The Time Without Happiness



On Viv Soni’s Mourning Happiness (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2010)

Now here’s a book that thinks you don’t even know whether you’re happy. The next time someone asks “Are you happy?”—inauspicious question that this is, prelude to a long talk and a probably sleepless night—the only proper answer you can give will be: “I don’t know” or, better, “It’s not for me to say.” The problem, for Vivasvan Soni, is not epistemological; it’s not that Soni has identified some new skeptical barrier that would prevent us from accurately identifying our own emotions: You don’t know whether you’re angry; you don’t know whether you’re contrite; &c. The issue is that happiness correctly understood is not, in fact, an emotion, not even a complex one, nor indeed any kind of inner state, and Mourning Happiness is the story of how we ever came to suppose that it was. But then this book is not just a history; it is an exorbitant labor of philosophical retrieval, rather, proposing that we return to another, all-but-vanished conception of happiness, which Soni anchors in the command, issued by the semi-mythical Athenian statesman Solon, that we “call no man happy until he is dead.” What this would mean is at least threefold: First, it would mean that happiness requires a difficult judgment; happiness will not wash over me, and I will never read it in the faces of others. Even following our current uses of the word, we accept that a person might be puzzled about her own happiness—unsure whether she is happy—whereas we would not expect her to be unsure, across even moderate durations, whether she is, say, in pain. Second, it would mean that this judgment will have to be spoken by others in my absence, since I will be dead, and that my fellows will thereby take responsibility for my life—for its course and its success. “Was he happy?” will inevitably, when spoken in grief, mean “Did we do everything we could to make him happy?” Third and most important: It means that you can tell whether someone was happy only if you take into consideration her entire life; to say that a person was happy is to say that, by some criterion unspecified, she lived her life well, and that life (or fortune or fate or God) did not at any point punish her irreparably. What’s more, if a person’s whole life is at issue, then there is no time of which you can say that her happiness did not matter. But then equally there is no month of which you can say that her happiness briefly ran high. Perfect moments do not enter into it. The day your first child is born will be important, of course, but no more than the reputedly routine Tuesday that precedes it. Soni’s most fundamental contention is that “happiness” used to be ordinary language’s one utopian term, broadcasting, even from its perch in everyday speech, the implacable idea that people deserve to lead good lives, and not just sometimes. The question, then, would have to be how we have ended up, by way of the very same word, with such a meagerness, a mere feeling, which you sometimes experience but mostly don’t—joy tempered with content; a seasoned gaiety; a composite pleasure; a reward for having endured long stretches of boredom and nausea; a treat: the weekend.

The good news, for some, will be that Soni is an eighteenth centuryist, and that Mourning Happiness is not just another happiness book, not the inescapable extension into its chosen field of one of academia’s more fashionable topics. For Soni’s is far and away the most brilliant reformulation of the question of happiness in recent years, the one book with reference to which all the other professors of happiness—the neo-Aristotelians, the SWB psychologists, sundry other late-model eudaimonologists—will have to frame their positions. Nor does Soni simply summon Augustan and Enlightenment proxies in order to ratify conclusions about happiness formulated in other venues. He draws out the specificities of eighteenth-century thinking and makes them indispensable for any serious consideration of the subject. Indeed, if you are in the habit of scanning the eighteenth-century lists, you would have to go back to Habermas’s public sphere book to find another volume of such reach and accomplishment—a book, I mean, that could carry the century to the rest of the academy, as vindication of the entire field, and that might generationally reframe entire subfields of eighteenth-century studies itself.

