The Pursuit of Happiness Kills Stories

The ethic of fidelity creates stories.  The struggle of living is a struggle to be faithful to something or someone outside the self. All else pales.  Interesting stories are about overcoming the obstacles to fidelity, because the interesting questions about your life and the lives you know are always about fidelity.  Will you be true?  When you lay down at night and think about how you did that day and what you’ll do tomorrow, your thoughts are only shapes against the background of that question.  Was I true?  Will I?  I want to, but how?   True to your wife, your husband.  True to do right by your children or your aged parents.  True to keep your feet against pressure to lie, cheat, and steal in business. True to God’s call each day.  True to the quest: the quest to find the lost lover.  Slay the dragon, save the girl.

The very meaning of “story” is a journey from one external place to another external.   There must be distance between where I am today and the state I desire for tomorrow or for the last hour of my life, and that distance is where my story takes place.  Without an external landscape there is no story, no plot.

True to yourself?  Well, there is a tiny reality in this phrase, but it only in the context of fidelity to others.  You can’t imagine a self in no context.  If you could, that self would have no content.  No color or meaning.

But for the modern person truth to self has become everything.

Modernity has created the idea of an internal journey.

There is an internal life which demands fidelity to itself, but the internal life       Here is the pattern: as you pursue fidelity, you learn more about yourself, about why and how you are made. That experience of sudden insight is exhilarating; now you see your self, for a bright moment, as an object of knowledge. And it looks pretty, right then, and it feels joyful because joy itself is just the experience of newness. But the mistake is to extract that new knowledge (and the moment of discovery) from larger life, and make it the direct object instead of the indirect effect.

Those who make it the direct object talk the language of the ethic of happiness, which makes sense for a little while, but the glow is really the burning off of capital fuel from the earlier fidelity. Two steps down the road the self is suddenly disoriented. The self, by itself, suddenly dissipates into nothingness — this sudden loss is surprisingly fast and surprisingly literal. The story of your life suddenly looks like a white page.

The ethic of happiness destroys drama, because the wiser the audience, the more they see that the traditional dramatic obstacles for the protagonist are first internalized, and then lost. The protagonist is no longer interesting. The pursuit of a lover is interesting; the quest for the grail is interesting; the fight with the dragon is interesting; the search for “self-actualization” is banal.

When there is no plot people can go on for a long time scratching at meaning, and even make the loss of plot a liberation. For a time. The art of self-actualization is the art of an instant of sensation, the snapshot. Haiku, imagism, the absurd, the barbaric yawp flung upon the roof the world, the song of myself in which I very well contradict myself — all fun stuff as momentary diversion.

Self minus plot equals black despair.   Despair is the sensation of a disintegrated self.

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