Seen in one way, being alive is a remarkable, wondrous thing. In Act II of Hamlet, Shakespeare voices a feeling of awe at the dignity of the human condition:What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!
Our brains are the most delicate and complex products of the natural world; while other creatures can only bark or bray we can transmit our deepest thoughts via slight motions of our lips; we can envisage the totality of the cosmos though we occupy the tiniest portion of space; by our arts and sciences we can infinitely extend the power of our bodies; we can plunge to the ocean floor and catapult ourselves towards the stars.
And yet every life is, in relation to its underlying aspirations, almost always a failure, even a catastrophe. We cannot escape our quota of bleakness and disaster. Not every grim eventuality will strike everyone – but, with dark reliability, many terrible things will happen to us all.
In relation to this puzzling, inextricable mixture of the beautiful and the tragic, our minds are prone to fall prey to two major unfortunate temptations:
The first is to deny the darkness, to try with all one’s energies to shun news of the damned side of human nature, to flee awkward facts, to refuse to look inside oneself at the distressed worried aspects: and to keep one’s attention always distracted, busy and manically fixed on whatever is pleasant and hopeful.
We can can observe the temptation with particular clarity in an incidental but revealing corner of activity: in sentimental art, a style of art that flourished in Europe and the United States from the mid 18th to the late 19th centuries, an art representing preternaturally glossy, airbrushed and unblemished scenes and people: young children at play, angels dancing, lovers embracing, cheerful peasants uncomplainingly ploughing and ever-loyal dogs resting at the feet of their benignly authoritative masters.
Sentimental art – whose leading practitioners include Greuze, Messonier, Bouguereau and Fildes – can be dismissed as ‘bad’ not because of some technical flaw in representing the world, but because we intuit a psychological problem at play: we sense in the artists a brittle and troublesome refusal to countenance anything that might be sad or dark about humanity.
Their work cultivates a highly edited version of ourselves, it shies away from all engagement with our shadow sides: our tendencies to aggression, negativity, spite, envy and disappointment. These artists seem not to have not chosen to be cheerful, they are unable to be sad, locked into a grin; cheery, victims of an insistent inability to square up with the nature of reality. They are, in the field of art, the equivalent of those people who might ask us for our news, but are unable to listen to the answer if it contains anything in any way irksome or distressed. Their apparent good mood is not an achievement, it is an inner compulsion driven by rigid squeamishness.
Jean-Baptiste Greuze, FidelityJean-Baptiste Greuze’s depiction of a young woman, titled Fidelity, has resolutely turned its back on the reality of relationships and female psychology. This woman will never forget how deeply wonderful and perfect her lover is; she’ll never get tetchy about how he holds his knife and fork or how loudly he snores at night; she’ll never wonder if she’s wasted her life or think that her partner’s love-making technique is inept, his financial status unsatisfactory or his views about political philosophy seriously misguided. The ‘shadows’ are deliberately left out in an attempt to spare discomfort.
Sentimentality isn’t limited to art, and it’s not simply an amusing failure of past societies. It’s a permanent tendency of the mind, whenever we airbrush, edit out, distract ourselves away from our grief and connive in ideas that, deep down, we know can’t be true.
Alongside the temptation never to feel sad, there is another – perhaps slightly more puzzling habit of the mind: the temptation never to hope.
Once we open our eyes fully to the reality of existence and place the catalogue woes at the centre of our consciousness, it can be hard ever to smile again.
There is simply so much to be sad about. The human animal is a benighted deluded uncontrolled monster, prey to lust, error, greed and bitterness. We vandalise the earth; we burn the bridge we’re standing on. If we have plans for reform, they will be broken by the collective stupidity or indifference of others. We will find – too late – that there are lamentable yet entrenched reasons for things being as bad as they are; folly, greed, corruption and cruelty are powerfully persistent and endlessly reinvent themselves. Every solution is the start of a new mistake.
Personal life is no better. In relationships, you will either have your heart broken by people who don’t love you back or suffer from tormented guilt dismissing others for whom you feel nothing. Eventually you will panic at the threat of loneliness and settle down with someone who promises to, but won’t, understand you. It will seem you have sacrificed your freedom for someone perfectly designed to thwart and disappoint you and who will probably feel the same about you. You could have been – you suspect – such a nice person, in the company of someone else (you never met).
