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Clams Are Happy : on the legitimacy of happiness

(S02E10, broadcast 24th and 26th August 2007)

"Is happiness enough?"
— happy shiny people

In an early Robert Redford starring vehicle called The Candidate, which is now largely forgotten but shouldn’t be — watch and marvel as he uses all four facial expressions — there is an interchange of dialogue which encapsulates a nagging philosophical problem. Redford has pointed out that if he runs for office he will never be happy again, and his prospective campaign manager says: ‘Clams are happy.’

Redford decides that he is a more complex mechanism than a clam — some critics of his acting might think he reaches this decision too hastily — and runs for office. The implication is that happiness, in itself, is no worthwhile aim in human life. Certainly T. E. Lawrence didn’t think so. It was T. E. Lawrence who bowled over the young C. V. James by insisting in print that happiness was ‘a by-product of absorption’.

Peter O’Toole didn’t actually say this when he impersonated T. E. Lawrence on screen in Lawrence of Arabia. Always one of the most cultivated among actors, O’Toole, as his autobiography Loitering With Intent proves, wields a prose style considerably more notable for clarity and rhythm than anything Lawrence could muster in his much-praised but seldom-read masterpiece Seven Pillars of Wisdom, a magnum opus which has all the characteristics of a sand-dune without the sense of humour.

But the producers of the movie wanted their Lawrence to lead memorable charges across the desert, not to utter penetrating philosophical truths. He was allowed to proclaim the secret of stoicism, but only when putting out a match with his fingertips. Film producers want the visual element. If somebody says that no man is an island, they want to see a man and an island.

So O’Toole’s Lawrence of Arabia got no chance to tell his co-star Omar Sharif, who really was ‘of Arabia’, that happiness was a byproduct of absorption. In real life, Omar Sharif was under the impression that happiness involved champagne, cigars and a blonde on each arm. He might well have looked nonplussed at the word ‘absorption’. But the off-screen Lawrence wasn’t proposing that the human soul should model its aspirations on the properties of an aspirin. He was saying that if you were absorbed enough in some worthwhile activity, happiness might be the spin-off.

A corollary to this fine idea was that there might be no time to enjoy the happiness, because you would be too busy being absorbed. I myself, during a long career separating an idle and misspent adolescence from my present state of incipient disintegration, usually found that I had almost no time to stop and examine what might well have turned out to be a period of happiness, and that, when I did, the happiness soon struck me as so absurdly self-centred that it made me unhappy to think about it.

I also found that it might be taken as even more self-centred to voice this conclusion. The people who are sharing the raft on your course through life’s rapids, notably your immediate family, are unlikely to burst out cheering if you say you can’t be happy for five minutes without thinking of all the people who aren’t. They might be quick to point out that when you talk that way, the people who aren’t include them, and that they might perhaps come first in your thoughts, to the extent, at least, of your trying not to bore them with expressions of your misery just when everybody is settling down to watch The Sopranos.

When I set out to be positive in this series I guessed that the question of the legitimacy of personal happiness was bound to come up, but I kept putting it off. What makes the question so tricky is that we’re given both the capacity for personal happiness and the sense of proportion to realize that it’s an offence against common reason. The capacity for happiness works the same way as the capacity for misery, in that it refuses to be relative. If you have made a loved one miserable, it’s useless to tell them that many thousands of people are currently dying by violence. In fact it’s another form of violence to say so. Misery can seldom be reasoned away. But happiness, though just as pure a feeling, can often be reasoned away in an instant.

Nowadays I try not to let that happen. Not long ago I was in New York on business and the weather was getting hot enough to make you walk on the east side of the avenues in the morning and the west side in the afternoon, so as to keep in the shadow. If you’re anywhere near Central Park, it’s the ideal weather for a take-out deli lunch. You don’t have to eat fast food in America, because between every two fast-food emporia there’s a deli full of good slow scoff. Armed with about ten bucks’ worth of unimpeachable nutrition, I went into the park, sat on a rock, got started on my salad, and contemplated existence. I saw an old guy hobble past who was what I will be in about ten years, if not ten minutes. He looked happy and suddenly so was I.

For once I managed to hold back the thoughts of how few deli lunches had been eaten that day in Darfur, and I savoured the moment along with my slice of watermelon, which took me back to when I was a kid in Australia. It was sixty years since I first had a slice of watermelon wrapped so far around my head that it chilled my ears. That time, I hadn’t questioned the legitimacy of my happiness, and I tried not to this time either. But I had to try, that was the difference. I don’t think it’s true that the underdeveloped world starves because the developed world doesn’t, but there’s just no denying that you can’t eat your fill without insulting a lot of people who have nothing to eat at all.

