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Sorts of Unhappiness

[The following excerpt from Graham Greene’s autobiography, A Sort of Life, is meant to call into question Hermann Hesse’s optimistic assertion that happiness is a talent. I don’t mean to deny that there are people who have a talent for enjoying life, or to deny that most people could learn to be happier if they really determined what was required, and then paid the price—for even happiness has a price. What I doubt is whether all those people who have certain kinds of unhappiness built into their lives by virtue of a temperament they can’t change, and/or circumstances that are very difficult to escape, can significantly increase their capacity for happiness through their own efforts. How, for instance, could Greene have made himself happier given the situation he finds himself in? He couldn’t simply decide not to be a writer, which Georges Simenon called a “vocation of unhappiness.” George Orwell, a great writer himself, expands on the nature of this vocation: ‘All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon, who one can neither resist nor understand.’ Undoubtedly there are happy writers. But it should be obvious that being a happy writer is not as easy as being a happy truck driver—assuming you have a strong desire to drive trucks.

The common assumption nowadays that the individual is responsible for his own happiness may in fact be as unenlightened a notion as the old idea that physical disability was caused by sin: ‘Whereupon his disciples asked him, Master, was this man guilty of sin, or was it his parents, that he should have been born blind?’ (John 9: 2) It is pleasant to think that happiness is something that we can create for ourselves through effort and ingenuity. But since most human experience teaches the opposite, perhaps it is wiser to try to work within the limitations that life imposes. As a consolation it may be liberating to accept that one can never be as happy as one had hoped—at least not this side of the grave. In the passage below, the ‘job’ Greene took (and shortly thereafter left) was an office job in an oil company, ‘Sackville Street’ refers to where the employment agencies were located, and ‘the Carlist refugees in Leicester Square’ refers to the plot of one of Greene’s early failed attempts at novel writing.]

There was the problem of money. I had dropped my allowance when I took my job and I couldn’t live at home, for the house was closed and my family at the seaside. It was Sackville Street or nothing. To the young men of my generation, down from the university without work, recourse to Sackville Street was like recourse to the pawnshop in earlier days. Among the “gentlemen’s tailors” stood an office with the Dickensian name of Gabbitas & Thring... The office of Gabbitas & Thring (chief rival of the equally Dickensian Truman & Knightley) might have been that of an old family solicitor, with strange secrets concealed in the metal file boxes. It was not the cream of educational aspirants which trickled through Sackville Street. I doubt if many young men ever reached Eton or Harrow with the aid of the “partners,” for a man with a first-class degree did not require their help. They were the last hope of those needing a little temporary aid. You pawned yourself instead of your watch.

I had a horror of becoming involved in teaching. It was a profession into which you could so easily slip, as my father had done, by accident. He had intended to be a barrister, had “eaten his dinners” and taken on the job of temporary master only to tide him over a lean period. Had he been afraid of feeling the trap close, as I was now? I wanted nothing permanent, I explained in near panic to the partner. Was there not, perhaps, some private tutoring job which was available just for the summer? He opened his file with an air of disappointment: there were certainly good opportunities, he suggested, in the coming school term, for an exhibitioner of Balliol with an honours degree. As for private tutoring I was too late in applying, such men were needed immediately the schools broke up (he whisked over page after page), there was really nothing he could offer for someone of my qualifications . . . . I would hardly be interested in this (he had detached a page with the tips of his fingers), a widowed lady living at Ashover, a village in Derbyshire, who required someone to look after her son of eight during the holidays. I would not be asked to live in the house: I would have a room in a private hotel with all my meals, but there was no salary attached. When I accepted, he looked at me with disappointment and suspicion—there must be something disgracefully wrong with my background.

