Graham Greene on Happiness

In a post last year on the subject of happiness, I had cited Freud and Burke–the founders of psychoanalysis and political conservatism, respectively. Their views of happiness spoke of the seemingly necessarily transitory nature of the sensation we term happiness–Freud even enlists Goethe to help make this claim–that happiness was marked by brief, fleeting intensity, by its ‘novelty and contrast’.

Today, for a slightly different perspective, I’m going to enlist Graham Greene, a member of that class of humans with perhaps exceptional insight into the human condition, the novelist. Greene always was, in his autobiographical writing, very frank about his depression, psychoanalytic treatments, and the influence these had on his writing and in the case of psychoanalysis, his understanding of the supposed relationship of the unconscious to creativity; his views on happiness should be of interest here.

During the course of a series of interviews conducted by Marie Françoise-Allan, Greene, in speaking of his childhood says:

[H]appiness is repetitious, while pain is marked by crises that which sear the memory. Happiness survives only in the odd incident. Being happy is almost like making love: One attains a state of blissful ‘nothing’–one does not remember, one remembers only happiness, a state of contentment.

This is quite a mixed bag. First, happiness is described as ‘repetitious’–perhaps it is a mental state which recurs or is more temporally extended than pain, which is described in terms similar to the ones that Freud and Burke used to describe happiness. Here, Greene seems to suggest that happiness is a mental state with continuity, one which acquires its distinctive quality because of its ‘sameness’, its invariance. But then, happiness is described as surviving only in ‘the odd incident’, a return to the episodic state described by Freud and Burke. And lastly happiness is compared to the orgiastic pleasures of ‘making love’, a ‘blissful nothing’ which is perhaps supposed to be like the Buddhist nirvana, but with very few particular features to it, so much so that the subject remembers no details but just the sensation (or lack of it). Happiness is now analogized to a ‘petite mort‘ a little dying, a little flirtation with a state of nothingness. (It should be clear that in these descriptions Greene is taking the side of the philosophical inquiry into happiness that suggests it is a psychological term like ‘melancholia’ as opposed to that which would consider it a ‘value term, roughly synonymous with well-being or flourishing’ (Dan Haybron, Stanford Encyclopedia, ‘Happiness‘).)

This does not amount to very coherent view of happiness. Perhaps it is because of Greene is answering a series of questions about the happiness of childhood, and so his memories of that time have suffered the attrition of memory. Indeed, his interlocutor makes a great deal of this loss of memory in this session, remarking on how Greene’s childhood does not play a particularly prominent role in his autobiographies. And Greene’s quickness in ending his answer with a brief ‘We were happy’ also seems to suggest a desire to move on, almost as if the memories of that happiness were too painful to bear. So Greene might have unwittingly left us with at least one more possible facet of this ever elusive phenomenon: happiness might be that sensation, which when remembered later, produces a state distinctly unlike it, a mixture of regret, melancholia, and the fear that that sensation will not be experienced again.

Excerpt from: Marie Françoise-Allan, The Other Man: Conversations with Graham Greene, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1983.

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