The bad news, then, at least for those who are protective of their period, is that Soni has come up with some entirely new reasons for hating the 1700s. If you believe, as he does, that modernity is the Time Without Happiness, then you might have thought the idea would be to recommend the eighteenth century to us as remedy—as the last period in which happiness was a central topic of philosophical and political debate. Our misery might be the occasion for a little Georgian revivalism. But that’s not it at all. Thus Soni: “One aim of this book … is to revise the common misperception that the eighteenth century taught us to think a secular, political conception of happiness, but that the nineteenth century turned its back on this utopian promise. I will argue, instead, that the failure to articulate a viable political conception of happiness is to be located in the eighteenth century itself, in the period’s putatively revolutionary and undeniably modern reinterpretation of happiness. … [H]ow is it that the eighteenth century’s very obsession with happiness culminates in the political obsolescence of the idea?” (3, 2)

That’s the question. Here, then, are the broad outlines of an answer: First, eighteenth-century fiction writers devised a new set of techniques for telling stories about unhappy people, stories in which the wretchedness of some lives serves a visible purpose, such that readers could in good conscience set aside, at least for long sections of a novel, their accustomed sense that people deserved to be happy. When we turn back to the question of happiness towards the end of such a narrative, this simple tear in the classical conception—the permission that eighteenth-century fiction has given us to temporarily stop thinking about happiness—will have left the concept permanently transformed: abstracted out of narrative; shorn in large part of its temporal aspect; given thinglike qualities; filled in with this or that arbitrary content; made deferrable, postponable, and so to some considerable degree optional; reclassified as pay or prize—as desert and, indeed, as dessert. This transformation might, in turn, help account for some of the impasses that scholars have already identified in eighteenth-century sentimentalism: the sentimentalists’ narcissistic regard for their own sensitivity; their persistent mistaking of anguish for virtue; their eagerness to weep, not to set suffering right but to relive it, not to abolish the position of the sufferer but to join her in her abjection. Once conceptions of happiness were made over, conceptions of unhappiness had perforce to mutate in their wake. Kant, meanwhile, took it upon himself to abolish happiness from moral philosophy altogether, but, then, upon reconsidering, scrambled to readmit it, though incompletely, as an awkwardly stitched add-on: happiness in the sheerest beyond, the thing that morality teaches you to expect but that you will never, in this lifetime, reach. The American Revolution, finally, presents a case study in the disappearance of happiness. Soni is palpably delighted to find a vigorous philosophy of happiness in much early American political thought—not just in the Declaration of Independence, whose “pursuit of happiness” is, as he remarks, actually rather hedged, but in various pre-revolutionary political tracts and insurgent state constitutions—all of it, however, vanished by 1787 and the drafting of the federal Constitution, which mentions happiness not at all. This last sequence demonstrates in fine grain what is Soni’s central and alarming point: that the late eighteenth century did not produce a politics of happiness. Quite the contrary, it was the period in which the politics of happiness was superseded—precisely a transition moment, in which we find political thinkers talking about happiness for just as long as it takes to privatize it. It’s not that the Americans—and their French allies—hadn’t been trying to establish a politics of happiness; some of them had been. But they were on Soni’s account trying to politicize the wrong happiness, a concept already so damaged as to be ideologically unserviceable. At this juncture, Soni’s thinking yields a series of grandly counter-intuitive and even paradoxical formulations: He finds an anti-utopian program at just the moment when we think the modern Left is coming to be. In Samuel Richardson, he discovers an amoral morality: Even the reader consents, after a fashion, to Pamela’s suffering, since the more she suffers, the more honorable she will seem. Studying Kant, he learns that the labor of philosophical ethics is to limit responsibility—to let you know what you are under no obligation to do—to let you, finally, off the hook. And in the end, the revolution’s happiness project turned out to be just another way of ushering felicity out the door. To judge by Soni’s recent essays—post-happiness—he seems to be gearing up to give a similar account of “judgment,” which concept Locke, Hutcheson, and others inherited from antiquity, but then mistranslated so badly that subsequent generations decided they could just as well do without it.[i] Such is the cast of Soni’s thought: We should worry less about the eighteenth century’s oversights than its obsessions, which are a ready guide to its mistakes. The period breaks everything it touches.

