The joys of being miserable

How is it that we can witness some three hours of so of the utmost human misery that is King Lear, and still come out of the experience feeling exhilarated? Perhaps Orwell was right: in tragedy, we see human beings destroyed, but nonetheless feel that humanity is nobler than the forces that have defeated it. But, in the works especially of the last couple of hundred years or so, even the consolation of our essential nobility has been stripped away. Flaubert, in his works, presented an utter nothingess at the heart of our very existence, and refused to offer consolation: Emma Bovary’s rebellion is just as stupid and as pointless as that she rebels against; Frédéric Moreau remains as irredeemably mediocre and as unremarkable as ever; and even Félicité’s spiritual ecstasy is focussed upon nothing more exalted than a stuffed parrot that is already falling apart at the seams. Conrad merely saw darkness at the heart of everything; Kafka’s protagonist, when he finally has the knife twisted into his heart, hears before he dies the words “Like a dog”: our shame must outlive us; indeed, pace Larkin (who was actually quite an optimist in this respect), it is the only part of us that does outlive us.

Not very cheery, this modern literature lark, is it? Tragedians of the past told us that we were essentially noble: even if we have our eyes gouged out and even if we run stark staring mad on the blasted heath – as you do – we are still essentially noble, nobler than the forces that destroy us.  But the moderns won’t grant us even that. Between being born on the edge of the grave and falling in, Beckett tells us, there is nothing in that brief interim to make it worthwhile.

So, the obvious thing to do is to turn away from all this. All these Flauberts and Conrads and Kafkas and Becketts  – who needs ‘em? Why not, instead, feel good with some feelgood pieces of fluff? A West End musical? A Hollywood romcom? 

I generally have nothing against feelgood pieces of fluff, but ultimately, they don’t really satisfy. Not me, at any rate. Sooner or later, I know I’ll have to turn back to these Flauberts and Becketts for some sort of deeper satisfaction. But I’m damned if I can even begin to understand what sort of deeper satisfaction it is that I get from these works – works that tell us how utterly stupid, trivial and insignificant we are in every way. 

But there must for all that, be something there that satisfies. How else can I explain my actually reading and re-reading the likes of Flaubert and Conrad of my own free will? How can I account for these works satisfying me more deeply and more completely than even the goodest-feeling of feelgoods? I don’t know that I have an answer to this, but perhaps there is a clue in these lines I came across recently: 

When a poem rhymes, when a form generates itself, when a metre provokes consciousness into new postures, it is already on the side of life. When a rhyme surprises and extends the fixed relations between words, that in itself protests against necessity. When language does more than enough, as it does in all achieved poetry, it opts for the condition of overlife, and rebels at limit.

– Seamus Heaney 

That boy Seamus does have a way with words, doesn’t he?

I’m not sure where Seamus Heaney said that: I found it quoted in Colm Toibin’s review in The Guardian of Heaney’s new collection Human Chain. But it struck a chord. When a form generates itself, Heaney says, it is already on the side of life. Even when the artist imparts a vision of life that is irredeemably bleak, the work is, nonetheless, on the side of life. Any art that is worth the candle is on the side of life, whether it likes it or not. 

That does not provide a consolation: a depiction of futility can be no consolation for futility. But it satisfies. And it satisfies precisely because it “does more than enough”; and, in doing more than enough, it protests against necessity, it rebels at limits. It says “bollocks” to the universe, that huge chunk of ironmongery against which we are all, apparently, insignificant. So, even when Flaubert tells us of the insignificance of Emma Bovary, even when Kafka tells us of the death “like a dog” of Josef K, they are contradicting what they are saying by the way they are saying it: they are protesting against the necessity, they are rebelling against the limits, even while depicting these same necessities and limits. And this protest, this rebellion, satisfies. 

I am reminded of some lines by another rather good Irish poet:

 All perform their tragic play,
There struts Hamlet, there is Lear,
That’s Ophelia, that Cordelia;
Yet they, should the last scene be there,
The great stage curtain about to drop,
If worthy their prominent part in the play,
Do not break up their lines to weep.
They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay;
Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.

Somehow, I don’t think Yeats had “feelgood” in mind when talking about “gaiety”.

