There is nothing so cheering as gloom, and since at least the 1380s, our commentators, whether they be priests, poets or pundits, have repeatedly asserted that life is about pain and woe. I find it is immensely uplifting to read their doom-laden words, whereas books about happiness are deeply depressing.
Towards the end of the medieval age, the people began to grow restless. There was the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, where the bold English peasantry protested against rising poll tax and the removal of some of their old liberties. Wat Tyler was stabbed by the Lord Mayor of London on the 15th of June, and indeed there is a movement afoot in anarchist circles to declare a 'Wat Tyler' day in remembrance of this liberty-seeker.
At around the same time, the theologians seemed pretty gloomy as well. Priest John Mirk put together a collection of sermons called the Festial. On page one, he declared that men and women live 'forto be borne yn sykenes, forto lyven yn travayle, and forto dye in drede' (born in sickness, live in toil, die in fear).
Enter the stormtroopers
After the Reformation, it seemed that things grew even worse. In 1540, just five years after Henry VIII’s stormtroopers smashed up the cathedrals, churches, monasteries and convents, writer John Burgoyne declared that 'the lif of man in this wretched world is shorte, uncertain and transitory'.
Then of course we have in 1624 the great Robert Burton, and his best-selling Anatomy of Melancholy, seven hundred pages of closely typeset misery and a 17th century best-seller. He expressed Man’s plight thus:
My pain’s past cure, another hell,
I may not in this torment dwell!
Now desperate I hate my life,
Lend me a halter or a knife
All my griefs to this are jolly,
Naught so damned as melancholy.
It is perhaps not a coincidence that at the time of Burton's writing, the fun-hating Puritans were in ascent, and were waging a ferocious battle against the old festive culture by abolishing all the old feast days.
Don't medicine Keats
In the mid-eighteenth century, our famous lexicographer Dr Johnson appeared addicted to misery, writing of the life of the Grub Street hack:
Mark what ills the scholar’s life assail,
Toil, envy, want, the patron and the jail.
In the early 19th century we have Keats writing an ode to melancholy, where he suggested that melancholy dwells with both joy and beauty. It’s a beautiful poem and thankfully no well-meaning self-esteem counsellors intervened and put Keats on a well-being course with a side order of Prozac.
There is the contemporary French slogan 'Métro Boulot Dodo', which sums up the boredom that characterizes daily life for most city-bound toilers, and was inspired by the line 'métro, boulot, bistro, mégots, dodo, zéro' from a poem by Pierre Béarn, written in 1951. Get on the tube, work all day, go to sleep: and so the cycle goes on and on. Eighties rockers The Godfathers titled their 1988 LP 'Birth School Work Death' to make a similar point.
Arbeit macht frei?
It is the sense of slavery, I think, that creates the gloom: the feeling that you are not in control of your own life. This certainly lay behind the Peasants’ Revolt. The church has argued that the answer is to seek escape not in this life but in the hereafter. John Mirk told the peasants that they would get their comeuppance against the lawyers and bishops in heaven. In our own age, we are a little more impatient, and the response of the academics and the state has been to create a science of happiness. Individual happiness, it seems, not service or improving the world around you: that is the goal of life. Thus it is that the founders of America insisted on the 'right' to 'the pursuit of happiness' in Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.
Today we have professors who write books about how to be happy. They are consulted by our totalitarian state which then tries to teach happiness in schools. It is all a load of dangerous hokum firstly because it does not work, and secondly because it replaces political struggle: if you were unhappy with your wages and conditions at work in the seventies, you might well go on strike. Today, your union will offer you counselling. This state of affairs was predicted in 1946 by Aldous Huxley when he predicted that we would see 'vast government-sponsored enquiries into what the politicians and the participating scientists will call "the problem of happiness" — in other words, the problem of making people love their servitude'. The commercial world weighs in with the slogan 'lovin’ it', which helps do the same thing: 'I’m loving slavery! It’s wicked!'
The pursuit of happiness leads to the oppposite. Happiness comes as a by-product of other pursuits: helping people, making beautiful things, digging the garden, and of course in the contemplation of the wretchedness and absurdity of human life.
Tom Hodgkinson is editor of the Idler
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