Happiness, Death and the Remainder of Life By Jonathan Lear Harvard University Press, 224 pages, $37.50 Darwin's Worms: On Life Stories and Death Stories By Adam Phillips Basic Books, 148 pages, $29
I decided years ago that, so far as possible without pretzelling into the rhetorical equivalent of Kama Sutra position 82, I would never speak of happiness. Just as wanting "closure" keeps people from knowing when to quit, happiness seems the source of our misery: A god that is not only false, but insatiably false. So abandoning the chase in favour of, say, engagement or intensity was a cure for a figmentary ailment.
But now and then happiness starts acting up on me again. Lately, in fact. Sometimes you get (I get) so unhappy that it just won't do. Worse yet, occasionally you are (I am) actually happy. Giddy. Awestruck. Enlarged. Copacetic. So much for my liberation from its pursuit.
I wasn't exactly the first monkey to peel this banana, then slip on it again. So it is serendipity -- a happy accident, or an accident of happiness -- that finds both British psychoanalyst-essayist Adam Phillips and American psychoanalyst-philosopher Jonathan Lear addressing it in their latest books.
Lear, a professor on the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, gives happiness top billing. Phillips, a practising child therapist (with rock-star looks) until he became a London literary lion, has been called "the closest thing we have to a philosopher of happiness." Sure enough, before page one even arrives, an epigraph gives us Freud's version of the 1970s Hallmark slogan: "Happiness is . . . entirely subjective."
The two books have much else in common. Each writer tackles Sigmund Freud (in fact, the same pages of him) and adds an interlocutor: Aristotle in Lear's case and, for Phillips, Charles Darwin. And surprisingly, both authors feel compelled to link up happiness with that famously glum subject, death.
While each is keen and scrupulous, Lear only confirms my original anti-happiness stance. Phillips is the one who will shake you upside down until change falls out your pockets.
Lear pairs happiness up with death as equally meaningless. He begins from Aristotle's Ethics, where a description of "the good" leads to the aim of happiness. Aristotle defines it as the contemplative life, conveniently for a philosopher, but quickly adds that only the gods truly achieve it. He invents happiness to destroy it, or maybe destroys it to save it.
Meanwhile, Freud -- that great doctor of figmentary ailments -- spends his career suggesting misery is a symptom, even a means, of seeking the perverse, forbidden pleasures of our unknowable hearts. Late in the game, he writes Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Destructive patterns and aggressions, he decides, cannot fully be explained by Eros (not just sex but love). He postulates an urge to eliminate energy, to seek oblivion: the "death drive."
Like Aristotle's "happiness," Lear claims, Freud's "death" is an "emblematic signifier." Glimpsing something outside ethics or pleasure, an irreducible "remainder" to life, each tries to reduce and contain it. The result is not a new theory but an empty noise. Recognizing disruptions and inconsistencies in any account of the principles of human nature, each invents a disruptive principle, which creates new inconsistencies. (Lear is quite good on what those are.) This could go on forever, no?
So, Lear concludes, only "the willingness to live without a principle" lets you "begin to grasp the peculiar possibilities for possibilities that human being opens up." And frankly, unless you're a psychoanalytic philosopher by trade, that is all you need to hear. Lear's academic compulsion to show his work drags us through long, self-cancelling arguments, only to stop where Adam Phillips begins.
True, Phillips ends there, too. When you start by saying there's no destination, it had better be a wild trip. So he laughs off straight readings of the death drive (which Freud himself called "a mythology"), along with any other literalism that impedes supple thinking, the better to tease out what the point of all this pointlessness might be.
Death, after all, is not exactly like happiness, as empty signifiers go. It is cold and concrete, life's one sure thing. Darwin and Freud faced a new century that would have to cope without God; we have witnessed it substitute various political, material and aesthetic fables of salvation. Perhaps it is time to wonder what life might look like if we took our unredeemed deaths for granted?
It may be that, as the Snoopy card has it, happiness is a warm puppy. But that puppy might also be moist, rank and wormy. So mourn awhile, then get another puppy, or a salamander instead. Remember to forget.
Freud and Darwin, Phillips suggests, were trying to teach people to enjoy that story. Not to tolerate it, but to love it. Both evolution, which depicts how individual extinction brings worldly plenitude, and psychoanalysis, which shows creativity springing from psychic frustration, are stories "persuading us to be good losers." Their gentlest hint is that, as Elizabeth Bishop wryly versified, "The art of losing isn't hard to master."
Phillips considers the obscure preoccupations of his naturalist heroes. Freud had a love-hate obsession with biography, and tried to foil his own biographers by destroying his personal papers. So when Freud describes the organism's "desire to die in its own way," Phillips suggests, he is referring to the furtive self, the imperative to escape any one telling of one's life story -- including one's own. If psychoanalysis is about continually explaining life in new ways rather than getting stuck in one narrative, death is the puzzling ending that means the story is never fully told.
Then there are Darwin's worms. From his youth through his final book after The Origin of Species, Darwin studied earthworms, those tiny beings whose guts till and renew the soil, out of sight of man's grand designs. Phillips turns the worms wittily throughout his slim volume, as a metaphor for thinking itself ("digestion"), or for the working masses who invisibly run the aristocrats' world, or for science's slow erosion of religious faith.
Both thinkers, Phillips points out, work by inversion. Freud makes the "base" instincts the psyche's masters, and Darwin the "lowest" creatures the engine of life. Without God, Phillips says, "It was to write about loss without writing about despair -- without the refuge of optimism, the confidence of nihilism, or the omniscience of the tragic view -- that had become the challenge."
Harder still is to do it without "idealizing our ideals." Death's best lure is to love nature in all its senses, to live with contingency, not to compound the inevitable by suffering from the idea of suffering itself -- and not to make reality worse than it is by yearning for somewhere else to go.
Does this sound far from happiness? Phillips's buoyant sentences, full of wordplay and aphorism, make a temporary life seem anything but a defeat; truth and immortality are the notions that weigh us down. Joy may not last, but then neither does despair, and which you choose to give up on is, finally, up to you. Carl Wilson is an editor and music critic at The Globe and Mail.