Home/Prufrock/The Problem with Happiness, Hugh Trevor-Roper’s Imposters, and in Praise of Elderly Characters

The Problem with Happiness, Hugh Trevor-Roper’s Imposters, and in Praise of Elderly Characters

Jean-Antoine-Théodore Giroust, "Oedipus at Colonus" (1788), via Wikimedia Commons

The Markup, a new publication that plans to cover how technology affects society and that raised $23 million at the beginning of the year, is imploding. What’s going on? “Craig Newmark, the Craig in Craigslist, has been criticized for helping to bring about an extinction event for vast swaths of the journalism world, by creating a platform that sucked up the classified advertising on which it depended. More recently, he’s been a journalism savior, distributing his riches to nonprofit newsrooms and learning institutions alike. And now, thanks to a blowup at one of them, he’s discovering darker truths about journalism—ones he may have never expected, accused newspaper villain though he was. ‘Craig is a good guy and a self-identified nerd who hates conflict, and he has walked into this irrational, conflict-prone world,’ a journalist in Newmark’s orbit told me. ‘He has this very earnest view about journalism, but then what he finds is that it’s a Bonfire of the Vanities, and we’re all insane egomaniacs.’”

Hugh Trevor-Roper was fascinated by imposters. Until he was fooled himself. William Whyte reviews The Professor & the Parson: A Story of Desire, Deceit & Defrocking: “Peters was unashamed and evidently unshamable, an impostor who wholly inhabited his fabrications and who indignantly repudiated anyone who doubted him. But he was sustained in his career by other people who seemed to believe in him, at least for a time. This group included some, though not all, of his wives and a surprisingly large cast of established scholars. Perhaps constitutionally attracted to someone so unlike themselves in self-confidence, perhaps genuinely keen to give an apparently able man a second chance, a certain sort of academic was all too easily taken in by Peters. For Trevor-Roper, who took a dim view of his own profession, this was all hilarious stuff. It became rather less funny when he himself was fooled by a set of forged documents that had been passed off as Hitler’s diaries. Significantly, he appears to have stopped collecting material on Peters at about the same time. The Professor & the Parson is a fantastic read and fully deserves to be among everyone’s books of the year. It is full of wonderful stories and splendidly comic moments. It is also beautifully written.”

Where are all the elderly characters in literature? “In the last several years, two writer friends of mine have told me the same story: Their (very savvy) editors advised them to change the age of the protagonists in their novels-in-progress, making them considerably younger; otherwise, their books wouldn’t be publishable. Of course, these editors would concede, there are outliers. Another friend of ours—she’s a book scout—gave my wife, Wendy, a copy of Swedish writer Fredrik Backman’s novel A Man Called Ove, an international bestseller with a grumpy yet endearing old man at its heart. Wendy loved it. But such exceptions merely prove the rule. This seems very strange to me. The world of old age today has a good deal in common with old age as it has been for thousands of years while at the same time being quite different. People are living longer: a banality, yes, but one that overlays a vast range of experience, mundane and extraordinary, joyful and sad, irreducibly individual yet also subject to generalizations, above all inexhaustibly interesting and wildly messy. No wonder that some writers, at least—they’re living longer, too, along with the rest of us—are exploring this world.”

A. M. Juster reviews Rafael Campo’s Comfort Measures Only: New and Selected Poems 1994-2016: “As a practicing physician at Boston’s Beth Israel Hospital who has worked for many years with AIDS patients and low-income patients with other poor prognoses, he is all too familiar with ‘comfort measures’—palliative treatment for patients who decide against interventional therapies that are likely futile and probably painful or limiting. These patients are the main focus of this collection. The term ‘measures’ is also a musty term for poetry, particularly the formal poetry Campo often writes. When modified by the word ‘comfort,’ the phrase aptly characterizes Campo’s efforts to console readers confronting their own mortality or the mortality of loved ones. I think of ‘comfort’ in this sense as almost synonymous with ‘consolation,’ in the sense that Boethius used the term in The Consolation of Philosophy.”

