A week ago today, the talented young British R&B/pop singer Amy Winehouse died. I think I can sum up the popular reaction thus: everybody was sad; nobody was surprised. The chorus to Winehouse’s most popular and famous song went: “They tried to make me go to rehab; I said no, no, no.” The lifestyle she lived matched her lyrics exactly – as when she was hospitalized for an overdose of heroin, ecstasy, cocaine, ketamine and alcohol.
It’s a shame that the world lost such a great singer so early. And yet, the same louche excess that killed Winehouse was part of the appeal of her songs. Nobody wants to hear a soulful voice sing “I ate all my vegetables and flossed daily,” even if this idea is put in more poetic cadences.
Since her death I’ve been thinking about the 20th-century French philosopher Simone Weil – who was not much older than Winehouse when she died herself. Weil’s most famous work Gravity and Grace is regularly quoted for this line: “Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvellous, intoxicating.” Winehouse’s self-destruction was an evil in the wider sense of that word; one suspects it may have been gloomy and monotonous for her, as romantic and varied as it was for us. Though the evils she faced were real enough for her and those close to her, this nonfiction story may as well have been imaginary for most of us, the ones who knew her only as a voice and a moving image.
Weil’s quote offers an implicit criticism of Martha Nussbaum’s thesis, in “Transcending humanity,” which attacks the attempt to transcend everyday human life in part on the grounds that the transcendent life is less interesting. In Homer’s Odyssey, we readers want Odysseus to refuse the nymph Calypso’s offer of permanent bliss with her outside the human world, because the story wouldn’t be interesting if he took it:
What story would be left, if he made the other choice? Plato saw the answer clearly: no story at all, but only praises of the goodness of good gods and heroes. Unfortunately for Plato, readers brought up on Homer would be likely to find that prospect about as appealing as twenty-four books of description of Calypso’s unchanging island. Readers, too, want to be where the action is. (Love’s Knowledge 367)
What Nussbaum skirts around, though, is the distinction between the Odyssey’s story and those we might make for ourselves – between the lives we wish to hear about and the ones we wish to live. I think the Mahābhārata may be the greatest story ever told; but I would never wish the tragic fates of its heroes on myself or any of my loved ones. Those lives are filled with romantic and varied imaginary evils. To trudge through those evils every day would indeed be gloomy and barren.
The point in turn casts some doubt on the actively engaged human ideal that Nussbaum endorses – an ideal standing in contrast to the peaceful monastic life sought by Platonists like Augustine (as well as the immortality sought by so many Daoists). Nobody writes stories about a monk immersed in contemplative retreat. Unless that monk’s meditative journey is interrupted, he has to leave that retreat for a pilgrimage (the Journey to the West) or face inner demons (the Buddha under the bo tree) – that is, unless the monk faces imaginary evils. (Ironically enough, Simone Weil’s own life turned out to be fascinating, in part because she pushed the monastic ideal too far – seeking self-denial, she died young of a disease caused in part by starvation.) But this lack of interest does nothing to invalidate the monastic life. It doesn’t make for a good story, but maybe that’s a good thing.
By saying all this I’m expressing the counterpoint to the things I said earlier this year in commenting on Penelope Trunk: while there is something to be said for a life that’s interesting and not merely happy, there’s something else to be said for happiness too. For fictional characters, interest is much more important than happiness; for real people, that’s not so clear. Looking back recently at my own reasons for rejecting monasticism, I notice that it’s not about choosing interest over happiness, so much as choosing a different kind of happiness: active joy versus blissful contentment.
Amy Winehouse’s life was not long, and it does not sound to me like it was happy. But it was definitely interesting. The world is richer for its having taken place. I hope that’s what she wanted.