Tips on Happiness 2: Between Dover Beach and Swampscott,MA

[We’ll stick with the word happiness but I don’t like it, as I made clear in Tip 1.  It’s not happiness, as Dr. Weil correctly points out. He likes contentment; I don’t like that either. It smells of zen serenity, and after many,many years of trying to become serene, I have finally given up.  My preference is for the word joy, and its French translation serves me even better–joie.  But we’ll stick with happiness, which has currency and accessibility. In fact, a recent article in The New Republic coined the term happyism for our obsession.]


So, Tip 1 ended with a command to discard the medical model, throw away those silly books of psychology and pseudo-science, and to embrace literature and philosophy, east and west.  And by all means to keep a journal, yes, but not of the “triggers,” (those triggers again, this time for happiness. Triggers for happiness?), but rather words and phrases and paragraphs and characters from literature and philosophy, even quasi-literary events and episodes from one’s own life that have demonstrated staying power, that have stayed.

I’ve been cleaning my library, again, aiming for more sparseness and focus.  This is not the first time, and this is not the first library.  Each passage, each crossing of ocean or land, has meant leaving behind books and starting over.  But this is the longest accumulation, at least two decades’ worth of books, in  a town which has some of the best English-language bookstores I’ve known. (Ok,ok, there’s London, but I have not been there in more than three decades!)

I’ve been cleaning my library. It’s been an ongoing process, a preparation of sorts.  For what? I am not sure but I suspect it’s a way of taking stock.  Certainly, it’s not meant to abandon the habit of acquiring books, reading them, taking notes, jotting down ideas and reflections. And I mean books, not those flickers on  screens; not those things with cute names like kindle and nook that you can fondle and crook, not those objects that make up what Ziegmund Bauman calls the “liquidity” of contemporary life.  No, I mean the real thing.  No, not to abandon the practice, but perhaps to pay homage to the books that have persisted, that have owned me, taken me places and tossed me back to myself, opened paths to encounters, reflections, conversations.

And in this process of stock-taking I have returned again to those notebooks filled with quotations, handwritten, from the books and essays I have read; pieces of paper on which something of resonance is jotted down–all this debris scattered between and in the books, keeping watch as it were, documenting our camaraderie, animosity, solidarity. This is the parallel life of reading, to paraphrase Sven Birkerts.

And among those afterlives of literature and philosophy I  came across Mathew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” the other day, which I first read at the silly age of 19, in college, in a course of Victorian literature, with a proffesor Lucie Sullivan.  It’s a poem I know almost by heart, about which I wrote a paper once. In the margins of the anthology where I found it again this past week, there are notes and lines and scribbles.  I don’t remember the date of this conversation with Arnold, but it must have happened sometime in the last 20 years, here in Boston.  The poem and its others, the poem.

I won’t venture to say what the literary-philosophical “model” has that the medical-psychological does not; I won’t, not after the “death of the author” and structuralism and deconstruction; after the eclipse of the modern and the triumph of its post.  Except that this “model” teaches us to think of meaning and purpose before we think of mood, and dysfunction, and mental health; to think of words and images and experiences as suggesting other words and images; to think of receptivity but also intention at the same time, of paradox and contradiction, to resist the fashionable notions of closure and peace and balance.

But most of all, to know that nothing is what it seems, and that words reveal and disguise.  Yesterday, by chance, we ended up in Swampscott, on the Massachusetts North Shore.  It was a stunningly beautiful day, certainly not the kind of day described in Arnold’s poem.  Other than this, though, the similarities beyond the differences were profound, similarities in historical turmoil and personal trouble.

To stand at the shore, look out to the sea, as Arnold had done, or as we, his readers a century later are asked to do–receptive to its enduring beauty and turmoil, its overused lines (“ah, love, let us be true to one another, for the world…” as an ingredient to happysim) but also its words read as though for the first time:

Dover Beach

~~The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the A gaean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night. ~~Mathew Arnold


About Taline Voskeritchian

Writing teacher at Boston University; translator (from Arabic and Armenian); prose writer; occasional editor; incurable wanderer.
This entry was posted in Languages and readings, Meditations, Ordinary places, Small joys and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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