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"A fly bothers me, I kill it: you kill what bothers you. If I had not killed the fly, it would have been out of pure liberalism: I am liberal in order not to be a killer." Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes He was not to be described as a happy person," Diana Trilling wrote in a memoir about her husband, the critic Lionel Trilling. "Indeed, he thought poorly of happiness and of people who claimed to be happy or desired happiness above other gratifications in life . . . seriousness was the desirable condition of man." It is easy to make all sorts of assumptions about why an unhappy person would not value happiness; and indeed why seriousness might be seen as an alternative to happiness; or just to say that it was seriousness that made Trilling happy. One of the ways in which happiness is made to seem like an inclusive ideal – the ways it charms us – is by our asserting that by definition the things that matter most to us must make us happy, that that is how we know they are good. It's as though one word could do the work of the moral imagination. Or can we just say that if happiness is one's aspiration, then learning about the history of the slave trade, say, or watching the news, or indeed ageing are all to be avoided. And yet learning about the terrible things people can do to each other, and the history of the terrible things people have done to each other, is important – we can't imagine a life without it – and gives some people a great deal of pleasure; pleasure, as psychoanalysts might say, of various kinds. Anyone who has or knows children, or remembers being a child, will know how happy it can make them tormenting their siblings. And so if we value happiness we can't help but wonder what morality it entails, what kind of morality it might involve us in. It is not surprising, in other words, that happiness has always had rather a mixed reception. No one in their right minds we might think, especially now, would be promoting unhappiness; and yet the promotion, the preferring of happiness – the
the good things will start happening. it also suggests that scarcity is integral to a sense of reality. Because happiness is not always the kind of thing that can be pursued. all-tooplausible idea that the solution to frustration is satisfaction.assumption of a right to happiness – brings with it a lot of things we might not like. a way of making a wish sound important. If this is a version. calling something a right can be a way of rhetorically enforcing an important wish. That's to say I want to waylay the common. of "happiness is what happens to you when you are doing something else". what are we going to have to become. that we should be thinking of what Philip Larkin in "Born Yesterday" called "a skilled. What are we going to have to do. I want to begin with three fairly obvious propositions that are also misgivings about the right to happiness or its pursuit. to put it slightly differently. and. because wildly unrealistic. or that happiness is the answer to unhappiness. Wherever there is scarcity now human rights are asserted. what are we going to have to renounce or ignore if we want to be happy? Or if we are to propose happiness. more often than not. Our relation to happiness often betrays an unconscious desire . / Unemphasised. "A people who conceive life to be the pursuit of happiness must be chronically unhappy. or its pursuit. And I'd like to suggest that the right to frustration may be more useful and interesting – more enlivening – than the right to happiness. things perpetually under threat. enthralled / Catching of happiness" rather than the engineering of it. and the assertion of rights is reactive to a sense of scarcity deemed to be needless. as a lucky side effect but not a calculable or calculated end. / Vigilant. flexible. as some kind of right? We tend to make rights of things we assume to be in short supply. Happiness and the right to pursue it are sometimes wildly unrealistic as ideals. And the desire for happiness may reveal things about ourselves that we like even less. Making it such an end all too easily brings out the worst in us. to rewrite John Lennon's famous line. Or. we should view it. unconsciously self-destructive." the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins wrote. or that if we get rid of the bad things.
