Winter of our Discontent

Classics Existential Personal Psychology
My family is as dysfunctional as anybody's, but we have a good time when we get together. I just returned from four days of Thanksgiving madness -- madness being here defined as many board games, several kids running around like banshees, several grownups hanging around the piano belting out torch songs, and a lot of food. At times during this marathon family-fest, I may have even enjoyed myself.

But it's hard for a writer to be part of a happy family scene without a lot of irony getting in the way. Maybe this is why I kept finding myself feeling grouchy at various points during the weekend. It just seemed somehow unreal to have such a wholesome good time, as if Norman Rockwell was going to burst in any minute to say hi and try some dessert. And there's just some instinct in me to start getting irritable in a contented crowd. I'll start complaining about the food, or I'll yell at a kid for shuffling cards wrong, or I'll yell at a grownup for getting in my way as I walk towards the refrigerator.

Is happiness bearable? Are human beings capable of remaining in a state of mutual satisfaction for any period of time without finding some way to ruin everything? This seems like a literary question, and it immediately brings to mind Chekhov and his doomed cherry orchard, Dostoevsky and his nihilist romantics, and, more recently, Jonathan Franzen's crazy Lambert family, heading home for Christmas with all the grace of a crashing pack of helicopters.

But as I ponder this question, I keep coming back to the works of a writer I would not usually group with these ironic Russians and postmodernists. William Shakespeare is the writer, more than any other I can think of, who best seems to address the question of whether or not humans are organically capable of maintaining a state of happiness for any long period of time. And the answer seems to be 'no'.

'King Lear' is his play about a family that almost ended up, simply, happy. But ... no. The King gets the bright idea to call his daughters to speak of their true feelings about him at a royal celebration, and one of the three daughters has to screw up the evening by saying something nasty. What got into Cordelia? Well, probably the same thing that gets into me when I invariably mouth off to a close relative over turkey. Sometimes, you just gotta say something.

It's surprising how many Shakespeare tragedies begin with scenes of pure happiness. "Macbeth" and "Othello" both open at peak moments for their characters: Macbeth has just led a great military victory, and Othello is a beloved celebrity with a beautiful wife. But, no, somebody's always got to screw a good thing up.

I could go on and on naming Shakespearean characters who seem to have a problem with the basic concept of happiness itself, who inevitably need to ruin a beautiful arrangement out of sheer spite. There's Richard III, brimming over with sarcasm at his joyful neighbors: "Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York".

And there's Hamlet, home from college, blandly telling us, "I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth."

Have you ever experienced this phenomenon, either at family gatherings or anywhere else? And can you think of other literary sources to shed some light on this question: are humans capable of long-term happiness, or not?
37 Responses to "Winter of our Discontent"

by mtmynd on

Fictional World of Your Own MakingBeing the avid reader that you are, bringing up bits and pieces of different literature to show how happiness may be a short endurance of mind (!), and your admission to being a writer caused me to wonder - is the writer of such works using happiness/unhappiness as simply a storytelling tool to keep both the interest of the writer and their reader? You admittedly said you provoked and annoyed others during your family's get-together. Your 'profession" of being a writer should not allow you carte blanche to behave in a stereotypical manner, should it? Maybe you should be reading a bit more non-fiction. There are many great works of that caliber that do not use obeservations of the human condition quite as noticeably, but rather observe how to better the human condition.Get out of the comparison with the fictional world and see the world a bit more, how should I say - "non fictional"?

by brooklyn on

MT, I'm really not sure what you're saying. Could you take it from the top and tell me what you are suggesting? I'm interested to hear it -- I just don't get it.

by judih. on

my interpretation of what Cecil's saying is that as a writer, you instictively stir up drama. Stasis can be tolerated only for so long and then you're interested in the next chapter.

