HAPPINESS IS THE STANDARD

Poets know intelligent and reasonably educated people who never read literature and are content in family, career, and home; confronted with the fact of this happiness gives poets, gives those absorbed in Letters, pause: is literature necessary?  Is literature only for the unhappy?  Once happiness is reached, what else is there to say of those things which only aim at happiness, unless poetry, too, be nothing more than a pure record of happiness?  But how can poetry ever be a pure record of happiness unless it be some rapidly understood tom-foolery in rhyme, like a limerick, which insults the taste of every true person of Letters?

It is not a question of making an effort towards happiness, either: the beautiful family is happy in the whole arc of their actions, from the click of the camera to the putting up in the home the beautiful picture of their beautiful family; there is no lesson or trial to go through to acheive happiness; for the beautiful family in question, happiness is here, and all their days and nights are a delight.  Let us swallow our poet’s pride for a minute and ask: Why should they ‘figure out’ the ‘difficult’ poem?  Why should they be educated by poetry?  Why should they read x number of texts, in order that they can understand poetry?

Let us recall Oscar Wilde’s philosophy all we want: to write is more important than to do; the critical spirit,—handed down to us by the Greeks, kept alive by the Romans and later the Germans, the English, the Spanish, and the French–is the basis of all improvement and beauty in human life—let us recall this all we want, and if it’s true, it belongs to the past. And if the acheivements and insights of the past still live—and no doubt they do—it is the very nature of inherited happiness that it needn’t be re-visited and re-worked if it is truly an inherited happiness. Wilde himself would assert the logic: the gift of the Greeks would not be a gift, if the gift had to be created, again, and all those receiving the gift made unhappy by the labor of making the gift, again.  Knowing and doing pale before the god, happiness.

What does a person with a happy and beautiful life, a kind person with beautiful photos of a beautiful family on a beautiful home’s walls, what does such a person require of literature—which revolves around misfortune, and uses words to express the unreal?

Literature that expresses misfortune is obviously more advanced than the person who is merely happy, for we should assume the work of literature—whether its author happens to be happy, or not—expresses the truth that somewhere else others are unhappy—even due to injustice—which may even politically accuse those who are happy.  But as truthful and concerned with justice as certain literature may be, the question remains: why should the happy read it?  And if only the unhappy read it, what is to be gained from the misery expressed within that literature even to them—the unhappy?

The miserable may be comforted in knowing there are those even more miserable than they are.  Therefore the miserable will be drawn to misery in a medium that puts that misery on someone else—thus making them happy; so happiness can spring from misery.  But we are speaking of the happy, who have no need of this misery at all; they will never be attracted to literature that inevitably expresses misery.

This leads to a wider question about literature in general: what good is fictional misery, anyway?

Is the logic of literature this: the misery is acceptable so long as it is, in fact, fictional?  But if the misery is more acceptable if it is fictional, that is, unreal, it follows it would be better still if the misery were erased altogether, and the literature of misery dispensed with entirely.

And here we arrive at the spirit of Plato—whom Oscar Wilde admired most as a critic of art in Wilde’s overall admiration of the Greeks.  Plato was quick to dismiss the unreal as unreal and blithely asserted most famously that happiness and “the good” should always be our goal, never the miserable or the unreal.

Aristotle’s most famous rebuke of Plato is found in Aristotle’s far-reaching Catharsis Theory: misery in literature can purge misery from the mind of the audience; misery can chase out misery—but this sounds suspiciously close to finding happiness in another’s misery, which is not purgative at all. 

A second part to Aristotle’s rather dubious Catharsis Theory is that Tragedy, expressed nobly, can elevate the merely miserable.  But if one is really miserable, why elevate that misery?  Only happiness ought to be elevated.  The only way this Aristotle idea of tragic nobility can work is if it is merely a trick to lure the ‘misery loves company’ audience into refinement and thus, perhaps, towards happiness, and this seems to be what Shakespeare was doing, as he was so careful to mix poetry, comedy and tragedy, or, we might say, misery and happiness, together, so that happiness might have a little to do with that modern audience inevitably drawn, by that period in history, to literary entertainment.