You find that out when you grow up. Finding that out is growing up. Life makes us melancholy, and the melancholy comes from the realization that your moments of happiness are not only fleeting, but meaningless in the context of the sufferings of others.

Melancholy will find us. We don’t need to seek it, and it’s definitely no virtue in itself. By her own account, Shakespeare’s Beatrice was born under a dancing star, and she’s the brightest of her bunch because she has the impulse to be merry, even though, being so brilliant, she will see the world as it is and it will make her sad. Meanwhile she will correctly judge any man proud of his own gloom to be a crashing bore.

We owe it to the next generation to behave as if life were worth living. It is, even when we hear that yet another child has gone missing. It is even for the child’s parents, although to them it might not seem so ever again. But the little children want your smile, or they get scared. In my own family, in which I used to be a member of the second generation but have now been promoted to the first, a third-generation member has recently established herself as one of the leading footballers in her age group.

Her age group is two minus. But she can not only kick a ball, she can link the kicks into something indistinguishable from ball control. She is never not moving. She is also hardly ever not smiling, except when you aren’t. If you frown, she will catch the frown, and would tell you off if she had the words. She already has words in a scarcely credible number, and only last weekend she came up with her first complete sentence. Dare I say that it was a philosophical aperçu comparable with ‘happiness is a by-product of absorption’? With several adult witnesses present, she said: ‘The wanting, and the more, and the porridge.’

Move over, Seneca. Step aside, Pascal. Now this is philosophy. For indeed there is the wanting: and sometimes the wanting is for means of sustenance tragically unavailable. And then there is the more, and there will always be the desire for more, as with Oliver Twist, who did not have enough, and as with the glutton, who has too much. And then there is the porridge, the irreducible essential which must be provided or else there can be no real choices.

Whether or not this young philosopher is providing us with a coherent picture of the world, I am happy to hear her speak. But the question remains of what the happiness is worth. It’s impossible to be compassionate for all the suffering individuals in the human race, and Dickens was only one of the great writers who noticed that those whose hearts are always with unknown thousands of people abroad are often the most indifferent to the fewer people nearer home who might benefit from practical help, starting with their own children, bouncing down the stairs unattended even as the philanthropist histrionically weeps for larger disasters far away.

We should do what we can, but save our sadness that we can do no more. Because eventually disaster will draw close enough. Dealing with it will demand a sense of proportion, which is always a balance between good cheer and realism, and can’t be resolved entirely in favour of either term, lest our view of life be either inane on the one hand, or heartbroken on the other. And so saying, he vaulted to the saddle of his camel and rode away.


The fashion for melancholy often returns when there is a sufficiently glamorous figure to lend a style to a despair. Churchill’s ‘black dog’ wrote a licence for many mini-Churchills, and in our time Stephen Fry has been an influential melancholic. Nobody very much cared about Spike Milligan’s melancholia because he broke the furniture, but Fry makes it look as if sufficient sadness might produce a sonnet sequence. The fashion was already well entrenched when Pushkin made the hero of his long poem Eugene Onegin a model of gloom. A close reading reveals Onegin to be a bit of a pain and one is tempted to conclude that Tatiana had a lucky escape. In twentieth-century America it became axiomatic that melancholic writers drank. Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Agee, Cheever ... the list is endless. The habit was likely to induce depression even if there had been little to weep about in the first place. Drugs were a further development on the theme of the world being hard to bear.

But of course it is, even at its best. One can even be sad at the injustice of one’s having been spared the worst. But to become desperate on that account looks very like self-indulgence, and on the whole melancholy is surely best left to those who have really got it. Sometimes there is ample reason: having to look after hopelessly damaged loved ones at the expense of one’s own fulfilment must make Fate look like an enemy. Nor can being hopelessly damaged oneself be inducive to merriment. But quite often melancholy is a medical condition that can be treated with drugs. (In olden times they would have been called ‘pills to purge melancholy’, which then they seldom did, but now they often do.) To treat it with admiration is almost always a mistake. An extreme case of that mistake is provided by the case of Sylvia Plath, a highly gifted poet who took it upon herself to represent the destruction of the European Jews as if it had been an episode in her personal history. It wasn’t, and the fact that it wasn’t should have been her true subject. She was ill, but too many of her admirers have less excuse for not realizing that there was a blasphemy involved in her undoubted brilliance. Since her death, modern literary history has had to put up with whole generations of literary aficionados who think that poets can’t be serious unless they flirt with suicide. Such misplaced enthusiasm is really a form of triviality, another way of not caring very much about the stricken.