This essay resists steering an unhappy third-way between avowedly “critical” approaches to happiness (Freud, Žižek) and more “positive” perspectives (Benjamin, Badiou), and instead turns the tables. In the first half, focusing upon Thomas Mann’s short story “The Will to Happiness,” it examines neurotic hedonism—a more sophisticated variant of the hysteric’s old game of deriving satisfaction from unsatisfied desire itself—and some of the “necessary fictions” which undergird it. In the second half, it explores what it might mean, at least in theory, to move beyond neurotic hedonism by embracing a different perspective: dialectical pessimism. This pessimistic outlook is allied to the activity of critique, but it also requires a specific conception of the self; namely, the self as the “manure” (Gramsci) of history. How can the very idea of happiness be rethought from this “excremental” perspective?


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