My latest book of poetry begins this way: “There’s just no accounting for happiness, / or the way it turns up like a prodigal / who comes back to the dust at your feet / having squandered a fortune far away.” I read this, a poem by Jane Kenyon called “Happiness,” and I know I’m in good hands, and the book’s going to be a good read. I’ve only read three poems in Kenyon’s Otherwise, but I know I’m going to love it. I’ve often thought, especially recently, that happiness is not a good goal, it’s not something to strive for, it’s not something that can be obtained, but I still need a reminder. It’s much better to think of happiness as something completely out of our control, something that visits us occasionally and that we are best off being grateful for without clinging to it.
The poem ends this way: happiness “even comes to the boulder / in the perpetual shade of pine barrens, / to rain falling on the open sea / to the wineglass, weary of holding wine.” I like the thought that happiness can come to natural objects and inanimate objects, and that it itself is like a natural force, something that simply happens to us. We have no say in happiness, just as we have no say in the weather.
This poem about happiness makes me think about the nonfiction book I just finished, Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just, which I’ve posted on so often and quoted from so extensively, I might have a rather large percentage of this short book up on my blog. Scarry has nothing to say about happiness, at least not that I can remember. She may not even use the word in her book. But she does talk about the quality of aliveness that encounters with beauty can create for us: “Beauty quickens. It adrenalizes. It makes the heart beat faster. It makes life more vivid, animated, living, worth living.” This sounds to me like a much better goal than happiness: to fill one’s life with beauty, which can make one feel more alive. This might have something to do with happiness, it might not, but that hardly seems to matter. What are we doing on this earth but living, so why not try to live more fully?
Part of Scarry’s argument is that seeking beauty is not a self-indulgent or solipsistic pursuit. In fact, quite the opposite. Encounters with the beauty can help us get outside our own minds and begin to care about others. She says beauty can cause a “radical decentering”; to explain this, she quotes Simone Weil: beauty requires us “to give up our imaginary position as the center … A transformation then takes place at the very roots of our sensibility, in our immediate reception of sense impressions and psychological impressions.” Here is Scarry’s gloss on this: “It is not that we cease to stand at the center of the world, for we never stood there. It is that we cease to stand even at the center of our own world. We willingly cede our ground to the thing that stands before us.” There is something very freeing about the thought of giving up the imaginary position at the center of the world; perhaps the best goal is not seeking happiness for oneself, but seeking ways to leave the self behind.