“accept the fact that life isn’t fun”: happiness studies from paul bowles and the international zone

Dyar was not a reader; he did not even enjoy the movies. Entertainment somehow made the stationariness of existence more acute, not only when the amusement was over, but even during the course of it. After the war he made a certain effort to reconcile himself to his life. Occasionally he would go out with two or three of his friends, each one taking a girl. They would have cocktails at the apartment of one of the girls, go on to a Broadway movie, and eat afterward at some Chinese place in the neighborhood where there was dancing. Then there was the long process of taking the girls home one by one, after which they usually went into a bar and drank fairly heavily. Sometimes, not very often, they would pick up something cheap in the bar or in the street, take her to Bill Healy’s room, and lay her in turn. It was an accepted pattern; there seemed to be no other to suggest in its place. Dyar kept thinking: “Any life would be better than this,” but he could find no different possibility to consider. “Once you accept the fact that life isn’t fun, you’ll be much happier,” his mother said to him.

—from Paul Bowles, Let It Come Down, 1952  

primo levi on (anti)-happiness


happiness studies, circa 1943


Sooner or later in life everyone discovers that perfect happiness is unrealizable, but there are few who pause to consider the antithesis: that perfect unhappiness is equally unattainable. The obstacles preventing the realization of both these extreme states are of the same nature: they derive from our human condition which is opposed to everything infinite. Our ever-insufficient knowledge of the future opposes it: and this is called, in the one instance, hope, and in the other, uncertainty of the following day. The certainty of death opposes it: for it places limit on every joy, but also on every grief. The inevitable material cares oppose it; for as they poison every lasting happiness, they equally assiduously distract us from our misfortunes and make our consciousness of them intermittent and hence supportable.


—from Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz




happiness studies: highlights in the history of human misery

Paradise was unendurable, otherwise the first man would have adapted to it; this world is no less so, since here we regret paradise or anticipate another one. What to do? where to go? Do nothing and go nowhere, easy enough. 
— E.M. Cioran, The Trouble with Being Born
Man, who is an organic continuation of the Logos, thinks he can sever that continuity and exist apart from it.
Me miserable! which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath, and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is Hell; my self am Hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep
Still threatning to devour me opens wide,
To which the Hell I suffer seems a
O then at last relent: is there no place
Left for Repentance, none for Pardon left?
None left but by submission; and that word
Disdain forbids me, and my dread of shame…
Satan, in John Milton’s Paradise Lost
Conformity is one of the nihilistic temptations of rebellion which dominate a large part of our intellectual history. It demonstrates how the rebel who takes to action is tempted to succumb, if he forgets his origins, to the most absolute conformity. And so it explains the twentieth century. Lautréamont, who is usually hailed as the bard of pure rebellion, on the contrary proclaims the advent of the taste for intellectual servitude which flourishes in the contemporary world.

Albert Camus, Man in Revolt
Cut off from every root, unfit, moreover to mix with dust or mud, we have achieved the feat of breaking not only with the depth of things, but their very surface. 
— E.M. Cioran, Civilized Man 
Man is the great deserter of being.
E.M. Cioran, The Fall into Time

happiness studies with slavoj žižek!


When were you happiest?

A few times when I looked forward to a happy moment or remembered it never

when it was happening.

What is your greatest fear?

To awaken after death – that’s why I want to be burned immediately.

What is your earliest memory?

My mother naked. Disgusting.

Which living person do you most admire, and why?

Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the twice-deposed president of Haiti. He is a model of what can be done for the people even in a desperate situation.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

Indifference to the plights of others.

What is the trait you most deplore in others?

Their sleazy readiness to offer me help when I don’t need or want it.

What was your most embarrassing moment?

Standing naked in front of a woman before making love.

Aside from a property, what’s the most expensive thing you’ve bought?

The new German edition of the collected works of Hegel.

What is your most treasured possession?

See the previous answer.

What makes you depressed?

Seeing stupid people happy.

What do you most dislike about your appearance?

That it makes me appear the way I really am.

What is your most unappealing habit?

The ridiculously excessive tics of my hands while I talk.

What would be your fancy dress costume of choice?

A mask of myself on my face, so people would think I am not myself but someone pretending to be me.

What is your guiltiest pleasure?

Watching embarrassingly pathetic movies such as The Sound Of Music.

What do you owe your parents?

Nothing, I hope. I didn’t spend a minute bemoaning their death.

