Mourning Happiness

Mourning Happiness: Narrative and the Politics of Modernity

Vivasvan Soni
Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 552
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.ctt7z7tm
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  • Book Info
    Mourning Happiness
    Book Description:

    For many eighteenth-century thinkers, happiness was a revolutionary new idea filled with the promise of the Enlightenment. However, Vivasvan Soni argues that the period fails to establish the importance of happiness as a guiding idea for human practice, generating our modern sentimental idea of happiness. Mourning Happiness shows how the eighteenth century's very obsession with happiness culminates in the political obsolescence of the idea.

    Soni explains that this puzzling phenomenon can only be comprehended by studying a structural transformation of the idea of happiness at the level of narrative form. Happiness is stripped of its ethical and political content, Soni demonstrates, when its intimate relation to narrative is destroyed. This occurs, paradoxically, in some of the most characteristic narratives of the period: eighteenth-century novels including Pamela, The Vicar of Wakefield, and Julie; the pervasive sentimentalism of the time; Kant's ethics; and the political thought of Rousseau and Jefferson.

    For Soni, the classical Greek idea of happiness-epitomized by Solon's proverb "Call no man happy until he is dead"-opens the way to imagining a properly secular conception of happiness, one that respects human finitude and mortality. By analyzing the story of Solon's encounter with Croesus, Attic funeral orations, Greek tragedy, and Aristotle's ethics, Soni explains what it means to think, rather than feel, a happiness available for public judgment, rooted in narrative, unimaginable without a relationship to community, and irreducible to an emotional state. Such an ideal, Soni concludes, would allow for a radical reenvisioning of a politics that takes happiness seriously and responds to our highest aspirations rather than merely keeping our basest motivations in check.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6026-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Introduction: What Happened to Happiness?
    (pp. 1-24)

    “Happiness is a new idea in Europe,” boasted Robespierre’s colleague Saint-Just in 1794.¹ He believed that the new era in human history ushered in by the American and French revolutions in the eighteenth century was characterized by an unprecedented attention to secular happiness as a political project. For Saint-Just the promise of the Enlightenment and the goal of revolutionary aspiration was comprehended in the word “happiness.” Contemporary scholars have by and large concurred with Saint-Just’s assessment. The eighteenth century, they claim, conferred respectability on the pursuit of secular happiness as no other period before it. Indeed, eighteenth-century thinkers, not satisfied...

  5. Part One

    • Chapter 1 Solon’s Cryptic Injunction: “Call no man happy until dead”
      (pp. 27-81)

      From the brink of philosophy, a momentous utterance calls to us offering the chance of a future. The saying is a proverb usually attributed to the Athenian statesman and sage Solon: “Call no man happy until he is dead.” We have yet to learn how to think it.

      But what need have we of this scrap of archaic wisdom, we “last men” who want nothing more than to be happy? With all the resources of speculative philosophy and professional research at our disposal—from Aristotle and the theological tradition to contemporary “positive psychology” and economics—why should we turn to...

    • Chapter 2 A Mourning Happiness: The Athenian Funeral Oration
      (pp. 82-107)

      The Solonian judgment of happiness need not be restricted to a particular social context or sedimented into a formalized social ritual. Any such formalization of the judgment of happiness into a habitual practice, not arising from the initiative of the community but from the obligation of social custom, always risks undermining the very responsibility it seeks to instill, because it requires the performance of an action that is responsible only insofar as it is not compelled. There is no institution that escapes this aporia. Nevertheless, the existence of an institution also testifies to the social currency of particular practices. It...

    • Chapter 3 Difficult Happiness: The Case of Tragedy
      (pp. 108-122)

      The audacity of Solon’s pronouncement is that it imagines a happiness that is possible for finite beings. Solon’s proverb simply requires that we judge a life’s narrative as we find it: is this life happy or unhappy? It does not specify any content to happiness in advance. Nor does it specify any criteria for happiness that would place it out of the reach of a finite being, such as the continuity of pleasure or satisfaction or the optimization of wealth. The hermeneutic of happiness is not a quest for perfection or a pure state, since there is nothing uncontaminated in...

    • Chapter 4 Aristotle’s Hermeneutic of Happiness: The First Forgetting
      (pp. 123-174)

      Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is enormously influential for a subsequent tradition of reflection on happiness in the West. Despite the complexities of its reception, it is arguably the text that lays out the terms of a debate that will endure over centuries.¹ For a later tradition, it becomes the archetype of the classical idea of happiness, and it still remains one of the most lucid and compelling accounts of that idea, unsurpassed in the rigor and sophistication of its analyses. Now, I will argue that the Nicomachean Ethics can be viewed as a “translation” of the Solonian conception of happiness, with...

