Friday, July 7, 2017

Silver Linings: We Need More Stories with Deep Happiness

A few weeks ago, I finished reading John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men for the first time. I had read his The Grapes of Wrath before (who hasn’t read at least one of those in high school?), so I was at least a tad familiar with the sort of themes he might incorporate and the ways in which his characters live through his narrative. When I read The Grapes of Wrath, however, it was with the guided instruction of my junior year English teacher. I in no way feel cheated or undereducated by the instruction I received, but I think that a very basic assumption, one that continued through the end of high school and all through my college and graduate careers, colored my perception of the book. Unfortunately, the filter through which I was taught to view The Grapes of Wrath, as well as literature in general, was so broadly applied to my English education that it wasn’t until recently that I even realized what the issue was.

So what is that filter? Before I get to that, understand that I think Steinbeck’s stories and many of the stories that fall into the categories I’m going to describe are wonderful and in fact necessary for the fulfillment of a good human life. However, English teachers are so used to teaching them that a particular bias has surfaced in the literary world.

That bias, that filter, says that the only way a story can be deep in wisdom as it explores human life is to be tragic.

And I don’t think that’s true.

For those of us that have read either The Grapes of Wrath or Of Mice and Men, you know that Steinbeck certainly knows how to take a tragedy and use it to illuminate the basic designs of human nature--what is good for us, why we need community, the balance between privacy and unity, and so forth. But how many times, for either those books or others that have equally poetic depictions of the complexity of human life, have stories been investigated under the assumption that for a book to be meaningful it must be somewhat depressing and vice versa?

Where does that logic come from? Well, the most basic and most argued answer is that life is tragic. Thus, to learn anything about human life, one must learn that things aren’t what we’d like them to be. People suffer, dreams are crushed, opportunities are wasted, injustice runs rampant, and that ubiquitous monster, the Human Condition, constantly perplexes all of our attempts to get along both with ourselves and each other. Happiness, then, is seen as a sort of naivete. If you’re happy it’s because you just aren’t aware of how awful the world can be. Thus learning about the world makes you “world-weary,” as it were. The more you know about how life actually is, the more depressing your general summation of life is.

This view isn’t hard to defend, honestly, and even the oldest of stories contribute to the thought. Stories encountered today certainly show an austere respect for life’s tragic elements, but so do even the ancient ones. Consider the Book of Job. For those unfamiliar, Job is an account found in Judeo-Christian scriptures that tells of the utter destruction of most of Job’s life and the ensuing discussion between Job, his friends, and God himself. The story’s core theme is the question of suffering: why do people suffer? It is telling, then, that the story is considered the oldest story in the Bible, older even than the version of the creation myth featured in Genesis (while the creation myth itself would have taken place before the story of Job, the form of the story of Job that we have predates Moses’ edited version of the creation myth). The basic gist of the story is that God gives Satan permission to destroy Job’s property and to kill Job’s children. When even that doesn't incite Job to defy God, Satan is given permission to further test Job by putting painful boils all over his skin. Job, obviously distressed, is visited by four friends who all basically argue that Job must have sinned, which is why he suffers. Job, whom God described to Satan as incomparably righteous, has done nothing to deserve the suffering. In fact, when God answers Job’s own inquiry, he refuses to give Job a reason for his suffering.

One lesson here (if I may butcher years of research conducted by people much smarter than me) is that we will suffer without ever knowing why. Sometimes it’s obvious: if I rob a bank and get shot by the cops, I deserved it totally and without question. But Job’s suffering, suffering that is utterly disproportionate to anything he could have done to deserve it, suffering that serves no purpose, that has no good reason behind it--that suffering is not something that we can have an answer for. God’s logic when explaining this to Job is that because Job isn’t God, he cannot possibly know why the world is the way it is, which includes the reason behind Job's suffering. Only God can know that. Simple logic, and, to be honest, it’s not exactly wrong. (Assuming a being like God exists, of course that being would be smarter than humans.) But it certainly isn’t helpful.

Today’s stories aren’t much better as far as producing an amazing outlook on life. Hell, even our comedies flirt with the “world-weariness” that literary theory often employs. Look at the game Dark Souls (a favorite of mine for multiple reasons). The endings--there are two--both kinda suck. One’s arguably more depressing than the other, but still, the game’s called Dark Souls for a reason. Or look at Rick and Morty. The basic punchline for the whole show is that life is meaningless unless you give it meaning, and even that is rather optional. One might even argue that the lesson of Rick and Morty is that giving meaning to the world only makes it easier to be disappointed. Rick, the ever-disillusioned, handles the challenges of the multiple universes better than any of the other characters. He’s also, however, the most depressed and has, at least on the surface, accepted death more than once, despite evading it. (Well, at least the most primary Rick, the Rickiest Rick, manages to avoid death).

The assumption that human depth can only (or at least best) be explored wearing a coat of pessimism pervades many other media. Recently, I posted on Facebook about my having finished Of Mice and Men and noted that I wish there were books with more of what I call “deep happiness.” While some agreed with the sentiment, others commented that a full exploration of human life will lead to a more pessimistic interpretation of it. Those books that have a happy ending are supposedly, as I mentioned above, naive and unrealistic. Some commenters also added that happier books, such as the Harry Potter series, do not avoid the naivete of idealism. To reach that conclusion, it seemed to some, was to miss a greater opportunity at exploring human living by downplaying the tragedy.

I argued then, as I argue now, that there can be books with deep happiness, just as there are books with deep sadness, as it were. What do I mean by deep happiness? Before I get to that, let me attempt to explain why I think we got to the pessimistic model of literature in the first place.