by judih. on

Classic TruthWithin every situation, there's a cell of its opposite. As in pure yin, there's a spot of yang so is life. In utter sadness, there looms one iota of joy that will be heard when the time is right.Within pure rapture, there's a seed of melancholy pushing at its outer shell to be felt.Pure happiness does not exist. Only in ersatz tableaux (such as Fifth Ave Xmas displays) might such perfection linger for longer than a moment.The pendulum swings from one extreme to the next. Those of us who refuse to acknowledge such flow are doomed to disappointment. Those of us who jump on the pendulum to enjoy the ride are playing along in the zen lane.All the pomp and shmaltz of holidays are hoping we'll say yes to an artificially freeze-dried world. Pomp is okay for a fraction of a pendulum swing, but then it rolls right back to ordinary.The pendulum rider likes to say: Wake up! Let's look beyond the fake. Let's get this party moving. Life is more than a Lawrence Welk tune.

by mtmynd on

You stated: "But it's hard for a writer to be part of a happy family scene without a lot of irony getting in the way. Maybe this is why I kept finding myself feeling grouchy at various points during the weekend. It just seemed somehow unreal to have such a wholesome good time, as if Norman Rockwell was going to burst in any minute to say hi and try some dessert. And there's just some instinct in me to start getting irritable in a contented crowd. I'll start complaining about the food, or I'll yell at a kid for shuffling cards wrong, or I'll yell at a grownup for getting in my way as I walk towards the refrigerator." And then you mentioned the writers who have written about unhappiness. You are well versed in what they have written. I wonder if what they have written is not somehow influencing your own outlook and actions that you wrote about?My suggestion was to be as well versed in writings that weren't fictionalized, because as we both know, when we are writing in a ficitional format, we are obligated to make the story more interesting... using (in part) conflicts, just like the parts you brought up in your post.In my opinion, writers of fiction, although based upon 'real life', use certain times within a life to link together their story. It is a valid exercise, but often does not reflect the complete life of the person or situations in which the person/people live in. It is the writer's perogative, and indeed, their necessity to make a story out of bits and pieces of an event or person's actual life.Does this help any?

by Jim Furnish on

The Eve of DysfunctionI think I can say in all honestly, that even dysfunctional family 'tis better than no family at all. Recalling family Holiday get togethers through my life --well, can't say that I looked forward to them because they were, for me, more about being endured than enjoyed. It wasn't that I didn't love the people -- it just seemed to be more of a stress on everyone that it was worth.Time does its number on everybody and everything -- the people and places seem to just slip away one by one as the years go on. Yet, I can still see their faces and hear their voices in my mind. But I'll never be with them again in this world and I long for them and the holidays we shared. For when you're alone, holidays become about "then" and not "now".

by warrenweappa on

"Esta mejor solo que mal companado" translates as it's better to be alone than have bad company.

by warrenweappa on

All Is for the BestCandide: All's for the best in this best of all possible worlds.

by brooklyn on

Thanks for the explanation -- yes, I do get what you're saying now. In other words, the whole idea of examining life through literature is suspect, because writers need to inject drama and conflict into their stories. I've heard the same thing about science -- that it is impossible to purely observe nature, because the act of observation (collecting samples, adding dyes, cleaning specimens) changes what is being observed.I agree that this is an important theoretical issue when using literature to think about real life. There is always the motivation to exaggerate problems and highlight conflict. In the case of mankind's disinclination to enjoy happiness, though, I believe that something other than fabricated drama is at work. I guess I can't prove this, but I can look into my own heart and say that I wouldn't find the question interesting if it didn't strike a personal chord. If there were not so much drama and conflict and tragedy in real life, writers probably would have to go stir some up. But, well, Shakespeare lost a son ... Dostoevsky was jailed and almost executed for political crimes ... Chekhov was a doctor who saw misery all around him. There's just no shortage of real-life tragedy, and thus I don't think I need to be too suspicious that the dramas and conflict I see and feel, either in literature or in real life, are fabricated or phony. But maybe I'm wrong -- who knows?

by judih. on

Thens often add up to make a fascinating quilt that we can refer to as 'i distinctly recalls'...whether it's egg nogs or silent feuds or mispronounced blessings, or overly sweet wine, or snobbish elegant alternatives...I distinctly recall when family holidays were a part of my yearly cycle. Now they are not. I do not yearn for them, but I am glad that I distinctly recall them.