12 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by alan on October 17, 2010 at 10:55 am

    “: a depiction of futility can be no consolation for futility. But it satisfies. And it satisfies precisely because it “does more than enough”; and, in doing more than enough, it protests against necessity, it rebels at limits. ”
    Not sure about this – it surely satisfies only if it is a good depiction of futility – and there’s the rub, can we have an absolute measure of quality in art, one that is not dependent on personal prejudices.
    I think that you would argue for an absolute definition of quality not dependent on point of view, and it seems to me that the argument in favour of relativism is one of the things that is driving the belief in futility.
    Me, I don’t care whether it’s futile or not, I happen to want a world where people make an effort and make judgements. Being miserable isn’t fun, and I suspect that this nihilism is part of the adolescence of our race. We haven’t yet got over our realisation that there is no god, we are angry at the absent parent and have not yet taken responsibility for ourselves.


    • I don’t know that I want to enter into a debate here on relativism and absolutes – mainly because that’s a very different can of worms, and also because I was planning a post specifically on that subject: let’s keep that debate till then.

      Being miserable isn’t fun, as you say. I fully agree. The apparent delight taken in being miserable is, as you suspect, nothing more than adolescent posturing. What I am trying to understand – and I don’t claim to have yet anything like a full understanding of the matter – is why certain works that depict futility can nonetheless satisfy at some mysterious level. Heaney’s lines seem to imply that the very act of creating art, of putting the chaotic messiness of this world and of our lives into an ordered form – is a sort of rebellion against the limits, a protest against the necessity. Or, as Yeats puts it, it’s a “gaiety transfiguring all that dread”. And what satisfies is not the dread: it’s the “gaiety” (the word is startling and challengiing in this context) that can transfigure “all that dread”. That does not console by any means, but it *can* provide a certain satisfaction at a mysterious level that merely vapid “feelgood” works cannot reach.


  2. Posted by alan on October 17, 2010 at 7:25 pm

    I think we’ve discussed before the observation attributed to Aldous Huxley that Mozart wrote sad works that only superficially appeared be gay. To be able to look at the Gorgon and not turn to stone is something that only a vanishingly small number of human beings are capable of. By all means celebrate them.


  3. Posted by Kirsty on October 18, 2010 at 7:55 am

    Why is it satisfying? I think it’s the same reason my friend likes the Smiths. He told me it’s comforting to know there’re people who’re as whinny as him. 😀 Everyone is attempted to give in to nihilism and futility once in a while. In our society, there’s constant pressure to be positive, to find meaning in life, to make the best of what you’re given. To indulge in a bit of adolescent posturing is also a form of rebellion against the necessity.

    Is whinning better than feelgood? I agree with Alan, I think it largely depends on the craftsmanship of the authors. Jane Austen is essentially “feelgood”, but beyond all the fun about courtship and weddings, the stories have some bite. Even Mozart is feelgood except for Don Giovanni. There’s nothing wrong with happy endings even the improbable ones, if the story recognizes the darker and more tragic elements of human existence.


    • Hello Kirsty, good to see you here again.

      First of all, I do agree with you (and Alan) that the quality of craftsmanship (or of artistry) is important. Indeed, I took that for granted, and thought that concern for quality was implicit the examples I chose of “miserable” authors – Flaubert, Kafka, Conrad, Beckett. If one looks through the net at various sites where amateur poets post examples of their work, one frequently finds “poems” (well – if the author says they’re poems, they’re poems!) that are innocent of any craftsmanship, let alone artistry, and which have nothing more to tell us than that life is hard, and the author is depressed. These may well be, for all I know, expressions of genuine and heartfelt emotion, but, sadly, it is impossible to take these poems seriously as poems. We can all feel emotions, but it requires craftsmanship to communicate these: it is a sine qua non.

      I am certainly not against “feelgood” or against “happy endings”. In an earlier post on this blog (the one about comedy) I found myself lamenting what seemed to me to be our inability to celebrate and to affirm. I agree fully with you when you say “there’s nothing wrong with happy endings even the improbable ones, if the story recognizes the darker and more tragic elements of human existence”: for me, one of the finest instances of this is Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, which ends in a mood of joy, but, in the journey to that end, has glimpsed into the abyss: the joy is hard won. The problem I have with most material labelled “feelgood” is that the darker and the more tragic elements are *not* recognized, or even acknowledged: the cheerfulness is far too unrelenting, and, as a consequence, appears merely vapid.

