Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Happiness and the Good Life 2: Community

On Saturday mornings, Bill and I begin our day by going out for coffee; sometimes we go to Good Earth in the Scarth Street Mall.  This last Saturday, the view was slightly surreal.  The tall homeless man (I'm making a presumption--and no, that's not a slip of the fingers) who stands silently at the corner of 12th and Scarth was there, and we talked about the weather, as we often do, while I dug around for my small contribution to his life.  Across the way, in Victoria Park, were the tents of Occupy Regina, still mostly peaceful.  I imagined what it would be like to wake up on a crisp October morning surrounded by people who shared your passion, your vision, standing around drinking coffee, talking about what mattered.  In my nostalgic haze, I hadn't thought where the hot coffee might come from.

Nostalgic it was:  because if I thought about the last time I felt embraced in such a community, it would be my early years in the English Department at the University of Regina, when we all taught four courses a year (instead of five every other year) and did far less committee work.  Wednesday mornings--because nobody taught on Wednesday--we often gathered in the Faculty Lounge and talked about what mattered:  students, texts, approaches to literature.   We created a community, and is so often the case, that community was created by our response to literature--to art.  Stretching back as far as Kant, the "judgement of taste" as he would have put it, assumed that other people might share your opinion, but that no one needed to.  More recently, in Dennis Donaghue's book Speaking of Beauty, he talks about the fact that a definition of beauty eludes us, so we must talk about it.  In Dave Hickey's Air Guitar, which I've been reading for my work on Virginia Woolf's aesthetics (an odd pairing if ever there was one:  Hickey loves Las Vegas, the one place in the States where he feels at home, and once dealt in psychedelic art), he talks about the feeling that you have when you have read a poem or a story, or have been to a movie or a gallery show, and you say to other people "You've got to see/read/hear this!"  This response makes Woolf and Hickey logical bedfellows, in spite of their obvious differences.  For what else is Woolf's two-volume The Common Reader but an attempt to create a community of readers?  When she heard that the copy of TCR in the Lewes library was spotted and splotched with food, she was delighted.  She had indeed reached common readers.

In the same essay, Dave Hickey told another story about community which entirely charmed me--again, with a sense of nostalgia.  Because he grew up in the fifties, when people kept their windows open during the summer, his father learned that the Jewish woman down the street who had survived the Holocaust shared a passion of his.  Simply put, on summer nights he could hear her playing Duke Ellington 78s.  This led to an extraordinary Sunday afternoon jam session, with Mildred, Hickey and his father and two other Irish dudes, two Latinos, and two blacks toking up and making music.  Unlike the others, Mildred brought an armload of sheet music, and when Hickey whispered about this derisively to his father, his dad told him to shut up.  The more experienced jammers made room for Mildred that afternoon, encouraging her to "take it," and giving her the usual 16-bar space for a solo that never came.  But they never stopped making space for her.  Who knew when she might finally feel enough courage?

This is a fairly long riff on my part, as it moves from my Saturday morning thoughts about community, to nostalgic memories of my early years in Regina, to an aesthetics of community and a 1950s slightly stoned jam session.  But as it turns out, it comes right back to where it began.  Yesterday afternoon I bought some cookies and muffins and went to hang out with the folks who are occupying Regina.  On the basis of 25 minutes of uneasy conversation between an English professor and a couple of guys, I'm not going to make any generalizations about the people who are occupying Regina with their signs that range from telling me not to trip over tent ropes (which I promptly proceeded to do), to assertions that "In Squirrel We Trust" or "This is Democracy in Action."  Interestingly, I talked to quite a number of people who are not occupying Regina, but who came there simply to hang.  One young man said sadly that if his wife would simply let him off his leash, he'd move in tomorrow.  Another young man had brought his kids. 

But Gerry (not his name), whom I talked to longest, said that the response to their occupation has been pretty good.  They have their whiteboard up with things they need, and people often read it, go away and clean out their closets, and then return with needed blankets or sleeping bags.  Gerry often keeps night watch, however, because when O'Hanlons gets out, they can find dudes pissing on their tents.  But a supportive retired couple drove in last week from Fort Qu'Appelle with enormous pans of ham and other hot food.  And apparently there were lots of leftovers from a Knox Met pot luck or fowl supper that got brought over to the group of tents.

