"I've got to tell you something and I know you'll excoriate me," says he as I drive through the rainy streets of the city thinking of ways to improve two things I'm currently struggling with. Driving, like working out, is a good way to clear my head. Another way is going down by the beach, sitting on my favorite bench that's usually unoccupied around 9pm and between 7am-8:30am.
"What makes you think I'll excoriate you?" I say to him as I make a right turn.
"Because I know you. Plus, I know I'm in need of being excoriated." he adds. Usually, I would have interjected one of my usual one-liners known only to those who know my discursive routines. Instead, I say nothing. I'm in too involved a mood. My mind's busy. I say nothing and almost enjoy the silence for a bit.
"I might have something you'll excoriate me about, too", I finally say, "but let me hear yours first."
He proceeds to tell me the details and I ask him if he needs to hear from me the same thing I've told him a number of times in the past. He says he does. He feels like a review. "I feel like a good review," he says. Thus, we review.
I've thought a lot about happiness recently and how it relates to micro and macro sociality. Blame it on the rain, I suppose. It does have a tendency to lead to written fecundity. Writing pours out of me when it rains. Incidentally, I just finished a draft I'm submitting in two weeks. But back to the happiness thing.
Happiness cannot happen without self-examination. This is not some adage I had to think long and hard about. This is what the Western canon has taught me since early childhood. Start way South with Sophocles, move on a bit North to Plautus, pick up a bit of Dante in the neck of Florence, head North and West to Shakespeare, head back South and pick up some Goethe and, while you're at it, swing by France and have a sip of existentialism and what you'll end up gleaning is the following: Happiness cannot happen without self-examination. We cannot know the other, without knowing the self. Nobody can tell us what feels good to us, unless we experience it ourselves. I love the smell of pines. Absolutely, love it. It drives me insane with happiness. I discovered it when I was fourteen, right after learning how to dance with a tall boy with whose family we were vacationing and who was a horribly bad badminton partner. Happiness needs context in order to get registered. It needs a vehicle of narration. Without storytelling ability, it cannot be.
And it most certainly cannot happen without a clear grasp of history, one's own history. There's a better chance to face what's around the corner when you know and understand the corners you've left behind. And living because one can is no answer to existence. While existence might be nothing more than a string of coincidences, what our canon teaches us is that collectively we feel better about our individual and collective experience in life when we view it in connection to something larger than ourselves, like a bigger group of people, or a larger cluster of interests.
One of the first Shakespeare bits I memorized as a teen was a Hamlet soliloqui. I mostly saw Hamlet as a spoiled brat, not that different from other spoiled brats I knew growing up. And yet, I was in love with his eloquence. He was a brat who had a way with language. I've never been able to resist this kind, the kind that has a way with language. And my history will back this up.
"What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and
admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like
a god! the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet,
to me, what is this quintessence of dust?"
I always found it curious that while most people responded to the first verses, I was always keener on the "quintessence of dust" part. For some reason, I mostly use this phrase when break into German. I really don't know why. Translating Shakespeare into German is almost as sacreligeous as translating Goethe into English. My German counterparts often say, "Was ist denn mit der Quintessenz?!" Essence is fine enough a word, no? I wanted to say Quintessenz on Saturday. I didn't. I remember the context well. I was simply too tired to use it as using it would invite even more questions as to why my speech is often peppered with uncommon words.
The reason why I always respond to the "quintessence of dust" bit of the soliloqui is because it encapsulates the notion of life and human existence most fundamentally. And yet, it's poetic. It's association with nothingness is poetic. While our entire literary canon suggests than meaning resides in tropes, sometimes it feels better to embrace the simplicity of experience for what it is, a speck in time, a cluster of little somethings, some of which are good and others the stuff of anxiety, which inevitably make up one big trace.
The thing is, happiness is about shared experience. We need canon to live well. We can easily survive without a historical blueprint of existence. Animals do it. But to live and to want to live well, a script is needed, a well written one. One that says that happiness is our duty and that to go after it is somehow lofty a pursuit, noble even. We spend our lives going after goals, hard ones, to reach a level of happiness much of which seems to be rooted in status and accomplishment.
Without connectivity, we have no context, no history and few things taste better to one than being known, resisted, and eventually agreed with. Happiness is having someone who truly knows you and whom you truly know say to you that they've said or done something you'd excoriate them about. Bottom line, they know how you'll react and they know they'll feel better after sharing with you their short narrative. And while you've read their script over and over again you somehow feel good that they feel you know how to read them and, like a forgiving teacher, you'll excoriate them briefly but then you'll write little notes on the margins of their essay and they'll know how to get better and do right by you.
Familiarity gives me comfort because familiarity gives us all comfort. Humans like routine. It's
due to our enculturation. We have no say in the matter. It's like saying we like how water tastes after being deprived of it. Another synonym for familiarity is intimacy and intimacy is harder for some for it resides in the territory of vulnerability where impulse and unhoned instinct doesn't do very well and where damage can easily be dished out. Giving intimacy means getting known and there is no ouvre bigger and more significant than that. C.S. Lewis wrote that we "read to know we are not alone."
Those who say they can do without familiarity have never had the courage to acquire it, they're strangers to it. And one could never rely on someone who refuses familiarity because to refuse it means to refuse a shared history, connectivity. And while contentedness can happen free of context, happiness needs more, at the very least, it needs a semblance of importance. The feeling of sucking on frozen grapes makes some, including me, feel content. Wearing silk panty hose with a form-fitting black dress hand-made in Berlin in the early 90's while wearing high-heeled boots as I meet someone for dinner makes me feel good. I do it when I feel like my inner self needs excoriating so that it can get to feeling better.