15 December, 2006Issue 6.1EuropeFictionLiteratureWriters

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How To Be Happy

Andrew Hay

John Armstrong
Love, Life, Goethe: How to be Happy in an Imperfect World
Allen Lane, 2006
512 pages
ISBN 071399679X

Understanding happiness is a project almost as old as consciousness itself. From Seneca (Letters to Lucilius) to Bertrand Russell (The Conquest of Happiness) and beyond, attempts to consistently produce happiness and tie it to some prescription on how to live have been the cornerstone of treatises on man’s inner life in every discipline. Yet, any attempt to find some all-encompassing feature intrinsic to the generation and maintenance of happiness has remained elusive.

Since perpetual happiness does not in reality exist, it continues to be a focus of theology. Note the Christian conceptions of a second life in heaven characterized by unending happiness, the reward for subservience to the tenets of religious doctrine. Yet, even in the Western, post-theological age, the quest to attain and reflect on the nature of happiness continues unabated, as reflected in the recent publication of texts as varied as Daniel Nettle’s Happiness: The Science behind Your Smile, Stefan Klein’s The Science of Happiness and Alain De Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness.

These books in particular reinforce the differences between an age when the promise of happiness in some afterlife was recompense for a life of hardship and a more secular present where happiness intersects with capitalism. Happiness has become caught in that awkward middle ground between materialism and psychologism. In this kind of world, the question ‘what makes one happy’ involves the possession of objects. Perhaps objects may produce a form of happiness, but those thinkers who write on the topic have spent much time hypothesising inconclusively upon the connection between acquiring things and the internal life.

But with the increase in the relative prosperity of Veblen’s ‘leisure class’ and their ‘conspicuous consumption,’ there is more time for the psychologising of happiness and its acquisition into easy-to-follow steps (e.g. Chicken Soup for the Soul). Yet over-analysing can be counterproductive to our happiness, as André Gide nicely captures: ‘Nothing prevents happiness like the memory of happiness.’ Memory, as Gide understood, can be a barrier to the experience of that emotion. If continual retrospection to previous moments of bliss is one’s only method for gauging happiness, it might as well be lost through perpetual comparison; the connection between immediate experience in the world and corresponding feelings becomes hampered.

Still, some kind of mental activity, whether in the hopes of self-knowledge or as a simple assertion of feeling, is necessary for the recognition of happiness. Knowledge of our emotional life seems to be the elusive goal of modernity; for while more and more individuals have the leisure to ruminate on their temperaments, what they discover can be less than appealing. No wonder Walter Benjamin thought that ‘to be happy is to become aware of one’s self without fright.’

One of the ways in which we ‘become aware’ of ourselves, according to John Armstrong’s Love, Life, Goethe: How To Be Happy In An Imperfect World, is by reading, another great leisure activity. But Armstrong has one particular writer in mind from who we can allegedly acquire happiness in the face of worldly imperfection. Quoting Tomas Carlyle, he exhorts: ‘Close thy Byron, open thy Goethe.’Byron, the agent provocateur of nineteenth century Europe, devoted his short, albeit iconoclastic, life to rebelling against conformity. Goethe dedicated his long life to bridging the gap between mind and society. Rather than trying to rail against our imperfect world, Goethe accepted its limitations and frustrations. Happiness sat at the intersection of individual man to the wider world. Thus Love, Life, Goethe sketches the life and writings of this titan of German literature from his birth and early fame following the publication of The Sorrows of Young Werther, to his participation in a dizzying array of cultural areas. If ever a model of a productive life were needed, Goethe would, quite rightly, be an apt candidate.

It is Armstrong’s unflinching belief that Goethe is exemplary in two ways: as a writer, he displays remarkable perceptiveness in the representation of the moral and psychological complexities of human life and, secondly, he actually lives a remarkable life. It is this second belief which underscores Armstrong’s book: ‘When we think about Goethe—as when we consider any major writer—we are looking for hints on how to live.’ Consequently, the reader must ask whether Armstrong’s choice of author is sound, and whether literature should necessarily
be didactic.

What springs to mind, first and foremost, is the oddity in Armstrong’s choice of subject. As Susan Sontag once put it in an essay on German literature ‘some find Goethe a chore’ and despite his stature in Germany and his salience in literature departments, Goethe remains one of the most unread of canonical writers. It is, then, unsurprising that Armstrong’s overview in Love, Life, Goethe is, for the most part, biographically expository since he cannot presume an acquaintance with Goethe’s life and work in Britain. The choice of Goethe and his writings as a guide to life might be slightly more understandable if Armstrong’s aim was to acquaint non-specialists with a seminal figure of world literature, but Love, Life, Goethe is not quite so straightforward in its intentions. More than biography, it has life-lessons to proffer. According to Armstrong:

Intellectual sophistication needs to come into practical and fruitful contact with responsibility and the everyday world; otherwise it remains pointless and abstract …The marriage of depth and power–which is a good definition of civilisation–was not something Goethe merely wrote about or advocated: he tried to be that ideal himself.