I remember a very unhappy boy of 10 telling me in a psychotherapy session that he was only happy when he was cutting the feet off rats that he had caught. "happiness is something essentially subjective" (subjective I take it. in Freud's formulation from Civilisation and its Discontents. There are also what we might call genuinely bad things. We have only to imagine what it would be for someone to propose that we had a right to sexual satisfaction to imagine both how we might contrive this and what terrible things might be done in its name. and so on. The belief that we can arrange our happiness – as though happiness were akin to justice. And this makes happiness as a social or communal pursuit complicated. The wanting of it and the having of it can seem like two quite different things. in the sense of being not only personal but idiosyncratic). .for disillusionment. He said it made him feel "really awake". or homosexuals. Second. When we wish we are too convinced of our pleasures. like seriously harming people and other animals. It clearly makes some people happy to live in a world without Jews. that gives some people the pleasure they most crave. My three fairly obvious propositions are: first. because wishing is always too knowing. Cruelty can make people happy. This has significant consequences not least in the area of our lives that is sometimes conducive to happiness. We can be surprised by what makes us happy. Cruelty and humiliation make some people happy. sexuality. or immigrants. and it will not necessarily be something that makes other people happy. If we are to have a right to happiness or to its pursuit – two different things – we must then acknowledge the full range of things that make people happy. This means taking them at their word. and this issue is not dealt with merely by saying that they are not really happy or that they are in some way perverse or sick. which we can work towards – may be to misrecognise the very thing that concerns us. We tend to pathologise the forms of happiness we cannot bear. perhaps lots of people happy some of the time. And this is what makes wishing so interesting. too certain that we know what we want. or rather problems. And we might then want to think about what problem. that it was like "turning on the light in your favourite room in the world". bad things can make us happy – and by bad things I mean things consensually agreed to be unacceptable.
So put briefly – as every child and therefore every adult knows – being bad can make you happy. have never really been the thing for psychoanalysis. to the diminishing of injustice. after all. It is sometimes said that psychoanalysis is one of the last places in the culture where people are allowed to be unhappy. omissions. The whole business of rights only turns up when the individual. Freud and rights seems even less so (there's only one reference to the rights of man in Freud's work). If Freud and happiness doesn't sound like a very promising subject. and not only of psychoanalysis.happiness is deemed to be the solution to. for example. be the registration of injustice or loss. say. or "conscience". is briefly . Don't have much confidence in the so-called rights of man. happiness as a perversion. Unhappiness can. as though happiness itself were a phobic object and held terrors. it takes many forms. like class. the culture of happiness may proscribe a whole range of feelings and perceptions. At its best. when we should. It is not. a culture committed to the pursuit of happiness might be committed. the immorality of pleasures and the lure of transgression. but at its worst. among many other things. forbidden (this is what Freud's account of the Oedipus complex is a way of thinking about). or at least at a very odd angle to. incidental to our predicament that so many of our pleasures are. Last but not least – though the least exciting – is the third point: some people like being unhappy. a person's right to be unhappy. Happiness is subjective. Freud seems to say in his New Introductory Lectures. or are felt to be. of some significance. Yet. Rights. if it does not actually foster. and one of its forms is immorality. It is astounding the lengths to which some people will go to be unhappy. Indeed for some people their lives can be construed as the pursuit of unhappiness. historically. one would think. what it is that the individual really loves and gets pleasure from. the fear of pleasure and the masochistic solution – all this is the material of psychoanalysis. the melancholic individual. to contrive their own misery. they are no match for the ferocity of inner morality – the superego. And clearly psychoanalysis protects. The subjectivity of happiness. psychoanalysis is the inheritor of a set of political propositions it would seem to be at odds with. And we don't talk of the right to be unhappy.