by warrenweappa on

I haven't read Hubert Selby but saw the two films made from his books and they weren't fiction at all from what I've seen--fact's always weirder than fiction only the dialogue be duller. What they used to have from 7 am to 11 pm on Jerry Springer, et al, was plenty rich enough.

by mtmynd on

Very concise, Judih ... as was your comment about my comment to Levi's comment ... an art that I have been missing ... bogged down with other's realities.Thank you.

by Billectric on

Full-timeWhat gets me feeling antsy is that sometimes, among certain groups of people, I feel, perhaps selfishly, like I'm wasting my time. I don't know if I'm wrong to feel that way or not. I liken myself to Hank Reardon, a fictional character in the book Atlas Shrugged. I realize this book by is much maligned by the left wingers for its pro-big business slant, so let me first say, I'm a left-winger myself; I'm not an Ayn Rand disciple. What I like about Hank Reardon is his pure zeal for what he did. He was one of those people who was fortunate enough to have a career in a field which he truly enjoyed - a metallurgist. Reardon loved building things out of metal. Engineering, chemistry, design, mechanics, that was his passion. Maybe he's sort of like Wireman. He thought about his work at home, and I don't see anything wrong with that. I've heard that Stephen King, another professional who obviously loves his work, comes up with ideas at dinner parties as well as at the typewriter. But the Hank Reardon character in Atlas Shrugged did not care for the artificial trappings of money. His socialite wife was caught up in a lifestyle that Reardon considered silly and snobbish. He was bored by the vain customs of high society and haughty politicians. In the midst of a gala affair, his mind was on better ways to smelt iron ore. Now, I don't think I'm better than anyone, and the functions I attend are hardly high society, but in the midst of a party I often find my mind wandering to a story I want to write or a book I want to read, or, do I need to make any more changes to my chapbook before making more copies, or to see if Jota has answered my last email. Sometimes it's OK. When I'm between projects I need a rest from writing and I can relax with my non-writer friends just fine. Other times, my wife and I take separate cars to a party, so while they are all doing the "electric slide" in someone's living room at midnight, I can slip out, go home, and get on the computer.

by Billectric on

Another Voltaire quote:"The problem of good and evil remains an inexplicable chaos for those who seek in good faith. It is an intellectual exercise for those who argue: they are convicts who play with their chains. As for the unthinking mass, it rather resembles fish who have been moved from a river to a reservoir. They do not suspect that they are there to be eaten in lent: nor do we know anything by our own resources about the causes of our destiny. Let us put at the end of nearly all chapters on metaphysics the two letters used by Roman judges when they could not understand a lawsuit: N. L., non liquet, this is not clear.

by Andeh on

Joie de VivreThe French must know something about happiness. I'm part-French I should know better. How else could they have come up with the phrase- "joie de vivre", joy of life. Was life really happy at one time? If so, I want to know about it.Think about history. When was it really happy? The stories are all about one group of people were chilling in their habitat, and then someone else had to mess it up. Or life was grand, anywhere in the world but then all of a sudden some not so fun stuff ocurred- a depression, a war, you name it. And such is life. This is how life is. It's happy sometimes, then some sad crap occurs, then back to happy again. No one can be happy all the time. It's just not natural. No one knows this better than writers, I think because we observe other things, or sometimes, annoyingly notice aspects of human behavior that other people don't.Or rather, maybe I should not get too scientific and just look at the family situation. Yes, the holidays rise and fall in the happiness-o-meter. Everyone's mostly excited for the food, and one or two out the twenty people that show up for it, they like. Or give them cool presents. But after a while someone gets mad about something, and the glorious "fight over nothing" occurs. Unless there's a new member of the family. They can't know about it yet, so they get a year off. They can get in on the fight next year. After the fight over nothing happens (usually about food, or someone trying on a new gift) people get bored. Usually because of the age differences,and different priorities The young'ins want to go play video games. The older ones want to go to sleep. The young adults want to go party. The workaholics want to get back to their job. But the holiday continues.I heard someone say once that writers are almost required to either be miserable or hate their hometown and want to get out of it. I agree at least with the second part. Almost every creative person I ever knew hated their town and wanted to get out of it.Everyone who acts happy all the time is just faking it. If that makes them happy then so be it.

