Despite the challenging title, Pascal Bruckner's latest essay is not a plea for melancholy. It is a sharp critique of our society's relentless drive towards consumerism and the idiotic emoticon smile. His wide-ranging literary and philosophical examination of the happiness- cult analyses this craze as a burden we place on our own shoulders. The imperative to "buck up!" is encouraged by every magazine and self-help manual which judges us as the guilty authors of our own malaise.
Where does this get-happy obsession come from? Bruckner blames the Enlightenment and the American Constitution, but what is his answer to our utopic search? Certainly he is no fan of Western society which demonises misery and seeks to divert it with reality TV, celebrity and consumerism. He does not recommend the talking cure and appears to dismiss psychoanalysis with the comment that Freud "invented the unconscious", thereby allowing every person to have "the psychic opulence of a Michaelangelo, a Borgia or a Shakespeare". Not that he blames Freud "obligatory" felicity. His analysis is more nuanced and politically astute.
What is most striking is the way Bruckner observes our sense of apathy and how the need for drama, apocalypse and destruction counteracts ennui. The stasis of full bellies and a diet of reality TV leads to a desire for a great human drama: "rather barbarity than boredom".
Of course his philosophy is informed by the deaths of major systems that we once believed would improve our lives. Capitalism and Communism have failed. God is dead. What is left apart from distraction, the worship of the line-free face and the endless race to defeat illness, pain and death? Although Bruckner criticises the Enlightenment for sowing the happiness-fantasy, he is a child of the Enlightenment. Quoting Voltaire in Candide, he says, "Man is torn between the turmoil of anxiety and the lethargy of boredom".
Bruckner's answer to this dilemma is not a return to the old value systems but to develop another concept from Voltaire. We must cultivate our own garden. "Today luxury resides in everything that is rare: communion with nature, silence, meditation, slowness rediscovered, the pleasure of living out of step with others. Studiousness, idleness, the enjoyment of the major works of the mind – these are all privileges that cannot be bought because they are literally priceless."
The cult of happiness he excoriates has to co-exist with the shadow of "failure". We may never be as young, rich or glamorous as the celebrities the media worships. Bruckner urges us to shift our perspective away from these perceived "norms". Success and happiness are chimerae. We must fail in order to live. He notes that Columbus failed to find India but he did discover America and in small ways, we can do the same. What I like in this provocative work is the way Bruckner takes an Eastern philosophical system, in this case Buddhism, and connects it to our Western way of life. He urges us to reincarnate before we die. Don't be "the galley slaves to pleasure", he says, urging us to understand that freedom, justice, love and friendship can supersede the holy grail of imaginary ecstasy. We need unhappiness, banality and dullness to cherish sporadic moments of joy. This book is stimulating, sometimes funny and an antidote to the worship of all that is considered "cool".
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