The position suited me, for I had the evenings free when I could work at my novel. The country was beautiful with the gray Pennines standing all around, a few wandering sheep on desolate deserted hills, loose stone walls and occasional cottages with an Irish air of dilapidation. The widow was undemanding. She didn’t want her son to be overworked. A little mathematics perhaps in the morning (I had forgotten all I ever knew), a quarter of an hour of Latin (equally forgotten), some games after lunch . . . . I had what I thought the bright idea of teaching him a little carpentry, though I had never practiced it myself. There was a large shady garden which reminded me of my uncle’s at Harston with lots of outhouses in which I discovered wooden crates, nails, hammers. I suggested we should build a toy theatre. My pupil agreed readily enough: he was a boy without initiative: he was quite ready to stand around holding the nails. Unfortunately the toy theatre failed to take even a rudimentary shape, so that after two days’ work I decided that what we had been making without knowing it was a rabbit hutch. He was quite satisfied, even though there was no rabbit; he was as undemanding as his mother.

Back in the private hotel, which was called Ambervale, I plodded on till dinnertime, among the Carlist refugees in Leicester Square, but the oppression of boredom soon began to descend. Once on my free day I walked over the hills to Chesterfield and found a dentist. I described to him the symptoms, which I knew well, of an abscess. He tapped a perfectly good tooth with his little mirror and I reacted in the correct way. “Better have it out,” he advised.

“Yes,” I said, “but with ether.”

A few minutes’ unconsciousness was like a holiday from the world. I had lost a good tooth, but the boredom was for the time being dispersed.

The only other distraction lay in the old ladies—a gay crowd who insisted on playing paper games they didn’t properly understand after dinner under the direction of an elderly gentleman: “Famous general beginning with the letter B,” the sort of thing to which family life had accustomed me. They were regarded with cynical impatience by the only other young people, a pale slang-ridden schoolboy and a girl with bobbed hair who wanted a hotel flirtation. She went with me to the pub where the landlord showed us into a private room, where we sat gingerly on the edge of a table and kissed dryly, then took refuge in a half of bitter and gin and lime. She offered me a mongrel wire-haired terrier as a souvenir, which was to be sent by rail from Leicester to Berkhamsted and was to prove the bane of my life. Later the dog played an off-stage part in a play of mine, The Potting Shed, and Mr. Kenneth Tynan, for reasons which remain mysterious to me, believed that he represented God. At lunch I would share a table with the flapper and her fat mother because the manageress thought it would be nice for the young people to get together. The mother was too shy to talk and whinnied like a frightened horse whenever I spoke to her.

The afternoons were the worst, for then there was not even the pretense of lessons. When I was tired of hide-and-seek for two I invented a game of pirates which involved a lot of physical activity on the walls of the vegetable garden. Luckily my pupil fell off the wall and cut his leg. This, in the eyes of his mother, made mathematics impossible, so now I could read to him all day while he lay stretched in a deck chair. And so my second job came slowly and undemandingly to an end. My family returned from the seaside, the mongrel dog, called Paddy, arrived by train in a highly nervous condition from Leicester, and I was back at square one in Berkhamsted.

[Northrop Frye (1912-1991) was an influential Canadian literary critic who taught English in Victoria College at the University of Toronto. He first came to prominence with his 1947 book on the prophetic poetry of William Blake, Fearful Symmetry, a book that Harold Bloom said, ‘ravished my heart away.’ Unfortunately for the highly intellectual Frye, he was born into a Methodist family of rather fundamentalist outlook. Even worse, the family’s economic position steadily deteriorated from Frye’s childhood on, due mainly to bad luck. This circumstance made him dependent on scholarships and the charity of those who could recognize his gifts. Though not keen on ordination to the ministry, Frye saw it as probably his only chance to make a career in academia, intellectual work being, as he knew only too well, the only work he was capable of enjoying and qualified to do. Methodist students on track to ordination, however, were required to prepare for the ministry by spending a summer doing pastoral work. Accordingly, the shy, music loving, Blake-obsessed, somewhat sickly twenty-two year old Frye was uprooted from his natural habitat, Victoria College, and sent out to Saskatchewan to be a circuit riding preacher. For the next five months he ministered to the prairie hamlets of Stone, Stone Pile and Carnagh. The following selections from John Ayre’s excellent biography of Frye aim to make clear just how miserable he was, and, indeed, how unhappy doing work one is eminently unsuited to do can make anyone.]

