more at root and more genuine: sorrow. That old human condition is as tough as it is beautiful.

Here’s the trailer for and review of the film, and a brief interview with Russell Banks about his inspiration for the novel. And here’s an auto playlist for Mychael Danna in case you have more time for peaceful, interesting music in your day or evening.

Raised on Promises and Ruby in Paradise

For the New Year, I thought I’d come a little closer to the twenty-first century in my weekly artistic selection. I’m still twenty years away, but, hey, I am progressing. Sam Phillips’ 1991 song “Raised on Promises” is one of my favorite anthems for change and rebellion, born partly out of her own escape from a record label that insisted on marketing her as “the Christian Cyndi Lauper.”

Part of the reason it became that for me too is that it was used as music for Ruby in Paradise, an early Ashley Judd film about a young woman who slams out of her white-trash life in Tennessee and goes to Florida to find her way. When I first saw it, of course, I was living in Pennsylvania and had no idea I might end up in Florida. But I identified with the longing for escape and independence, not to mention the accent. Ashley Judd played the character with a delicate yet stubborn subtlety she’s rarely displayed since.

This artistic pairing has me thinking about new starts and about the promises we make and break (to ourselves and others). These seem like fitting contemplations for the start of 2012.

Devil Song

Having a blue and jittery day. So I share this haunting Beth Orton tune. (Be forewarned, the lyrics on the otherwise pretty nice fan page are not correct.)

Beth Orton is a contemporary artist, and she’s spoken out about the need for musicians to earn royalties, so if you like it, buy it! (Links on the YouTube site, which may be forced down any day now.) Orton will have a long-awaited new album out in 2012 and will be going on tour … in Australia.

Boogertown Gap

Last month Bruce and I had the opportunity to get together with one of those old friends I’ve become reacquainted with through Facebook. Ruth lived near me in high school, often drove my brother and me (and another neighbor kid) to school in her beige square-back Volkswagen, and always carried her flute or piccolo along. Little did I know that she majored in classical music at the University of Tennessee and that now she and her husband, Keith, have chosen to center their lives on the traditional music of their ancestors in East Tennessee. Their duo is called Boogertown Gap, after a local place of Keith’s childhood, and they perform old-time mountain music in the area and beyond. (The above video is more wonderful but longish, so here‘s an excerpt if you just want a taste.)

Although they have chosen to honor tradition in their lives, however, they are full participants in the 21st century, and I met up with Ruth again via Facebook a year or so ago.

Last month, they came to Central Florida to visit friends and attend a conference, and they invited us to join them one night for some playing and singing. I hadn’t seen Ruthie (she’s still Ruthie to me, though I’m trying to adjust) in close to 30 years. But when she opened the door, she still looked just like herself, and we met Keith and the other friends, and soon music was in the air.

Bruce had brought along his electric bass, and although it wasn’t a natural fit to accompany the guitars, the fiddle, the banjo, and the recorder, everyone welcomed it, and off the musical types went. (If you know me, you know I just watched and listened and tapped my toes on the floor.) Soon enough, Ruth had Bruce playing the spoons. You can see here how good she is at teaching the spoons.

It was a lovely evening, and the toe-tapping music brought everyone together beautifully. We hope to see Ruth and Keith again sometime.

Rock ‘n’ Roll N

Warning! Late-night language.

I think that the only time I’ve ever uttered the “n-word” out loud is in singing along with this song. I still can’t bring myself to type it or speak it in any other context, but the thing is that Patti Smith turns the meaning of the word on its head. She turns a terrible word into a liberating word, or as close to that as possible. She refers to a whole varied raft of people, inlcuding herself, “grandma,” Jackson Pollock, Jimi Hendrix, and Jesus Christ as “n”s. By doing so, she transforms the “n-word” into a commentary on the collective of all those “outside of society” and of the implied negative costs of conformity of whatever type. Fitting in is not a desirable trait here.

Whether this song works for you or is just too shocking and repulsive in its language, there’s an attempt to recognize a commonality and a solidarity. Certainly, I’ve never been the kind of hellion that Patti Smith once was, but I grew to love the way she examines what it means to be different from the norm. The album Easter came out in 1978, and for me it was the beginning of awareness that there are people who celebrate their differences.

It took me a long time to be able to listen to this song, and I was reminded of why when I read recently that the Memphis and Shelby County public school systems are in the process of merging, a process that is re-sparking some earlier racial tensions. It was perhaps in the context of busing for school desegregation (federally mandated in 1973) that I heard the n-word most often and most hideously. More than half the city’s white students’ parents sent them to private schools instead of cooperating, a process they justified in openly racist ways. My parents chose not to participate in white flight, and I was called an n-lover on numerous occasions.

So when, just a few years on, I first heard “Rock ‘N’ Roll N” I just couldn’t bear it. Its defiance, however, kept coming back to me. “Let’s redefine things,” it seemed to say. And I agreed that was a good idea. I had been put down as a woman, as a Southerner, and as an aspiring artist enough times already in my young life to feel a connection to the sensation of debasement, and I eventually embraced the song as a manifesto of sorts.

Patti Smith still has a habit of not accepting the usual definition of things. A.O Scott, in a recent interview, notes:

When I brought up the persistence of grief in her songs, Smith laughed — it was certaintly not the first time an interviewer had raised the subject — and gently corrected me. “I think it’s less about grief than remembrance,” she said. “Grief starts to become indulgent, and it doesn’t serve anyone, and it’s painful. But if you transform it into remembrance, then you’re magnifying the person you lost and also giving something of that person to other people, so they can experience something of that person. That’s why when I’m traveling with my camera, I’ll often take pictures of, you know, Keats’s bed, Shelley’s grave or Victor Hugo’s desk. It has something of them. If I’m taking a picture of Brancusi’s grave, I know that there’s something of him, of his mortal remains, beneath my feet, and there’s something beautiful about that.”