As a result of your choice, some of the moments that you most carefully looked forward to will be lost in bickering and offence. Shamefully trivial irritations will ruin what should have been the best occasions of your life. You will say the cruellest things to the ones you are theoretically most attached to. You will die feeling that no one has ever really understood you properly.
If you have children you will fail them in profound ways. The memory of your own childhood will furnish you with a list of things to avoid. But if you succeed – through superhuman efforts – to avoid them, you will discover you have made a whole litany of new and unexpected mistakes. You will have to bear the burden of having placed new unhappy creatures on the earth.
As you age, if you’re lucky, you’ll end up in a nursing home with a repugnant body; hairs will sprout from your ears and nostrils; your skin will be creased like a old shoe; children will run away in horror; you’ll smell like a dead bat. No one escapes it – including the girl you passed on the way to the supermarket with the cut-off shorts and pink lipstick; age will humiliate all who survive. Your body will let you down; you are tethered to a machine destined to break. You will always have to live with the fact you could be struck down in bizarre and horrific ways; the axeman is following us all the time; a minute capillary in the brain may at any moment get clogged, a cell become cancerous.
These are some central facts of life, which make it very tempting – once we take them on board – never to expend another laugh or smile again.
But a satisfied life requires us intelligently to skirt both these dangers, those of Sentimentality as much as those of Nihilism. Maturity means denying ourselves the easy options of avoiding bleakness or hope. Partly this involves acknowledging that these really are easy options, that it is absurdly timid to flee the sad facts with cheery disregard, but equally – if more unexpectedly – that it is dispiritingly weak never to allow oneself to wish and to dream, to savour and to believe. Nihilism, though it may appear self-denying, is in truth a distinctive form of indulgence and cowardice: a way of trying to disappoint oneself before life can do it for us at a time of its own choosing, a way of never having to manage the transition between light and darkness and of defensively guaranteeing that one will have nowhere left to fall.
One of philosophy’s most established oppositions, depicted in art throughout the centuries, is that between two great Greek thinkers, Democritus and Heraclitus. Both men (who lived to a very old age) had a deep knowledge of people and the world, but responded to what they knew in strikingly different ways. Heraclitus could not stop weeping; Democritus could not stop laughing.
Crucially, Democritus laughed not because a privileged position led him to naively misunderstand how bad things could be. His good humour wasn’t a version of sentimentality or avoidant optimism. Nor was it simply a random quirk of temperament. Democritus laughed in a very particular and admirable way because of the way he thought about the world.
He recommended that we acquaint ourselves with the totality of human experience, with all its failings, follies, self-deception and casual (and not so casual) injustices. The wise person should take care to grow completely at home with the ordinary shambles of existence. They must never be taken by surprise or shocked by how things can be, for they have taken full notice of the facts and so stand to be bewildered by nothing. Betrayal, murder, sexual deviance, corruption – all must be factored in. The wise understand that they are living on a dunghill. When baseness and malice rear their heads, as they will, it is against a backdrop of fully vanquished hope, and so there will be no sense of having been unfairly let down and one’s credulity betrayed. Democritus was so convinced of the darkness, he no longer had register it constantly at the front of his mind in order to do it justice. It seemed an entirely obvious, base-line fact about existence. The laughing Greek could be so cheerful, because anything nice, sweet or charming that came his way was immediately experienced as a bonus; a deeply gratifying addition to his original bleak premises. By keeping the dark backdrop of life always in mind, he sharpened his appreciation of whatever stood out against it. He did not have to be on constant high alert for the negative; he had the inner space to listen out for the faintest signals of redemption. The positive was not a feeble echo of dashed hopes; it was a particularly delightful, slightly improbable but noteworthy bucking of the usual and expected tragic trend.
