Over at The New York Times, Leslie Jamison and Adam Kirsch comment on whether it is more difficult to write about happiness than sadness or suffering.
Jamison suggests that it is because happiness seems like “a closed circuit”:
It’s more interesting to read about something being wrong than everything being right. Happiness threatens the things that every writing workshop demands: suspense, conflict, desire. It also threatens particularity. Happiness collapses characters into people who look just like everyone else, without the sharper contours of pathos to mark their edges and render them distinct. As Tolstoy famously tells us at the beginning of Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Of course, happiness is often used as a contrast to sadness—and the presence of one heightens the impact of the other in a work—but what about “happiness on its own terms,” she asks, “apart from contrast?”
More than anything else, I think of a scene from the very novel whose opening sentence seems to deny happiness a specificity that the novel conveys so beautifully. Midway through Anna Karenina, after Levin has had his marriage proposal accepted by the woman he loves, he wanders the streets of Moscow at dawn. He is sleepless and exulted, “perfectly lifted out of the conditions of material life.” But what makes the passage such a sublime evocation of happiness — to my mind — is precisely the way it delivers “material life” in such crystalline terms:
“And what he saw then, he never saw again after. The children especially going to school, the bluish doves flying down from the roofs to the pavement, and the little loaves covered with flour, thrust out by an unseen hand, touched him. . . . The dove, with a whir of her wings, darted away, flashing in the sun, amid grains of snow that quivered in the air. . . .”
This isn’t happiness as homogenizing force — turning all families alike, all love into a Hallmark card — this is happiness offering singularity: a vision that won’t ever be repeated.
I think this is still happiness in contrast. Kitty’s previous refusals and the possibility that she would never accept, heighten Levin’s (and our) joy. But Jamison’s point that the image of happiness presented here is both concrete and individual is spot on. (Another example of a “singular” expression of happiness is in the epilogue of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment when Raskolnikov is saved.)
In Kirsch’s response, he argues that the trouble with writing on happiness is a distinctly modern problem:
Dante took the reader to Paradise, where the universe was justified as the ordered creation of a loving God. Shakespeare allowed the men and women of his comedies to enter at least an earthly heaven, the happily-ever-after where Beatrice and Benedick playfully bicker. No, it is specifically modern literature that has been unable to give a credible picture of human happiness.
This is because in an age of skepticism like ours the “ones who shock and sadden us…appear as truth-tellers.”
I wonder if this rather narrow view of truth (that it is mostly the debunking of morals, metaphysics, hope) has not only made writing about happiness more difficult, but writing in general worse. As Walker Percy puts it, when there “is nothing to attack…the novelist has only one recourse: he has to do stunts. And like a circus acrobat’s, each stunt has to be more death-defying than the last one.”
There are exceptions, of course, to Percy’s sweeping statement but I think in general, it’s true. The modern novel or play is not only darker but smaller and more superficial (though often in a particular academic way) with a much shorter shelf-life than previous great works. But maybe I’m being overly pessimistic.