In Books, Is It Harder to Pull off Happiness Than Its Opposite?

By Jamison, Leslie | International New York Times, March 14, 2014 | Go to article overview

In Books, Is It Harder to Pull off Happiness Than Its Opposite?


Jamison, Leslie, International New York Times


Leslie Jamison and Adam Kirsch discuss the old saw that says "happiness writes white."

Leslie Jamison

I call it the "diary effect," the way journals skew toward the dark and the difficult. Reading a life through its diary entries can make it seem like little more than an unmitigated parade of traumas and anxieties -- boys who didn't call, jobs that fell through, Saturday nights alone -- because we're more likely to write about what's hard, what hurts, what we can't figure out. There's more urgency behind the telling of distress; a sense of wrongness compels its own expression -- a problem that festers, that hasn't been resolved -- while happiness is already its own closed circuit, complete. It's not crying out for expression because it's not looking for anything, whether resolution or sympathy.

General wisdom suggests that this asymmetry is true for reading as well. It's more interesting to read about something being wrong than everything being right. Happiness threatens the things that every writing workshop demands: suspense, conflict, desire. It also threatens particularity. Happiness collapses characters into people who look just like everyone else, without the sharper contours of pathos to mark their edges and render them distinct. As Tolstoy famously tells us at the beginning of "Anna Karenina": "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

So how can happiness be made compelling? It can certainly work in juxtaposition -- as part of a kind of emotional chiaroscuro -- sharpening sadness by contrast. Witness Anne Carson's beautiful evocation of heartbreak in "The Glass Essay": "Perhaps the hardest thing about losing a lover is / to watch the year repeat its days. / It is as if I could dip my hand down / into time and scoop up / blue and green lozenges of April heat / a year ago in another country." We feel the friction of present-tense loneliness rubbing up against past bliss ("shadows / of limes and roses blowing in the car window"), and a force is created, magnetic, between these opposite charges. …

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