Rembrandt, The Young Rembrandt as Democritus the Laughing Philosopher (1628-29)Democritus was known to be fond of parties. He enjoyed wine and drinking. ‘A life without festivity is a long road without an inn’, he wrote. His occasional frivolities weren’t a rejection of his more serious insights and tasks. They were what kept up his spirits so that he could continue to engage with the difficulties of life – and therefore, though they might not have been serious in themselves, they had an extremely serious role to play in the overall economy of his existence. Democritus did not believe that he had to feel constantly sad to prove that he recognised life to be sad. He danced every now and then because of a rightful confidence that he had already done justice, and would always in the future fully do justice, to the sadness of things.
Sentimental optimism circles around an important idea: we need to be cheerful in order to live. But it has a desperately misguided hold on how to attain cheerfulness. It supposes that a more positive frame of mind must be built on suppressing or skirting round the thoughts that might provoke despair. Yet this is fated to make any good mood fragile, always in danger of being breached by an uncomfortable reality. Democritus was aiming at a more enduring, reliable kind of cheerfulness that admits from the outset that life is fundamentally grim but that uses this despair as a catalyst for a more vivid engagement with whatever cheerful detail comes one’s way, like an English person who is especially adept at drawing value from the last day of summer or a condemned man who perfectly savours the last meal before facing the firing squad.
Once we have acquired the skill of Cheerful Despair, a new range of possibilities for pleasure open themselves up to us. We will be amazed and so touched when, once in awhile, someone seems to understand a few things we mean, appears to like us, or invites us to go to bed with them. We will find it hard to believe, but will be delighted, that our bodies are not yet splintering or ceding the way to malignant cells. We will take note, with some astonishment, that not everyone has plans to murder or hurt others. We will make the most of the constrained but real opportunities we have. We will be free to enjoy the distinctive cheerfulness of those who have taken every fateful fact on board.
To contrast with sentimental art, there are paintings that seem to be imbued with precisely the more complex and liveable spirit of Cheerful Despair.
Vincent Van Gogh, Almond Blossom (1890)Vincent Van Gogh knew everything there can be to know about pain, but this did not stop him – indeed it gave him the encouragement – to engage with the evanescent beauty of nature. His renditions of blossoming trees, flowers, apples, oranges and sunsets appear subliminally imbued with a knowledge of horror but are at the same time resolutely, stubbornly, ecstatically committed to the light. They express a cheerfulness that has taken complete stock of all the reasons for despair, that understands that pain is all of our ultimate destinations, but that clings all the more fervently for this to instances of grace.
Cheerful defiance cocks its nose spiritedly at the bleakness: it is defiant about the tragic facts. We can contrast the familiar sorrow within Velazquez’s rendition of the dying Christ with the cheeky bravado of the (alleged) Messiah singing as he dies on the hillside outside Jerusalem in Monty Python’s Life of Brian. A comic attitude doesn’t have to deny misery: it merely insists on a very different relationship with it.
Monty Python, The Life of Brian: ‘Life’s a piece of shit, when you look at it’The best kind of art, and by extension, of life, doesn’t need things to be perfect. It is committed to actively searching out what is good amidst grimness, which it won’t hide from us. Consider two different ways of representing a landscape. The Netherlands Board of Tourism is responsible for marketing the Dutch countryside and to lure visitors, employs images of extremely neat windmills bordering pristine canals, with flowers along the banks – and permanently sunny skies.
There are occasional places and one or two days of the year – particularly near Leiden in late July – when the Netherlands is of course exactly like this. But there are many other more typical aspects of the Dutch countryside that the Board of Tourism stays quiet about: it’s almost always overcast, there are many places where there’s not a flower to be seen, it rains most days and there’s always quite a lot of mud.
It could sound appalling, but it doesn’t have to be – as one of Holland’s best painters, the 17th-century artist Jacob van Ruisdael understood. Van Ruisdael loved the Dutch countryside, spent as much time there as he could, and was very keen to let everyone know what he liked about it. But instead of carefully selecting a special (and unrepresentative) spot and waiting for a moment of bright sunshine, he engaged unashamedly with the mixed, complicated reality.
