Evening in America

About Ray Bradbury's death I have nothing to say. I was not a reader of his books, so I won't pontificate on his death. A death less observed but roughly coincident is that of Earl Shorris, who should not go unremarked on this blog. As the NY Times obit explains, Shorris made his mark by sharing the riches of literature with the poorest Americans. The Clemente Course in the Humanities he designed in 1995 was, as he saw it, real redistribution of wealth. It brought literature, art, moral philosophy and history to the homeless, the unemployed, the addicted, the poor. Poverty, he came to think, is not an absence of money but of reflection and beauty. Reflection, which the humanities instills, is the beginning of engagement, and of the leap out of poverty. 

I was moved reading this essay Shorris wrote for Harper's: the last thing he submitted to the magazine before his death on May 27. It's about his slide toward death in a cancer ward, and the slide into darkness he observed in America. His dystopian vision was not of book-burning, but of an unethical and unequal society in which poverty grows, and happiness belongs to a smaller and smaller elite.

His passing is the more to be lamented because he strove to increase the stock of the world's happiness, and to bring light to the darkest places. 

Mor(e)on happiness

The latest Harper's has an interesting article about psychology and the happiness industry.  When Freud visited the US in 1909, he came “to the land of unbridled optimism to inform its inhabitants that a fragile equipoise between repression and abandon was the best they could hope for,” writes psychologist Gary Greenburg in ‘The War on Unhappiness.’ A century after Freud's visit, Greenburg attends a psych conference at which Freud's pessimism is laughed out the door by a new breed of evidence-based happiness gurus who are contributing to a state-endorsed project of human flourishing, starting with trauma-resistant soldiers. Maybe it’s not as alarming as Greenburg makes it sound, but there is much to be wary of in the notion of happiness as a means, rather than an indicator, of flourishing. Not unlike the craze for laughter yoga, which attempts to harness the medicinal effects of laughter without recourse to jokes. 

What's more encouraging is this article from the NY Times suggesting that happiness in African Americans has measurably improved with the gradual (if stunted) improvement in social equality and civil rights over the past five decades.  Happiness flowing in this direction seems more plausible than the tautological ‘winners are winners’ philosophy of the state-supported gurus.