the right to happiness or its pursuit has to do with the child's development. "Our normal sense of guilt. as are the rights of man. the right to a super-ego that was on the side of one's pleasure: one that promoted the view that feeling alive was more important than being right or good. "is the expression of the tension between the ego and the super-ego". the gift. calls up. When the internal authorities are so implacable and sadistic — over-severe. or to its pursuit. would mean the right to a generous super-ego. all this is by way of a lengthy preamble to putting together the famous sentence from Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence with something from the paediatrician and psychoanalyst DW Winnicott's story about child development. that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights. Virtue has to be its own reward. and the pursuit of Happiness". as it were of a higher power. I want to ask what. It is one of Freud's more horrifying ironies that the pursuit of pleasure incites. that among these are Life. We are mostly unhappy because we are rarely as we should be. Some of us might not believe in . This translates as: our happiness depends on the distance between who we are and who we should be according to the dictates of our internalised morality. And. the super-ego. Liberty. the ego is rehabilitated and again enjoys all the rights of man till the next attack. the criticism of the superego is silent.released from his internal regime ("For after a certain number of months the whole moral fuss is over. that all men are created equal. at least in these patients. if anything. humiliating. As the right to happiness or its pursuit is my subject. "We hold these truths to be self-evident. of course. than a hedonist.") Morality. There is no such thing as a free lunch. To pursue pleasure is to be pursued by punishment. as Freud writes — what are the possibilities for happiness? The right to happiness. more coercive. whether Jefferson's founding declaration has anything to do with the declaration of independence that is the child's personal development. is periodic. and I am by training a child psychotherapist. There is no one more moralistic. when and if pleasure is forbidden its pursuit requires punishment." Freud writes. abusive.
pursue happiness. the government always wins. given that it is fairly obvious that the pursuit of happiness is so morally equivocal – could be. . In Jefferson's Declaration. but prioritise safety. or written. as many people have noted. the pursuit of happiness – something not mentioned in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. if we are convinced of anything now we are convinced that we are pleasure-seeking creatures. If it is said. the government will act to ensure our safety. a threat to the society that promoted it? At first sight it seems to be a pretty good idea. What exactly might it mean to have an "unalienable right" to "the pursuit of happiness". like the pursuit of liberty – the utopian political projects of the 20th century – has legitimated some of the worst crimes of contemporary history across the political spectrum. But the pursuit of happiness.the Creator part now. If liberty is there when tyranny is taken . if certain obstacles are removed. . We are the creatures who. And yet. it is the only one of the things listed that is a pursuit. and it will stand back as we act on our own behalf in the 'pursuit of happiness'. Safety trumps happiness. among other things. "Happiness is not assured. Children cannot bring themselves up. and most of us would want to assume that by "men" Jefferson meant "people". who want to minimise the pain and frustration of our lives. something that is available. the art critic Dave Hickey has noted. The developing child pursues his own happiness under the rules and conditions provided by the adults. and some of us might find more and more difficult the idea that people are born equal when the conditions in which they are born are manifestly so unequal. the governmental parents protect the pursuit of happiness. and children cannot bring up children (in Lord of the Flies the question recurs: "are there any adults?"). in this account. nor in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – seems peculiarly salient. but its pursuit is protected . the government as the parents. possibly unlike any other animal. Or at least a "we" could be consolidated around these beliefs. it is assumed that happiness is something we are capable of. and the citizens as adolescent children. that we have a right to be happy or to pursue happiness. When that pursuit putatively threatens our safety the government invariably steps in." It is not too much of a stretch here to see.
the picture. And this something in the way could be called an unavailable mother. it seems. It is. This.away. our relation to obstacles. something looked forward to. say. and of there being something in the way. his super-abundant vitality with no conflict. and one has to be abrogated? And what if some obstacles are immovable. happiness is there when whatever makes us unhappy is removed. of energy. says we now know what makes children happy (the book he coauthored last year is called A Good Childhood). The man called the happiness tsar. then. of medicine. in pragmatic terms. whether our desire is forbidden or not – whether we want a cream cake or another man's wife. and why can't we set about trying to remove them? And some of them we can remove. is shadowed by an imaginary other person. It is. And everybody. Lord Layard. There are not infinite resources of food. are the obstacles to the child's happiness. untransformable into anything other than obstacles? There is something about the sexual drive. or charm. is the logic of the case. We would get closer to our happiness were these things acquired. about knowing what is possible. among the things that matter most to us? If. and a reality sense would be something to do with acknowledging which of these things cannot be acquired. our distinguishing the intractable from the changeable. at least. for example. is of something looked for. if we visualise it. A right to the pursuit of happiness must be a right to remove the obstacles to happiness. From a pragmatic point of view the art of a good life involves removing the obstacles to happiness. Lacan writes of "the jealousy born in a subject in his relation to an other. This other person presumably enjoys his happiness. a prohibitive father. But what if the so-called obstacles to happiness are. that makes it intrinsically unsatisfiable. a lucky counterpart. competing sibling. It is all about. What. . what we have to acknowledge from what we can influence. with no thought of safety. or education. or sometimes are. with no consideration of the rules and conditions required by the good of the rest. in short. Freud suggested. we love both luxury and justice? What if two mutually exclusive things make us happy. not having enough brains or beauty. or money. who gets all the happiness going. or luck. insofar as this other is held to enjoy a certain form of jouissance or superabundant vitality".