There have been complaints that the aims of the "Occupy" movement are unfocussed.  I don't agree.  I think they're critiquing a capitalist system that's way out of tune, and I think they're worried about what we're doing to the planet--since changing our approach to the environment would (shock and awe) cost money (which we could take out of absurd CEO salaries).  But what I saw and heard yesterday, and the daydreams that the quiet collection of tents started in my head was the dream of community.  We could say this about the "Occupy" movement:  that in the place of an excessively competitive capitalism that divides winners and losers pretty ruthlessly, they're offering us a vision of community.  They clean up their park; they chant the words of the people who come to inspire them, they move their tents every couple of days so they don't kill the grass.  In his essay "What is the Good Life?" Mark Kingwell writes "We are, finally, happier not with more stuff but with more meaning:  more creative leisure time, stronger connections to groups of friends, deeper commitment to common social projects, and a great opportunity to reflect.  In short, the life of the well-rounded person, including crucially the orienting aspect of life associated with virtuous citizenship.  Nor is this basic social commitment something we should pursue for ourselves alone, a project simply to promote our personal happiness.  At its best, it is an expression of commonality that creates something greater than the sum of its--let us be honest--often self-interested and distracted members.  It creates a community."

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

On Happiness and the Good Life

My friend Katherine Arbuthnott has told me that psychologists have come at happiness from a number of angles, using different methods or making different assumptions, and have generally come to the same conclusions.  If you have extrinsic motivations--if you think that money or status or beauty will make you happy--you're screwed.  Because, simply put, there's never enough money or success. We know what happens to beauty.  On the other hand, if your goals are intrinsic, rising out of what gives you pleasure and joy, or out of ideals you have about the human condition or relationships between people--things that can't be seen by anyone but you, you don't need a lot of the money or status to be quite happy.  In one study, for example, a kind of bachelor's degree exit questionnaire established whether students' goals were intrinsic or extrinsic and then asked the students to say what they'd like to have achieved at the end of the next several years.  Interestingly, in their follow-up interviews, the psychologists found most students had met their goals.  Only the students with intrinsic motivation, however, were satisfied with their accomplishments and had an increased sense of well-being.

A few months ago, Bill and I watched a fascinating documentary on happiness.  Here's a clue:  it isn't winning the lottery.  When lottery winners were interviewed, they talked about the attempts to be happy in spite of the money.  Perhaps Violet and Allan Large of Lower Truro near Halifax have figured how to be happy with a lottery win:  give it away to people who need it.  Even with a five-year-old truck and a thirteen-year-old car, they have all they need--each other.  Here's another clue:  it doesn't mean you haven't suffered in some profound way.  Men who had been prisoners of war reported that if they could live their lives over, they wouldn't try to avoid those difficult times because they made them who they are.

But through this entire program, I kept asking a question that no one would answer.  Why is happiness the greatest good?  Even the economists have begun to use their mathematical models to consider happiness, mostly because they realize that GDP doesn't measure the well-being of a society.  As I understand the research, one of the things they've discovered is that I'm happy with my salary if it's more than yours.  If it's less--even if that "less" is a lot--I'm not entirely satisfied.

What makes me happy?  A good day's writing.  A great class where the students have had an "aha!" moment or have taught me something.  Meaningful conversation with Bill or Veronica or a close friend.  A cat on my lap.  Filling the bird feeders on these crisp mornings and listening to the eager birds waiting in the trees for breakfast.  A beautiful day--preferably not windy.  Saying 'thank you' to someone and surprising them.  What I'm trying to work out for myself, on my own terms, is the relationship between being happy and what the Greek philosophers (and many philosophers since) have called living the good life.

To some extent I saw this problem played out in two books I read earlier this fall.  The first was Sheila Heti's well-reviewed How Should a Person Be?  The passive verb "be" made me slightly nervous, as did the narrator's focus, often to the detriment of the people around her, on how she should present herself to the world. I wasn't nearly as fond of the book as the reviewers were (though to be fair, I've included a link to the good reviews below), because ironized or not, the ethical dilemmas faced by our Sheila-narrator seemed banal and fairly unchallenging and not a little self-involved.  There's a certain picaresque energy about Sheila's quest for meaning in her life and success as an artist, and certainly a Facebooky-texty edginess to the style. But for me, this didn't make up for the banality or sheer triviality of the narrator's anxieties and behaviour.