Smith is an artist who has gone through numerous transformations and phases, and I like that. She may not be as angry now as she was then, but she’s still questioning surface interpretations and emotions.

The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)

Simon & Garfunkel could write and perform the most melancholy songs on the planet, but they also happen to be responsible for what is perhaps the most genuinely happy pop/rock song around.

What makes this particular cheerful song so real to me is the way it describes one specific moment of joy. It’s a joy in life’s small pleasures, and a kind of joy that’s not flashy, that someone else might not even notice. It is not the type of “happiness” that’s designed to make someone else feel bad for not “having” it. It’s the kind of genuine happiness that Pascal Bruckner describes—it arises spontaneously out of a simple moment.

Paul Simon is a superb songwriter for the very reason that he never shies from specificity. He has written beautifully in many moods, all of which are fully inhabited in his songs.

I’m sharing “Feelin’ Groovy” today for a couple of reasons: 1) it’s raining steadily and so the song will warm me up a bit, and 2) we just bought tickets to see Paul Simon in concert in December. I have a long, long history with Simon & Garfunkel but have never seen either of them perform, so this makes this morning extra groovy for me. But if you are more in the mood to let the rain (or snow) settle into your soul today, here’s an alternative, “Kathy’s Song.” Both are true.

All Along the Watchtower

I’ve been keeping this blog for about six months now—at least two posts a week for six weeks. On Thursday I hope to reflect more generally on this journey, but today I want to mention the heat that’s involved in any kind of public discourse, no matter how modest.

Why is it worth trying to tell the truth as I see it? It certainly doesn’t make me universally popular. Fortunately, I get more in the way of agreement and support privately from those who say they don’t want to venture more publically (though they often do just that in a necessary context). I’ve been having all kinds of discussions off the blog with people about my willingness to deal with the more public criticism and about my willingness to speak my mind.

And let me note that I’m not perfect, and my blog is a personal rather than a journalistic one. I don’t say unfounded things with no reason, but what I write about is always open to interpretation. I don’t claim to be an economic expert or a psychology expert or a music expert or an expert on the formation of new departments at my university. I have a moderate level of knowledge about any subject I approach, though I remain open and correctable. It’s my hope that there is some shred left of a desire for discussion where people say, “Here are my reasons,” in response to my saying, “Here are my reasons.” That’s what I believe we are called upon to do as supposedly thinking people, especially those pursuing an academic life. Instead, I often find myself in a position where I have outraged someone by speaking (or writing) at all.

I have been fulfilling this position for much of my life. I don’t know how or why it became so important for me to speak my mind and to report what it is I see before me. I do know that it was a role I played in my own family of origin, and I remember reading a book about family dynamics years ago in which I recognized that I was the one who always said the things no one else would say even though they were all thinking the same thing. I was the one who expressed much of the dismay or frustration that everyone else felt.

Even this weekend, I had an exchange with my mother (sorry, Mom!) about an email she’d sent about trying to plan for the holidays. There are certain extended family members who resist communication and who make it all very complicated for my mother and her husband. In their branch of the family, the holidays have long been a power struggle. I told my mother that this year Bruce and I are going to plan for ourselves and extend a few invitations, but that I am not going to undergo eight weeks of hostile negotiations. Period. Eventually, my mother said that she was so sorry she had sent the email and upset me. It took me a few minutes to realize that she was the one who was most upset by this situation, not me. I was expressing her distress. I was naming the problem with the extended family, even though my mother knew full-well what it was.

I don’t know why I am this way. Maybe it has to do with the sub-conscious training in my family to fulfill a certain need others had. Maybe I was just struck in elementary school by The Emperor’s New Clothes, a brilliant children’s book if ever there was one. Maybe it has to do with developing an early chronic illness that the doctors always accused me of lying about (“I know you ate candy.” “I know you didn’t have a low blood sugar.” “I know you skipped your injection.”). Maybe it had to do with my unusual proximity to death and a desire not to waste my time with bullsh*t.

My friend H reminded me this weekend that Virginia Woolf always considered herself an outsider and that she evoked devotion in some and hatred in others. I’m not a “great thinker,” but I do hold up for myself a few fellow truth-tellers that I admire and who have always inspired me: Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Adrienne Rich, Claribel Alegría, Tillie Olsen, Susan Brownmiller. These are people who understand the dangers of silence, and I am in good company if I poke some people in the eye.

Today, I present to you Bob Dylan’s song as sung by Jimi Hendrix, and this lovely interpretation of its meaning, the importance of truth to artists, and the importance of outsiders to society. “Let us not talk falsely now, / The hour is getting late.”

Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore

This week’s last anti-war song is by one of my old favorites, John Prine—it’s about flags as “Makeshift Patriot” is about flags, but from about as different a source as you will find. And this one comes to us from the 1970s, with the implicit question attached of why humans never seem to learn about war.

This is also a funny song. I’ve been self-conscious lately about my earnestness, how obnoxious it can be. Granted, the week of 9/11 is not the time to throw caution to the wind and try to be funny. But humor does return, as reported by both Studio 360 and WYNC. There is a strong relationship between tragedy and comedy. Even Freud knew that jokes are serious business. Ha ha.