and happiness can be. so hypnotic a single end for a good life. But what psychoanalysis can chip in with here is that we are at our most defensive when we are at our most plausible. to register what we feel deprived of. or ignored. and that if she could it wouldn't be what he wanted. is the most plausible of our aims in life. And proposing a right to the pursuit of happiness may seduce us. a refuge from it rather than any kind of productive. or protected ourselves from by wanting happiness? Happiness. what we are lacking when we are unhappy is not always happiness. by a kind of word-magic. any more than what an alcoholic is lacking is a drink. a pre-emptive strike against frustration. that the right to pursue happiness has seduced us into pursuing happiness when we could have been doing something better.true. It is misleading to think that one's parents have been the obstacle to one's happiness. a pragmatic relationship with one another. as it were. to be able to bear and to bear with a sense of what is lacking in one's life. Indeed we might end up thinking that a right to irresolvable conflict might be the most realistic right we could come up with. and if happiness has become so insidious. a causal. That everyone feels left out of something. at its worst. And not simply because frustration makes satisfaction possible in the way that hunger can make a meal delicious. that the mother cannot give the child everything that he wants. If the alternative to happiness is not. Or to put it rather more obviously. why have we wanted this strange narrowing of our intent? What have we lost. or paid insufficient attention to. That the attempt to resolve at least some conflicts was a distraction from finding better ways of living them. unhappiness. If we want to talk of a right to pursue happiness there needs to be a prior right. to feel frustration. unpredictable transformation of it. or forgotten. Frustration issues in many things only one of which is happiness. in the binary way. it would seem. But because frustration and satisfaction do not only or always have a logical. as every mother knows. It is of interest that when Winnicott writes about deprivation in . One of the other things we most want is to be able to feel frustrated. into thinking that happiness is just the thing. even if they have radically thwarted it.
Lives are not the kind of things that can be guaranteed by mothers. created her out of an innate capacity to love. is not the object stolen. admittedly for a variety of different reasons. from the mother she happens to be. as it were. He is entitled to a mother. something I think it is prone to do. And this is where the idea of a right to pursue one's own happiness becomes more interesting. "Let us consider the meaning of the anti-social act. In Winnicott's declaration the child has a right to the pursuit of a mother to get what he needs for his development. A good-enough mother or parents might give you the wherewithal for your pursuit of happiness. she belongs to him in the sense that his own development belongs to him. but a mother – it can never satisfy. it requires. the mother from whom the child has the right to steal because she is the mother. or at least don't like them being unhappy. they might have backed your desire. thought her up. as though there is something about the pursuit of happiness that sponsors and endorses addiction. consumer capitalism is a system tailor-made for deprived children. through disillusionment and hatred.children he too talks about rights. But it is "the mother from whom the child has the right to steal because she is the mother" that I want to consider. Do children want to be happy? And if they don't want to be happy what else might they want to be? This would seem to be of some importance because they are growing up in a world in which their parents mostly want them to be happy. helped you to believe in and not only be fearful of your pleasures. what is sought is the person. . the child makes the mother he needs and gradually. Because the thing stolen is not quite or even nearly the thing wanted – which is not a thing. The theft requires communicable translation. In this sense. When a child steals what is sought . But it is more complicated than this." For Winnicott. . What we have is a picture of the right to pursue happiness getting stuck. And by a world I mean the particular cultures . or otherwise communicate what it is that is really being pursued. disentangles her. to some extent. someone to be able to say. stealing. In fact every infant at the start can truly claim the right to steal from the mother because the infant invented the mother." he writes in a paper called "The Deprived Child": "for instance.
