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The Reading Life

David Malouf's pursuit of happiness

January 10, 2013|By David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Critic
  • David Malouf's 'The Happy Life' looks for the sources of our discontent.
David Malouf's 'The Happy Life' looks for the sources… (Pantheon Books )

“Ask any one of your friends or neighbours if they are happy and the answer they will probably give is that they have nothing to complain of,” David Malouf writes toward the end of his brief but piercing meditation “The Happy Life: The Search for Contentment in the Modern World” (Pantheon: 96 pp., $19.95).

“What they mean is that the good life as previous generations might have conceived it has been attained. Medical science ensures that fewer children die in infancy, that most infectious diseases have been brought under control and the worst of them — smallpox, plague, TB, polio — have in most part of the world been eliminated; that except for a few areas in Africa famine is no longer known among us; that in advanced societies like our own we are cared for by the state from cradle to grave.”

You can quibble with the particulars — in the U.S., unlike the author’s native Australia, the state resists cradle-to-grave social services and healthcare — but there’s no doubt Malouf is onto something: Why, in an advanced culture, where issues of sustenance are for many people no longer a cause for worry, does happiness elude us?

The answer, in his view, has to do with a fundamental shift in what it means to be human, a condition once regarded as particular, specific, but now complicated by what we might call a global point of view.

“What is human is what we can keep track of,” Malouf declares. “In terms of space this means what is within sight, what is local and close; within reach, within touch. … What most alarms us in our contemporary world, what unsettles and scares us, is the extent to which the forces that shape our lives are no longer personal — they know nothing of us; and to the extent that we know nothing of them — cannot put a face to them, cannot find in them anything we recognize as human — we cannot deal with them. We feel like small, powerless creatures in the coils of an invisible monster, vast but insubstantial, that cannot be grasped or wrestled with.”

Malouf, a winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and a Man Booker finalist, is one of Australia’s most honored writers, the author of 11 novels, as well as short stories and poetry. He is also a classical thinker, basing his argument in art, in literature, citing sources from Rembrandt and Rubens to Chekhov and Solzhenitsyn, and building a key part of the book on Thomas Jefferson’s invocation of “the pursuit of happiness” — he calls it a “real time bomb” — in the Declaration of Independence.

“It is …, one suspects, on Jefferson’s part a language act rather than a considered political one,” he explains. “He was led, in the act of writing itself, to speak more radically than he knew and with another meaning than he consciously intended” — making the case that one of the essential roles of government, of society, is individual fulfillment, not hedonism but destiny.

At the same time Malouf recognizes that we are, perhaps, wired to be unsatisfied, creatures of “unrest.” To make the point, he draws from Plato’s “Protagoras,” in which humanity, with no particular physical gifts, must rely on ingenuity to survive. This, Malouf believes, is the key to our curiosity, our achievement and our discontent, which has only been exacerbated in an age when technology outstrips imagination, leaving us not with a sense of connectivity but rather with an uneasy recognition of how tenuous our connections really are.

For Malouf, the defining metaphor is that of the Earth, seen from space: “small, round, lonely-looking, out there in its far-off planetary life.” How, he wonders, could such an image lead to anything but alienation? “This was Earth,” he tells us, “which had seemed so vast in our slowly acquired knowledge and exploration of it … yet how small and unsupported-looking it was out there.”

That’s a fascinating observation, one I’ve never fully considered, growing up, as I did, in the years this transformation took place. As for what we do about it, Malouf, thankfully, offers no suggestions; his purpose is meditation, not self-help. About as close as he gets to advice is to note that happiness is not a state of being but rather a matter of moments, experienced fleetingly.

“He is happy now,” Malouf writes, citing the character Shukhov, in “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” who, against all odds, declares himself content in the gulag. “[W]ho can say what tomorrow or the day after will do to him? He is happy within limits — and this may be a clue to what makes happiness possible for him, or for any of us.”


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