During lockdown I have done quite a lot of reading (no surprise!) including many old favourites, and, as sometimes happens when one has too much time to think and not enough to think about, connections between this, that and the other start popping up, and a word that kept cropping up was ‘happiness’.
Somewhere or other, I forget where, there was a reference to the American Declaration of Independence (1776), which stated that Man is endowed with ‘certain inalienable rights, among them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ The last seems like an odd thing to include as a basic right, but then, this was written not long after the Enlightenment, during which the emphasis on the purpose of life was shifted from duty to pleasure and thence to happiness. The Declaration was perhaps the first time it had been stated to be an ‘inalienable right’. (Although as it turned out, those rights were not applied universally, not even life and liberty —and in a strange Python-esque fashion, more rights were tacked on ad-hoc, including the now controversial right to bear arms.)
Then I re-read Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel, Brave New World, and suddenly the penny dropped.
What I had skipped over on earlier readings was the conversation between John (the Savage) and the Controller, Mustapha Mond, which actually contains the entire point of the novel. The Savage (he’s not really a savage, but is called this because he has spent his life so far in a primitive reservation in South America), profoundly hates the modern engineered civilisation that he finds himself inhabiting, having been ‘rescued’ from the reservation. Mond explains that in the process of ensuring happiness and stability for all, a number of other things have had to be sacrificed. Truth and beauty were the first to go. After that, art, science and religion. John sarcastically remarks that they have had to pay a ‘fairly high price’ for happiness.
At the end of the conversation with the Controller, John defiantly claims ‘the right to be unhappy’. The inhabitants of Huxley’s imaginary world would certainly find that evidence of madness, but maybe we’re not so far from that position ourselves. Huxley’s book wasn’t just a pleasant fantasy but written as a warning of what could happen. It’s comforting to think of dystopian fiction as depicting a far-off future that will probably never happen, but the writers are usually extrapolating from the present, and speculating on what would happen if a particular viewpoint were taken to its logical extreme – and in the 1930s, Huxley put under the microscope the prevailing preoccupation with happiness and its pursuit. (We made the same mistake about Coronavirus, too – thinking that it was all happening in a country far, far away, but forgot about the way air travel has shrunk the globe.) As Isaac Asimov asked in one of his short stories, ‘when does the future begin?’ The answer: it begins one second from now.
In the 1960s, we were still obsessed with happiness (and maybe still are). Ken Dodd used to sing a song that began:
‘Happiness, happiness, the greatest gift that I possess, I thank the Lord that I've been blessed With more than my share of happiness.’
Perhaps this jolly little ditty doesn’t bear too much analysis, but it did make me wonder: if one person has more than their share of something, doesn’t that mean that someone else has less than their portion? E. Nesbit, in her children’s book The Wouldbegoods, has its narrator remark that ‘it is greedy to want more of things than other people, even goodness’. (Prompted by Denny putting dried peas in his shoes during the children’s attempted ‘pilgrimage to Canterbury’. Predictably, he gets terrible blisters on his heels.)
Going back to John, the Savage: he never had the opportunity to read the Bible (which is silent on the subject of happiness), but, remembering that he was claiming the right to be unhappy, I think that if he had read it, he would probably have gratefully seized on the words of James (chapter 1, verses 2-4):
‘Consider it pure joy, my brothers, when you face trials of many kinds.’ What a paradoxical and challenging statement. But after all, we do go to the gym (yes, we can go to the gym again!) and build up muscles by resisting weights. And likewise, we can build character and fortitude by facing trials, bearing misfortunes and resisting evil. Not that anyone actively seeks those things out, but as they can’t be avoided, at least we can make use of them.
So finally, here’s a fairy-tale ending for you: in Thackeray’s children’s book The Rose and the Ring, the Fairy Blackstick can find no better gift to wish the infant Prince Giglio than ‘a little misfortune’. (She has learned from her earlier mistaken gifts to royal children, the magical Rose and Ring of the title, which ‘rendered [the princesses] charming in the eyes of their husbands’. All that achieved was that the two women became ‘capricious, lazy, ill-humoured and absurdly vain’ from having their every whim indulged.) Skip on one generation, and we find that Giglio and Rosalba, who do meet with misfortune, emerge with far stronger characters than the spoiled Bulbo and Angelica, who have been given the Rose and the Ring by their mothers.
Since we don’t live in a fairy-tale, we have no need to seek out misfortune. It will come whether we like it or not. But maybe I shan’t engage in the relentless pursuit of happiness either – I have a feeling it’s a kind of will o’ the wisp that flees the more it is pursued. But perhaps, if I just get on with the proper business of living, it may, like some shy, woodland creature, come up and feed from my hand when I’m not looking.