I ended my post on Gabrielle Carey’s Only happiness here: In search of Elizabeth von Arnim with Carey’s point that, although at her death there was a belief that von Arnim’s work would live on, “her style of conventionally plotted novels, however rebellious, insightful or entertaining, soon went out of literary fashion”. This was because, claimed English novelist Frank Swinnerton, “her talent lay in fun, satirical portraiture, and farcical comedy” and these, he said, were ‘scorned by the “modern dilemma”‘. He was referring to Modernism, which, as Carey says, “didn’t believe in happiness” – and this, she added, is a value that has carried through to today.
Modernist writer, Albert Camus, for example, wrote
Man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world. (1 January 1942)
Anyhow, Carey writes just a little more about this issue of our focus on gloom. She quotes literary theorist Terry Eagleton from his 2015 book Hope without optimism. Eagleton comments that it can be “arresting” when contemporary novels “fail to be suitably downbeat”. He said that for a contemporary novel to end on a “joyfully transformative note” – as Jose Saramago’s Blindness does – “is almost as audacious as if Pride and Prejudice were to conclude with a massacre of the Bennet sisters”. Love his example of course.
Eagleton goes on to say that
In this era of modernity, gloom appears a more sophisticated stance than cheerfulness.
Carey picks up this idea, suggesting that this attitude is the key to von Arnim’s demise. She says:
It has become more respectable to be depressed, an attitude that signals virtue, and almost socially irresponsible to be happy – a state that is associated with vacuousness. After all, if you aren’t depressed by the mess the world is in – ravaged by fire, flood and plague – you are clearly insensitive or uninformed. Perhaps that is precisely why no one reads her novels anymore, because amid our infatuation with darkness, being cheerful has become not only unsophisticated but morally suspect.
This made me stop and think … because, while most times have been difficult in one way or another, it does seem to be particularly so now. The pandemic, climate change, the current war in Ukraine, not to mention, in Australia, our government’s refusal to meet our First Nation’s people half-way, their inflexible hard-hearted policy regarding refugees and asylum-seekers, and the continuing violence against women, are all a bit overwhelming. No wonder we feel gloomy.
But, here’s the thing. My personal life here and now is going OK. Of course I’m concerned about all the things I’ve just mentioned – I’d be “insensitive” and “uninformed” if I weren’t – but in my daily life they are (with perhaps the exception of the pandemic) “just” concerns. What I mean by this is that I have the luxury of choosing whether to worry about them or not, rather than that they are issues that spoil my generally comfortable life. It should therefore, theoretically speaking, be easy for me to be cheerful. This is something that, coincidentally, I’ve been pondering rather a lot lately, so Carey’s comment hit a nerve. I DO feel it would be “morally suspect” of me to be cheerful.
This is because – to use the word du jour, if it’s not already passé – we are now “woke”. We are acutely aware of our privilege in a way that past generations may not have been, and this is not only uncomfortable, but we feel uncomfortable about being uncomfortable because, well, we are not really uncomfortable. It’s too easy, in the situation, to become smug in our “wokeness” …
So, where does that leave us? Cheerfulness in itself is not a bad thing. We achieve nothing by being gloomy all the time, but can we truly be happy being cheerful? I’m not sure I can. The best, I think, I can aim for, is to have a laugh every now and then – and what better way than through the arts – before I get back to the difficult job of living in this challenging, uncertain world.
What do you think?