January 3, 2018 § Leave a comment
Reading Lynne Segal’s Radical Happiness: Moments of Collective Joy, I kept pausing to think and to remember.
April 30, 1975: the end of the Vietnam War; I was living in Italy and after a long morning’s teaching I always met up with a group of friends for lunch, in a trattoria frequented by the left. Throughout that last week in April excitement mounted; one of our number even decided to forego wine until Saigon fell. When it did the place buzzed with shared joy and celebratory graffiti appeared underfoot across the open squares of the carless city. It felt like the start of a better world.
The mass picket at Grunwick in 1977: a bright blue-skied day filled with optimism, as much of that decade was. There were other moments when everything seemed possible and when the mood of life at its most personal fell into alignment with a surge of public hope. Raptures to be held in memory, and maybe some I’ve forgotten. The Grunwick strike didn’t succeed, but there is something valuable in remembering how solidarity can create a heightened sense of active being.
Happiness, joy, euphoria – states that may not endure, but we’re lucky if they have some undercurrent in our lives. Even luckier if that undercurrent can sustain us through tough times.
Lynne Segal doesn’t claim to be an expert on happiness. None of us can. But her new book sets out to explore how much well-being can be nurtured or shrunk by public policies and political outcomes. It charts the development of popular resistance and egalitarian social movements, from the carnivalesque folk rituals of the Middle Ages to the 19th-century projects of Robert Owen and Edward Carpenter, by way of anarchism in theory and collective practice, on into the upheavals of the 20th and now the 21st. Throughout, Segal asks where personal and political conjoin in our experience. This ambitious task combines exhaustive research with wit and utopian commitment, and draws fruitfully on the author’s own experience.
Hard though it is to define or measure happiness, there’s plenty of evidence that people thrive best where discrepancies of income and social status prevail least. Of course I don’t remember the Labour landslide of 1945 – I was yet to be born. But it accompanied my political generation over the succeeding decades as the moment of our beginnings, the source of our belief in a future of progress towards equality, one demolished by Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979 and her assault on the Welfare State.
For me the Thatcher years felt like having a permanent heavy cold. Though many of us had no illusions about Blair, we envisioned air we could breathe. As his government proceeded, depression hit; this was Labour and we had nowhere else to turn, for Labour had espoused the Tories’ neoliberalism.
How do we sustain ourselves when the well of optimism runs dry?
Love, friendship, conviviality, solidarity. What else do we share the joy of, where we can also find some promise?
Reading is usually a solitary occupation. Some novels can seem to us like secrets, with an intimate truth that parallels our own. Yet the recognition that a book I read alone also exists for many others can be a part of its potency, an experience shared even as it is particular to myself.
Before I opened Segal’s book I’d been rereading what for me is the greatest novel of the 19th century, the most alive and illuminating, the most sustaining: Stendhal’s La Chartreuse de Parme (The Charterhouse of Parma makes for a cumbersome title by comparison with the French). It’s a novel of ideas and action, comedy and melancholy, politics and wild romantic passion. Published in 1839, it feels loosely tethered to the 18th century, while being more modern than most of the fiction published in the 19th – a century that Stendhal frequently abhorred in print for its early reversion to the forces of reaction in Europe. The first triumph of that reaction, the Battle of Waterloo, is the scene of two unforgettable chapters full of wit and irony that properly introduce us to the book’s hero, Fabrice (his heroism, like that of other characters, of an un-exalted kind). In Stendhal’s eyes, the greatest writer of all was Shakespeare, and I have yet to discover a novel more Shakespearean than this one.
Stendhal achieved no great eminence in his lifetime and some of his work was only published years later. He humorously referred to his future readers in a different era – the 1880s or the 1930s – imagining how amazed or shocked they might be by the backwardness of the world he described. His readers have indeed become a host over time and we’ve had the pleasure of knowing what he has meant to others. Simone de Beauvoir: ‘This friend of women…’; Leonardo Sciascia: ‘Lovable Stendhal…’ and many more. He strikes me as the novelist who most reflects Gramsci’s motto: pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will. I first read La Chartreuse when I was 18 and at university. Rereading it gives me an increasing sense of shared exhilaration.
La Chartreuse ends with death, as life always does, but the want of a happy ending is of a piece with all the joy it contains. What counts is the fight for happiness and for freedom. One late but not insignificant character could even be seen as Stendhal’s anarchist: the poet and physician Ferrante Palla, a minor aristocrat sentenced to death for his politics and hiding out in the woods. He’s a crazed and wonderful embodiment of the idea that property is theft, and I’ve wondered whether Elena Ferrante took her pseudonym from him.
As her book’s epigraph Lynne Segal chose Blake’s ‘Eternity’.
He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy
He who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise
She concludes by returning to the shared joys we can derive from imagining and aiming for a better future. Whether or not we get there.
It’s not just because I’m a Scot that I find Hogmanay more meaningful than Christmas. It’s a small threshold to optimism.
HAPPY NEW YEAR.