Which is rich?

In his Quarterly Essay on “The Happy Life,” David Malouf argues that a concept of limitless happiness has somehow infiltrated our collective soul, to our detriment.

Among the many pronouncements that fell from the Treasurer's lips on Tuesday night, one that seems to have stuck in the collective craw is his notion of $150,000 as the line between rich and poor. People on or over that line protest that they are not rich, that they too find it hard to make ends meet.  Perhaps rich is relative; they are only rich compared to the bottom 85% of Australian households. 

Today's Australian has an interview with the Fowlers, a couple on the 'wealth' line. Mr Fowler says: "We've accumulated a nice house full of stuff over the last ten years, but there's no way in the world we're wealthy."  His comment is revealing. An outsider might reasonably assume that in our country, a nice house full of stuff is regarded as both a sign of wealth and a measure (if not a means) of happiness.  Yet someone who possesses such a house, indeed has spent a decade of his life pursuing it, still feels want. Astounding, given that his relative wealth in Australia is nothing to his relative wealth 'in the world.'

'Feels' is the operative word here: are the rich really rich if they don't 'feel' rich? If they feel pressure, want, status anxiety? If they feel supply is unequal to their demand? Given that they're already in the top 15th percentile, a nicer house more full of stuff is clearly not going to make the Fowlers feel better. Something else is going on here. Wealth, like happiness, is qualitative, not quantitative.  Numbers don't guarantee it, and even lines around it, as Malouf suggests, don't guarantee that the quantity measured off will be enough. Maybe - and we have good evidence - there's no such thing as enough.

This tender conceptual blue net

Friday Poetry is an idea I'm borrowing from Alison.  For my first Friday poem, I've chosen David Malouf's “Moonflowers.” Like all his poems, it's evocative and graceful, never obvious. I especially like the delicacy of the final thought. Though more truthful than the single narrative, sometimes the tender net is a perilous thing to cling to.

Gone and not gone. Is this
garden the one
we walked in hand in hand
watching the moon-
flower at the gate
climb back into our lives
out of winter bones –
decades of round crimped candescent
origami satellite-dishes
all cocked towards Venus?
One garden opens
to let another through, the green
heart-shapes a new season holds
our hearts to like the old.
The moonflower lingers
in its fat scent. We move
in and in and out of
each other’s warmed spaces,
there is
no single narrative.
And we like it that way,
if we like it at all, this
tender conceptual
blue net that holds, and holds us
so lightly against fall.

Best Reads of 2009

One of my resolutions for 2010 is to blog more, so here's a look back at the books I read in 2009. The list I kept ended up somewhat erratic and incomplete, but here are my highlights, in no particular order:

  1. Ransom, by David Malouf. I relished the lyricism of the prose, but more especially the message about the pleasure and meaning of ordinariness; how empty the trappings and postures of status are compared with the richness of actual experience.  A good lesson.

  2. The Sin Eater, by Alice Thomas Ellis. I hadn't come across Ellis before, but I really enjoyed her witches' brew of wit, charm, cruelty, and sensuous attention to the symbolism of food.

  3. In Praise of Slow, by Carl Honore. Perhaps ironically, I had to read this one for work.  Worried that it might be in that irritatingly repetitive journalese that so many good but simple ideas seem doomed to adopt, I was pleased by the intelligence and exuberance of this book, and I love the idea of slow.

  4. The Limits of Power, by Andrew Bacevich. This is a compelling account of American foreign policy and national identity since World War II, written by a historian who happens to be an ex-colonel.

  5. The Irony of American History, by Reinhold Niebuhr. Bacevich led me to Niebuhr, whom everyone should read.  This is a stirring jeremiad incising not only American politics but the American soul. Political ars predicandi at its best. 

  6. Far from the Madding Crowd, by Thomas Hardy. A return to some of the Hardys I read for English Honours revealed this one as the most engaging and deeply satisfying. I think Tess is the greater novel, but you can't beat this one for sheer charm.