Monday February 8th, 2010

Shiny Happy People

hawkinsIn college, a good friend of mine used to bemoan news of his favorite rock stars being in happy relationships, because he figured that meant the ensuing records would be no good. The idea that artists in any medium create sharper work when they’re unhappy—and that unhappiness is a more fertile subject than happiness—is a potent, long-standing one, and there’s plenty of evidence to support it. As Amy Bloom puts it in a recent essay in the New York Times: “Smart people often talk trash about happiness, and worse than trash about books on happiness, and they have been doing so for centuries.”

Terry Teachout recently shared this excerpt from The Watch That Ends the Night by Hugh MacLennan:

Happiness is one of the hardest things to write about, and the difficulty of doing so makes me long to be a musician or a painter, for painters and musicians are at ease with the supreme emotion, which is not grief but joy abounding. To be able to make a joyful noise unto the Lord or a praise of colors and forms would seem to me to equate any man with gods or little children. Happiness annihilates time. We measure history by its catastrophes, we recall the weather by its storms, but the periods of peace and joy—who can describe them?

It does seem that painting and classical music are two of the only art forms that can safely approach the subjects of contentment and joy. Which is to say that abstraction can approach it. Much rarer is the book or film that does the same—Mike Leigh’s brilliant Happy-Go-Lucky comes to mind. But what about books? Ingrid Norton says that J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country accomplishes the feat:

Carr tells a tale of happiness which burnishes such a strong and subtle impression in the mind of the reader that it seems you yourself have passed through the season of contentment Carr describes.