Tuesday, 16 January 2007

Be happy or die

from: The Art of Happiness by John Cowper Powys 1935

…It seems indeed as though happiness might be considered as the subjective counterpart to pleasure. I mean that while it would be natural to say: “Be happy or die!” there would be something strained, something even violent, about the expression : “Get pleasure or die!” The more you concentrate on the difference between these words the more clearly does it appear that while pleasure is something that comes to you from outside, happiness is something that, though it may often be “roused to reciprocity” by pleasure, is intrinsically a mental, or even a moral state. You could also, I think, maintain without contradiction that there is an implication of lastingness about happiness, whereas the idea of pleasure suggests something not only more physical but much more transitory.

Having thus dealt with the meaning of our word I want now to dig down if I can to the basic root-psychology of the feeling, or sensation, or emotion which the word conveys.

I think we find, as with most things in the world, an unmistakable duality in the nature of happiness itself, quite irrespective of its basic opposition to its antagonist in the happy-unhappy antithesis. The thing can be a passive state or it can be an active state. At its best in its passive condition it gives you the feeling of a certain lying back in delicious receptivity upon the life-stream whose waves rock you and whose flood bears you up.

At its best in its active state it gives you the feeling of a vibrant energy, of a strong, tense self-creation, a feeling full of the glow of battle and of the exultation of wrestling with a formidable opponent.

Now since there exists this basic difference between the passive feeling of happiness, when a person lies back upon life, and the active feeling, when he wrestles with life, the crucial question arises, upon which of these two moods – granting, as in practical life we have to grant, that what we call our “will” represents a vital mental process in our living organism – is it better to concentrate? I mean if we do really have power over our thought processes, is it wiser to aim at the active state of happiness, or at the passive? I would say most strongly in answer to this that the wise course is to aim for both. Nor can they altogether be separated; for both require some measure of deliberate effort. The tense, the strung-up, the creative side of the feeling of happiness is not completely absent, at least at the start, from the other mood. For the yielded, passive, relaxed, abandoned state, though it does fall to the lot of certain people to enjoy it by pure good luck, can be made much more continuous by intensifying what we may possess of the tense, alert, self-conscious, and “gathered-up” attitude.

We are all familiar with the expression, “Pull yourself together.” Well! that expression, better than any other, describes the psychological movement by which in our deepest soul we put on, as Homer would say, “our harness,” and wrestle with the world.

But the point is that the relaxed and passive kind of happiness, when you float on the ocean of the exterior cosmos and allow its magical currents to flow through you, is a kind of happiness that can be reached deliberately and enjoyed deliberately when once you have acquired the trick of “pulling yourself together.”

Such magical, abandoned moods, do come – it would be absurd to deny it – to the most casual, the most natural, the most unconscious people; but they come to the conscious, philosophical ones – it is certainly safe to say that much – in proportion as these latter clear the way the more intensely and the more craftily for their reception.

The truth is that when once we have arrived, as so many of us have, at a point where we cannot escape being conscious of every flicker of our sensuous and mental life, it is ridiculous to tell us to be natural and simple and unaffected without allowing us the right, or even the possibility, of consciously struggling after this simplicity, this naturalness, this unaffected ness. The clue to the whole life-history of the human mind from the beginning until this day lies in those threefold spiral curves, so beautifully indicated by Hegel, wherein we begin with the religious simplicity of children, advance to the cynical rationalism of youth, and then return – only with a difference – to the old childish wonder, in our mellowest and most inspired maturity.

But granting that we have a right to make a cult of personal happiness and to make as simple a cult and as childish a cult of it as we please, the point arises, how is it that among all the other ideals put forward at the great historic epochs of the world for the human race to follow, the cult of personal happiness hardly appears at all?

What are the reasons why so few human beings dare deliberately, even to themselves, make their personal happiness their main purpose of their lives? Is it all due to that curious taboo on the matter about which I have already spoken? I think another cause of it is that there is a great evolutional pressure focussed just now upon the human race. The lover animals have slipped aside from this terrible pressure. They have stereotyped themselves into a happy stagnation; and even the plants, save when meddled with by man, have fallen into the peaceful recurrence of what is outside the fearful intention of evolution.

But luckless man – made to be a pot for the creative fire by the mysterious master-force – feels driving, burning, scorching, fermenting, seething through him the same dreadful urge to self-lacerating progress which at the beginning forced our ancestors out of their sprawlings and stretchings and baskings into the tyranny of mind.

It is, I think, this terrific evolutionary pressure springing out of the power behind Nature, rather than any superstitious guilt-sense derived from the sin-rituals of savage antiquity, that mainly accounts for the fact that among all our historic moral systems there is no widespread or profoundly influential cult advocating personal happiness as the chief purpose of human life. The Epicurean philosophy itself was, it seems in reality, not quite this; and as for the doctrines of Aristippus, which do seem to have amounted to this, they can have been scarcely known beyond an Athenian circle of progressive minds and beyond he ardent youth of a few Ionian Islands…

The modern Western tendency, both among Communists and Fascists, is so furiously social that all types of individualistic thought are under a ban, tarred with the invidious brush of bourgeois liberalism.

And yet when you “come down to brass tacks” there surely must arise, everyday of their devoted lives, in these young people – for these violent Western ideals seem especially to answer the needs of generous youth – moments when they feel that in this one single terrestrial experience of a living soul, “between two eternities,” it is a queer thing to be thinking of nothing but the material well-being of future generations.

What I am trying to suggest here is that a stoical resolve to endure life happily, without abating a jot of the gathering-up of the resources of our spirit, is not an unworthy human ideal.

Why should the integration, the self-realisation of our human ego, the gathering together in a deliberate tension of our life-forces, be, for a whole epoch of human history, so entirely absorbed in external activity that the inner life of the individual, his sensuous and mystical response to life, is reduced to the minimum?

Surely a person can be an honourable citizen of his country and yet feel that the one thing needful, since after all he is a personal “ego” and not just a cog in a machine or an ant in an ant-heap, is to enrich and simplify his own private response to the universe.

It was faith in a personal religion that so often gave our ancestors the spirit to endure life with stoical calm and enjoy life with unflinching zest. Their ideal was an individual life and to this they adapted themselves by the stately practice of their old-fashioned mental and spiritual “yoga,” a yoga” that after all possessed its own imaginative stir and its own psychological excitement…

…In throwing overboard the old-fashioned religious life, which, after all, held the clue to deep psychological responses to the universe, we have permitted political and social idealism to usurp a place in the life of our solitary soul for which they are entirely unfitted; with the result that since these aggressive invaders cannot fill up these spacious rooms, nor feel comfortable in these stately presence-chambers, there are forlorn spaces left, spaces completely untenanted through which unhappy phantoms stalk and maniac-abortions gibber.

The human soul has a long history. It carries about it high mysterious memories, that, like nightwinds fluttering the faded arras of an ancestral chamber, throw into momentary relief dim motions of forgotten figures whose terrible beauty once transformed our life. No human soul is really satisfied through all of its being by an existence devoted to what is called the “Service of Humanity,” still less by the Service of State. It demands more than these things; and to bind it down to these things is to prepare for terrible and insane reversions to lost idolatries…

…We are men; and it is the destiny of men to detach themselves from the universe in order to enjoy the universe. Action, however exciting, labour however absorbing, penury however exacting, love and hate, however obsessing, leave a yawning gap in the circumference of our life. You may beat this exigency down; you may starve it out, you may crowd it away; the thing refuses to be altogether killed! A devoted existence is not enough. Virtue is not enough. Heroic self-sacrifice is not enough. The soul of man can only be fed at the breast of the universal…

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