• • •

If there is another book that Mourning Happiness resembles, then it is surely Alisdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (1981), itself old enough now to merit a refurbishing, though MacIntyre is so routinely misread that to note the likeness risks condemning Soni to share in that misunderstanding. Casual readers retrieving his name off of half-remembered undergraduate syllabi typically have MacIntyre pegged for a Catholic reactionary—a postmodern de Maistre or late capitalist Donoso Cortés—and one might well wonder what such a person has to do with the thinker in front of us, whose philosophical mentors have been Derrida and Levinas and, indeed, Jameson. Soni quotes no saints. But MacIntyre began his thinking life as a committed socialist, and initially conceived of After Virtue as supplying orthodox Marxism with the moral philosophy that it had never, to its detriment, gotten around to proposing. Anyone re-reading the book at a thirty years’ remove is in a good position to appreciate just how close its language is to the Frankfurt School and French Maoism and even to a certain post-structuralism. MacIntyre’s still Marxist Left Weberianism turns out to be really easy to spot: his attack on bureaucracy and rule by experts, his sense that a manipulative social order attempts to legitimize itself by socially performing versions of knowledge that it couldn’t possibly possess. After Virtue reads like a parallel to Habermas’s work in the same period, as in: Horkheimer keeps telling us that ‘instrumental reason’ is a problem and has colonized the lifeworld—so … what was that other kind of reason again? It’s just that where Habermas looked to Kant to equip the Left with a non-instrumental rationality, MacIntyre looked instead to Aristotle, whose philosophy of virtue he wanted us to understand as an anti-capitalist ethos of non-alienated activity and human achievement. Well before 1981, MacIntyre and E. P. Thompson had joined forces in a fight against the English Althusserians, and one easy way to make sense of After Virtue is as a bid to double-down on the young and humanist Marxism that they both preferred. Nor did MacIntyre ever really shed his Marxism, not, at any rate, with an apostate’s venom. As late as 1987, he was arguing that Aristotelianism did in fact survive, here and there, residually, into the twentieth century—as evidenced by Mao’s army in 1940s China. And he ended a 1993 essay reflecting on the collapse of state communism by proclaiming that “The point is … first to understand [our defeat] and then to start out all over again.”[ii]

That is the sense in which Soni deserves to be read as MacIntyre’s successor: He has started out all over again. Their affinities are, at any rate, quickly listed. First, Soni takes over MacIntyre’s basic thesis—that the eighteenth century underwent a catastrophic breakdown of moral reasoning—as well as his basic hunch about where we might look for redress: classical antiquity, one might blurt out, though this is too vague—better to say: the everyday practices of the Athenian  polis. Second, Soni shares MacIntyre’s allergy to liberalism. There are moments when Mourning Happiness sounds anti-liberal notes in such a recognizably neo-Aristotelian key that the book seems briefly to be channeling Matthew Arnold: “Freedom must be the freedom to live well, or it is worth nothing” (429). Third, the two share that unspoken debt to the Frankfurt School. If you wanted to claim Soni’s work for the Marxist tradition, it would be enough to recall any of a dozen passages in which Adorno invokes the future’s “promesse du bonheur”; when the critical theorist can no longer bring himself to write the word “communism,” he calls it “happiness” instead. So it is that in one of his late lectures Adorno identifies that “extraordinarily damaging dialectic” by which “in the name of freedom … happiness of every kind falls victim to a kind of taboo and is banished from philosophy.”[iii] Soni’s is the most trenchant account we now possess of that particular banishing, which Adorno himself left largely unexpounded. MacIntyre, finally, begins chapters with cheerful avowals of his own crankiness: “If my extreme position is correct….”[iv] Soni, in a similar mood, calls the demands that happiness makes upon us—the demands, that is, that he wants to make upon us in happiness’s name—“excessive” and “unrelenting” and “mad” (410). Soni is by turns a first-rate intellectual historian, a virtuoso philosophical exegete, and a groundbreaking literary critic. Yet one of the wonders of reading his work is the creeping realization that beneath a prose this calm and expository, and beneath an argumentative style so entirely deliberate—precise to the point of fussiness—there can lurk an idea reckless and militant: single-minded, obsessive.  “Every life that we must judge unhappy is potentially a radical indictment of the world that permits this immeasurable tragedy and injustice” (207). Mourning Happiness means finally to foster in us the intransigent “will to make a world of happiness before another person dies whom we must pronounce unhappy” (410).