      What I still find difficult to get my head around is the appeal of writers such as Flaubert or Conrad – writers for whom the deepest pessimism was not merely a temporary state of mind, nor a pose. I am by no means a morose person: given a choice between, say, watching a serious Bergman film and watching Laurel & Hardy, I would, nine times out of ten, settle for Laurel & Hardy. Yet, that one time out of ten, I’d watch “Cries and Whispers”. Or read “Nostromo”. Or listen to a Mahler symphony. And I still find this something of a mystery: Why should I be drawn to works such as these? What sort of satisfaction could I possibly get from them?

      The funny thing is that I don’t subscribe to the nihilism of these works – even when I am enjoying them (if “enjoy” is the right word here, which I doubt). I’m not even a once-in-a-while nihilist. I have known people who have suffered from clinical depression, and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy: as Alan says with characteristic understatement, it is no fun. And I fear I’m too old now even to indulge in adolescent posturing! But there seems no element of posturing at all in the deep pessimism of a “Bouvard et Pecuchet” or of “The Secret Agent” – nor, I think, in the appreciation of such works.

      I do like the point you make about the constant pressure in our society to be positive. (“If you’re not happy there’s something wrong with you – try some Prozac!”) It is perhaps this unrelenting insistence on the positive that makes so much of “feelgood” material seem so unsatisfactory. And we soon feel even works that succumb to the darkness are, in this context, more satisfactory than works that refuse even to acknowledge that darkness. One of the reasons we read is, after all, to remind ourselves that we are not alone.

      As for Mozart – well, I suppose he’d be my desert island composer. I hesitate about posting on music on this blog, as I am not a musician, and can only speak of music in layman’s terms; but, for all that, there is a post on Cosi fan Tutte somewhere in the blog archives, and, since this blog was set up partly with the intention of sounding off about things I love, I think I’d better get writing soon about some of his other works.

      Cheers for now, Himadri


      • Posted by Kirsty on October 19, 2010 at 3:29 am

        Hi Himadri, I read your post about Cosi, actually I think I discovered your blog because that post popped up in the suggested links when I was on an opera blog! I love Wolfie as well:)

  4. Nobody has yet mentioned an important element of the tragic mode: its role as cautionary tale. Whilst it might be hard to find any useful lesson in Kafka, I don’t think the same can be said for King Lear (or Hamlet, for that matter). At the most basic level, Lear is surely an argument for primogeniture; the root of all his woes seems to be the decision to divide his kingdom between his daughters.

    In Kafka, perhaps one could argue that the caution is against idealism – against expecting too much, or expecting life to make sense. Whether or not one is happier, or somehow less vulnerable, if one takes his attitude of black humour – laughing at an absurd world, rather than trying to comprehend it – is of course highly debatable. I can see pitfalls at either extreme, since the person conditioned to see only absurdity in everything is as much a solipsist as the one determined to make sense of everything. Boringly, as usual the optimum position seems to be in the middle ground. Overly negative people turn pessimism into a self-fulfilling prophecy, whereas overly optimistic people simply set themselves up for disappointment.

    Perhaps another angle on this is an odd sort of schadenfreude – the sense of “there but for the grace of God go I” (as Aristotle said, the function of tragedy is to evoke pity). Of course this doesn’t apply if one accepts the universality of an author’s nihilistic vision. But even in some of the supposed nihilists we find a grim admiration for human doggedness – Beckett’s famous “I must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on…” – or “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”


    • Hello Mike, good to see you’ve found your way over here!

      There is certainly, I think, an admiration, as you say, for the sheer doggedness, for the reslilience. We see this in something such as Flaubert’s deeply enigmatic unfinished last novel, “Bouvard et Pecuchet”, where, despite the comic disasters that befall our two heroes, they seem never to give up, never be disheartened: after each disaster, they simply roll up their sleeves, and keep going. There is an element of this in Laurel & Hardy as well, and in both cases, it seems an endearing trait. The question, certainly in Flaubert’s case, is *why* this should be endearing: if everything is futile, what can be so very admirable about not giving up? Far from helping to clarify the issue, it seems to add another yet layer of complexity. But it’s certainly an intriguing layer of complexity.

      I can’t say I’m entirely convinced by the idea of seeing something such as “King Lear” as a “cautionary tale”. A “cautionary tale” is only possible from a perspective that sees moral choices as essentially simple – i.e. it says “You should act this way, but not that way” : how we should act, what we should do, is perfectly clear, perfectly straight-forward. This is the world of Aesop’s fables, but I really can’t see it applying – even at the most basic level – to plays such as “King Lear” or “Hamlet”, the moral complexities of which are so knotty and intractable that even later masterpieces such as “The Trial” or “Waiting for Godot” can seem little more than footnotes. To see such complex works from an essentially simplistic perspective is likely to prove deeply *un*satisfactory rather than otherwise. At least, for me.

