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  • Introduction: Happiness and Hedonism
  • Ben Ware

Political, aesthetic, and ethical approaches to happiness run like tangled threads through the history of late modernism.


In his diaries of November 1941, Bertolt Brecht speaks of an idea for a new work, “The Travels of the God of Happiness” (1993, 170). Originally conceived as a play, and later, in collaboration with the composer Paul Dessau, as an opera, the piece was never completed. However, in 1954, in the Preface to a new edition of his early plays, Brecht provides a vivid outline of the story:

There is a carved wooden Chinese figure, two or three inches high and sold in thousands, representing the fat little god of happiness, contentedly stretching himself. This god was to arrive from the East after a great war and enter the devastated cities, trying to persuade people to fight for their personal happiness and well-being. He acquires followers of various sorts, and becomes subject to persecution by the authorities when some of them start proclaiming that the peasants ought to be given land, the workers to take over the factories, and the workers’ and peasants’ children to seize the schools. He is arrested and condemned to death. And now the executioners practise their arts on the little god of happiness. But when they hand [End Page 193] him poison he just smacks his lips; when they cut his head off he at once grows a new one; when they hang him from the gallows he starts an irresistibly lively dance, etc., etc. Humanity’s urge for happiness can never be entirely killed.

(Brecht 1998, 370)

According to Brecht, then, happiness is the idea that won’t die. When it is “denounced, arrested, tried and condemned and about to be executed [it] turns out to be immortal” (1993, 170). Why, exactly? For Brecht, the answer, as he puts it to Dessau, is simple: “Happiness: is Communism” (Calico 2008, 103)—the desire for a better world is what cannot be extinguished.


In a lecture course on aesthetics from the late 1950s, Theodor Adorno connects happiness to the experience of being liberated from the immediacy of a “bad and questionable existence” by the work of art (2018, 122). Such moments, “where one becomes entirely one with the life of the work in the pulse, the rhythm of one’s own life,” are not, according to Adorno, ones in which we find happiness “at being granted something as a subject,” but rather ones in which happiness emerges at the point of traumatic self-loss:

Yet, strangely enough, these very moments in which [ . . . ] the spirit of the work of art or its meaning actualises itself and it seems as if we were experiencing it directly and almost physically in ourselves, these moments are far less ones of enjoyment than of being overwhelmed, of forgetting oneself, really the annihilation of the subject [ . . . ]. It is then as if, in that moment [ . . . ] the subject were collapsing, inwardly shaken. [They are] really moments in which the subject annihilates itself and experiences happiness at this annihilation—not happiness at being granted something as a subject. These moments are not enjoyment; the happiness lies in the fact that one has them.

(Adorno 2018, 123)

In Aesthetic Theory, Adorno re-formulates the relation between happiness and art thus: the work of art is “the promesse du bonheur” (1997, 311). In a world dominated by utility and exchange, art promises happiness by drawing attention to itself as that which exists without a purpose, as something to be engaged with purely for its own sake. But, paradoxically, this promise must be broken in order to be kept. For the art work to succeed it also has to be a (special kind of) failure: fragmentary, self-undoing, bearing the scars of its resistance to damaged life. By (self-consciously) failing to realize organic wholeness and aesthetic [End Page 194] unity—by becoming asocial as well as useless—art moves against existing society, promising the happiness of a transformed future.


In his 1959–60 Seminar VII, Jacques Lacan gives an important place to Aristotle, for whom the ethical life involves the living of a full, rich and meaningful life—a...


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