Let's contrast that with Diane Ackerman's plangent One Hundred Names for Love.  This work of creative non-fiction records the aftermath of a massive stroke for Ackerman's husband, writer Paul West.  The result was aphasia--sometimes an erasure, sometimes a tangling of language in West's damaged brain.  Ackerman, who has written extensively about science and recently about the brain, clearly explains what Paul is experiencing, explains the challenges his faces, the way his brain mis-fires, so that he often finds no words at all, sometimes can only create fey quasi-metaphors that need to be decoded.  The typical boring, repetitive strategies for bringing language back online don't work for the imaginative West, but Ackerman's encouragement to go ahead and be playful and offbeat does, producing the one hundred names of the book's title. While watching West's slow return to language is inspiring--he wrote three books after the stroke-- perhaps most moving for me was Ackerman's attempt to give him the best care she could at home while continuing to take care of her own creative and emotional needs.  This narrative doesn't consider what it's good to "be," but about what it's important to do, and how difficult making those decisions is when your own needs and those of someone you love are in conflict.  

As I go back to my question about the relationship between happiness and the good life via my thoughts about these books, I may have a hypothesis.  Extrinsic motivation involves being something:  being rich or being beautiful.  Intrinsic motivation involves doing something, and that something often involves creativity, kindness, justice, craftsmanship, conversation.

These questions about being and doing are given more relevance right now by the various "Occupy" movements we see occurring across Europe and North America.  In some ways, we're looking at the effects that the insatiable people with extrinsic goals have on the lives of people who are trying to find enough resources to simply live.  When I got all lofty this weekend about the benefits of intrinsic motivation, Bill asked quite pointedly whether that mattered to someone who was simply looking for enough money to pay rent and utilities and buy groceries.  Probably not:  it's something my privileged status allows me to think about in my spare time.  All the same, as Katherine Arbuthnott wisely observed last week, the more our culture spends its time observing and considering the lives of the rich and famous, the more time we as a culture spend thinking about a kind of motivation that isn't really good for any of us.

Here's the link to the reviews of How Should a Person Be?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Undefinable beauty

Being on sabbatical is making me a boring blogger. When I'm not reading aesthetics or Woolf criticism, I'm walking in the woods or making big dinners.  I don't have the delight of students challenging me and teaching me new things, forcing me to go in new directions.  In fact, the very point of this sabbatical, from one perspective, is to finally express what I know and have been thinking about Woolf on and off for the last six years.  Fortunately--and this probably speaks to what I love about Woolf and about literature and art more generally--that task is always going to be full of surprises, twists, and turns.  

Also fortunately, there's sometimes a delightful consonance between walking in the woods and reading aesthetics.

I love this time of year on the prairie.  When it's full summer, the world in Regina is an explosion of green punctuated by people's gardens, but I think in the main we feel delightfully enveloped by some whole, large impression of a world in the thick of fecundity.  Being in love with prairie autumns is to have your attention captured differently.  Mostly, I notice detail.  The texture of dried grass punctuated by enthusiastic weeds that have invented playful and effective ways of scattering their seeds.  Or the texture of a pile of leaves that has fallen, brown and sere, in arabesques and curlicues. The architecture of trees as they reveal themselves to me day by day.  Colour.  Colours that can't be captured by a single word, that make you concentrate to express what you see.  Much of the green has gone greeny-gold.  Or olive-greeny-gold.  We're suddenly aware of brown, but aware of how many shades--from the greybrown of bark to the redbrown of those weeds you see at the side of the road, to the goldbrown of fallen aspen leaves.

Bill and I drove out the old Lumsden Road yesterday, and the fields were the colour of creamed honey, except that describing it that way gets the texture all wrong.  It's not silky, like creamed honey; it's more like an inventively-combed brush cut.  There's one place on the road where I made Bill stop because the farmers, who are on one of the Qu'Appelle Valley tributaries, have had to be very creative ploughing their fields to both get the most crop and go with the flow of the land.  In some ways, it looks like the raked sand of a Japanese garden, but that texture isn't right either.  It just is itself.