To whom would you most like to say sorry, and why?

To my sons, for not being a good enough father.

What does love feel like?

Like a great misfortune, a monstrous parasite, a permanent state of emergency that ruins all small pleasures.

What or who is the love of your life?

Philosophy. I secretly think reality exists so we can speculate about it.

What is your favourite smell?

Nature in decay, like rotten trees.

Have you ever said ‘I love you’ and not meant it?

All the time. When I really love someone, I can only show it by making aggressive and bad-taste remarks.

Which living person do you most despise, and why?

Medical doctors who assist torturers.

What is the worst job you’ve done?

Teaching. I hate students, they are (as all people) mostly stupid and boring.

What has been your biggest disappointment?

What Alain Badiou calls the ‘obscure disaster’ of the 20th century: the catastrophic failure of communism.

If you could edit your past, what would you change?

My birth. I agree with Sophocles: the greatest luck is not to have been born but, as the joke goes on, very few people succeed in it.

If you could go back in time, where would you go?

To Germany in the early 19th century, to follow a university course by Hegel.

How do you relax?

Listening again and again to Wagner.

How often do you have sex?

It depends what one means by sex. If it’s the usual masturbation with a living partner, I try not to have it at all.

What is the closest you’ve come to death?

When I had a mild heart attack. I started to hate my body: it refused to do its duty to serve me blindly.

What single thing would improve the quality of your life?

To avoid senility.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?

The chapters where I develop what I think is a good interpretation of Hegel.

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?

That life is a stupid, meaningless thing that has nothing to teach you.

Tell us a secret.

Communism will win.

— Interview with Slavoj Žižek by Rosanna Greenstreet, The Guardian, Saturday August 9 2008



natural man was naturally happy (but no one thought to ask natural woman how she was feeling)

Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe, first published in 1816, went through three editions before achieving its final form and remains one of the classics of Europe’s literature, and in certain ways presages the fiction of Gustave Flaubert. From Wikipedia:
It tells the story of an alienated young man, Adolphe, who falls in love with an older woman, Ellénore, the Polish mistress of the Comte de P***. Their illicit relationship serves to isolate them from their friends and from society at large. The book eschews all conventional descriptions of exteriors for the sake of detailed accounts of feelings and states of mind.
Adolphe is shot through with prose that shimmers over the intersections of psychological fiction and social philosophy; this passage, with its allusions to Rousseau’s ideas of the alienating nature of society and the innate purity of “natural man,” reminds one that today it is chiefly as a political philosopher that Constant is remembered, if at all:
Woe to the man who in the first moments of a love-affair does not believe that it will last forever! Woe to him who even in the arms of the mistress who has just yielded to him maintains an awareness of the trouble to come and foresees that he may later tear himself away! At the moment when she abandons herself to her passion every woman is in a sense touching and sublime. It is not sensual pleasure, not nature, nor our bodies which corrupt us; it is the scheming to which life in society accustoms us and the reflections to which experience gives rise. I loved and respected Ellenore a thousand times more after she had given herself to me. I walked proudly among men and looked upon them with the eye of a conqueror. The very air I breathed was a pure delight. I eagerly went out to meet nature and thank her for the immense and unhoped-for gift she had deigned to bestow on me.
— Benjamin Constant, Adolphe

happiness studies with those depressive russians!

In Maxim Gorky’s memoirs, Count LeoTolstoy is described walking alongside the Crimean sea:

And suddenly, for one mad moment, I felt that he might be about to stand up and wave his arm, and that the sea would grow calm and glassy, and the rocks would move and begin to shout, and everything around would stir and come to life and start talking in different voices about itself, and about him, and against him. I cannot put into words what I felt then; I was filled both with rapture and with horror, and then everything came together in one happy thought:
"I am not an orphan on the earth so long as this man is alive."
Gorky also reports that:
Leo Tolstoy once asked a lizard in a low voice:
"Are you happy, eh?"
The lizard was sunning itself on a rock in the bushes along the road to Diulber, and Tolstoy stood facing it with his hands stuck into his leather belt. And looking around carefully, that great man confessed to the lizard:
"I’m not …"

the ur-text of all happiness studies

To be stupid, selfish, and have good health are three requirements for happiness, though if stupidity is lacking, all is lost.

Gustave Flaubert

Those wishing to learn more are encouraged to consult the authoritative reference work in this field, Flaubert’s The Dictionary of Received Ideas.