      As for Kafka, I have a confession to make: I have never found his writing remotely funny. I know many *do* find him funny; and I know also that Kafka himself thought his writings comic. I have now read all of Kafka’s novels and his short fiction, and I don’t think I laughed once, or even smiled once. I find him fascinating: I often re-read his stuff; but the humour escapes me. This probably means that I don’t really “get” Kafka – that I don’t understand him. He remains an enigma, but a fascinating enigma. Maybe some day, I’ll get him!


      • I didn’t mean to imply that Lear or Hamlet are *simply* cautionary tales – they are of course far more complex than that. But I think the tradition of tragedy has from the beginning had a cautionary aspect to it, and I think this runs at least as far as Shakespeare. I don’t agree that essentially cautionary works must of necessity be as clear cut as Aesop’s fables – for example, Huxley’s “Brave New World” is clearly cautionary to a large extent, whilst being less morally black-and-white than Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”.

  5. Hello Mike, yes – you’re right, of course. I think I was a bit startled at first by the idea of seeing Shakespeare’s tragedies in this light, because seeing them this way is so very alien to what I am accustomed to. But yes, on reflection, it is certainly possible to see them in this light, although I would argue very strongly *against* seeing them in such a light, as there seems little point coming to so much and taking away so little. I am not frankly sure, though, what possible satisfaction one may take from reading these work as cautionary tales!

    The moral world of “Brave New World” or “Nineteen Eighty-Four” may be a few rungs above that of Aesop’s fables, but not, perhaps, by much. I suppose this is why, for all their merits, neither is amongst the works I personally value most: their moral aspects are a bit too clear-cut. I realise this is doing an injustice to both works, as this is not where the greatness of either work lies.

    But I am coming round to the idea that one can get satisfaction from even the darkest and most pessimistic of works because that elusive quality we label “aesthetic” is somehow independent of teh optimism or otherwise of the vision presented. A serious contemplation of the nature of our lives, expressed in a form that, in Heaney’s words. does “more than enough”, satisfies, even though the contemplation may take us in directions that we may find ourselves feeling uncomfortable with, or even rejecting. I would certainly class Flaubert and Conrad among my favourite writers, although their nihilsm is very far from my own personal outlook.


  6. Posted by Castorboy on November 2, 2010 at 7:04 am

    I haven’t read Flaubert, Kafka or Heaney but I believe that in their writing they are rebelling against the limits of ideas, conventions, thoughts whatever – I am not competent to describe exactly what they mean but I agree with them trying to say what they mean. There was a German philospher who died in 1941, a name something like Paulsen (it was late at night and I heard this literary item by chance) was quoted as follows; “If you don’t understand something, it always helps to write it down”.
    I took that to mean that a thought can enter your head unbidden, so rather than ignore it, try and explain how you feel in words.
    So it is not necessarily being joyous in being miserable, it is quite simply enjoying “stretching or exercising our minds”
    We need these great writers to prod us out of the mediocrity which passes for “culture” today.


    • Hello Castorboy, and welcome to the blog: it’s good to see you here!

      “If you don’t understand something, it always helps to write it down” is really very good advice. Thoughts that are often nebulous or merely partly formed – as thoughts tend to be when they enter one’s head unbidden – acquire greater clarity when put down in words, because the very act of putting something into words gives it form and structure. I think this is perhaps the reason why I try to write about books after reading them: it helps me get my thoughts in order.

      No-one, I think, takes joy in being miserable – or, rather, no-one takes true joy in being truly miserable. I suppose there’s a joy of sorts to be had in adolescent posturing: I certainly remember all those companions of my youth who were so utterly convinced that life was really not worthwhile, but who are now all doing rather well and enjoying the same life that hadn’t been worthwhile. But I suppose there’s nothing wrong with a bit of posturing in one’s adolescence.

      But when we are speaking of the likes of Flaubert and Beckett, we aren’t talking here about adolescent posturing. But the very act of creation is, as you put it, a rebellion against “against the limits of ideas, conventions, thoughts whatever”.

      I hope to see you here more often!
      Cheers, Himadri


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