Even to a westerner, this can be a curious and frightening land. The parish consists entirely of a dry uplands plateau called The Bench which seems forced right up against the sky. This is an illusion created by the long rolling hills which close off any distant horizon, creating disorientation, even claustrophobia. Frye early felt a baffled terror in the “fitful tossing country” with farms so large that “you look over the horizon and all you can see is your own farm.” Neither the shallow bush-choked ravines, called coulees, or the dry patches of cottonwood shrub relieved its essential brown, sun-baked banality. . . Frye discovered that he would be boarded around at different homes each week so that the parish could claim Frye’s board money. What this meant was a constant break in routine, trying to study Blake in loud open kitchens with blaring radios and unfamiliar people. . . . Frye’s innate shyness, total ignorance of farming and inability to make small talk made encounters difficult and futile. His own dislike for physical labour meant that he shied away from helping farmers out. . . . Although Frye quickly developed a deep “coffee” tan, his image was more Don Quixote than cowboy. He kept his hair sufficiently long that the leading lady of the congregation, Mrs. Bonfoy, muttered to Mrs. Meyers that it had to go. On horseback, he wore regular trousers, ignoring the usual apparel of jeans or chaps. His experiences with the horses themselves were symptomatic of his general unease. His first horse, Katie, was a nag as old as Frye himself. She was as uncooperative as a donkey. Her physique was like that of an Alpine mountain range. She was so slow and old, forward progress seemed negligible. Her up and down disjointedness threw Frye’s inner organs into disarray. There was the suggestion that Frye could be quickly upgraded to a better horse but he begged off. Two months later, he did graduate to Bessie, a younger mare who didn’t have to be chased around the barnyard like Katie for saddling. Frye early marvelled at the uncomplicated speed with which she crossed distances, but feared her naughtiness in trying to buck him off. . . . Frye felt foolish and self-conscious. In later years, he joked that across the flat areas of the parish, he felt he couldn’t even relieve himself because he was convinced that the ladies of the parish—one especially—continually kept the preacher boy under view with binoculars. . . . In frequent letters to his fiancÚ, Frye detailed every social and physical agony he encountered. He knew that he would commit suicide “without the slightest hesitation” if he had to stay on the prairies all his life. He tried to put Toronto out of his mind because it unbalanced him to think of the disparity of life styles: “God Himself seems to fade away on these grim prairies: not that He is far away—I never feel that; but He seems curiously impersonal. That, of course, is largely because I left Blake at Stone, the nearest piano a mile away and you in Ottawa.” Two months later, he morbidly predicted that perhaps “by 1940 some student will come out and collect my remains.” He managed to cheer himself up one evening by reading Shakespeare’s twenty-ninth sonnet in a girl’s poetry anthology which conveyed everything about his present state. Besides Blake, he immersed himself in the only universally available literature: “I am getting a sound and accurate knowledge of the Bible; the Bible is magnificent, but in spite of what everyone says, it is a book for admiration rather than intimacy, like the natural world”. . . . If Frye was emotionally and physically discomfited, he was at first benignly insensitive to his parishioners. Although he faced a congregation which was usually poorly educated, culturally isolated and beleaguered by drought and plague, he preached to them like Emmanuel College graduates. While he quickly discerned a need “to work from the inside, in their own language and sets of ideas,” he couldn’t bear the corollary, reinforcing his parishioners’ moral superstitions which passed for religion. “For instance, if old Mrs. McCrae knew that a young lady [his fiancÚ] of whom I was most inordinately proud and fully intended to marry danced, smoked, swore and had no moral objections to playing cards she would be scandalized, and in being her minister I sometimes cannot help feeling that I am tacitly assenting, through lack of courage, to a monstrous and absurd scale of values”. . . . “The Methodist prejudices I encounter [are] the most superstitious of fetishes, and merely a way of avoiding the real problems of religion. That is the most obvious of rural deficiencies—making piety consist of taboos... but I think the religious problem is bound up with the cultural deadness. What these poor people use for literature, art and music is to me the source of the whole evil that makes them regard religion as a social convention rather than an experience. I admire and respect the people in themselves... But they work too hard, and get too little out of their work” . . . . It was precisely when his letters to her were becoming less frenetic that his college friend John Bates sought him out and found him still wild with unhappiness. Bates had learned of his problems in a round robin letter and, feeling depressed himself, he set out in a Model T from his own mission area in Robsart about fifty miles away. To Bates it seemed as if Frye had disappeared into a surrealist wasteland. When Bates asked parishioners where he was, they pointed vaguely down the road and said he should look for a grey, sway-backed mare. Finally, Bates came across a farm where the farmer, Walter Hickman, was putting a horse into the barn. Bates pulled up and when he walked to the side door of the house, he saw Frye through the torn screening furiously swatting at flies in the kitchen. When he saw Bates, Frye’s face lit up in a way that Bates had never seen before or since. Frye freely confessed that he’d almost believed that “Victoria College and all that that means to me had become a dream.”

