David Malouf is Australian, some say the leading contemporary author down under, author of eleven novels, as well as bountiful collections of stories, poetry and opera libretti. He has won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Los Angeles Times Book Award, the Prix Femina Stranger and the Australia-Asia Literary Award; he has also been short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. This post (and the previous) come from a little book titled The Happy Life, an elegant, succinct, secular meditation on what that makes for.
What is extraordinary, when we come to the present, is the reversal that has occurred in our notion of “unrest” in a century of iPods, mobile phones, multitasking; of YouTube, Facebook, Twitter; of news bites, 24-hour news cycles, jump-cut video clips; and the stimulation of our senses at every moment, in public as well as private spaces, by verbal admonitions and warnings and visual enticements of every sort, from rolling advertisements at bus stops and TV monitors at supermarket check-outs, to plasma screens in bars and pubs.
Far from being an existential state of anxiety requiring cure, unrest is itself the cure, and for something quite opposite but equally close and pervasive: the fear of inactivity, of stillness; most of all, of the withdrawal of every form of chatter or noise in an extended and unendurable silence.
As if that terror of “the eternal silence of infinite spaces” that haunted Pascal in the seventeenth century had found its new form on Earth, and had now to be exorcised from every lift in every public building; every bar and restaurant (right down to the toilets); every supermarket or boutique or waiting room in every city, great or small, of the civilized world; even from our telephones as we wait to be “connected.”
But then it was Pascal who first identified in us an earlier and more essential anxiety. “I have discovered,” he tells us, “that all our ills derive from a single cause. That we cannot live at peace in a room.” (So much for Montaigne’s “little back-shop” and the consolations of retirement into the self.)
A lone figure in a closed and lonely room is our image now for existential dread. That inner life where, for Montaigne as for the ancients, the freedom of self-containment, of self-sufficiency was to be worked for and found, is no longer a choice because it is no longer an option.
Imagine a modern politician who is announcing his retirement telling the media pack at a press conference, “I’m hoping to spend more time with myself.” A Montaigne or a Jefferson might get away with it, but a Bill Clinton or a Tony Blair would be mocked around the clock from Wapping to Waterloo or Woolloomooloo. The “little back-shop all our own” is to be escaped at all cost, by more and more adventuring elsewhere — on the moon, in the furthest reaches of space — or is to be filled with noise and such activity, virtual or real, as is permanently available at the touch of a keyboard.
It would be easy to dismiss this as shallow, mindless; to see in the sensory overload of these contemporary diversions a sign — like consumerism and the pursuit of the fifteen minutes of celebrity we have all been promised — of the decadence that comes with affluence, and the fact that we now have on our hands so much time that has to be filled. But there is another and more interesting possibility.
It is that this is a new form of “being” in which the Ego is by-passed not in the old way, by contemplation in the Greek and Roman sense of internal argument, or in the Eastern way through meditation — both of which require and make a virtue of silence — but through an overload that is the equivalent, in mental activity, of those extreme forms of physical activity that are a feature of some sports. We know that the high levels of endorphins released by intensive physical exercise produce euphoria.
Perhaps the exercise of the brain, when it is involved in dealing with rapid stimulus and response, as in video games or in the sort of attention we call upon when we are multi-tasking, creates in us a similar rush of wellbeing, of exhilaration, elation; an awareness of intense personal presence, in a fast-moving and richly crowded world that we are intensely in tune with, and where a new form of “happiness” may be found.
What this suggests is the possibility that the mind — or, more precisely these days, the brain — is still evolving, and at an increasing rate as technology presents it with new forms to master and new stimuli to respond to. This would mean that the mind, as Aristotle might have known it, and Montaigne too in the state of slow change that existed in the long period between his century and the fourth century BC, is quite a different mind from the one a five-year-old is employing when he deals with a video game today.
One aspect of the Epimetheus version of the creation story is that in this account of things the history of Man can have no end, is never done. So long as we are driven by the need to make up for our needs; by the restless sense that we are not yet fully assured of our place in the world and our hold on its swarming phenomena; so long as there is more to be discovered and made, more to grasp for and make real, we must go on inventing ourselves.
And as technology goes on increasing, and at greater speed, so the agency in us that allows us to deal with the world must go on evolving to keep up with it. Jefferson’s guarantee of happiness for all might be seen, in this context, to have been made to a generation of beings that had still to come into full existence, to be a condition that was to be aimed for rather than an immediately available gift.
It was Jefferson’s contemporary, the Frenchman Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet, who first understood the power of this idea of “futurity” and in 1793, in his Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, laid out a theory of “History as Progress.” It would be hard to exaggerate the importance of this astonishing work.
First published, after Condorcet’s death, in 1795, it replaced forever what had till then been an unchallenged orthodoxy: that history was a closed system, a storehouse of exempla; of human character-types, events, movements that were fixed in number and endlessly repeatable from age to age, so that for every apparently new event, or great man or “change,” there was an existing prototype or model. Condorcet’s idea of Progress was one of those Copernican moments when a reality, as we had previously taken it to be, was turned on its head.
Condorcet considers the progress of Man through nine stages, from the nomadic hordes of pre-history to his own early-Industrial present and the establishment, in 1789, of the French Republic. He concludes that:
“from observation of the progress which science and civilization have hitherto made, and from the analysis of the march of human understanding and the development of his faculties, Nature has fixed no limits to our hopes … The advantages that must result from this state of improvement … can have no limit but the absolute perfection of the human species.”
Such new orientations in thinking produce others, and rapidly. The notion that history might be progressive rather than cyclical, that an event, a thought, an individual man (Napoleon, for example) might have no precedent — might, in the whole of time as we knew it, never have occurred or been seen before, and was original rather than recurrent — directed our attention away from the past and towards the future. We no longer had to look to the past for the interpretation of present happenings, or to consult it, study its events and types, so that when they arrived in a new guise we could recognize and identify them.
