May 06, 2022
The Russian writer V.G. Korolenko (a kind of sub-Chekhov) once wrote that Man is made for happiness as a bird for flight: To which I can only say that this has not been my observation, or even experience, of life. If Man is made for happiness, then warthogs are made to win Miss World.
In my fairly long experience as a doctor, I discovered that many were those who willfully, knowingly, and unnecessarily sought misery. They did things that they knew in advance would end disastrously, often in short order. I also discovered that the ways of self-destruction were infinite: One could never enumerate or come to the end of them.
Among the proofs that we were not made for happiness but on the contrary often seek out its opposite is the fact that so many of us follow the news closely, though we know it will make us wretched to do so. We pretend that we have a need to be informed and are shocked when we meet someone who hasn’t the faintest idea of what is going on in the world. How can he bear to be so ignorant, how can he be so indifferent? It is our duty as citizens of a democracy to be informed, or to inform ourselves, even at the cost of our own misery; because, of course, news rarely gives us reasons to rejoice.
Economic news is almost always bad. The currency is too strong or too weak, never just right. The interest rate is too high or too low. Inflation is worryingly slow or fast. Natural resources are running out or no longer needed, and all the equipment to obtain them is redundant. Too much is imported and not enough exported, or vice versa. The minimum wage is too generous or too mean or should not exist at all. Shares are overvalued or undervalued, but however they are valued, the next crash is round the corner—though, of course, no exact date can be put upon it, which somehow makes the anxiety all the greater.
Political news, especially in relation to foreign affairs, is yet worse. The leaders of even the best countries are scoundrels, otherwise they wouldn’t be leaders. They are incompetent in everything except self-advancement and self-preservation. They don’t care a fig for the man in the street (of whom one is one). Whoever replaces them, however, will be even worse. Not for nothing did Gibbon tell us that “History is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind.”
For the vast majority of those who follow the news, there is nothing they can do about it. They follow the news not because, by doing so, they might make it better, or because they will base any personal decisions on it, but because they are addicted. Somerset Maugham pointed out that great readers often read because they have the equivalent of withdrawal symptoms (in this case, boredom) if their eyes do not fall on print for any length of time, and they would rather read a railway timetable or the label of the ingredients of a prepared food that they have never eaten than nothing at all. “Of that lamentable company am I,” said Maugham—and so am I.
People are addicted to news that has a deleterious psychological effect on them but that they are impotent to affect. No doubt some will claim that they follow the news in order to be prepared for the worst, but not only can they not avert the worst were it to happen, but often they will prepare for the worst when the worst will not happen, thus wasting their substance on chimeras. Foresight is all very well when it is accurate, but it is often disastrous when it is not. If only we could tell the difference between good foresight and bad, like good cholesterol and bad.
Perhaps we should not even try. I turn to the poem of Thomas Gray, “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College,” the school Gray attended years before and remembered fondly:
Ah happy hills! Ah pleasing shade!…
Where once my careless childhood strayed,
A stranger yet to pain!
Life for Gray obviously took a turn for the worse, as it does for so many of us unless we had an unhappy childhood to immure us against disappointment and subsequent unhappiness. He looks at the children happily playing in the fields, and it provokes in him the following, not altogether encouraging, reflection:
Alas! regardless of their doom
The little victims play!
No sense have they of ills to come
Nor care beyond today:
Yet see how all around them wait
The Ministers of human fate
And black Misfortune’s train!
Ah show them where in ambush stand
To seize their prey, the murderous band!
Ah, tell them they are men!
In other words, to be human, at least to be an adult human, is to suffer, for no one can altogether evade black Misfortune’s train.
To observe happiness in others and to think of misery is, of course, the sign of an unhappy or discontented life. There are those who would look at the Taj Mahal and think only of how absurd it was, how unjust to the toiling multitudes, that the wife of an emperor should be memorialized in this extravagant fashion when all she had was the accident of beauty and the luck to be beloved of an emperor; these are sour people who would prefer the perfect justice of universal ugliness to an unevenly and unjustly spread beauty. And indeed, Doctor Johnson, in his brief life of Thomas Gray, depicts him as a somewhat peevish fellow:
He…retired to Cambridge…where, without liking the place or its inhabitants, or professing to like them, he passed…the rest of his life.
But to return to the “Ode.” The last stanza gave to the English language a line known to all. Gray comes down on the side of not knowing the future when one is happy, as are the boys he sees:
To each his sufferings: all are men;
Condemned alike to groan;
The tender for another’s pain,
Th’unfeeling for his own.
Yet, ah! why should they know their fate,
Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies?
Thought would destroy their paradise.
No more; —where ignorance is bliss, ’Tis folly to be wise.
How true! But now I must return to my screens, to learn the latest from Ukraine; for Man, including me, is born to be happy as warthogs are to win beauty contests.
Theodore Dalrymple’s latest book is Ramses: A Memoir, published by New English Review.