What is best in life?

The canonical answer.

For the rest of us, it is a bit more complex.

I worried about this question almost constantly when I was a child. Should I strive for intellectual grandeur? Should I try to get political or physical power over others? Should I find someone who loves me in return, or just try to have a reliable circle of dependable friends? Should I devote myself to God? I feared regret more than hell.

In Samuel Johnson’s moving 1759 satire on the choice of life, The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia, a prince raised in the Happy Valley, where all needs and wants are immediately met, soon learns that being satiated is not the same as satisfaction, and plans to escape to the world of suffering to discover what choices non-princes make. He travels in the company of his sister, her lady in waiting, and a poet, to Cairo, where they try to figure out whether stoicism, emotional openness, social life, isolation, marriage, children, sexual pleasure, celibacy, work, study, or idleness can make anyone happy. They find that no one is happy, and everyone wishes they had made another choice. Those who marry young wish they had waited. Those who marry old missed the pleasures of young love. And the worst fate they find is the astronomer who spent his life in contemplation and has gone mad. There is no satisfying choice of life, because everyone is bored and alone. We all just fill our days with something.

Some of us here went to see Terrence Malick’s new movie The Tree of Life together this weekend, which offered a grim spectacle of a family full of people who long to be good, and to protect one another, and help one another to be good—the way of “grace,” as the film frames it. But they are each driven by mysterious forces of perversity, selfishness, violence, and misguided self-absorption—the way of “nature.” At one point, the mother’s whispering voice says, “Unless you love, your life will flash by.” And good God, that haunted me. Yes, but how does one love, when our nature makes us so terrible to one another?

Both Malick and Johnson would, I think, argue that we can’t find satisfaction in life without the hope of heaven. This doesn’t mean we should give up on one another, but we should expect that we won’t ever be happy. What you love will be taken from you, and your pathetic attempts at love will fail because you can’t do love without hurting others. That is why you need the idea of God, they would say.

Last night, we saw a new print of La Dolce Vita, in which a man attempts to find happiness in society with others—a whore, his fiancée, a movie star, his work friends, the underclass, a seemingly happy family man, his father, the aristocracy, chance meetings with people—and ends in a state of constant self-stimulation, no longer caring if he humiliates others or himself. Everything must be an orgy that never ends. He can’t remember any of the hopefulness of his younger pursuits. There is only the grotesque specter of death, and going back to the party.

La Dolce Vita seems to depict a rather slippery slope down the hedonic treadmill, to mix my imagery, in that I hope I never get so bored of fun that I become the old drunk woman insisting on seeing the young gay male model fuck a female virgin dancer while riding a woman like a donkey and plastering her with feathers to keep the party going. But it’s not as if not partying seems to be the answer either. I like partying. I feel as if Andrew WK might have some wisdom.

Plenty of people seem to have advice on the choice of life problem. Sadly, the same advice seems to come from happy people as from miserable people, because the same choices result in very different experiences. The happy ones wish you as much joy as they have, and the miserable ones wish you would validate the impossibility of avoiding their misery.

Perhaps the best advice on this matter came from a student I had several years ago. We were having lunch and I was expressing regret about having wasted some part of my life in a damaging situation; she said, we can’t regret the choices we’ve made in the past, because those were the choices we needed to make at the time. We have to trust that, as our lives go on, we will continue to make the choices we need to make at the time. And we’ll get along that way. It’s no hearing the lamentation of their women, but I’ll take it.

12 responses to “What is best in life?”

  1. lane says:

    words words words… I’m sorry to all the GW community if my commenting gets a little flip and off-putting.

    We’ve had the habit of just “praising” here, sometimes. And was always looking to… break that spell of self congratulations, for some reason.

    BUT THIS!… OMG AWB! THIS is the BEST thing you have ever written!… : – )

    No seriously. Your seriousness in these matters is SO … SERIOUS! I feel you. Stella’ comment there “42” is like the a fore mentioned blog-crack that I might make, and let the audience fill in the rest. Yeah “43”… : – )

    It’s the ABUNDANCE of choice that modern life offers. We can (seemingly) choose more things than any other group of people. … but then Freud fucked it all up didn’t he. By revealing the mechanisms back there…. So then did I choose? Or did THAT I allow others to choose for me?… or . . . words fail.

    Thank god for images, a place beyond words. … back to work, and thanks, AWB. As always… “we’re home.”

  2. F. P. Smearcase says:

    There is only the grotesque specter of death, and going back to the party.

    And iced coffee.