MacIntyre has of late allowed his work to be described as a “revolutionary Aristotelianism,” and it’s that last phrase that we might now wish to extend to Soni: Well-being storms the barricades. We will have learned something important about his thought, then, when we dig deeper into Mourning Happiness and discover that it actually contains targeted attacks on both revolution and Aristotle. Of the great national revolutions, Soni concludes that they, no less than early English novels, asked contemporaries to stop making a priority of their happiness. Only for a time, they said; inevitably for too long. Puritans and patriots and Jacobins black and white all put happiness to one side, declaring so many states of emergency and finally substituting for a politics of happiness the politics of legitimacy, in which the only thing left mattering is who has derived authority from whom according to what kind of (more or less fictional) political contract. The problem with Aristotle, meanwhile, is that he thinks that if you size up a high-achieving man at forty—a go-getter at the height of his powers—you are licensed to conclude that he is happy, even if in some few cases the future might overturn that judgment. Soni, in other words, is bothered that Aristotle makes happiness something that one can attribute to a living person and astutely traces this shift back to that philosopher’s distinctive notion of “activity,” which links happiness to actions, mostly famously contemplation, that are themselves fully achieved, complete unto themselves, not in the service of some other goal. Such a conception distorts all the fundamental tenets of happiness in its pre-Aristotelian rigor: It makes it easy to tell who is happy; it sidelines the community that would otherwise be called upon to take responsibility for my happiness; and it delinks happiness from the narrative of an entire life. Indeed, the best life on this account would, because organized around self-sufficient activities, be a narratively rather thin one. Aristotle, in other words, seizes upon Solon’s painstaking idea and makes it slack—that’s Soni’s charge, and it constitutes, for anyone already studying happiness, one of the more surprising turns in his book: the moment when we realize that Aristotle was not eudaimony’s master thinker, but already its betrayer. There is also a bigger point here. What most distinguishes Soni from MacIntyre is a marked Heideggerian strain in his argument—not in the substance of his claims exactly, but in his way of recounting the history of philosophy—in his commitment, that is, to reaching back behind Aristotle and Plato to retrieve for thought a certain pre-philosophical content. One glance at the table of contents will clue you in: Soni’s chapter on Aristotle is subtitled “The First Forgetting.” Like other late-generation Heideggarians, Soni makes his claim on our attention by proposing a new candidate for the title of all-important-thing-that-European-philosophy-has-never-been-able-to-grasp, a fresh contender for the Ever Foreclosed, with happiness now functioning as rival to Sein and alterité and Hoffnung and das Nichtidentische.

So Soni’s resemblance to MacIntyre is no sooner established than it begins to fall apart, and if we agree to call this counter-MacIntyrean strain in Soni’s thinking “anti-philosophical,” we will have captured something consequential about it. The question, if you like, is why one might prefer Solon’s cryptic and unelaborated position to Aristotle’s fluent and philosophically robust one. The answer, of course, is that philosophers are inclined to say entirely too much. Soni wants to allow as much variation as possible with regards to what counts as happiness: across cultures and subcultures, from one individual life to the next, indeed, across the stages and seasons of a single, unsettled human life. Solon doesn’t tell inquirers how to recognize a happy life, only that they will have to wait for one to end before they can even try, and Soni takes this to mean that how we determine happiness is almost entirely up for grabs. The issue is this: If MacIntyre has, in his retirement, felt compelled to append prefaces to new editions of his old books, explaining to readers that he is not, in fact, a conservative, this is at least in part because he sometimes mimics one so convincingly, and nowhere more so than when he explains that for people to be virtuous, they will have to go back to living in homogenous communities, small-scale collectivities that share a culture and a language, as also modes of deliberation and moral understandings. Soni, on the other hand, comes out against any such “social consensus” on the matter of happiness and claims that a scrupulous understanding of the same won’t generate even “implicit norms”—standards that anyone seeking happiness would have to scramble to meet (80). He means this for real: One good way to read Mourning Happiness would be to track Soni’s determined efforts, across five hundred pages, to not really say anything about happiness at all; to not fill it in with content; to not tell you what it is or even what anybody in the past used to think it was; to refuse you all possible insight into how to be happy. “Happiness is nothing but the name for what is at stake in existence” (235).