I was delighted today, then, when I was reading Alexander Nehemas's Only a Promise of Happiness (which is how Stendahl defined beauty), to come across his sense that beauty always eludes us.  That's part of what makes it beauty:  "The problem is with the idea that we already know the features that account for the beauty of the object before us, which doesn't acknowledge the fact that as long as we find something beautiful we feel certain that it can still yield something of value, despite the fact that we don't know what that is....Just as nothing we know is enough to prove that something is beautiful, everything we love is always a step beyond our understanding.  The pleasures of the imagination are pleasures of anticipation, not accomplishment" (75-6).  We love a poem for its unending complexity that no reading ever captures.  We love a beautiful child for a million reasons, but one of these is for the child's sense of potential, of becoming someone who surprises us, often daily.  We love a painting, whether it's a Mark Rothko or a Vermeer or a Kenojuak owl because we can never exhaust the delight we take in the image, can never exhaust a sense of significance and vision that lies beyond our ability to describe it.

When I started the Woolf book, I was entirely new to aesthetics (now I'm just new), and began reading anything people would recommend.  I thank Betsy Warland for introducing me to Elaine Scarry's groundbreaking On Beauty and Being Just and Ken Probert for bringing in a review of Only a Promise of Happiness.  I found Dennis Donoghue's Speaking of Beauty on my own.  None of these books on beauty told me what I finally had to learn from Gadamer, Adorno, and Jusdanis:  that art's autonomy guarantees its freedom to critique the world it lives in, which I wrote about in my last post.  But books on beauty nevertheless do some important things.  First, they take the discussion of aesthetics out of the art gallery or concert hall or classroom and bring it to daily lives, which is where most of us experience beauty daily (I hope).  But second, these writers agree that we have to talk about beauty, that it can't be simply defined, just as I can't simply define the fall colours I love.  And that has a potential to create a sense of community.

When you expererience something beautiful, you want to share it with other people.  Think about it.  How often have you said "You have to read this book/go to this movie/listen to this music"?  As far back as Kant, we have realized two things about what he called the judgement of beauty.  One is that you imagine that everyone should share it.  The second is that you respect the sense that they don't.  You can't force people to agree with you about what's beautiful.  And imagine how impoverished and homogenous the world would be if we all agreed on what is beautiful.  Somehow a world that totally agrees about what's beautiful evokes images of uninventive, gargantuan concrete walls for me.  So if some of you, taking Nehemas's line on the "promise" of beauty, are thinking about my love of fall colours and observing that the only promise is winter and you think Saskatchewan winters suck, that's okay.  Because I have this goofy theory that what we find beautiful is an inherent part of our personalities, of who we are.

The photographs are by Veronica Geminder, whose work can be found here.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Ideas of home, and homelessness

Back from Banff, I'm being "disciplined" and working in a focused way on my book on Virginia Woolf's aesthetics, arguing that for Woolf the "autonomous work of art" and "political art" are not an antithesis, but that an author's use of an engaging and sometimes puzzling form forces the reader to bridge the gap between the work of art's autonomy and the political and social world it critiques.  There's no "message"; rather, there are puzzling moments that encourage the reader's reflection.  There's a fairly long philosophical tradition, beginning in the twentieth century with the work of Gadamer and Adorno and continuing in the twenty-first with the work of Scarry, Nussbaum, Donaghue,and Jusdanis, for this conception of the autonomous work of art. I think the upshot of all this theory is that autonomy provides both the writer and the reader with the most freedom.  The writer doesn't need to come up with answers or tow a party line, but only to ask how it is in the world.  And the reader is only urged to reflect and consider, to bring their own knowledge, context, and experience to bear upon the human questions.

Working on Woolf is not "being disciplined" because this is what the University expects me to do.  It's being disciplined because it's hard work balancing all I know about aesthetics (and, at my age, remembering all I know about aesthetics), all other critics have said about Woolf's novels and essays, and my vision of the work itself.  It requires a kind of single-minded focus.  And frankly, I want to get it done.  It's the last big project of my academic career.

And then there's the matter of timing.  After working on Soul Weather flat out at Banff, I needed some time away from the novel to think both deeply and freely about my characters and about the questions I have decided to explore in my own novel.  And frankly, thinking about how Woolf examines and critiques her culture without sending a "message" provides a lesson for the novelist, urging me to keep questions, not answers, top of mind as I work on Soul Weather, leaving my readers free to consider their own answers to the problems posed by this particular historical moment.