  6. Part Two

    • Chapter 5 The Trial Narrative in Richardson’s Pamela: Suspending the Hermeneutic of Happiness
      (pp. 177-210)

      The Solonian idea of happiness casts a long shadow across history, in the form of the absolute priority accorded to the hermeneutic of happiness, no matter how happiness is determined in concrete historical instances. Let us consider how the Solonian idea works its effects, and what kind of “history” of this idea is even possible. We will discover that it is a strange and impossible history, even if it has taken place.

      In the world of the fifth-century polis, we speculated that the Solonian proverb on happiness was not an abstract philosophical proposition existing in isolation from social life. Through...

    • Excursus: Notes toward a Prehistory of the Trial Narrative
      (pp. 211-233)

      At the beginning of chapter 5, I suggested that the Solonian hermeneutic of happiness cast a long shadow across history, a claim amply corroborated by Darrin McMahon’s sweeping history of the idea of happiness.¹ Having now given a formal specification of the narrative form necessary to suspend the Solonian hermeneutic of happiness—the trial narrative—I will show in subsequent chapters how the trial narrative rises to prominence in the eighteenth century and becomes a dominant narrative form underlying a powerful and interlocking set of discourses that come to constitute our modernity. I will be concerned to demonstrate the struggle...

    • Chapter 6 Effects of the Trial Narrative on the Concept of Happiness
      (pp. 234-266)

      I have made much of the audacity of the trial as a narrative form in Pamela. It performs an impossible operation within the space of narrative: the suspension of the hermeneutic of happiness. According to the trial narrative, virtue can be proved only by one’s ability to ignore the question of happiness during a trial by adversity. Suffering, the trial narrative demands, must be viewed from the epistemological perspective of what it proves about us, and not from the existential perspective of whether it ruins our possibilities for happiness. For as long as the hermeneutic of trial governs the narrative,...

    • Chapter 7 Marriage Plot
      (pp. 267-289)

      The trial narrative produces a structural determination of happiness as reward. Though happiness may be described in a subsequent “narrative of happiness,” it is abstracted from narrative as something that exists apart and independently. The content of what constitutes happiness can be specified in advance, instead of being indeterminate. The determination of happiness as a reward granted and experienced at the end of the narrative dictates what concrete forms happiness can take in the aftermath of the trial narrative. There are only a limited number of ways in which happiness can be figured because it must satisfy strict new formal...

    • Chapter 8 The Tragedies of Sentimentalism
      (pp. 290-334)

      The transformation from a narrative-based to an affective conception of happiness does not occur instantaneously; it unfolds over time, roughly between Richardson’s Pamela and Kant’s second critique, under pressure from the trial narrative form. It is not individual narratives or theories that effect the transformation, though the importance of individual texts should not be underestimated as a measure of the evolving logic of trial. Rather, an entire cultural phenomenon is required to mediate the transition from a hermeneutic of happiness to a hermeneutic of trial: sentimentalism. Only through the discourse of sentimentalism does the logic of the trial narrative become...

    • Chapter 9 Kantian Ethics and the Discourses of Modernity
      (pp. 335-410)

      The trial narrative paradigm achieves its most radical development and rigorous theorization in Kant’s writings on ethics, politics, history, and religion.¹ When Kant’s thought is interrogated from the perspective of the trial narrative, not only do we gain unconventional insight into the underlying narrative structure of his theories, but we also discover surprising continuities between the eighteenth-century novel, sentimentalism, and Kantian ethics.² Indeed, I would argue that novels such as Pamela and Julie are the imaginative precondition for the emergence of Kantian ethics, just as Kant theorizes one of the most important narrative developments in the eighteenth century.³ Among his...

    • Chapter 10 Happiness in Revolution: Erasing the Political Concept of Happiness
      (pp. 411-486)

      The analysis of Kant has enabled us to understand the furthest expansion of the trial narrative paradigm—the replication of its logic in the discourses of ethics, politics, and history—and the most radical effects of the trial form. These effects are still visible in our lives today: the conception of happiness as an affect, the ambivalent attitude toward happiness, the structuring of our lives according to the alternation of desire/satisfaction or work/leisure, the ongoing legacy of utilitarianism’s reductive, mathematized conception of happiness. But the effects of the trial narrative are not always easy to discern: despite widespread criticism of...

  7. Conclusion: The Afterlife of the Trial Narrative
    (pp. 487-494)

    Having described the infection of eighteenth-century discourses by the trial paradigm and the transformation of the concept of happiness wrought by it, I am also arguing implicitly that these transformations are still with us. Most obviously, we have inherited a constitution from the period that still attests to the suspension of the political hermeneutic of happiness. Moreover, our understanding of happiness is indubitably in large part the one produced by the eighteenth century. But if these effects continue today, the reader may well wonder where the trial narrative itself is to be found. We can still detect vestigial forms of...

  8. Bibliography
    (pp. 495-522)
  9. Index
    (pp. 523-536)