We’ll gain a better sense of what Soni is up to here if we play him off against Kant, who famously argued that the doctrine of happiness—or rather, of “so-called happiness”—is entirely “empirical.”[v] The idea of happiness issues the prudential command that I take care of myself, that I tend to my own well-being, but it understands what this means only in terms of pleasure (or desire or inclination). The philosophers of happiness say they’re going to teach you how to live well but typically end up just scribbling inventories of stuff people like; and it is against these pseudo-ethical grocery lists that Kant will ask us to conceive of morality as pure form. Soni is out to show that Kant is wrong on this score: Happiness is not just the more or less optional content of moral thought; it is itself a kind of form, a way of thinking about the organization of a life. A proper understanding of happiness would have to be as formalist as a theory of duty or the law.

But to say even this may already be to give Soni’s project too philosophical a cast, for what matters to him is not so much how we conceptualize happiness, but how we tell stories about it—our “narrative assumptions about happiness” (180). The distinctions between stories matter here, and some readers, no doubt, will admire Soni chiefly for his startling ability to differentiate between story forms or even to produce, out of the inherited materials of literary history, entirely new genres—new objects of narratological concern. I’m thinking especially of those remarkable pages in which he explains why the eighteenth-century fictions that most resemble tragedies are not, in fact, tragedies: Unlike the authentic article, modern pseudo-tragedies—Soni calls them “trial narratives”—“require us to accept as necessary and even valuable the conditions that produce unhappiness” (201). But more than a vindication of this or that story type, Mourning Happiness is a vindication of narrative tout court as a vehicle of moral and political reasoning. For narrative repeats, as philosophy cannot, the open-ended and detail-oriented indeterminacy of the Solonian command. “[I]f narrative is necessary for the community to be able to relate to the totality of a life, it is also the way to describe the heterogeneity of a life not reducible to a finite set of salient descriptors.” (70) Stories furnish examples of happy lives without letting these petrify into norms. In the absence of rules or abstract criteria, they present something like the logic of the concrete, a direct contemplation of some particularized happiness—or of some unknown other’s unrepeatable desolation.

Many readers are going to find this unwillingness to pronounce on the subject of happiness among the book’s most attractive features; it is, at any rate, how Soni smuggles a radical pluralism in past his own anti-liberal strictures. But there is a problem here all the same. In a sentence quoted on the back of the book, one of Soni’s early reviewers has proclaimed his work to be “a major contribution to … ethics.” But Soni doesn’t exactly think of himself as a moral philosopher; he thinks that in some suitably recondite way he is making a contribution to political theory. You can tell this from the volume’s subtitle, which is “Narrative and the Politics of Modernity.” This is yet another way in which he and MacIntyre are alike, since both believe that morality is only worth something when it exceeds itself, when, that is, it becomes real in the world, devising the practices and building the institutions that will give its precepts genuine ethical substance. But Soni also wants happiness to remain indeterminate and rejects as reified any felicity whose content has been even lightly specified; it is here that the book’s many references to Derrida and Levinas do their hardest work—Happiness will never be present to you; happiness demands of us an infinite and impossible responsibility towards the well-being of other people—and it is unclear how a moral imperative this abstract is ever going to attain institutional shape: indeterminacy made real, infinite responsibility with a street address. Within the span of a few pages, Soni insists both that Solonian happiness comes down to “a completely”—and magnificently—“empty question” and that it is “not an abstract philosophical proposition existing in isolation from social life” (177, 179). One might wonder, then: How do you institutionalize a question? More to the point, how do you institutionalize its emptiness?

