How Bitter A Thing It Is To Look Into Happiness Through Another Man’s Eyes

August 27, 2008

I am angry and not thinking clearly. Please forgive the following rant if it offends. I have decided to let the dogs of Eros off their chains for a bit.

Literature, in particular fiction, in particular the novel, particularly in its characters creates envy within us, no? Isn’t that why we love the hero? He is, as it turns out, everything we want to be but we cannot due to lack of training, natural talent, or motivation. Likewise with the anti-hero. Don’t we all enjoy a good bastard every now and then? Someone who can do all the things that our bodies desire but our minds oppose, someone who can transcend ethics for a good time or for simple desires, someone without that nagging voice, someone truly free like some Nietzchean Ubermench. Hence can literature ever be fulfilling, can it ever really make us happy? (Trust me, this is a dreadful question for me as well). Any emotion we pull from a book is really seeing happiness through another man’s eye, it is hollow, it is shallow and it is keeping us from achieving things in the real world.

Before we get too radical let me reflect for a second. I am not calling for a Fahrenheit 451 here. Books are good, reading them can be good, but they are also bad. I find too many people hide behind books and couple it with faux intellectualism, or they feign multiculturalism because they read some book on Zaire, or more shockingly they pretend to be pretentious while they read garbage modern novels using hackneyed story lines lifted from classics. (Insert here Dean Koontz, Danielle Steele, J.K. Rowling, Dan Brown, Terry Prachett, and Stephen King, Note: I am not saying these authors are ‘bad’ but they are no Shakespeare and you shouldn’t be acting like a scholar just because you picked up a book for once). The above authors wrote for fun, their books should be read for fun, not for intellectual pursuit so don’t put on some pseudo elitist look of disgust when I say I don’t read any of these authors on a regular basis.

That being said I have wasted much of my life reading. Well, I guess the term ‘wasted’ is really at the heart of the entire question. What makes a book worth reading (outside of pure fun because people find all sorts of weird things fun)? Personally it shocks me why people read modern novels over classics. Yet, I am not stupid and I understand I am the minority in that equation. Yet, being as pompous as I am, I would defend my position as the correct one, and yet do I not have guilty pleasures that I cannot explain? And yet, if all you have are guilty pleasures without substance isn’t that a vice? And yet I don’t know, and yet another yet.

Shouldn’t it shock us that J.K. Rowling’s book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows sold more than: To Kill A Mockingbird, Night, Catch-22, Crime and Punishment, War and Peace, the Complete Works of Shakespeare, the Complete Works of Plato, The Confessions, The Summa Theologica, The Brothers Karamazov, Wuthering Heights, the Bell Jar, etc. The only thing more shocking to me is that Dan Brown’s Divinci Code sold even more than that. I assure you Harry Potter didn’t beat Crime and Punishment based on intellectual merits, writing style, advanced imagery and symbolism, social relevance, or even timelessness – it sold because it made us FEEL things. Don’t get me wrong, I FELT things when I read Crime and Punishment but I also THOUGHT things. FEELINGS are nothing but looking at happiness (or even sorrow because we are a sadistic society) through another man’s eyes. It is pointless, absurd, and probably a waste of our time. Then again what isn’t? We have to have fun, right? Not everything can be work or education, right? Can I truly condemn someone for living the life of quiet pleasure in reading? If they don’t hurt a fly, nor commit any vice, but simply slowly waste away reading? Its a tough call. For all I know, I am doing precisely that. Or perhaps I am the one wasting away and I am really only angry at myself.

Who the hell knows. I am confused but at least I am not angry anymore.



  1. As long as these less thoughtful books are discarded then over time the numbers will be redressed. Has to work out that way on sheer numbers doesn’t it… I blame advertising for forgetting that each generation needs to discover these things anew. But the really great, thought provoking works trickle down the ages and remain on the classics list. Don’t forgo all modern works – there will be new classics among them as well and you don’t want to miss out on the wisdom of your own age?

  2. Well said. You have redressed me for my overly critical rant though it seems you sympathize with its premise? Its such a tricky subject for me to grasp being one who loves literature yet to feel so obdurate in my disapproval of its many forms. Cest la vie I suppose. Thanks for the comment. Keep reading and keep commenting.

  3. I’ve often thought the same with regard to films. Perhaps because the cost of films are so immorally high compared to literature, movie production geared to a pure pleasure principle seems the more egregious sin.
    But the sin is the same in either case. Here is the rub: Literature without pleasure is of course not literature. Entertainment is a sine qua non.
    And when we get to the extremeties of fluff and boredom the bubble is burst.
    Those who can walk the razor’s edge (Cervantes, Shakespeare, but also Dickens and Nabokov) allow us to live guilt-free. Neat, huh?
    Something you said disturbs me a bit, though. You stated “can literature ever be fulfilling, can it ever really make us happy?”
    Literature’s duty is not to make us happy. Heck, I don’t even know what happiness is … do you? I’ve often thought that happiness is merely the forgetfulness of sorrow. After all, can any one be happy in face of the world’s sorrows? Only when we look away.

  4. Mmmm… I feel the same thing plagues movies only with less history to carry the weight.

    Happiness in the other hand is a “warm gun” some would say.

  5. Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

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