To a certain extent, this attempt to draw Goethe the man beyond the Goethe of austere canonicity is welcome. As far back as 1949 Ortega Y. Gasset posed the problem with Goethe as one where ‘authors work on Goethe, but never question themselves about Goethe, never put Goethe in question, never work underneath Goethe.’ Armstrong admirably seeks to remedy this long-standing situation, but scholarly readers, familiar with Goethe’s work and his intellectual context, will find the book’s basic tone irksome. Armstrong consistently includes pithy generalizations, which make the book too straightforward for a more learned audience. Armstrong commits this error in the following footnote:

Mozart: no idea about money; pauper’s grave;

Beethoven: his friend had to take his money away because he was so irresponsible;

Balzac: dressed as a monk, drank forty cups of coffee a day, economic basket case;

: drug addict, compulsive gambler, squandered his inheritance;

Wagner: insanely egotistic, borrowed from all his friends, never paid his debts;

: wanted to be a penniless serf;

: didn’t make a penny from writing, later royalties went to his horrible sister;

: didn’t know how to open a window or boil a kettle, lost lots of money through extravagance and inept speculation.

While his generalisations contain some humorous truth, the reduction of some of the greatest thinkers and writers of Western civilisation to a litany of failures is crass. At this point, the reader would benefit from a slightly more restrained conflation of the artist’s life with his work, which Love, Life, Goethe sadly lacks. Armstrong’s book would have benefited from taking his eye off Goethe, momentarily, to brush up on his French literary history. In one of his most famous essays, Marcel Proust quibbled with Sainte-Beuve’s insistence on the primacy of biography for literary interpretation so emphatically that he proposed a complete split between a great writer’s daily life (‘moi social’) and creative life (‘moi créatif’). Although Proust’s split might appear too absolute, it is, nevertheless, a hard balancing act for any author to straddle both areas: to ensure that the writer’s life doesn’t obscure the work and vice versa.

This problem has special relevance to Goethe, as his propensity for the unrestrained injection of his life into his works induced one considerable literary critic to abandon biography in the interpretation of Goethe’s works. Thus, Walter Benjamin avers that ‘the most thoughtless dogma of the Goethe cult, the most jejune confession of the adepts, asserts that among all the works of Goethe, the greatest is his life.’ Instead Benjamin proposes a revision of the most fundamental assumptions of what constitutes the writing self and its place in relation to the literary work. Armstrong never mentions Benjamin, and the fact that Love, Life, Goethe isn’t a scholarly study means he doesn’t have to. Yet familiarity with Benjamin’s ideas might have tempered Armstrong’s resolute belief that the details of Goethe’s life, conflated with his literary works, is where we should look to illuminate the author’s worth. Indeed, Armstrong spends a great deal of time joining the dots between morals and Goethe’s biography. As a result, we get a truncated form of biography laced with didacticism.

Goethe certainly should be well known to an educated readership. Faust is a masterpiece of Faust tradition. Elective Affinities is a brilliant meditation of the complexities of human relationships, and he virtually invented the buildungsroman with Wilhelm Meister. Indeed, Armstrong’s choice of Goethe is partially explained by the movements in German literature into which he has traditionally been placed, such as the Sturm und Drang and Weimar Classicism, both of which revolve around a desire to relate the emotional life of man to pragmatic ends. While Armstrong is quite right to centralise Goethe’s desire to ‘promote a kind of lucid inner stillness and equilibrium’ as a tenet of his aesthetic and philosophical development, his decision to write a lesson in ‘how to live’ via Goethe presupposes a reader who is made happy by knowing every detail of Goethe’s long life and what made him happy.

Love, Life, Goethe does display its author’s eye for detail with its light, readable summary of Goethe’s engagement with Spinoza and his great debt to Schiller; more of this balanced, observant intellectual contextualisation would have been welcome, but, unfortunately, this book doesn’t quite know whether it is intellectual biography, philosophical and literary examination, or self-help guide. Its judicious, limpid outline of Spinoza and monism are abandoned in fear that any more detail might become too academic, returning us to the drudge of ‘how getting to know Goethe might enrich life.’

Reading Goethe may enrich life in surprising, unpredictable ways; his works take in heaven, hell and everything in between. Getting to know the man via Armstrong is, however, an uneven affair. Armstrong catches the majesty of Goethe as an intellectual blessed with deft pragmatism, analytical thoroughness, and a polymath-like desire to learn everything, without abandoning humour or pleasure. In the end, Love, Life, Goethe seems most convincing when viewed as an entry into a niche market currently dominated by Alain De Botton’s Status Anxiety, How Proust Can Change Your Life and his documentaries such as Philosophy: A Guide To Happiness. Unfortunately, Armstrong lacks De Botton’s textual felicity and analytical sweep. Thus, if the reader wishes to get acquainted with Goethe, reading Goethe is by far the best method. You will acquire more knowledge, discover more about yourself and, ultimately, be much happier for it.

Andrew Hay is a DPhil student in English Literature at Balliol College. He works on issues of modernity in literary Modernism, and ideas of postmodern aesthetic/phenomenal experience.