Who’s happy?

masks-001I began this blog a week ago, intending to write about happiness and how, generally, I believe the upper-classes to be less happy than the lower. I thought I had loads of quotes to use: stuff read over the years – but finding them was a different matter; buried in hundreds of books. However, after nearly abandoning the idea through lack of material, I decided to press on anyway.

A controversial theory perhaps but interesting all the same. Of course the classes as I imagine them mainly existed in the past, nevertheless, there are probably three groups of people everywhere: those at the bottom, those in the middle and those at the top. There are of course major differences in ambition among these categories, some being more-or-less happy where they are, while others’ aspirations and desires know no bounds.

I generalise shamelessly, but I have never understood sentiments such as Vita Sackville-West’s, below:

No thinking man can be happy, all that we can hope for is to get through life with as much suppression of misery as possible.”

I’m sure Sackville-West was immensely talented. I don’t know. I haven’t read her. The above quote is from West’s novel, The Easter Party, quoted in a review of the latest biography of West in the Spectator, written by Mary Keen. She preceded the quote with a comment on Sissinghurst and the gardens created by West, and on which were based her Observer gardening columns. She writes:

Isn’t that what imaginative people do? Make somewhere they can call their own world? Reality, both of the real and of the modern, manufactured sort, is often pretty unbearable and most of us wear masks and adopt strategies for dealing with life in whatever way we can.

Keen goes on to quote Myles Hildyard, who questioned in his letters the right of those who expect to be happy.

So, we have:

…as much suppression of misery as possible’

Reality…is pretty unbearable’

and Hildyard questions those who

expect to be happy’.

All three statements are alien to me. I can’t speak for others, because people are rarely honest about this, but I have been mainly happy throughout my life, at worst content and occasionally miserable. I have no idea why West had to suppress misery. She was well-born, wanted for nothing, lived in splendid surroundings, had a successful career as an artist and two lovely children. What was there to be miserable about?

Now, I do not hide from reality. I am well aware of all the suffering in the world, but thankfully it hasn’t reached me. The unnecessary suffering of others can haunt and anger me; it does not affect my own happiness though – why should it? Making oneself miserable about the suffering of others does no good to the sufferers and no good to oneself. I think in many cases it is merely an excuse to be miserable. I am amazed at the number of young people I meet who declare life a trial, who didn’t ask to be here and don’t appreciate that life is a gift. To be enjoyed. You are here once for a comparatively short time. Be happy.

As you may have gathered, I am working-class.

I suppose what Sackville-West is suggesting is that no thinking person can be happy because the very act of thinking reveals how horrible the world is. But the world isn’t horrible, some human beings are. I don’t see that as a reason to be miserable, especially one as privileged as Vita Sackville-West. It seems to me that many of her class were, and are, just plain miserable. A misery, through their actions, they often end up inflicting on the rest of us, who are not miserable.

Steven King is most certainly working class, straight-talking, no-nonsense and honest. Norman Mailer was always a happy soul, and he was far from well-born. He was at home in – and wrote about – all levels of society. Chekov was descended from peasants, and wrote about them honestly. Tolstoy wanted to be a peasant, learnt their ways but couldn’t be one; he wrote about them sentimentally, but his motives and his heart were in the right place. Graham Greene was happy, although he said he made himself sad by doing too much with his life. Not a writer, but a genius just the same, Charlie Chaplin was born poor, but still thought:

We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery.

Of course there is another side, many examples will prove me wrong. Ernest Hemingway said:

Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.

I don’t agree with him. Hemingway was never a happy man and projected his feelings on to others. Kafka, born into the middle-classes, was just plain miserable (and unreadable, in my opinion):

People label themselves with all sorts of adjectives. I can only pronounce myself as nauseatingly miserable beyond repair.

Beyond repair; good-grief. I’m glad I never met him.

I believe that if you’ve never struggled to pay a bill, never wondered where the next penny is coming from, never been close to homelessness through no fault of your own, then you don’t really fully understand life. Many of the rich and well-off consider the poor to be to blame for their own predicament. This is an easy way to think (or not think); some of the poor are to blame, many lack great ambition (no sin), most are just not greedy, and the majority are not to blame for where they happen to be. They were born there. As were most of the rich. Being born with money means (through no fault of your own) you never have to really deal with life. And I’m not sure you really know happiness either.

Most of the poor I have met are a damn sight happier than the rich. Markedly so. Especially in India, Bali and Cuba, to name just a few of the places I have experience of. Cuba, where 90% of the people are very poor, has the happiest people I’ve ever met. I believe the poor, or not rich more accurately, are happier because, as Epictetus put it:

Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.

And Aristotle:

Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.

Charles Darwin, who understood much, and was not of the poor said:

If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.

Our institutions cause not only poverty but people in body bags. Of this, Barbara Bush said:

Why should we hear about body bags and deaths? Why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?

This does show how some people deal with reality. They ignore it. I’m not at all sure that Bush has a beautiful mind, but she believes that she has, and the fact that her son caused those body bags to be used does not seem to trouble her, or indeed even occur to her. This is a fine example of how someone, born to riches, lives in a sort of dream-world, a strange world that doesn’t exist, except in the imaginations of very rich, stupid people.

Sadly, I have generalised and simplified outrageously, but at least I have raised a subject for discussion. I will end on a positive note, from perhaps the greatest optimist of all time, Anne Frank, whose happiness in the most horrible of circumstances is an example I wish everybody would follow:

In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery and death. I don’t think of all the misery but of the beauty that still remains.

