It was a treat last month to record an interview with ABC Radio National's Florence Spurling for an Encounter program that aired this morning, called “Heir to My Affection: the drama and poetry of William Shakespeare, John Donne and George Herbert.” You can listen to it here. We talked mostly about George Herbert, but Florence also spoke with Richard Strier and Peter Holbrook about The Winter's Tale (whence the line “heir to my affection”) and some Donne poetry. Recording it was fun, but listening was even better. There's something very special about hearing this poetry read and spoken of affectionately on air.
English novelist Jenny Diski offers a fairly scathing review of Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project, pointing out that originally ‘happy’ meant something more like lucky, as in ‘happenstance.’ The pursuit of happiness is a fairly modern project, consisting, it seems, largely of positive thinking and to-do lists (what about to be lists?).
Rebecca's comment prompted me to think about what constitutes happiness in the fictional worlds of different authors, Shakespeare’s in particular. Even though most of Polonius’ advice is meant to be derided, his memorable line “to thine own self be true” seems to strike a chord with Shakespeare's own thinking. In the world of the plays, happiness seems to be constituted mostly in the idea of individual freedom and personal authenticity. So argues my doctoral supervisor Peter Holbrook in his recent book Shakespeare's Individualism.
Acquiring or relinquishing happiness is not necessarily the nerve centre of a story, but it seems ubiquitous enough to be worth studying. So what about others - Tolstoy? Hardy? Faulkner? Woolf? I just have this hunch that literature is a better clue to happiness - getting it, understanding it, understanding that we can never really get it - than the projects of pop psych.