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April 22, 2004

TT: Gladder to be happy

A reader writes, quoting the last sentence of "Fiddlers Three," my recent Commentary essay on Jascha Heifetz, Nathan Milstein, and Louis Kaufman:

In the realm of art, all things being equal, most people find unhappiness more interesting than joy.

Great insight. But why do you think this is? Is it something particular to particular cultures, or more or less universal in art? And putting "interestingness" aside, what about other characteristics--don't most people somehow also find unhappiness in art more profound or meaningful or important, etc., than happiness?

These are challenging questions for which I don't have any ready answers. I do think, however, that under the aspect of modernism, we're taught to distrust happiness, at least as represented in art (and probably also in life as well). I myself don't feel this way, which is why I gravitate to a great many artists whose view of the world is essentially sunny. On the other hand, that doesn't stop me from embracing the dark side of art, so long as it isn't ponderously dark. Even darkness can be "light," like The Great Gatsby, Mozart in a minor key, or Bonnard at his most obsessive.

I said on Studio 360 the other day that bad reviews are easier to write than good ones, and I wonder whether this might have something to do with the comparative "interestingness" of unhappiness. If you're really, truly happy, it tends to render you inarticulate, which is why happiness is most easily conveyed in the lyric arts: music, ballet, painting, poetry. The characters in a novel or play, conversely, can start out and even end up happy, but if they don't become unhappy at some point along the way, the audience will fall asleep. In much the same way, it's harder (though not impossible!) for me to describe in words what it's like to experience a wholly satisfying work of art. At least for a time, analysis is pointless--what I want to do is sit there and feel. Only in retrospect am I able to think clearly about why a good play was so good, whereas I start honing the scalpel as soon as the curtain comes down on a bad one.

Needless to say, I'd rather go to good plays than bad ones, just as I'd rather be happy than unhappy--and maybe that explains why I'm a critic instead of a creator. I've been desperately unhappy on many occasions in my life, but never did it occur to me that I might profit from my misery, much less write a sonata about it. All I wanted was for it to stop.

This reminds me that Supermaud and I were exchanging e-mails earlier today about the glorious weather in New York. Surely, I said, it was impossible to be too unhappy on a golden day like this, to which she replied that she thought the Romantic poets might have been right about spring. For some reason this reminded me of what Jeeves says somewhere about Nietzsche, whom he regarded as "fundamentally unsound." I think he probably would have said much the same thing about Keats and Shelley--but when it came to spring, he might have given them a pass. Me, too.

Posted April 22, 2004 9:40 AM

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