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Reviewed by:
  • Happiness: A History
  • John K. Walton
Happiness: A History. By Darrin M. McMahon (New York: Grove Press, 2006. xvi plus 544 pp. $15.00).

To judge from the array of supportive quotations from previous reviewers that occupies the first three pages of Darrin McMahon's substantial survey, embracing newspapers and reviews in many cities and on both sides of the Atlantic, the [End Page 250] author has, at very least, an enterprising publisher with an enviable willingness to cast its bread upon the waters. He has produced an extensive, if selective, history of elite ideas about happiness, a concept whose slippery and amorphous nature he acknowledges at times, from Ancient Greece to the twentieth century (though the book effectively ends with Nietzsche, Freud and Aldous Huxley). Seldom, it appears, has an extended apprenticeship in the teaching of Western Civilization produced such distended, and presumably lucrative, fruit. The book is presented in a lively, lucid style, and offers unusual as well as familiar quotations to illustrate its argument, as it examines the fluctuating battle of ideas and lifestyle preferences between hedonism and altruism, the individual and the collective, the secular and the religious, cheese and lobsters (a reiterated allusion). It is top-down intellectual history, chronological in its structure, addressing current preoccupations in ways that clearly resonate with a lot of reviewers.

Let us be clear about what this book is not. It is not a history of happiness, even as a philosophical concept, across the globe. It is an account of certain thinkers' ideas about happiness in Western Europe (if we include ancient Greece, anachronistically, under that heading) and the United States. There is one slighting and patronising reference to the Dalai Lama, and nothing else about what the rest of the world, and its religions, might have thought about happiness. Where are Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Confucianism? Australasia is absent, despite the literature on the 'Australian dream'. Happiness is denied to denizens of the old 'socialist sixth of the world', and presumably to inhabitants of Cuba, while their philosophers have nothing worth saying about it that cannot be found in the Great Soviet Encyclopedia; and the author assumes that Stalin was a faithful follower of Marx. The work of the Australian scholar Sheila Fitzpatrick on everyday life and the emotions in Stalin's USSR would have been a useful corrective to some of these knee-jerk assumptions. So would an acquaintanceship with some of the novels of Solzhenitsyn, especially The First Circle. Happiness in the McMahon universe is also overwhelmingly a masculine concept: women's views on the subject are almost entirely absent. Where, for example, is Sappho? Where is Hildegard of Bingen? Where is Aphra Behn? There are also unexplained omissions on the masculine side: Marx but not Spencer, Carlyle but not Ruskin, and many others. Bertrand Russell is another absentee, despite having written a book on The Conquest of Happiness. McMahon's book is not presented as a prosopography of writers on happiness, of course, but decisions like the one to give extended coverage (for example) to La Mettrie while not mentioning (for example) Ruskin tilt the text in particular directions.

And this is, emphatically, history from above. No attempt is made to engage with the extensive literature on popular enjoyment, entertainment, living standards, carnival or kermesse. James Davidson's delightful Courtesans and Fishcakes, or Gary Cross's seminal Time and Money, to take examples from either end of the period covered by this book, find no echo here. No reader of this journal should assume that McMahon has any interest in social history, especially 'history from below'. This simply does not register among his preoccupations.

Nor is this the only recent history of happiness. The philosopher Nicholas White has recently produced such a book, and the history of the emotions is a burgeoning and contested field, whose richness of debate is not even hinted at in McMahon's book. Debates between the successors of Febvre and Elias, [End Page 251] the Annales school and the advocates of the 'civilising process', Keith Oatley and Daniel Gross, Peter Stearns and Barbara Rosenwein, are completely absent from these pages. This self-styled History of Happiness is a big...


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