Whoever is happy will make others happy.

Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl

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Writing Heroes – Ernest Hemingway

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I have a strange relationship with Ernest Hemingway. I read The Old Man and the Sea when I was very young, and loved it. I was completely caught up in the story of the Cuban fisherman who caught a giant marlin while way out to sea and…well I won’t spoil the story for those who may want to read it. Then I didn’t read anything else by Hemingway for 30 years, picking him up again when I first visited Cuba.

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Probably as much has been written about Hemingway as any other writer. As with many writers, even Nobel prize winners, the critics at first loved him, perhaps over praised him, and then turned against him, sometimes with justification. But the critics turn against almost everyone eventually and: Who are they but people who can’t write, people who can’t tell stories?

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I haven’t even read all his books, but he did change the way many people write, so he’s endlessly interesting, his incredible life apart. When I returned to Hemingway I read his short stories and turned first to Big Two Hearted River, which I’d heard was special. It was. By this time I thought much more about writing; I couldn’t be pulled along by a narrative as I had been by the Old Man and the Sea, and had not been much impressed by any new writing. The story hit home. I understood Hemingway and what he did and what he meant to people. When Samuel Putnam asked Hemingway what his aims were in the twenties, his answer was:

Put down what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way I can tell it.

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Well, he did that in 1925 with Big Two Hearted River. I found some of the writing moved me (a rare experience); it sounds corny but reading it was like being there. You felt it. I don’t know if it will have the same effect here, in isolation, but here goes. Nick has just set up camp, alone, by the river:

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It smelled pleasantly of canvas. Already there was something mysterious and homelike. Nick was happy as he crawled inside the tent. He had not been unhappy all day. This was different though. Now things were done. There had been this to do. Now it was done. It had been a hard trip. He was very tired. That was done. He had made his camp. He was settled. Nothing could touch him. It was a good place to camp. He was there, in a good place. He was in his home where he had made it. Now he was hungry.

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This passage reminded me immediately of my hitch hiking days in Europe. After a day on the road, find a site, pitch your tent and you were done for the day. But it didn’t just remind me – it made me feel it. Hemingway has captured that sense of achievement, of creating your home, being comfortable and being all set for the evening, perfectly. It is a wonderful, simple piece of writing. It looks easy – anybody could write that – but they couldn’t. I liked most of the other short stories too.

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I also read Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises. I enjoyed it but not so much. Already his macho tendencies were creeping in. Later I disliked A Farewell to Arms. It seemed to me thoroughly sentimental, not really an experience of war but a man imagining the part he would like to play in it. Hemingway was intensely competitive: the great white hunter, the fearless war correspondent, the champion fisherman, the boxer, the drinker. I felt it tainted most of his writing after the short stories.

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I liked For Whom the Bell Tolls and Across the River and Into the Trees; I didn’t like Islands in the Stream. A Moveable Feast is an entertaining, but not entirely true account of Hemingway’s early days in Paris. The Garden of Eden is very strange, an erotic ménage a trois, again based on his early days in France. But with success came obsessions: to hunt, to own a boat and catch the biggest fish, to be present, though not necessarily involved in, war. Ultimately it felt that Hemingway was in constant competition with everybody, even poor Scott Fitzgerald, whose fragile psyche he messed with.

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The story that did for me occurred long after he had lost a lot of friends because of his behaviour. He was on his boat, Pilar, in Cuban waters with a good and old friend, Mike Strater. Strater had hooked a really big fish, the biggest he’d ever caught and bigger than anything Hemingway had ever caught. He was slowly reeling it in to the boat. It was being followed by sharks but they only really go for blood; he would have got it on board. Hemingway grabbed his machine gun (he loved shooting sharks) and sprayed the water. Strater’s fish was attacked. By the time they landed it the bottom half had been eaten away. It weighed in at 500 pounds, but would have weighed double that whole. It was pure jealousy, stopping a friend from beating him. He then lied about the event in an article for Esquire. Friends don’t do that.

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Of course his whole life was tragic. There were five suicides in his family. It is thought his father had the genetic disease hemochromatosis, where the inability to metabolize iron culminates in mental and physical deterioration. Hemingway’s hemochromatosis had been diagnosed in early 1961. Hemingway’s father, siblings Ursula and Leicester and granddaughter Margaux all died by their own hand. Hemingway’s youngest son, Gregory, died in 2001 as a transsexual named Gloria. Several books could be written on Hemingway’s life, but here I’m just concentrating on the writing.

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I returned to The Old Man and the Sea a few years back and didn’t like it much. Was that just the result of me becoming older and more cynical? Partly, but not wholly. Although it showed flashes of the old Hemingway, I thought it was overly sentimental and contrived.

In Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost (2012), Paul Hendrickson spends over 700 pages trying to rescue Hemingway’s reputation. I don’t think he does it. In many ways he was an awful man. His writing remains though, and many of his early observations have stayed with me. Carlos Baker:

Hemingway always wrote slowly and revised carefully, cutting, eliding, substituting, experimenting with syntax to see what a sentence could most economically carry, and then throwing out all the words that could be spared.

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The actual, he wrote in 1949, is ‘made of knowledge, experience, wine, bread, oil, salt, vinegar, bed, early mornings, nights, days, the sea, men, women, dogs, beloved motor cars, bicycles, hills and valleys, the appearance and disappearance of trains on straight and curved tracks…cock grouse drumming on a basswood log, the smell of sweetgrass and fresh-smoked leather and Sicily.’

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Perhaps not so awful.

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