Another comparison will make the dimensions of the problem clear. In Archaeologies of the Future, Fredric Jameson admits that his formalist approach to utopian writing is actually rather peculiar. It is odd, he says, for a scholar to be studying utopias as a genre, since this seems to cancel out the politics of this most political of literary forms. Jameson is, by his own account, more interested in the conventions that structure utopian writing than he is in the substance of this or that utopian proposal. And yet if utopias are so many attempts to imagine the best possible society, then there is a conceptual pressure, generated from within the form and not present in the same way in any other genre, to have a favorite. This observation, however, allows Jameson to give his argument its splendid twist: To study utopias as a genre, rather than giving readings of isolated utopian texts, is to refuse to choose between them; it is to want all the utopias at once and thereby to imagine a world whose utopian energies are entirely excessive and overflowing. And this, Jameson explains, is indeed a properly political demand: To love any one utopia is to play into the hands of utopia’s liberal enemies, who think of any perfect society as fatally closed or totalitarian. But to love the genre is to re-introduce multiplicity into the utopian equation, and so to ask that we build not a single perfect society, but a network of not-really-rival utopias, a global federation of good places. The reconciled world would resemble the well-stocked bookshelf of a sci-fi buff.

The point is, then, that Soni’s formalist account of happiness is plainly modeled on Jameson’s pan-utopianism and is driven by roughly the same concerns: We don’t need one happiness to share between us; we need all the happinesses. But what is nonetheless missing from Soni’s account is that final step, via which happiness in all its multiplicity would acquire a properly collective and political dimension. He wants to boast that Greek happiness, unlike our more paltry version, “took concrete political form in an institution” (452), but the institution that he submits for our consideration, the funeral oration, is agonizingly slight and not in any of the usual senses a political institution at all. This is puzzling on a few different fronts: Soni’s political program comes down to the claim that the Athenians made a point of talking about their dead, which seems to suggest that we bury our lost friends in complacent silence. At one point he proclaims that “everyone deserves a funeral oration,” which I suppose is meant to be another one of those impossible demands, until one recalls that this is already the practice, and mundanely so, even in advanced capitalist societies: I can count on getting a eulogy when I die and, failing that, a toast (431). Sometimes he even seems to forget that the funeral oration does not, in fact, institutionalize happiness—it makes no-one happy—but only the judgment upon happiness, which is something else again. This tentativeness on the subject of politics—or, if you like, the elevation to politics of an argument that really is ethical—introduces into the book a permanent misgiving around its own abstractions: We have to “accept the Solonian idea in its formal rigor and indeterminacy” (110)—but equally we “must not shy away from [the] work of specifying concretely, if always provisionally, how to put a politics of happiness into effect” (471). It is upon realizing that this extraordinary book has absolutely nothing to say about the latter that Soni’s most pointed indictments of eighteenth-century philosophy begin to sound like self-recrimination: We must hold to account any philosopher who “fails to imagine a concrete and institutionalizable politics of happiness” (465). A reader should feel flummoxed in the face of any philosopher who, like Bentham, makes “many formal pronouncements … about the priority of happiness,” but whose “concept of happiness” is “essentially abstract” (400). A footnote early in Mourning Happiness informs us that Soni has also been writing on literary utopias, and this gives us reason to hope that he might yet produce a utopias volume of his own. [vi] Any such book would surely be a follow-up to the volume at hand, a sequel in which he dissolves his first book’s abstractions and carries out its unfinished business. For utopias will always violate the Solonian injunction, and anyone who loves them will have to make his peace with that. They cannot leave happiness unspecified, any more than you, when looking for the right locality in which to live, hunting for the county or country that will make it possible for you to live a life out to its fulfilled end, can afford to wait for that place’s collapse or inundation before declaring it to be good.


[i] See, for instance, the special issue of Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, edited by Soni, on “the crisis of judgment”—51.3 (2010).  

[ii] Alisdair MacIntyre, “Practical Rationalities as Forms of Social Structure,” Irish Journal of Philosophy 4 (1987): 3-19; “The Theses on Feuerbach: A Road Not Taken,” in Carol C. Gould & Robert S. Cohen eds., Artifacts, Representations and Social Practice (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1993): 277-290, quotation 290.

[iii] Theodor Adorno, Problems of Moral Philosophy (delivered 1963, first published in German 1996), translated by Rodney Livingston (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), 119.

[iv] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (3rd ed.; 1981) (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007) 36.

[v] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason (1788), translated by Werner Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2002), 93, 118.

[vi] Vivsavan Soni, “Modernity and the Fate of Utopian Representation in Wordsworth’s ‘Female Vagrant.’” European Romantic Review 21 (2010): 363-381.

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