by Billectric on

The best thing about holidays is seeing other people happy. I've surrendered to the fact that, every year, my extended family will get into a tizzy trying to discern what gifts to buy each other; with great effort of espionage & intrigue they will consult covertly with one another, seeking hints and suggestions and sometimes dropping clues to be conveyed by third parties who have been enlisted into the scheme. One time I said, "Why don't we each just buy ourselves a present and be done with it?"But I don't care; if it weren't that, it would be something else. Life is made up of all kinds of things. Like I said, seeing them all happy makes me feel good. At least they are not on my case about something.

by Andeh on

Parties are excellent for writing material! Sometimes I wonder if writers at parties are just absorbing it in and thinking about a next work. You see someone quiet at a party, and you wonder...

by Billectric on

Yes, good point. It also helps you write dialogue better if you actually spend time with people -- mingle and listen.

by Billectric on

Of course, I do have my tradition of placing the "Christmas Skeleton" on someone's lawn each December.

by Billectric on

Bah, humbug, brooklyn! Why don't you just get a cane & tophat and whack anyone who stands in your way? Madison Avenue whores, beware! And I hope you're gonna make Jamelah and Firecracker work on Xmas day.

by Arcadia on

Happiness in FestivitiesI usually enjoy joining or organizing parties for family or friends. But I feel comfortable during a certain amount of time (four hours as maximun), then I want silence or to do something else. The people that know me for some time are already accustomed to it and knew immediately when I am already elsewhere.I think as judih said, that in happiness is always the spot of other feeling or emotion. I also think that a continuum of happiness is more difficult to imagine than a continuum of suffering, so maybe happiness cause more fear that pain. Something like a stop of mental discourse happens every time I feel (something) I can relate to happiness. Some Cort

by judih. on

bill's famous skeleton - the quintessential iconfor the dead of winter

by kilgore on

Nevermore!On the issue of whether humans have some compelling need to manufacture their own misery, Edgar Allen Poe comes to mind. In the Raven, the narrator (grieving over his wife's Lenore's death) asks a stately raven who perches on his desk a simply question half in jest, like one would talk absently to a cat. So, the bird replies: "Nevermore." So, the narrator keeps asking the bird a series of questions, of increasing importance: "will I be reunited with my wife, will I see her in the afterlife," ect. And, the bird keeps replying: "nevermore." By the end of the poem, the narrator falls into despair. But, it was just a dumb bird, probably learned to repeat the word like a parrot. The narrator interprets the dumbly repeated word as though it's full of meaning and menace, and then can't refrain from asking questions that the "nevermore" answer, which he knows in advance is coming, will cause him increased pain. It's like picking at a wound, until it starts bleeding again.

by WIREMAN on

I Made It!It was a "ROUGH" weekend! Starting off with my Mother laying in the hospital with a blood clot on her lung after a simple back operation. Then our neighbor and friend Rudy had a heart attack and had to have double bypass surgery.As if that wasn't bad enough another good friend and my wife's doctor's sister was laid to rest on Tuesday after being savagely murdered by a jealous boyfriend with a knife. Then to top it all off, Dawn a fantastic writer on the arts and lute player extrordinaire, friend of all us involved in the art scene here in Baltimore dropped dead Thursday night at a dance, leaving the whole art scene shocked and in mourning. Wait that's not the end of it, on Saturday night my wife and her best friend plus yours truly had a lil shindig at the casa, playing the drums and all my instruments even the dogs having a time of it. We got a call on Sunday morning from her boyfriend saying that her beautiful Great Dane had died over night. I guess what I'm saying here people is this, there's enough misery and heartache in this life, so why not bring a little bit of positive joy and happiness into others lives. There is enough hurt plaguing the world as it is, that's why I'll always stay wired and positive.

by brooklyn on

I like this one, thanks. I would have never thought of this interpretation of "Raven" but, yeah, it fits ...