from not being a worry to them. This was fascinating to Henry. With impalpable organs of sense they examined this new field." William Golding writes: "There were creatures that lived in this last fling of the sea. want our children to be happy. we were once children whose parents wanted us to be happy. not making their lives more difficult. or the preferred fetish. We are more dependent on our children than they are on us. That the child does not want to be happy – or perhaps. only two reasons for children to go to school – apart. they are going to have a difficult. more exactly. for example. There is an interesting moment in Lord of the Flies when Henry. and that they are the guardians of this right. on their happiness. "He went down to the beach and busied himself at the water's edge. Happiness becomes important when the possibility for absorption is under threat. that itself was wave-worn and whitened and . when there is a loss of confidence in people's passions. we. dry sand. . to the pleasure our parents could take in our pleasure and our wellbeing. an even more difficult. So by way of conclusion I want to suggest that a right to the pursuit of happiness is asserted when a capacity for absorption has been sabotaged. task on their hands. and we are dependent. and then to be absorbed. that is. one of the "littluns". . There are. Happiness is something parents often demand of their children. as we say. and to see if they can find something of absorbing interest to themselves. What makes the child happy is not going to be unlinked to what makes the parents happy. being curative of their woes.for whom happiness has become the preferred object. in brief. wanders away from the main group of children. He poked about with a bit of stick. And that means the whole spectrum. or a right to its pursuit. Lovers often feel that they should be making each other happy when they are in fact making themselves a problem to each other. the child doesn't want only to be happy – the child wants first to be safe. tiny transparencies that came questing in with the water over the hot. from acquiring the werewithal to earn a living: to make friends. Children are supposed to be anti-depressants for their parents. Perhaps food had appeared where the last incursion there had been none . Clearly if a parent lives as if their child has a right to happiness.
Absorption is not in and of itself a moral good. The child is fobbed off with happiness when what she really wants is to get her appetite back. . And then there is the remarkable sentence: "He became absorbed beyond mere happiness as he felt himself exercising control over living things. and his absorption is beyond. and that indeed happiness may be a poor substitute for something else. in the context of the novel. The right to pursue happiness may be. And if frustration is not allowed to take its course. For better and for worse. and what may be lost in its pursuit. is power. it is an illusion of power – Golding refers to Henry having "the illusion of mastery" – and it is also the absorption itself that is beyond mere happiness. in other words. in excess of. mere happiness. being able to feel our frustration is the precondition for becoming absorbed. . to say that what Henry is absorbed by here. . But Golding is clear about two things. and partly true. "He became absorbed beyond mere happiness. in the novel the tyrannical. what is beyond mere happiness. something else or further that is wanted. that happiness may be something that can get in the way of whatever is beyond it. and it seems to be the exercise of control over living things. The right to the pursuit of happiness can be a cover story for the wish to hide. there is no absorption. control over living things. Something else is wanted more than happiness by Henry. It would be easy." The adult narrator can see Henry as in some way identified with these rudimentary scavengers. When this is impossible the pursuit of happiness tends to take over. at its worst. by proposing this Golding is saying something about what can override the pursuit of happiness. that there is a beyond to mere happiness. He became absorbed beyond mere happiness as he felt himself exercising control over living things." He feels himself exercising control. sadistic Jack absorbs the attention of a lot of the children who do his bidding. only refuges from unhappiness.a vagrant. But in proposing. the right not to feel frustrated." It is an illusion that absorbs him beyond happiness. one of which is himself. he is playing. and tried to control the motions of the scavengers . to take its time. but he is not. and the narrator intimates that without adults the children feel how much is out of control or under-controlled.