Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday, 3 January 2016


Another Stray

Happiness is a stray –
though it lets you feed it
it's never yours.

You go through life losing it
and stumbling on it again.

Even then it often turns on you.

17 October 1986

Two of the poems I studied at school were ‘The Jaguar’ by Ted Hughes and ‘Toads’ by Philip Larkin. Years later I discovered ‘Toads Revisited’ and ‘Second Glance at a Jaguar’. Now here, after reading one of the others, I find myself revisiting my poem ‘Stray’ (#453). The first poem was about freedom; this one is about happiness.

I’ve always had a soft spot for strays. I guess that’s why I took to Beckett so readily; I’d be hard pressed to think of a single major character who’s not some sort of stray. They’re all wanderers even the ones like Malone and Mahood who only wander in their minds. In his biography of Beckett Anthony Cronin writes:

The Beckett man is a lone individual who regards other with fear, hatred, impatience or contempt... He does not believe in the brotherhood of man; and questions of equality are disposed of by the eager admission that he is, in all respects, inferior. He lays no claim to any virtue that can be named except to a rather dubious humility and a too eagerly embrace resignation.... The Beckett man has usually no past except, since he has been born, a mother or mother memory. He belongs to no recognizable community. He has no employments or qualifications for employment. Nor has he any sources of income except charitable ones. – Anthony Cronin, Samuel Beckett: the Last Modernist, p.379

The character of Jim in my new novel is—or at least becomes—a Beckett man although I’m not sure I agree with Cronin as to what the archetypical Beckettian is or ought to be. Neither Didi nor Gogo could be described as fearful—a little wary perhaps—or contemptuous and they’re the most patient characters in literature. One thing they do have in common with all Beckett’s other characters is they’re unhappy and I include Winnie from Happy Days despite all her protestations to the contrary. They all stopped chasing happiness years before they got to this point in their lives. Now they—especially I would say Winnie—find moments of contentment in distraction. As I note in the new book:

People are content to be distracted. It is an immensely powerful force. No one recognises true happiness any more; they think it squalid and farcical and are slightly embarrassed to be seen with it. Every once in a while it pokes its head out of its hidey–hole and people go, “What’s that funny-looking thing?” but the next thing you know something shiny has caught their eye and it’s gone.


Kass said...

Jim, we're not alone in believing happiness is overrated. In his book Against Happiness, Eric Wilson argues that there is a vital need for sadness in the world and says we're missing out if we medicate it away. Philip Larkin said, "Happiness writes white." I like your idea of happiness being a stray; a feral, fleeting concept.

Jim Murdoch said...

The last time I visited my daughter we had a good talk about life’s purpose, Kass. She still thinks happiness is something worth striving after and argued her case as she always does. Happiness is all well and good but I see it as a treat, not the main course. The meaning of life is meaning and the purpose of life is purpose. It’s not enough to be happy. It’s not enough to have a houseful of gadgets. Satisfaction—which is, I suppose, a form of happiness (as is contentment)—comes from making a difference. I make a difference in your life as do you in mine. Mostly these are positive differences but even were I to write something that brought you down I would hope that that downness would ultimately open up some (and I use the term loosely) truth about the world and/or about ourselves. In his screenplay to Shadowlands William Nicholson wrote, “We read to know we're not alone.” It’s not the only reason by a long chalk but it helps when someone finds the words to express something we’ve felt deeply for years. Like, for example, that being sad is not a bad thing. My favourite quote on happiness comes from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. I’ve quoted it many times over the years and make no apology for giving it one more airing: “Actual happiness always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the overcompensations for misery.” The problem with happiness is actually a problem with expectation. People expect too much from it and are subsequently and inevitably disappointed. That’s not happiness’s fault. We live in a world where we’re constantly being hyped at. I’m reading articles about films that haven’t even been made yet! These are years off but by the time I get to see them I’ll already be disappointed. Nothing ever lives up to the hype.

Kass said...

Great Huxley quote. Your expression of being "hyped at" is pretty great also. All you said is so true.

I appreciate that you express our interchanges make a difference, even the down-bringing, truth-opening moments.

Tim Love said...

People say that the "Inside Out" movie gives adults a chance to discuss with children the value of Sadness. Needless to say, I found the Joy character a bit of a pain.

Jim Murdoch said...

I actually enjoyed Inside Out more than I expected, Tim, and I agree wholeheartedly, Joy was a pain. Optimists generally annoy the hell out of me. In the last place I worked the receptionist was like that, irrepressible. If I was going to describe Joy to my wife all I’d have to say was that she was “a Tracy”; the rest would be understood.

The film reminded me of an old TV show, Herman’s Head, episodes from which you can find on YouTube and, of course, the episode from Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* But Were Afraid to Ask with the sperm.

Gwil W said...

Happy New Year Jim. Yesterday I went to Stefan Sagmeister's The Happy Show. I rode his white bicycle and illuminated by means of the dynamo a message of tubular light: ACTUALLY DOING THE THINGS I SET OUT TO DO INCREASES MY OVERALL LEVEL OF SATISFACTION. There were some photos of the show when it was in Scotland. There are some TED Talks by Sagmeister. I watched one from Bali.

Gwil W said...

I mean Sagmeister was in Bali, not me!!!

Jim Murdoch said...

I found some videos on YouTube, Gwilliam. The exhibition looks interesting. I’m not anti-happiness. I like being happy—who in their right mind wouldn’t want to be happy?—but I’m not so sure about the –ness bit. As soon as you add one of these damn suffixes the problems start, especially the –isms. I think I object to the notion of happiness as a state, something to be attained (and then maintained) rather than something we pass through from time to time. Chocolate and sex and a whopping great list of other things only make us happy because we don’t have to do them all the time. I love writing but after eight years of blogging in which writing turned into a job, something I had (or at least felt I had) to do it did take much of the joy out of it. I mean nothing will ever truly ruin writing for me but I have to say I was disappointed when I realised it was becoming a chore at times. I also don’t like the notion of happiness as an end in itself. Happiness is a by-product of doing other stuff. Maybe that’s why so many people are frustrated and unhappy because they try to bypass the doing. I don’t write to be happy but writing often does make me happy (although it’s not guaranteed and it never lasts).

Happy New Year to you too BTW. At least I hope some of it is happy and when you least expect it.

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