In Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project – an attempt to learn as many ideas about happiness as possible and try them all out to see what worked – she found that the first commandment of happiness was to “Be Gretchen.” That is, even (or especially) while striving for constant self-improvement, she needed to accept her own tastes, recognize what genuinely gave her pleasure and what didn’t, rather than what she wished would give her pleasure. For example, she needed to realize that the pleasures of good food and music mostly did nothing for her, but she adored children’s literature of all kinds.
The example intrigues me because I’m the exact opposite. I’m in love with spicy international foods of all kinds, one of the most delightful and satisfying pleasures in my life (and one of the biggest reasons why I love being in New York). And music brings me a deep satisfaction – my worst days have often been brightened, even amid the traffic snarls of the Southeast Expressway, by hearing a beloved song. Children’s literature, on the other hand, does little for me – and so, I have to admit, do novels more generally. I have enjoyed a good number of novels in my day, but I don’t go out of my way for them.
The point is one I’ve had to think about whenever I read Martha Nussbaum’s work on philosophical form (in what probably remains her best known work, the first chapter of Love’s Knowledge.) Nussbaum’s argument, broadly speaking, is that literary form and style make implicit claims about what is important, in ways that can undercut themselves if we’re not careful. So Spinoza’s abstract, dispassionate universalistic rationalism, for example, is very well expressed in the geometric theorems of his Ethics. But the kind of philosophy that Nussbaum herself advocates – prioritizing particular human individuals, valuing strong emotions – is best expressed in literary forms that tell the stories of particular individuals and evoke emotions, and above all in novels. This claim made it more difficult for me to get deep into Nussbaum’s thought.
I’ve tried to engage with Nussbaum’s philosophy at some length, as in my dissertation. While reading up on her ideas I tried to read a novel she takes as exemplary, one she quotes and analyzes at length: Henry James’s The Golden Bowl. I clearly did not experience this novel the way Nussbaum did; the first phrase that came to my mind to describe the experience of reading it was “Chinese water torture.” James’s plodding Germanic sentences, combined with the novel’s slow pacing and relative lack of major events, made it an ordeal. A minor ordeal, to be sure – nothing like breaking a bone or losing a job – but not even remotely a pleasurable experience. Even philosophically, I got more out of Nussbaum’s commentary on James than I did out of James himself.
I’ve been thinking about related points in the past couple of weeks, during which I have been obsessed by the recent Canadian election and the resulting transformations in the country’s political landscape. I have several times expressed my suspicion of politics and how political concern can mess up a human life. And yet I love following politics – not even the ideas so much as the “horse race.” Since my teens I have been a “political junkie,” fascinated by seat counts and electoral systems. Am I then unhealthy?
The point here isn’t to go on about my personal likes and dislikes. Rather, it’s to raise a related question about the “Be Gretchen” idea itself. Suppose Nussbaum is right that one learns best about true philosophy from novels, but Rubin is also right that one is happiest when staying true to one’s own desires, loves, preferences. What then should someone do in my position of not particularly liking novels? Or, suppose Plato is right that the greatest of the arts is music – where does that leave Gretchen Rubin, when she doesn’t particularly care for it?
As with most philosophical questions, there probably isn’t a single, easily stated answer to be found here. This too strikes me as a matter of finding the virtuous mean between two vices – akin to the “meta-virtue” I previously discussed with respect to pessimism. To stay entirely in one’s comfort zone and never let one’s choice of pleasures be guided by those whose judgement one respects – this is a vice. It’s a sure way to remain mired in the situation described by Lorraine Besser-Jones in which virtue does not become pleasurable and pleasure does not become virtuous. At the same time, to ignore one’s own preferences and passions in the hopes of reaching an unrealistic ideal of what one should like – this too is a vice, one that sacrifices one’s happiness and likely one’s virtue as well. How does one negotiate the middle ground?
That question may need to be answered on a case-by-case basis. In each case, if one believes one should like something one doesn’t currently like, one might examine the reasons for liking that thing and see if there is an appropriate substitute. For example, Nussbaum recommends reading novels because they tell the stories of particular people, in such a way that the details of those people’s lives matter to us, and matter emotionally. But it is not only novels where one gets this exploration of character; one can find it in any medium that tells people’s stories at length and in depth. I have learned a lot about the subtleties of human personality in media as diverse as the Fox TV show King of the Hill and the teen webcomic Penny and Aggie – both of which derive their humour from richly drawn characters, people who feel real.
As for politics, I recently noted a solution that has worked for me: view it as a spectator sport, as a Sox fan does the World Series. Enjoy the excitement, but don’t get too wrapped up in the outcome. And yet that too has its pitfalls. In Canada, despite the ascendance of the Conservatives I oppose, I was elated to see the rise of the socialist NDP as the opposition, at the expense of the centrist Liberals and the separatist Bloc Québécois. In recent weeks on Facebook I was trash-talking the latter two, just as a fan of the Sox might against the Yankees – even after the election was over. An old friend implied that this might be hurtful to hear for those who now have to live under a Conservative majority government. When your health care is on the line, politics remains more than a spectator sport. Here as elsewhere, there are no easy answers.