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John Zerzan: Happiness

Article by Anarcho-Primitivist Numero Uno.
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Is there a truth of happiness, on whose basis happiness can be judged? Happiness is as encompassing as it is immediate. It has many facets and manifestations. It is elemental, potent; like health, happiness is contagious and breeds hope in others. Happiness has to do with one’s whole reaction to life, and for that reason alone, it is personal as well as mysterious. The philosopher Wittgenstein had a harsh and pessimistic temperament and experienced his share of intense anguish. His seems the portrait of an unhappy man, and yet his biographer Norman Malcolm reports that his last words were, “Tell them I’ve had a wonderful life.”[12] John Keats’ brief life was overshadowed by illness, but he often claimed that things are gorgeous because they die. The sources of happiness lie in various spheres of our lives, but characteristically these are not so separate. Human life has never been lived in isolation, so we seek experiences that are more than just meaningful for ourselves alone. Vivasvan Soni’s insight says a lot: “No part of life can be bracketed as irrelevant to happiness. All of life counts infinitely. There is no greater tragedy than unhappiness, and no greater responsibility for us than happiness.”[13]

In my experience, the cornerstone of happiness is love. Here is the dimension where we find the greatest fulfillment. Frantz Fanon, better known for his work on other subjects, subscribed to a standard of “authentic love––wishing for others what one postulates for oneself.”[14] There are other satisfactions, but do they match the satisfying and enriching quality of love relations? If a child has love and protection, there is the basis for happiness throughout life. If neither is provided, his or her prospects are very limited. If only one of them is to be given, I think that love outranks even protection or security in terms of the odds for happiness.

Some have dissented as to the centrality of love. Nietzsche and Sartre seem to have seen love as confining, closing off prerogatives. That bloodless master of cheap irony, E.M. Cioran, provides this little meditation: “I think of that emperor dear to my heart, Tiberius, of his acrimony and his ferocity…. I love him because his neighbor seemed to him inconceivable. I love him because he loved no one.”[15]

What would a history of happiness look like? Once happiness was a central focus of thought in the West. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, for example, is a major discourse on the subject. Epicurus spent his life facing the question of how to attain happiness, arousing the ire of our modern friend Cioran. The latter referred to Epicurus’ writings as a “compost heap,” citing him as indicative of the false path that occurs “when the problem of happiness supplants that of knowledge.”[16]

Much later, the Cartesian account of emotions as so many sensations enters the picture, and Voltaire (1694-1778) was the last happy writer, according to Roland Barthes. The 18th century saw a deluge of writing about happiness, mainly focused on private well-being. A thorough de-politicizing of what was meant by happiness was taking place, on the eve of mass society. Kant typified this trend, by bonding––even equating––duty-oriented morality with happiness.

The new century exhibited the Romantic emphasis on joy rather than happiness (Blake, Wordsworth, et al.), with joy’s strong connotation of that which is fleeting. Transient indeed was the hymn to a hopeful future expressed in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, in particular its final movement based on Schiller’s “Ode to Joy.” The work has justly been termed the last serious music expressing happiness/joy. As industrial life began to spread, it can be no coincidence that Hegel saw human history as the record of irredeemable misfortune.

Modern wage labor and political social contract theorizing (Rousseau, the U.S. Constitution, etc.) legitimated the pursuit of private happiness. In the public sphere, the question of general happiness was downplayed. Reward became the name of the game. For Hegel, property and personality were almost synonymous; Marx associated happiness with the satisfaction of interests alone.

Sentimentalism was an important facet of the 19th century cultural ethos: the underlying emotional tableau of lost community. A fragmented, anonymous society had all but abandoned the goal of widespread happiness. The early Victorian utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill, less crude than that of its founder Bentham at least, failed to recognize the impoverishment of the age. Mill was the last philosopher of social happiness.

Jean-François Lyotard placed “the withdrawal of the real” at the center of the experience of modernity.[17] We are losing the referents, the real things, felt contact with what is non-simulated. How could happiness not decline in the bargain? It has declined; the technoculture’s ascent is the descent of happiness.[18] Today’s dreary, isolating technological frenzy keeps sinking it further, with various pathological effects. But our quest remains what it was for Spinoza: the search for happiness, with the reality of our bodies in a real, bodily world.

In the 1890s Anton Chekhov visited Sakhalin Island, with its Gilyak hunter-gatherers. He observed that they had not yet come to grips with roads. “Often,” he noted, “you will see them…making their way in single file through the marshes beside the road.”[19] They were always somewhere, and were uninterested in being nowhere, on industrialism’s roadway. They had not yet lost the singularity of the present, which technology exactly takes away. With our dwindling attention spans, foreshortening shallowness of thought, and thirst for diversions, how much are we actually in the world? The disembodied self becomes increasingly disengaged from reality, including emotional reality.

Anxiety has replaced happiness as the hallmark sensation, now that community is absent.[20] We no longer trust our instincts. Maintaining a vast distance from the rhythms of nature and primary experiences of the senses in their intimate concreteness, the leading “thinkers” so often consecrate or uphold this unhappy, disembodied state. Alain Badiou, for example, concurs with Kant that truth and overall health are “independent of animality and the whole world of sense.”[21]

But what is abstract about happiness?

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