Let’s take a step back to the Enlightenment period. The Enlightenment, coming alongside the political and scientific revolutions that swept across Europe, was our break from the Dark Ages. We discovered through the Enlightenment that we as humans had more power than we thought. We didn't need the rule of kings and queens; we could govern ourselves according to capital-R Reason. The same went for understanding the world. We didn’t need religion or superstition to show us truth; we could use the scientific method, again using that most amazing faculty Reason. Even the very definition of what it means to be human could be reconfigured according to Reason.

About that: whether taking a top-down approach, such as Descartes or Kant did, or a bottom-up approach, like Hume, Reason could be used as the basis of truth. Scientifically, we ended up favoring the bottom-up empirical approach to defining things and ourselves, but ultimately the urge to find truth based on our ability to conceive of and comprehend it was what we wanted.

Enter the existentialists. Instead of looking towards an external source for understanding, let’s find it for ourselves, they said. And the world was forever changed. This meant, though, that something fundamental was changed. Before, suffering was understood in light of an external authority, be it religion, cultural norms, what have you, giving it meaning. I won’t argue that such ideas of external authorities were correct, but they were believed by many. With those external authorities deprived of their position in people’s lives, it became up to us to give meaning to our pain.

But without an external means of processing why suffering happens, suffering could only be embraced as simply a part of life. Sound familiar? A deep understanding of human life is pessimistic, and this thought is the thought that drives how a lot of stories are currently taught.

Let’s go back to Job again. He too suffered without understanding, and God himself, who, according to the tradition that the story of Job came out of, would have provided a meaning for Job’s suffering, refused to explain it. But there’s a larger issue at stake here, one that the Book of Job accounts for and one that modern-day pessimistic literary criticism does not. The takeaway from the story of Job is not that suffering is meaningless. The story’s conclusion on that point is that suffering, for those who seek to find a reason behind it, will often appear meaningless. However, the bigger lesson is that something persists beyond the suffering, something which gives meaning to Job’s life despite his suffering. In Job’s case, God still gives meaning to Job’s life. God never explains the suffering, but neither did Job renounce God. And so God restores to Job all he lost. The story, though, based on its own logic, shouldn’t be seen as arguing that Job’s restored status somehow makes up for what he lost (especially in the case of the children who died). What it should be seen as arguing, or at least suggesting, is that suffering does not have the final word on the meaning of Job’s life.

Other, much better and more comprehensive interpretations of Job aside, the Enlightenment lost touch with the lesson of Job, the notion that suffering is not the final word on a story. It’s debated, but there’s a reason people call existentialism the philosophy of despair. For the absolute existentialist, suffering cannot be acclimated to human life because there is nothing to explain it, but because there is nothing to explain human life in general either, suffering merges with the varied meanings that people give life and becomes a part of it. And then, from all the literature that comes from the world, the overwhelming assumption--so basic that it’s not even thought of, like how fish don’t think they’re wet--is that a true examination of human life must, for some reason, be negative.

“But,” you might say, “should not a true examination into human life have a place for human suffering?” Of course. Job’s story certainly did, but it didn’t stop there. That wasn’t the end point for Job, either narratively or thematically. And we have stories which follow suit, where, though pain exists, the final conclusion of the narrative isn’t that pain has overshadowed understanding.

One such story to come out recently is Star Wars: Rogue One. This movie is all about pain. The pain of sacrifice, to be exact. It starts off with the murder of a mother, the capture of a father, and the near-death and escape of their daughter Jyn. As the movie comes to a close, everyone involved in retrieving the plans that can lead to the destruction of the Death Star dies. The main characters die, the comic relief character dies, the Force-wielding guy dies, his buddy dies. Everyone dies.

But despite the fact that they all die, the movie, ultimately, has a positive ending. They died for a reason. The reason doesn’t necessarily justify their suffering, but their suffering doesn’t overshadow the reason either. The movie isn’t a tragedy. It’s technically a comedy. It has tragedy in it--as life is wont to do--but that tragedy doesn’t eclipse the good that comes out of the movie’s climax.

The movie has deep happiness. Something persisted beyond the pain. Something meant more than the pain.

Which is why we need stories with deep happiness. Deep happiness isn’t ignoring suffering or tragedy or pain. It’s accepting those things and still seeing a meaning to life beyond them. What that meaning may be, I won’t argue. Whether that meaning is entirely arbitrary, I won’t argue. I’m sure you’re more than capable of finding some chat room where those concepts are discussed (read: violently argued). I’m not even saying we shouldn’t have stories that do end in a pessimistic or negative tone. We do need those; meaning can be found in them too, just as how pain, by pointing to what is wrong, shows us ironically how things ought to be.

I don’t want to get rid of the Of Mice and Mens of the world, nor the Brave New Worlds or the Ethan Fromes. What I do want are more stories like Rogue One, “The Last Leaf” by O. Henry, and Schindler’s List, stories in which the pain of the world is not the final word. I want, as Aldous Huxley spoke about in the foreword to Brave New World, discussing how he would change his novel if he could, an option that would give his protagonist hope. A third option beyond the hopeless two that he is left with. I want neither petty, sappy, happy endings nor the black-grey clouds of despair from supposedly “mature,” sad endings. I want books that show deep happiness, where pain is not ignored but neither is hope. I want dark clouds with silver linings.

So let me ask:

1. What is a story (book, movie, TV show, etc.) you highly respect that offers an ultimately pessimistic outlook on life? (Mine's Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle, by the way.)

2. What are stories you know of that offer tragic yet ultimately positive outlooks on life? (I look to Halo Reach as one such story.)


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