When David Malouf’s little hardback essay The Happy Life showed up late last year to Biblioklept World Headquarters, I’ll admit to grimacing a bit. I judge books by their covers, their appearance, their size, and frankly Malouf’s little book, with its smallish dimensions and hokey subtitle seemed to scream “self-help/gift book.” And oh the emoticon!
But before I do these “Books Acquired” I always take the time to sample the prose a bit. Here’s what happened with Malouf: I kept reading. Malouf snagged me into doing a thought experiment on the first page (“Think of a medieval farmer as he struggled to keep body and soul together”), an exercise that quickly led to citations from Solzhenitsyn, Montaigne, and Sir Henry Wotton—before posing the book’s central questions:
The question that arises is not so much ‘How should we live if we want to be happy?’ but how is it, when the chief sources of human unhappiness, of misery and wretchedness, have largely been removed from our lives—large-scale social injustice, famine, plague and other diseases, the near-certainty of an early death—that happiness still eludes so many of us? What have we succumbed to or failed to do that might have helped us? What is it in us, or in the world we have created, that continues to hold us back?
First World Problems! Seriously though, Malouf seems aware of the simple answer to these questions—it’s impossible and likely dangerous to be happy all the time; what he really seems concerned about are the paradigms and ideologies and systems—government, media, corpocracy, pick your poison—that create impositions of happiness as a kind of ideal. As such, Malouf returns again and again to Jefferson’s “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” along with Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. He ends his long essay with a discussion of Solzhenisyn’s Shukov, “an unlikely example of the happy man.” And through this storytelling, we can find a moment of stabilizing happiness too:
Fiction, with its preference for what is small and might elsewhere seem irrelevant; its facility for smuggling us into another skin and allowing us to live a new life there; its painstaking devotion to what without it might go unnoticed and unseen; its respect for contingency, and the unlikely and odd; its willingness to expose itself to moments of low, almost animal being and make them nobly illuminating, can deliver truths we might not otherwise stumble on.
Shukhov is not happy because he has solved the problem of ‘how to live’ —the live he lives is too provisional, too makeshift for that. Or because, as the classical schools would have put it, he has achieved quite self-containment, self-sufficiency. Quite the opposite.
What he achieves, briefly, intermittently, is moments of self-fulfillment, something different and more accessible, more democratic we might call it, than self-containment. But he achieves it only at moments.
He is happynow—who can know what tomorrow or the day after will do to him? He is happy within limits—and this may be a clue to what makes happiness possible for him, or for any of us.
There’s nothing really radical about this thesis—that we can claim agency to our own happiness by choosing to measure it in small units—but the way that Malouf reaches it is pleasurable to follow and intellectually engaging. I hope that some suckers judge this book by its cover, pick it up in the hopes of buying a map to contentment, and then stick around for Malouf’s journey through literature, philosophy, art, and history. Good stuff.
The Happy Life is new in hardback from Pantheon.