Our attention had now to be used in a new way, in developing an eye for occurrence rather than recurrence, for the unknown, the unexpected, the unlikely, the entirely new. Time had another shape and we stood at a different point in its unfolding. Once the future had been opened up to our vision as the direction in which we might turn our face, it developed a vastness as infinite, if only in prospect, in our imagination, as the immemorial past. All kinds of new ideas would depend upon it: Darwin’s theory of evolution, when it came half a century later; in the arts the notion of an avant-garde–that only what had never been done before, what moved things forward, what belonged, like Wagner’s “Music of the Future,” to Progress and the New, could be properly significant.
The eighteenth-century belief in a progressive future, the assurance of an improved and better time to come, together with a growing sense, as I suggested earlier, that true goodness is the goodness that we extend to others (as Condorcet puts it in the last part of the Sketch, “the general welfare of the species, of the society in which one lives”), accounts for a new willingness in men and women to devote themselves, politically, but now with an almost religious fervor, to the future; to living so that future generations may be “happy” even if they are not. This is the note we hear, of such plangency and with such a mixture of hopeless desperation and hope, in Chekhov’s sad comedies of Russian life at the turn of the twentieth century: in the doctor, Astrov, in Uncle Vanya, and Vershinin in The Three Sisters.
“I wondered,” Astrov tells the old nurse Marya, “whether the people who come after us, in a hundred years’ time, the people for whom we are now blasting a trail — will they remember us kindly?” Later in the play, he comes back to the idea, but more bitterly: “The people who come a hundred years, or a couple of hundred years, after us and despise us for having lived in so stupid and hopeless a fashion — perhaps they’ll find a way to be happy.”
Vershinin is in no doubt of it, nor of the part he must play in bringing it about:
“All the same, I think I do know one thing which is not only true but also very important. I’m sure of it — oh, if only I could convince you that there’s not going to be any happiness for our own generation.. . We’ve just got to work and work. All happiness is reserved for our descendants, our remote descendants.“
Chekhov is wonderfully sympathetic towards these good men with their passionate feeling for others and their yearning — their sentimental nostalgia we might call it — for a future that will justify their existence as they cannot justify it in the present, even to themselves. He recognizes their pain, their desperate sense of being, as Dostoevsky puts it, ciphers, superfluous, unnecessary men. But their rush to self-denial and self-sacrifice disturbs him.
What haunts us in the plays is that the future for which these characters are so ready to sacrifice their lives and their own chance of happiness has already arrived now and passed. We know only too well the fate of that future generation — Shukhov, for example, where we found him in his Gulag — who will be the inheritors of those “happy lives.”
Behind Condorcet’s optimistic belief in infinite progress we hear Mao’s proclamation of “perpetual revolution” and the murderous slogans of the Cultural Revolution, Trotsky’s scornful evocation of the “scrapheap of history” that is reserved for those who stand in the way of historical necessity; and on the other side of politics, what was put to idealistic young SS men after Heydrich’s announcement to the Wannsee Conference, in 1942, of the Final Solution: that whatever the moral cost to those whose duty it would be to dispose of the millions who could have no place in it, future generations of the Thousand Year Reich would recognize their sacrifice and, as Astrov puts it, remember them kindly.
Condorcet was a mathematician — his special interest was probability theory — but also a philosopher with a keen interest in education (he designed the education system that would later be used throughout post-Revolutionary France). He was also a member of the National Assembly in the best days of the Revolution, a moderate who voted against the execution of the king. Hounded out by the Jacobins, he wrote his Sketch on the run, and died, by poison perhaps, in hiding, five months before Thermidor.
Condorcet had a large influence on the thinkers, and especially the poets, of the generation immediately behind him: Wordsworth, Coleridge, de Quincy, who wrote The Confessions of an English Opium Eater, the Ettrick Shepherd James Hogg, who wrote The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Novalis and Holderlin in Germany — all born around 1770 — who, as they came into their twenties, found his idea of infinite energy, of perpetual change and progress, of particular significance to their own rising wave of revolutionary Romanticism.
They were the first generation — there have been many since — to recognize energetic unrest as a requisite of creative genius and to cultivate intensity for its own sake as a reassurance of presence, of being, though the intensity was not always of a happy kind, and did not, for their purposes, need to be. As well as Joy, Delight, Ecstasy, there was also Terror, the source of the Sublime, and intensity could sometimes manifest itself as Dejection (Depression we would call it) or Rage. Their chief demand was that it should be permanent, that the emotions should at all times be at the highest pitch, and, when this could not be achieved (that is, when the body lapsed into the ordinary), it had to be maintained, as we see in Coleridge’s case, and de Quincy’s, with drugs. The “fine frenzy” to which these poets aspired could also be a form of madness.
For Condorcet, as for the Plato-Protagoras of the Epimetheus story, Man is driven; there is no end to what he cannot become. The need to discover and invent, to remake, improve, is essential to him. He must pursue perfection come what may. More land must be brought under cultivation, with higher productivity per acre; higher production, higher sales, more profits must be our goal; a higher population to make up the workforce and the pool of consumers, a higher leaving age for school students, a higher life expectancy. Only when all these, as Condorcet lays them out in the tenth part of the Sketch, have been achieved at last, and perfection is within his grasp, will Man be happy.
It is no coincidence that Condorcet’s close contemporary was Goethe. There is something Faustian in this new, this “modern” version of Man as both the happy child of progress, of the will to knowledge and power, and its endlessly unresting slave.