by judih. on

we're here to convert energykeep it movingunblocking the clotswidening the meridiansfrom death, we make lifeand from life we make livelierrepose has its energy, we energizeand keep the cycle flowingwireman - you are the great conductor

by Billectric on

kilgore, that is an excellent interpretation of The Raven. I've got to admit, I always thought the bird was supposed to represent a supernatural omen, like the albatros in the Ancient Marniner, and on one level I guess it does, but in both cases they could also show the protagonist "projecting" his own mindset on the birds. That is consistent with the Tale-Tell Heart - you can believe the dead heart was really beating or that the killer's guilty conscience was driving him crazy. Or like, at the end of the "gremlin" Twilight Zone episode, we see damage to the airplane wing. The viewer can think there really was a gremlin tearing up the wing, or that Shatner was seeing wing damage but hallucinating the gremlin. Levels of meaning. Thanks, that was great!

by beatvibe on

750 mg of No

by universe=one-song on

Suffering Arises From ...desire and aversion.Thus spoke BuddhaI spent 7 days with my parents, which turned out to be 4 days too many. Which is about 3 1/2 days longer than I could stand it years ago. Someday I will reach a point of just saying 'yes' to what is, yes to my mom needing to make 15+ different dishes for the dinner, rather than maybe 2, and everyone else bringing one or two dishes. She's constantly getting up to set out something, replenish something, and clean up something. I find myself compelled to jump up then too so she doesn't have to do it all.But I don't have to jump up. But I feel guilty if I don't. my dad and brothers and nephews don't jump up, it's a 'female thing.' every year we 'joke' next year the guys are gonna be in charge of the dinner. This year they said 'ok' and started mentioning KFC, and other places to buy food. Yeah! Sounds great to me. Why not?!Holidays (holy days) are about spending time with each other, not time with the food.Who writes about this? Well, always I can go back to my fave book - ILLUSIONS by Richard Bach. one of my favorite lines from it - 'if my happiness depends on what another does, than I have a problem'It's so damn simple.I 'give-thanks' for knowing the answer, even if I ain't always practicing it, yet.

by bohonato on

Those Crazy HermitsYes, I believe that humans are capable of long-term happiness. If you are planning on interacting with other humans, however, you could have a problem. People who have long-term happiness in this world are crazy hermits who live in caves.And isn't it fitting I just finished listening to the full recording of Les Miserables before coming on here?

by jamelah on

Eh, HappinessI hold this truth to be self-evident: being happy with everything and everyone at every moment must be awfully fucking boring. Of course, I've never actually experienced this, but I can only imagine my discontent at having nothing to be discontented with. Such is life (at least if you're me) -- always looking for that one black cloud in an otherwise cheerfully sunny sky.Why? I don't know. I always figured that I was preternaturally cranky (which is probably the case), but maybe this is partially human nature as well. Maybe.Maybe?I go through life with a sardonic smirk waiting for the other shoe to drop. Because no matter what it is, there has to be something about it that sucks completely. I don't believe there is such a thing as pure joy, or if there is, it's so fleeting that it's impossible to recognize it for what it is until after it's long gone. Yeah, I can remember times when I was perfectly happy, but they were tiny moments, perfect in their impermanence, and I think that if I tried to stretch them into something larger, they'd end up too thin and worn to be worth much.Personally, I like the bumps and snags and scowls and arguments. I always was fond of a good ending or a well-timed disappearance. I don't want sunshine all the time, and I'm not a big fan of roses. If things aren't wrong, I'll find a way to make them head in that direction. I may not know how to sustain happiness, but at least I can keep things interesting. I'm reasonably okay with life for the most part, and I think that's as far as I'd like to push it.

by warrenweappa on

I used to feel the same way until I had a kid and junior started mimicking me and I decided to change for the better while I was still young enough to do so.

by WIREMAN on

...I see bubbles floating up and into oblivion outta that skeleton,as Lawrence taps the baton and a chorus of Julie Nixon Eisenhowers sings along..........

by anniefay on

anything you lose in life that can be credited towards a tendency of ongoing crankiness is entirely made up for in the fact that you know words and how to use them properly like preternaturally. So, then smile... this is one of those happy moments, perfect all by itself.