[For many people, elementary and secondary school are periods of life characterized by boredom and dissatisfaction. Those who go on to university, however, often find the educational process much less tedious. Among the reasons may be increased personal autonomy, wider social contacts, and the opportunity for self-directed learning. For the left wing English author and journalist, Malcolm Muggeridge, there was to be no such happy ending to the educational experience. Although he attended Cambridge, a great and prestigious national university and a playground for the elite, there was little fun for a man who was by temperament an iconoclast, and by socialist upbringing, an outsider. It didn’t help, of course, that he studied something (zoology, I think) which didn’t interest him in the slightest. In his book, Confessions of a Philosopher Bryan Magee who went to Oxford in the 1950s wrote, ‘I spent my first three years at Oxford studying history against my declared wishes... The whole idea of forcing a student to study as his main subject something he does not want to do is now, quite rightly, seen as absurd. In those days it was not all that uncommon.’ Perhaps something similar happened to Muggeridge. But I’m sure the main reason was that he just didn’t feel he belonged—which he didn’t. And who can enjoy themselves in a place where they feel they don’t belong?]

Cambridge, to me, was a place of infinite tedium; of afternoon walks in a damp, misty countryside; of idle days, and foolish vanities, and spurious enthusiasms. Even now when I go there, as my train steams into the station or my car reaches the outskirts, a sense of physical and mental inertia afflicts me. It was my father who tingled with excitement at the thought of my being at Cambridge; not me. It was he who used expressions like ‘my Alma Mater,’ or ‘sporting oak’; when he came to visit me at Cambridge he was thrilled by my rooms, the Union, dinner in hall, boating on the river; everything. If only he had gone to Cambridge instead of me! How hard he would have worked to get a first, whereas I did nothing and just managed to get a pass degree; how assiduous he would have been at the Union debates, whereas, though he paid for me to have a life subscription, I scarcely ever attended, and never once spoke. For me, the years at Cambridge were the most futile and dismal of my whole life. I look back on the self I then was with the utmost distaste—the showing off when I came to Croydon in the vacations; the getting into debt (which my father always paid with little complaining, though he could ill afford it) through buying clothes and other unnecessary things out of vanity; the fatuous imitation of a sort of person I could never be, nor ever wanted to be.

How somehow second-rate it all was!... Lawrence of Arabia, with many a scruffy acolyte sitting cross-legged and elfin among the unwashed-up crockery; his seemingly indestructible legend surviving every exposure of fraudulence and depravity. Lectures by Quiller-Couch, notes shaking in shaky hands. Wide checks and massive coloured tie to offset the gown and mortar-board. Or Old McTaggart muttering philosophically, and scattering anecdotes about himself with a lavish hand...

