There it is. Right there on the novel’s first page. Right there in the first line, staring the reader in the face. A lie.
Nothing against Tolstoy. I’m an admirer. I simply happen to believe he’s responsible for the most widely quoted whopper in world literature.
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Literary types swoon over that line, which opens Anna Karenina. But have they considered the philosophy they’re embracing?
If Tolstoy is to be taken at his word, a person must be unhappy in order to be interesting. If this is true, then certain other things follow. Happy people have no stories you might possibly want to hear. In order to be happy, you must whitewash your personality; steamroll your curiosities, your irritations, your honesty and indignation. You must shed idiosyncratic dreams and march in lockstep with the hordes of the content. Happiness, according to this witticism of Tolstoy’s, is not a plant with spikes and gnarled roots; it is a daisy in a field of a thousand daisies. It is for lovers of kitsch and those with subpar intelligence.
Yolanda would say I’m taking this far too personally. Yolanda thinks any idea that keeps a person home working on a Saturday night is hideous. Also, that I need to start wearing tighter clothing if I want my weekends to headline something more exciting than collating.
But even she would get riled if she realized what Tolstoy fans are swallowing whole — there’s nothing more likely to enrage Yolanda than the topic of happiness.
For people who claim to want happiness, we Americans spend a lot of time spinning yarns about its opposite. Even the optimistic novels end the minute the good times get rolling. Once characters enter the black box of happiness, no one wants to hear a peep out of them. I’ve learned exactly how hard it is to find a good nontragic American novel on academia’s approved- reading list. I struggle every semester to design my Modern American Lit syllabus with just one plotline that doesn’t make you want to jump off a bridge. Paine’s wish that “the New World regenerate the Old” notwithstanding, the tragic European tradition was hardly o’erthrown on our shores. Hester Prynne doesn’t make out too well in the end, does she? Ethan Frome and poor Billy Budd and just about everyone Faulkner or O’Connor or Porter ever met are doomed. Even sensuous Janie in Their Eyes Were Watching God goes through three husbands and then has to shoot the best one of the lot. Moral of the story? Never trust joy. (Do not ever say this aloud on a conference panel. Literature professors don’t, ever, call books depressing. The correct word is “disquieting.”) Let me be clear: some of my best friends are tragic novels. But someone’s got to call it like it is: Why the taboo? What’s so unspeakable about happiness?
I think people are terrified of happiness. I don’t mean just Americans; this goes for everybody. And that’s why Tolstoy’s gotten away with that cheap shot all these years. But he’s got to be wrong. If happiness — let’s say, for hypothetical example, an honest, requited, passionate love — is really the death of individuality, why would anyone want it?
What I want to know is this: Can the American story have an ending that’s both honest and happy? Can we ditch the venerable idea that life is meaningless without tragedy — that every one of us has a choice between numbed-out conformity or noble suffering, with no option to check the box marked “other”? Or are the doom-mongers right?
I say there’s hope. And I don’t just mean early Mark Twain. Look for the subversive plot twist, the wink at the bottom of the page, the sly, stubborn sidestepping of doom. I want to write about what Washington Irving implies about happiness; and Thoreau and Whitman, Eaton and Welty, Paley, Bambara, even Vonnegut. There’s a trail of bread crumbs to follow. There are American writers who dare venture into the treacherous waters of fulfillment. Most of them do it stealthily, as though it’s imperative not to get caught talking about joy.
I’m saving this, of course, for my post-tenure book. I’m not naive. Talking about happiness is career suicide. I’ll be accused of championing pap — of responding to a book not as a critic, whose role is to dissect, but from my kishkas. Add to my crime the sin of trespassing the boundaries of several specialties. Academics today aren’t supposed to address overarching concepts. We’re supposed to locate within context, place within tradition, and say as little as possible along the way about the original texts. One is not to cut a skylight in the intellectual house; one is to rearrange a few sticks of furniture in the basement. Do more, and you’re accused of trying to be a public intellectual. When I first understood how mincing the academic conversation could be, how capable of silencing a nnnnnovel’s heartbeat, I nearly turned tail. For three weeks I sat in a graduate school seminar on Moby Dick; no one mentioned the whale. I circled job listings. But I didn’t leave school. I became, somehow, more determined to become a professor — a tenured one, able to forge my own path. I learned, when the occasion absolutely demanded it, to keep my own counsel, to stay mum about the leviathan lurking beneath the refracting surface of every line. I even developed a grudging respect for the basic academic vocabulary. It may be pretentious, but it serves a function. It’s the antiseptic garb a surgeon dons before she cuts, for the life-and-death drama of the operating room demands that she be utterly dispassionate — her keen eyes and masked face inspiring our trust in the sureness of her hands, their innocence of the germs of easy emotionality.
Upon accepting my faculty appointment, I made a private vow never to say “simulacrum” if “cheap imitation” will suffice. Never to decry the dumbing down of American culture while smarting up my own ideas with showy verbiage. Never to say “debative quality” when I mean “argument,” or hedge with “it might be said” when what I mean is, I believe.
Each morning I wake to the blandishments of my clock radio, set to a pop station I’d never tolerate in anything but semiconsciousness. I dress, stuff my briefcase with the papers stacked on my bedside table, and walk twenty blocks to the building the English Department shares with Classics, Sociology, and — improbably — Architecture. This is home: its peculiar scrollwork and mustard yellow façade a thumb in the eye of the stately street; its narrow elevator jammed with both faculty and students, mocking the professorial discomfort with intimacy. Anticipating the elevator’s closing doors, I quickstep into the building, but not before I’m handed a flash of myself in the half-dome security mirror over the door: a somewhat lanky figure in muted professional attire; pale curls restrained in a ponytail; an unadorned, up-peering face that startles me with its gameness.
I sit among books all day, lecture from them, underline their pages emphatically. Between classes I comb the library for a spark of insight left buried in the stacks by a thinker I’ll never meet. You get used to it: a life mining the ore of literature. It’s not as airless as it sounds. Anyone who thinks books are sterile objects hasn’t really drawn breath in a library. The older volumes are autumnal, evocative of smoke and decayed leaves. The ...