    I have an irrational reaction to Marcello’s unhappiness. I want him to settle down with Maddalena, and I am, despite everything, quite convinced that this would help.

    she said, we can’t regret the choices we’ve made in the past, because those were the choices we needed to make at the time. We have to trust that, as our lives go on, we will continue to make the choices we need to make at the time.

    This, what your student said, sets off all my alarms. I don’t even know what “need(ed) to make” means here. Like the idea of heaven, it feels to me like the most artificial dressing-up imaginable of unhappy actualities. It feels not much short, to me, of the well-intentioned person who says, on the death of someone else’s loved one, that god needed him/her for an angel. Sometimes unhappiness just happens because everything, Marcello, is so difficult, and we don’t always make the right decisions, and wrongness and misfortune exist. We should hope and try to do better next time, no?

  3. A White Bear says:

    it feels to me like the most artificial dressing-up imaginable of unhappy actualities.

    Yes, and I guess I’m kind of seeing that as the point. What is Marcello supposed to do about not having married Maddalena? At a certain point, you just have to come to terms with the fact that wrongness exists, and sometimes wrongness is you, and that it’s OK to have been wrong, right?

  4. A White Bear says:

    And thanks, Lane! I don’t know if Freud fucked it up, or just prolonged the fuckedupedness of the narrowness of 19th-century life choice. Abundance is terrifying.

  5. swells says:

    Isn’t the idea that we can never be happy in this life, so we must rely on the future of heaven, the worst kind of opiate-of-the-masses delusion? Perhaps the problem is in the semantics of that incredibly loaded word “happiness”–does that mean in a small beautiful moment, or in the big picture that your life “is happy” or “is not happy” according to some invisible floating arbitrary yardstick?

    Lily Briscoe’s realization in _To the Lighthouse_ has always helped me with this question: “The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark.” Does it have to be all or nothing?

    Finally, I feel nervously intrigued and unsettled by the introduction of Andrew WK to the Great Whatsit.

  6. A White Bear says:

    Isn’t the idea that we can never be happy in this life, so we must rely on the future of heaven, the worst kind of opiate-of-the-masses delusion?

    It can be. I guess I have some sympathy for it as a position that genuinely grows out of suffering and depression. I don’t agree with it, but I find this poem unspeakably beautiful.

    Yes, I think maybe daily miracles is what there is to hope for, rather than satisfaction–or as satisfaction. The problem is when there aren’t miracles. One wants to think there is some purpose or direction, and there isn’t.

  7. Dave says:

    I think it’s the “we must rely on the future of heaven” part that’s the opiate of the masses. The idea that we can be happy in this life has some good political consequences, some bad. What Dave Hickey refers to as our contemporary American paganism is fully committed to the idea that we can be and in face DESERVE to be happy here and now.

  8. Dave says:

    There is no way Marcello could have married Magdalena. It was never a live possibility for either of them.

    Re: Freud, I don’t think he prolonged a narrowness of choices, nor kept us from recognizing the overabundance of choices. Rather, he asked why, in the face of this abundance, we feel ourselves unable to choose what we think we want and are (in another sense) capable of choosing.

    Lane, you should really see Tree of Life. It might bore you silly, but as Farrell said, it’s a remake of the temple movie, but with proper visuals.

  9. FPS says:

    There is no way Marcello could have married Magdalena. It was never a live possibility for either of them.

    I know. Irrational, as I said. It’s just…they’re both such decadents, such traviati, but in the echo chamber scene, for a moment, they’re both either revealing their romantic, or at least human, underbelly or both pretending to be human/romantic/adult at just the same moment. This is not to set up a needless duality between la dolce vita and some stifling sense of the domestic. It’s just that, for that moment, I imagine them both coming to see their lives as Fellini apparently does, as we eventually do, as an unsustainable and increasingly desperate parade of amusements, and I imagine they could find some comfort in each other. Also they’re both intensely beautiful.

  10. A White Bear says:

    As a Maddalena, I like to think I will one day have one of this sincere-at-a-distant moments with another decadent and we will resolve, but it is likelier that we will not. I have tried.

  11. lane says:

    i was re-reading this in light of a post i will be putting up (about an image related to the death of my sister) . . . 1. happiness really is a butterfly that only lands on you when you don’t chase it. 2. people who need people are the luckiest people.

    there is life without terminal illness, and if one can’t make that happy then… one is beyond hope.

    and then there is life with terminal illness, … even those people can have both moments of happiness, and a more generalized sense of well being.

    I don’t think any of us have our terminal illnesses … yet. Let’s all just do what Jesus did and what the Hard Rock Cafe stands for “LOVE ALL! SERVE ALL!”

    : – )