The illogical poison introduced by Aristotle to Plato’s wisdom has done such damage that subsequent genius (Shakespeare, for instance) has been chiefly involved in mitigating the accepted Aristotelian flaw.

But the greatest argument for misery in literature is the one used by U.S. educators: teach war, racism, slavery, holocaust, etc. not only in history, but in literature, so it never happens again.  

The key word here is “happen.”  Since it happened, the subject should be taught–as history.  If our humanities classification is worth anything, literature is not history, and literature differs from history precisely in that it is not tied to what has happened.  History gains strength from its knowledge of what happened, and literature is precisely itself in not having that burden.  We are not sure why else it would be called fiction.

Fiction and poetry ought to be free.  Not free from their authors’ knowledge of history, necessarily—but free from history nonetheless; for literature should be interested in the springs of knowledge which started before nasty circumstance hardened into historical fact.  Happiness and poetry escape the nets of nature, fate, and history: This is how Aristotle came to the conclusion that poetry was more metaphysical, more philosophical, and more scientific than history.  The Catharthis Theory triumphed as psychology, which is why its influence is so universal.

The historian, however, has not ceded science to the poet quite yet—which is a good thing, because there is such a thing, despite Emerson’s plea, as poetry being asked to own too much real estate.  Here we could use a little of Edgar Poe’s narrowing, and since Poe himself concretely demonstrated how fiction could be both modern and sublime—unlike Emerson, who merely prattled in essays—even as Poe ‘dumbed down’ the poem into merely material considerations (beware that ‘merely,’ though) we might listen a little to Poe, who strenuously urged us to consider literature as something distinct from history, to consider poetry as something distinct from truth.

The truth of happiness is the greatest truth; no other truth should interfere.

Taking steps to make sure terrible events are not repeated belongs to science, and crude science at that—(for it is like scar tissue protecting a wound)—it belongs not to poetry or that advanced science which truly presents a cure for any of mankind’s sins to the mind which is always morally at odds with itself—unless it be happy, and thus to a certain extent, blissfully ignorant.

If there is happiness in poetry, it is because that poetry rises above the misery of history, and anyone who escapes the misery of history should enjoy themselves in being a poet—or not.  Anyone lucky enough to escape history might as well enjoy that good fortune, a good fortune that can do no harm, in itself.

There remains the question of the material nature of the happy poem.

A poem cannot possibly be happy, but a poem, to be happy, certainly can be beautiful.

Poe insisted Beauty was the province of the poem (not that other elements could not enter as points of contrast) and Poe was only copying Wilde’s beloved Greeks.  As G. E. Lessing says of Greek art:

Be it truth or fable that Love made the first attempt in the imitative arts, this much is certain: that she never tired of guiding the hand of the great masters of antiquity. For although painting, as the art which reproduces objects upon flat surfaces, is now practiced in the broadest sense of that definition, yet the wise Greek set much narrower bounds to it. He confined it strictly to the imitation of beauty. The Greek artist represented nothing that was not beautiful. Even the vulgarly beautiful, the beauty of inferior types, he copied only incidenally for practice or recreation. The perfection of the subject must charm in his work.

This “perfection,” which aims for the beautiful (from Lessing’s Laocoon), can be found in Poe’s “Philosophy of Composition” where, in a much neglected passage, Poe refers to “supremeness:” “Now, never losing sight of the object supremeness, or perfection, at all points, I asked myself—‘Of all melancholy topics, what according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?”

Now looms up before us universal beauty as found in art—it is made manifest through the very concept of supremeness itself, without envy or distraction, keeping always in view what really produces happiness, even more than beauty, which is merely the path, and that is: perfection. 

And of course the only perfection is: happiness.

What makes our beautiful family happy today is the same happiness found somewhere else, or yesterday, or tomorrow.

The rest is vanity, and simply because the vanity belongs to the poet is of no help.

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