That free and deep thinking takes place in life's interstices--those moments when you think you're doing something else, like quilting or taking a walk with your daughter on a lovely fall day.  Veronica and I walked the Marsh Route around White Butte Trails east of Regina last Friday, and the smell of leaves and desultory conversation about what we'd cook for Thanksgiving prompted me from time to time to think about ideas of home.  I found myself considering "home" from Dirk's point of view.  I could see Dirk toward the end of the novel concluding that home may be as much about time as about space.  It's true, he thought, using my brain to do his thinking, that we think of home as a place because our memories are so physical:  the fall of light in the kitchen on an October afternoon mingling with the smell of a turkey that's nearly done, and the sound of family and friends talking in the next room; the feel of the linen napkins we inherited from Grandma and the texture and smell and taste of Grandma's pumpkin pie, which a daughter now makes.

But maybe "home" is also a time, Dirk thought, still using my brain, a time in our own lives and growth when we finally feel at home in our own skin and our own histories, a time when we've made peace with our mistakes and losses and decided that they're now a part of ourselves that we actually rather like.  A time when the past, the present, and the future seem to exist in comfortable harmony, when a sense of adventure mingles with a sense of being grounded.  Given that Soul Weather is trying to query and problematize the idea of home, I rather liked what Dirk was thinking.

And then I began to read Jack Layton's Homelessness:  How to End the National Crisis, as much for research as out of respect for this remarkable and hopeful man.  Layton must as some level understand rhetoric, for us realizes that it's going to take both statistics and moving portraits of real homeless people to allow us to see that there's no "stereotypical" homeless person.  While fifty years ago we might not have been far off concluding that many homeless people are single male alcoholics, the economy of the late twentieth- and early twenty-first centuries have made homelessness a much wider problem that involves families as well. 

Here are some startling, admittedly selected facts:
  • Homeless people have a death rate 8 to 10 times higher than those who are housed.
  • It costs significantly more to house a homeless person than to provide them with a secure and stable roof over their heads.  In Toronto, keeping them in a shelter costs about $1990 a month;  subsidizing their rent costs about $700 a month; providing them with affordable housing costs about $200.  This doesn't include the enormous costs to a health care system trying to deal with the problems caused by stressful, overcrowded conditions in shelters or the even worse conditions for those "living rough."  Nor does it put a dollar amount on the struggle of the homeless person to survive and to keep some dignity and spirit intact. 
  • Only about 3% of people lose their housing because of mental illness. 
  • On the other hand, depression is widely experienced by the homeless.  You try not having any privacy.  Try not having a "home" in a culture that so stridently values success and equates success with a large house and two-car garage.  Try panhandling to get enough money for a coffee so you can have access to a washroom where you can go to the bathroom and clean up a little.  Here's the one that got to me:  you try not sleeping well, either on the street or in a shelter, for weeks on end and see if you don't become depressed.
  • Most people are catapulted onto the streets by poverty: by unemployment or by low wages in communities with a high cost of housing. Others find the street a safer option than an abusive partner or parent.
  • Climate change is only making it harder for the homeless:  more people are now dying of heat-related causes than of cold.
At one point, Canada was considered by the United Nations to be a leader in providing housing for those living on society's margins.  We're now a scandal, particularly since we have the world's 8th largest economy.

Homelessness is not a choice, as politicians perhaps like to think.  Nor are the homeless simply the "undeserving" rather than the "deserving" poor--a distinction that Charles Dickens questioned back in the middle of the nineteenth century in works like A Christmas Carol, but which still remains robust among politicians who think that a free market will fix everything.   "Homelessness is a political phenomenon" Jack Layton writes "--if we understand politics to be, among other things, the process that determines the allocation of our resources.  Housing is one of these resources.  Has out society determined that its resources will be distributed so that some community members have no housing?" (29).

So it's a good thing I'm working on Virginia Woolf, thinking about the autonomous work of art, blogging about homelessness, and letting my thinking about home settle for a while before I return to Soul Weather.  I like Dirk's idea about "home" being temporal as well as spatial.  But Layton's book makes me realize that there's more to it than that.  I need to discover how to let the reader see these other facets of home and homelessness without giving the reader a message.  But I don't need to be quite so true to my aesthetic ideals in a blog.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.  Appreciate home.