Matthew Continetti reviewsRussell Kirk’sConcise Guide to Conservatism: “In 1957, four years after his Conservative Mind had been published to great acclaim, Russell Kirk wrote a letter to former president Herbert Hoover. Kirk mentioned that he had a new book coming out in the spring. It would be, he said, ‘a species of retort against Bernard Shaw,’ the author of The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism some decades before. Kirk’s title: The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Conservatism. That slim book has now been republished as Russell Kirk’s Concise Guide to Conservatism, with a new introduction by historian Wilfred M. McClay. It comes at an opportune moment. As McClay observes, ‘no one seems able to say with confidence just what “conservatism” means today,’ or what an American conservative ought to stand for. Perhaps Kirk can help.”

Have wages been stagnant for over 50 years? Ramesh Ponnuru takes a closer look: “The Pew Research Center notes that the average wage, adjusted for inflation, fell between 1973 and 2018. It had risen steeply from 1964 (when the data series began) through 1973. Then it dropped for roughly two decades, and over the next two recovered but did not get back to its peak. If real wages have truly been stagnant for longer than most Americans have been alive, then the economy has not worked in anything resembling the fashion we expect. Economic growth has been mostly an illusion: We have more stuff only because more of us work, large numbers of women having joined the paid labor force. If this picture is accurate, we need to make radical changes either to the economy or to our expectations of ever-rising prosperity. There are, however, two big reasons to doubt the stagnation thesis.”

Essay of the Day:

In Athenaeum Review, Gary Saul Morson writes about the problem with happiness:

“Is it really true that everybody’s goal in life is to be as happy as possible? To many that seems obvious: what else could we want? If we desire something, it must be because we think it will make us happier. To this assumption, Nietzsche replied, ‘Man does not strive for happiness. Only the Englishman does.’ Darwinian theory suggests that human beings must have evolved so that their strongest pull is not to happiness, but to passing on their genes, even if that makes them miserable. Perhaps liberal Western theorists have mistaken their own values for the only possible ones? Can one not imagine a devout Jew, Christian, or Muslim reacting with disgust to the notion that life is about happiness, rather than, let us say, piety? A commonplace of European intellectual history holds that during the Enlightenment many Europeans started asking not ‘how can I be good?’ or ‘how can I be saved?’ but ‘how can I be happy?’ If so, then happiness as the goal of life is a fact of Western modernity, not of human nature.

“Even many modern Europeans have placed the highest value not on happiness but on science and art. In her classic memoir Hope Against Hope, Nadezhda Mandelstam recalled that when she complained about the Soviet regime’s horrible persecutions, her husband Osip—one of Russia’s greatest poets—replied: what made you think life is about being happy? Much more valuable than happiness, in his view, is poetry. What sort of people, Russian thinkers often ask, believe that all that matters is individual contentment? They wonder: Isn’t it clear that only shallow people can profess such values? And what happens to a society that believes the only goal of life is individual satisfaction?

“As the philosopher John Rawls pointed out, a society of happiness-seekers would have no reason not to borrow heavily and leave the debt to future generations. If there is nothing larger than us now, why not? Après nous, la faillite (After us, bankruptcy.) What’s more: if the only reason to have children is to make oneself happier, rather than to fulfill a social or moral duty, a lot fewer people will have children. Mounting national debt and a birthrate well below replacement level: that describes Western Europe today rather well.

“Even if one’s goal is the best life for the individual, the search for happiness may be a false path. In Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych, the hero has lived his life entirely for his own satisfaction. Like everyone around him, he can imagine no other way to live. Then he falls ill, begins to waste away, and discovers that everything that gave him pleasure and contentment has become distasteful.”

Read the rest.

Photo: Karsts and sunset

Poem: John Wall Barger, “A Briefe & Marveyllous Hystory of Franklin”             

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about the author

Micah Mattix is the literary editor of The American Conservative and an associate professor of English at Regent University.  His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, The Weekly Standard, Pleiades, The Washington Times, and many other publications. His latest book is The Soul Is a Stranger in this World: Essays on Poets and Poetry (Cascade). Follow him on Twitter.

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