On the river—Give her ten! Or watching games and yelling. Or the university rag; requiring so little modification to become the university demo. Or just trudging to and fro on desolate afternoons. Then in the evening the chapel bell intruding into buttered toast, and sounding across the darkening court. The porter in his bowler pricking the names of those who attended evensong. Wearing a surplice; ‘Dearly beloved brethren,’ spoken down the nose with a sniff at the end of each sentence, ‘I pray and beseech you, as many as are here present...’ Perhaps the only good thing I got out of Cambridge was a certain familiarity with the incomparable Book of Common Prayer. Then into hall for dinner. That smell always hanging about there of stale bread and old cheese! It must have got into the wood of the benches and tables. The clattering plates, the passing food, the Latin grace. Perhaps it all had a meaning once, but not for me. I found it as moribund as El Azhar, where the Mullahs chant monotonously and unintelligibly to a little circle of students dozing round them.

[When I first saw the excerpt below from Heloise’s letter to Peter Abelard, I just knew it belonged on the “Sorts of Unhappiness” webpage. It’s a stirling example of the acute kind of unhappiness that can be occasioned by sexual love. Old Heloise never dreamed as she was pouring out her grief in that letter that almost 1000 years later hundreds of people would be reading it every day of the week, or that her and Abelard’s tragic story would become the most famous illicit love affair in the Western Tradition. The entire letter can be found HERE. For those unfamiliar with the protagonists, Peter Abelard was a medieval French scholastic philosopher, theologian and pre-eminent logician. He was also the intellectual superstar of the twelvth century, brilliant, controversial and arrogant. At least twenty years younger, Heloise was famous in her own right, being remarkable for her knowledge of classical letters, which extended beyond Latin to Greek and Hebrew. She was also beautiful. To make a long story short, Abelard got her uncle, the Canon Fulbert, to hire him as her tutor, seduced her, got her pregnant, married her as a damage control measure, was castrated by her uncle who thought he was cutting her loose so as not to impede his career prospects, and then retired to a monastery to pray and to reflect. She was packed off to a convent, a life for which she had no vocation. Lots of unhappiness all round.]

The pleasures of lovers which we cultivated together were too sweet to displease me, and can scarcely fade from my memory. Wherever I turn they are always there before my eyes, bringing with them reawakened desires. Not even when I sleep am I spared these illusions. Even during the celebration of the Mass, when our prayers should be purer, lewd fantasies of those pleasures take such a hold upon my unhappy soul that I think more on these turpitudes than on my prayers. I should be groaning over the sins I have committed, but I can only sigh for what I have lost. Everything we did and also the times and places are stamped on my heart along with your image, so that I live through it all again with you. Even in sleep I know no respite. Sometimes my thoughts are betrayed in a movement of my body, or they break out in an unguarded word. In my utter wretchedness, that cry from a suffering soul could well be mine: ‘Miserable creature that I am, who will free me from the body doomed to this death?’ Would that in truth I could go on: ‘The grace of God through Jesus Christ our Lord.’ This grace, my dearest, anticipated your need: a single wound [she’s referring to his castration by her uncle] of the body by freeing you from these torments has healed many wounds in your soul, and where God seems most to be an adversary he has in fact proved himself kind: like an honest doctor who does not shrink from giving pain if it will bring about a cure.

[The following is an excerpt from The Pillow Book, a Japanese classic. A pillow book is a sort of diary filled with the day’s observations. Few survived. This one was written by Sei Shonagon (c966–1017), a lady-in-waiting to the Empress Sadako during the last decade of the tenth century. According to the translator, it is not clear whether the passage below is a character sketch for a story or whether she was referring to a real person. Either way, the kind of domestic unhappiness that she describes is all too common, and of a depth and persistence that is perhaps difficult for some to properly appreciate.]

A young man has lost his mother; the father loves him dearly but marries again, and the stepmother turns out to be a very disagreeable woman. The son is no longer allowed into the main part of the house and lives in one of the wings or in a guest room. This is a pleasant enough room with some outstanding paintings on the screens and panels. An old nurse, or possibly a maid who used to work for his mother, looks after his wardrobe.

He is very popular at Court; even the Emperor enjoys his company and frequently summons him to join in concerts. The young man has an extraordinarily amorous nature. For all this, he is constantly unhappy and nothing in the world seems to please him. The only person to whom he feels close is his elder sister; she is married to a High Court Noble, who dotes upon her and regards her as unique. The young man confides all his feelings to this sister and she is his great consolation in life.

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