- Literature and Happiness
Let your verse be the happy occurrence
Somehow within the restless morning wind
Which goes about smelling of mint and thyme . . .
And all the rest is literature.—Paul Verlaine1
It's not lIterary unless it's depressing. Although this statement is unfounded, I often hear it from beginning students and nonacademics who believe that literature is always dark and dreary, and that literariness is tantamount to depictions of suffering, struggle, and tragedy. I typically respond to such comments in the usual English-professor way, pointing out that literature represents the full range of human experience, and that the subject matter is far less important than the way in which a writer describes it. What is more, I say to such people, sounding a bit like Polonius, there are numerous literary genres beyond the tragic, including comedy, romance, pastoral and bucolic poetry, absurdist drama, and utopian fiction, as well as countless aesthetic effects such as the grotesque, the sentimental, the sublime, the ecstatic, the satirical, the epiphanic, and many others that are by no means "dark and depressing." And yet, the question remains whether such a response is entirely accurate. Is there at least a measure of truth in the idea of a negativity bias in literary studies? [End Page 260]
The source of such a misconception lies, in part, in the nature of narrative, which is itself conflict based and cannot be otherwise if it is to capture interest. According to long-standing ideas that persist around the globe in numerous cultures, narrative needs to be rooted in conflict and tension. To my knowledge, no artistically complex narrative exists that is not driven by a central conflict or set of interrelated tensions. A story about a wealthy, successful man who lives in pure, suburban felicity with his supermodel wife and two lovely children, each of whom is a high-achieving honor student, is just not interesting. As preferable as such happiness is for many heterosexual people, it is not compelling as a story. If I were to tell such a story to someone, framing it with, "let me tell you an interesting tale," my interlocutor would likely be disappointed after listening to me. But if I started my tale with a description of this family and then added a complicating element, such as the man's secret affair with his young, male assistant, who blackmails him and is then found dead with twenty kilos of cocaine in the trunk of an abandoned police cruiser, I suspect it would capture the interest of someone with an ear for a good tale.
Insofar as narrative is concerned, then, stories must by their nature be thickened, or made interesting, by crises, hardships, losses, challenges, obstacles, etc. Aristotle's ancient idea about the necessity of complication, or forces locked in a productive tension that fuels the narrative forward, still holds. Perhaps I can be proven wrong on the point, but I am unaware of any narrative in any genre—even comedies or stories with happy endings—that does not also foreground obstructionist characters, tension, struggle with obstacles, hardship, or suffering. Such elements make the story a story, and without them there may be something interesting to tell, but what one tells in such a zero-conflict circumstance is definitely not narrative in the traditional, literary sense.
If the principle (that narrative needs conflict to be deemed narrative) is true, however, does this mean that all narratives, in order to be deemed literary and thus worthy of serious, critical attention, need to end with the protagonist's suicide, tragic death, incarceration, or institutionalization for psychosis? This type of denouement may lend some measure of truth to the popular (mis)conception of literature as a dark and dreary form. After all, is there such a thing as happy literature? Do English departments ever offer courses in such a topic? Perhaps a few, like me, do teach the subject of happiness, but many professors of English, especially in graduate programs, would likely scoff at such a course as "Ecstatic Poetry" or the "Literature of Happiness." Have literary [End Page 261] scholars cultivated an unstated but ubiquitous preference for the...