According to Pascal Bruckner, no matter how much we buy or how hard we try, the pursuit of happiness is a doomed enterprise. Valid points, but a real moral theorist would seek to change this.
Perpetual Euphoria: lost in the supermarket
A journalist once approached Sigmund Freud to ask a simple but vast question: "What is the purpose of life?" It is easy to imagine the reporter's satisfaction at getting this interview, and his confidence in being able to fill his newspaper's columns with a stream of profound thoughts from the great man. But the answer Freud gave was terse: "Love and work." That is all.
The response was more condensed than the pithiest aphorism, and to unpack it takes long reflection. It is, for one thing, demanding. To seek the purpose of one's life in love and work sets the standard very high. Many people never reach it, while unalloyed bliss isn't guaranteed even to those who do. Nor is it as self-centered as it might initially appear. On the contrary, love and work impose limitations on the whims of what Freud called "his majesty, the ego". They also subject us to the fear of their loss.
Freud had the mind of a moralist. Pascal Bruckner, whose latest book in English is Perpetual Euphoria: On the Duty to Be Happy, is a moraliste, which is something rather different. The tradition of the moraliste is primarily literary, though with an admixture of philosophical ideas. Voltaire and Camus are classic examples. While the moralist tends to be prescriptive (laying down rules for conduct that are, in principle, timeless), the moraliste is a critic of the habits, attitudes, and norms that prevail during his own times. He questions their coherence or legitimacy or sincerity, with irony or wit more often in evidence than absolute conviction.
The usual medium for this critique is the essay, although the moraliste may also use fiction to the same end, as in Candide or The Plague. (One of Bruckner's novels, Bitter Moon, was the basis of a film by Roman Polanski.) Perpetual Euphoria is one of several book-length reflections that Bruckner has written on the aftermath of May 1968 - to use a shorthand term referring not only to the mass protests of that month which nearly overthrew the French government, but also to the cultural upheaval that continued long after the barricades came down.
This revolution in sensibility spread far beyond France. In some ways its starting point is in the countercultural enclaves of California. Bruckner's writings on the values emerging from this turmoil have always been studiously disillusioned, and Perpetual Euphoria is no exception. The cultural and political radicals of 1968 - whose slogans included "it is forbidden to forbid" - wanted to smash established authority and to cast off the dead weight of clichés and bad faith. But this only cleared the ground for new clichés and bad faith, which our moraliste must catalogue and dissect.
Bruckner criticised left-wing sentimentality over the inherent nobility of the Third World in The Tears of the White Man and the cult of victimhood in TheTemptation of Innocence. While rather more urbane than the usual Anglophone screed against "political correctness," these books shared the familiar tendency to argue that the most worrying tendency of contemporary Western societies is an excess of moral masochism - a theme revisited in The Tyranny of Guilt, published in English translation last year.
In Perpetual Euphoria, which originally appeared in France in 2000, Bruckner pursues a different, though converging line of argument: that the quest for happiness has become a sort of grim imperative for the individual in modern societies, and one that ultimately proves empty and self-defeating, hence misery-making. The goal is as vague as it is elusive. Pleasure, money, power, or status may seem like the means to attain happiness, but they do not defeat the capacity for becoming bored.
And yet to express unhappiness is now almost a kind of failing. "There is a whole ethic of seeming to feel good about oneself," he writes, "that governs us and is supported by the smiling intoxication of advertising and merchandise." Consumerism, with its endlessly broken and endlessly renewed promises of happiness, is supplemented by a market in therapeutic techniques and fast-food spirituality. But to no avail. In spite of "our determination to disinfect every physical or mental fragility", we run up against "our limits and our inertia, which does not allow itself to be shaped like putty".
Our moraliste's description of this unhappy situation is credible, if not exactly original. The paradoxical and frustrating nature of the desire for happiness is the common theme of sages and stand-up comedians. Perpetual Euphoria may apply particularly well to the values fostered throughout the world by American culture, with its insistence on the importance of self-realisation. The book's very title sounds like it could be the name of a commune in San Francisco.
Its cogency is by stark contrast with Bruckner's other essays, which portray the West's confidence as undermined by corrosive self-hatred and guilt over imperialism. (As someone who has lived in Washington, DC for two decades, I have seen little evidence of such brooding.) But these writings are, finally, of a piece. Both the hollow cult of individual happiness and the denunciation of prosperous countries as deeply alienating and oppressive are - in Bruckner's analysis, anyway - morbid symptoms of modernity.
The diagnosis he offers is certainly very sweeping. Once, people understood that existence was a hard struggle, though the faithful would enjoy eternal happiness in the afterlife. The Enlightenment undermined this belief. The suspicion grew that human happiness was possible in this world or not at all. At the same time, the advancement of knowledge and the expansion of prosperity suggested that life could and would improve. Eventually, progress might even yield utopia: an approximation of heaven, to be realised on earth.
It wasn't. But in the West, people did not simply return to faith in a sacred order, with bliss reserved for the saints. They wanted happiness here below, and sooner rather than later. One possibility was to realise utopia through violent revolution, sweeping away the muck of the ages with a few quick strokes. Another was to trust one's dissatisfaction with the banality of everyday life and of anyone who seemed content with it. Real happiness was possible only for those few people able to transgress the norms and create their own values - in essence, turning life itself into art.
Both tendencies were present in May 1968. In Bruckner's reckoning, their legacy has been a mix of hysterical disgust towards liberal democracy and the baffled yearning for some assured condition of wellbeing. People are not unhappy because they are oppressed. They feel oppressed because of a delusion that life should be utopian.
This represents an exceptionally refined form of cynicism, it seems to me - a preemptive strike against any strongly expressed dissatisfaction with the neoliberal order. At the same time, Bruckner lacks the wisdom of Freud's perspective, which was in many ways conservative. We are creatures who find meaning in useful work and intimate bonds. This is in our nature. Without them, we grow sick. The moraliste can only coin epigrams about this misery, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.
Scott McLemee is a recipient of the US National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in reviewing.