by jim vinny on

I Find Long Term Happiness...in realizing that I am a unique and free individual, beholden to no-one, not even family.When I realized that, for the most part, my family were a bunch of strangers with histories that occasionally intersected (not always in nice ways), I discovered that happiness is going your own way. I rarely spend holidays with family anymore - it can get lonely, but it beats the living hell out of observing and contributing to the dysfunctional malaise and inherent sadness of a reunion of people that, as time goes on, are bound more by shared grief than anything resembling happiness or a genuine desire to spend time together.The old saying "you can't go home" rings very true. The house may be the same, the people may look familiar, but, at a certain point, everything just shudders and changes behind your back. Melancholic, perhaps, but change can also be good. I guess it's up to you to decide.Even an attempt at finding lasting happiness is better than sitting on your ass, doing nothing, and being miserable.

by anniefay on

The miracle of familyhappens every time I get up all cross-eyed and ornery and someone (happens to have gotten up on the right side of their bed) greets me with a cheerful "morning" and I nearly rip their head off with my grouchy reply... they tip their coffee cup upwards, cover the smile on their face with a glimmer in their eyes while thinking "so, having one of those days, eh!" Family: the people who tolerate us even when we are not at our best. And in fact, because we know this, we tend not to bother to put on a front or act on our best behavior when around them. It's a gift of love they give us we never appreciate fully. Just knowing that should make us more joyful but it doesn't seem to affect the formula one way or the other.For me, happiness is an ongoing state I have reached in my wizened (ironic grin) years. It is not a state of "fun" but rather it is a state of overall contentment with what's around me. If I were "happy" all the time it would make me intolerable, and God knows, sometimes I'm hard enough to be around without throwing that into the mix. I am content. Overall, that contentment is spattered with more sorrow than joy, so happy moments make the living more doable. It is fun not knowing when those happy bits will pop up on my horizon that makes them treasures, free gifts of pure laughter touching the moment. I think literary works illustrate the human condition by exaggerating human emotions. Shakespeare's words are filled with dread in some plays but his lighter works are just pure joy, for instance, Midsummer Night's Dream. That play makes me smile inside and out. Anyway, who of us isn't a tad bit dysfunctional? If we weren't, we just wouldn't fit in with everybody else in the world, would we?

by DocStray on

A smoke in the snow is just as good The holidays aren't working this year. All we truly have is our despair, and the fundamental law is that we love to hate happiness. Or, at the very least I am not comfortable with it. I hate the mediocre 9-5, the family, the girlfriend, the career, the lawn, the smiling, the school, the news, and I hate having to be happy when I'm not. See, I had a nervous breakdown the Sunday after Thanksgiving. So I'll have to give thanks to my narcisstic mother who didn't stop when she was supposed to. I should be in the hospital right now, but I am not. I should not go to the job interview tomorrow night, but I'm going. I have no woman in my life, and should. No money for alchohol, and then I would have to hear about trying to be the better human being. Selfish, no, I disagree. I think we should all be left alone a little bit more. Whatever happened to a little stoicism, it goes a long way. I'm described as just being a "dark" person now, and that's fine. But, under no circumstances do I find anything blessed during the holidays. I say that when New Year rolls around I'm going to be alone drinking myself into a perpetual coma. To me that feels good, but I guess the living hate to see the dead. While all the other couples kiss when the ball drops I'll be alone pulling off a bottle. Be happy. Try. Things could be worse. You don't want to do that to yourself. No ... I've picked my self destructive path. I'm just another silly little artist. I hate therapy. Hemingway never went to therapy, and I doubt it would have cured that gunshot blast to his forehead. I doubt therapy would have kept the poison out of Vachel Lindsey. All I can hope for is a heart attack like Nelson Algren. Camel reds work well. But all this family, all this buzz, and crisp little smiles it even makes me more dark. There is no cure, and there is no being happy. Just leave us alone, let us smoke our cigarettes , drink our poison , fuck like idiots and die laughing at how certain you were that life was not so great.