Marxism vs. happiness research

Happiness research is one of the new-new things in the social sciences, and, not surprisingly, given that, promising to making people happy is cutting-edge in politics – British politicians being the bleeding bit of that edge. Google David Cameron+happiness and you’ll find some doozies. The interest in happiness interests me a great deal, both as yet another effect of Marxism’s collapse, and as yet another battlefield on which the left will try to re-fight the battles it’s long since lost (not to say it’s lost them all – far from it). Anyway, today on Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen blogs a new study arguing that if conservatives are happier than liberals, it’s because they’re more callous to the effects of income inequality – i.e. they don’t mind there being a lot of poor people. Cowen pooh-poohs this conclusion, and I agree, but what interests me isn’t the authors’ argument, which strikes me as silly, but rather the fact of the study’s existence, and its having been produced by such high-power academics (Napier and Jost are both at NYU, and both young up-and-comers). This, I think, is a harbinger of things to come. The right, or rather what people think of as the right – by which I mean anti-statism, if not anarchy – a flavor of libertarianism – more or less won the great ideological debates of the 20th century, at least in the Westernmost parts of the West. But of course the left won at the tactical level, as evidenced by the enormity of the various Western welfare states. And now, I think, while some on the right look to the “happiness” battle as one they can win, to show that a materialist politics is, for most people, ultimately unsatisfying, some on the left are at work, trying to head them off, and so to position themselves for the coming happiness war. Napier and Jost haven’t done that, but they won’t be the last to try.

The river and the mountains

He sits on a rock overlooking a river. He flicks the ashes off the end of his cigarette; the breeze kicks up and blows them back toward him, and he starts. He was here as a boy, with his family, before everything changed, and this morning, the sun just coming high, the rapids silver, he remembered swimming below them, where the banks spread apart and the water goes flat. The river is a border—was a border then too—so he couldn’t have done that. He laughs. He has blond hair, curly if it weren’t so short, and he’s tall, and tan from the sun in a place too hot for him ever to get used to. He’s been here four hours, mostly standing but sometimes, as now, sitting, smoking while he sits. His thoughts repeat, and he notices this, the effect of boredom or fear or both. To his left, ten miles off, are mountains, also marking the border, tall, fog toward their bottoms, where the border runs, and high up, despite the sun and summer heat, patches of snow and among these a glacier that runs down to melt that flows into the river, the last bit in a waterfall. He doesn’t see the mountains. He didn’t see them this morning when he came. He waits for his radio to buzz, and then the voice saying he’s done his watch and can come back. By the time on his phone, he knows when he’ll be done, but the call is the thing. His replacement won’t come all the way up here—they can’t both be exposed. He takes off his canvas hat and wipes the sweat up off his brow, through his curly, dark hair. He’s too old to be here, doing this. If things had gone differently – if he hadn’t fucked around so much, as a kid and after – he’d be somewhere else, living a real life. As he comes down to meet his replacement, out of sight of the other side of the border, for a few minutes no one will be on watch. He’s sure they know this, will use the chance to move closer to the border, or across it. The water was cold, and moved too fast – he was scared he’d be washed away. His father laughed. He’s sure of this. He tried to come up onto the bank, but the current running along it was too strong. He saw something he took for a tree limb, a willow, though willows, he knows now, don’t grow so far south. He reached for it, and it was a clump of poppies that came off in his hand. This could have been on the other side, where there are no flats, just cliffs with rock screes at their bases, and those too steep to climb onto. The river bed was small stones, mostly smooth, though some with sharp edges, and when he fell back in, they dug into his thighs and the backs of his upper arms. He had marks for days after, and several cuts that his father swabbed with alcohol. Late that afternoon it rained, and they sat under a tree and drank lemonade. He checks that the battery in his radio is still good. If only he weren’t so young – if only he’d lived a little first. The air is dry and it hasn’t rained for weeks, and won’t for months. Someone on the other side helped him climb out onto the scree. He’s sure of this. His hand leaves a print of sweat on the side of the radio handset, the spot where all the hands that have held it, in just this way, have worn off some of the paint, in the form of a palm. He has eight more watches, then he’ll go home for good. He’ll be called up again, and sent to the same place, to do twenty more. The sun is high now, and he squints to look across the border, where something, he’s been told, is happening, something he should watch though he hasn’t seen anything to note, a couple of shepherds with their flock, nothing else. At his feet is a bag and, not looking down, he feels in it for his sunglasses and canteen, and his last two cigarettes. There’s a noise – rustling, coming uphill, and closer. His relief. He can’t be sure. He knows not to be sure. When he gets back home, a year, year and a half from now – home for good, not on leave – his daughter will be in school, and he’s not sure, will his wife tolerate him, changing her routines and loud and into everything. He can’t find his cigarettes. His neck is flush now and his forehead too. The rustling stops. Someone hiding, having come in sight of him. His father steered the boat toward him, slowly – under the surface were rocks that neither of them had seen at first. The cigarettes could have fallen out. He walked out to the promontory an hour ago and reached into his bag – he can’t remember, for what, something that seemed important but god damn it now. The next sound could be a bird, pecking at a hard rock. The sun is high and if he looked for a shadow he wouldn’t see one. If only he had a girl at home, or some scheme to do something meaningful, even just to go somewhere else, or enjoy his life in a way we’d want to enjoy our own lives. He wants his fucking goddamn cigarettes. That day, he sat on the scree and the shade disappeared, and in an hour he was sunburned. The rustling should start again now. He digs still, flush everywhere, irritated at being scared, at being here at all, and close now, the boards in the prow of his father’s boat, cracking as they snap on the rocks

Rage against the machine

I was never much for The Prisoner, but when I read the dialogue excerpt in this Patrick McGoohan obit, a light bulb went on, and I realized there was something about the show I hadn’t quite gotten – it’s at once the ultimate libertarian TV show, if there can be such a thing, and the ultimate artifact of the era of convergence theory:

Number Two: It doesn’t matter which side runs the Village.

Number Six: It’s run by one side or the other.

Number Two: Both sides are becoming identical. What in fact has been created? An international community. A perfect blueprint for world order. When the sides facing each other suddenly realize that they’re looking into a mirror, they’ll see that this is the pattern for the future.

Number Six: The whole world as the Village?

Number Two: That is my dream. What’s yours?

Number Six: To be the first man on the moon.

“If possible write ‘without consciousnesses in semi-trance’”

At LitKicks, Michael Norris has a fascinating post on seeing the original On the Road manuscript, written on a scroll of teletype paper, which Kerouac used so as not to have to break off writing to switch from one piece of typewriter paper to another. Norris’s piece goes into some detail about Kerouac’s approach to writing, about which I knew next to nothing, and now I understand why I felt, on reading it, that it was a lot of fun for about a hundred pages, but I couldn’t go much further. It’s a first draft with great style but needed an editor. Kerouac eschewed conventional plot, thinking that plots distort the nature of experience, and thus weaken the impact and truth value of any attempt to represent it. What he wanted to capture was experience, both physical and mental, as it was lived – in this, of course, he was part of a great 20th- and 21-st-century fiction tradition, one of which leading modernists and postmodernists are a part. But also, Norris points out, he wanted to make prose that was like jazz. Prose consisting, presumably, of a “melody” of events and encounters, and lived mental reactions to same, fleshed out with long strings of improvised riffs on that melody, those riffs consisting both of tangential accounts of minor events and of thought-commentary on them and the “melody.” Kerouac had a theory, too, one he laid out in an article called “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose.”

And those edits? I knew that he didn’t want to make them, but didn’t know the story Norris relates. When Robert Giroux suggested that the m.s. be given a good going-over, Kerouac said, “There shall be no editing of this manuscript; this manuscript was dictated by the Holy Ghost.” I love that! Though as a result, the book is more an overlong Weather Report song with too many trite solos than it is, oh, I don’t know, let’s say “If I Were a Bell.” And is the worse for that. Still, I’d agree with Norris that Kerouac managed to create a prose artifact that, in some real sense, recalls a recording of a jazz jam. The internal formal similarities being key here, in which standard riffs – qua humdrum descriptions and observations – when mashed together and played fast, and linked up smoothly, become more compelling as a whole than they would be as parts. Of course Kerouac’s real problem was to overlook the fact that what we call jazz “improvisation” is, at its best, quite “composed,” with the skilled player knowing how to structure a solo in the same way one structures a song, with a beginning, midddle, and end, dynamic and tempo variation etc. to build and release dramatic tension, and so forth. I do, though, admire his effort, and imagine that if I were to see the scroll, I’d have a reaction similar to Norris’s:

“The Scroll represents the part of writing that is the most difficult, yet also the most rewarding. You have an idea for a story. It percolates in your brain for a period of time. Perhaps you write notes on it, or start a tentative outline or an initial chapter. Then one day you know it is big enough for a novel and you sit down and start writing it. The first draft. And you go through all the negatives that this phase in writing is prone to: procrastination, being blocked, sitting at your desk for an hour and producing two paragraphs, dreading having to sit at your desk at all. These are all the downsides to writing. But then there is that day when you start writing, and the writing flows. And it’s good. And you have this incredible emotional high that can be the only reason that we put up with all the negatives – one or two hours of flowing words, images coming easily, the brain and the fingers working as one. After the draft is finished comes the editing and eventual marketing, but the scroll phase is what I think we all live for.”

The value of psychological realism

I tend not to like stories and books written in a psychological-realism mode. In general, I find them dull, either because they relate experiences or present characters I don’t find interesting, are larded with pointlessly detailed descriptions, or feature contrived plots whose only purpose is to showcase the authors’ trite opinions about contemporary society and the individuals’ place within it, and/or to lead their protagonists to “revelations” that aren’t revelations at all. But this stuff is everywhere, and every once in a while I give it another try. Recently, for example, I’ve been rereading some of the stories in Updike’s Early Stories collection, most of which I loved when I first encountered them, years ago. They’re not holding up well. I find them annoying and precious, and they’ve only confirmed my feelings about most artifacts of the psych-real approach. But when done well, they can be wonderful. A case in point: Hilary Mantel’s memoir piece “Someone to Disturb,” in last week’s LRB. Mantel and her LRB colleague Jenny Diski are both must-reads, their reviews, essays, and memoir pieces always a pleasure to read, and this one’s no exception. The key here is her restraint, presenting an experience that, she knows, will be unfamiliar to most readers – that of a young Western women living in contemporary Saudi Arabia – but never assuming that her story’s exotica value will be enough to hook us and keep us interested, and not falling back either on the “join me in my self pity” card, that I’m-out-of-tricks-now last resort of so many second-rate memoirists. Neither is the piece cynical or nasty – another pitfall to which she could easily have fallen prey. She writes, as every great writer, line by line, making sure is interesting on its own, but neither so showy or difficult that the reader will be too stunned or tired to do anything but want to read the next line, and think of it as the next bit of a story told by a good friend, in a confiding mode, not asking for sympathy and so earning empathy. I won’t go into the details of the piece – do subscribe and get it in print, or read it online at the link.

Salt in your coffee

Seriously. I want to cut back on coffee, but I like it too much. Need to deal with the bitterness problem, though – and so why not add a pinch of salt, which, according to a piece cited by this piece, is all the rage in Taiwan. I’ll try it tomorrow.