Jacob van Ruisdael, The Windmill at Wijk bij Duurstede (1670)His paintings reveal an accommodation with the flawed but endurable and occasionally beautiful nature of reality. Van Ruisdael found his way to the merits of overcast days, learning to study the fascinating characteristic movements of stormy skies. He acquired a feeling for the infinite gradations of grey, he noted how often one can see a patch of fluffy white brightness drifting behind a darker, billowing mass of rain-dense clouds. He didn’t deny that there was mud or that the river and canal banks were frequently quite messy. Instead he noticed a special kind of partial beauty and made a case for it.
We are all capable of making our peace with the less than perfect, and with life itself, if only our expectations are correctly calibrated, if we are inducted to recognise, and properly esteem, what is good within the thistles and thorns.
Under the influence of Zen philosophy, Japanese pottery made some important moves in this direction.
In the 15th century, Zen philosophers developed the view that pots, cups and bowls that had become damaged shouldn’t simply be neglected or thrown away. They should continue to attract our respect and attention and be repaired with enormous care – this process symbolising a reconciliation with the flaws and pains of life.
The word given to this tradition of ceramic repair was kintsugi (Kin = golden, tsugi = joinery); meaning, literally, ‘to join with gold’. The broken pieces of an accidentally-smashed pot were to be carefully picked up, reassembled and then glued together with lacquer inflected with a very expensive gold powder. There was to be no sentimental attempt to disguise the damage, the point was to render the fault-lines beautiful and strong. The precious veins of gold were there to emphasise that breaks have a merit all of their own.
A story is told of one of the great proponents of kintsugi, Sen no Rikyu (1522-99). On a journey through southern Japan, he was invited to a dinner where the host thought he would be impressed by an elaborate and expensive antique tea jar that he had bought from China. But Rikyu didn’t even seem to notice this item and instead spent his time chatting and admiring a branch swaying in the breeze outside. In despair at this lack of interest, once Rikyu had left, the devastated host smashed the jar to pieces and retired to his room. But the other guests more wisely gathered the fragments and stuck them together through kintsugi. When Rikyu next came to visit, the philosopher turned to the repaired jar and, with a knowing smile, exclaimed: ‘Now it is magnificent’.
It is hard to imagine anyone acquiring the skill of Cheerful Despair from the outset. It seems by its very nature to be an attitude that evolves only through experience and education. If things have gone tolerably well for us, we are most likely to begin life with a spirit of spontaneous optimism, trusting that adulthood will offer us the chance to secure understanding, respect and security. But by the time we have reached late adolescence, or by midlife at the very latest, it will be almost impossible not to have glimpsed the truth and the agony. We may, at this point, quite understandably turn against the world entirely, and weep with all the intensity of Heraclitus, who was said in one account to have filled a barrel with his tears. Bereft and betrayed, our souls may be left in fragments, like the pieces of a smashed Japanese pot. But we should not remain in such a state. As the great prophets of Cheerful Despair have known, our true goal is to reach a state beyond naivety or despondency, one where we neither deny what is horrendous nor shun what is pure, where the blossom, the brief moment of sunshine or the warmth of a party come to have particular value for us because we are so aware of the backdrop they stand against. Without forgetting the bleakness, we may dare to commit ourselves to enduring and at times even enjoying the confusion of joy and misery that life is destined continually to throw at us.
Once we have put the above lessons into practice, we stand a chance of becoming something rather odd sounding: wise. It’s one of the grandest and oddest words out there, so lofty, it doesn’t sound like something one could ever consciously strive to be – unlike say, being cultured, or kind. Others could perhaps compliment you on being it, but it wouldn’t be something you could yourself ever announce you had become.
Nevertheless, though it’s impossible ever to reach a stable state of wisdom, as an aspiration, wisdom deserves to be rehabilitated and take its place among a host of other, more typical goals one might harbour.
It’s woven from many strands:
The wise are, first and foremost, ‘realistic’ about how challenging many things can be. They aren’t devoid of hope (that would be a folly of its own), but they are conscious of the complexities entailed in any project: for example, raising a child, starting a business, spending an agreeable weekend with the family, changing the nation, falling in love… Knowing that something difficult is being attempted doesn’t rob the wise of ambitions, but it makes them more steadfast, calmer and less prone to panic about the problems that will invariably come their way.
Properly aware that much can and does go wrong, the wise are unusually alive to moments of calm and beauty, even extremely modest ones, of the kind that those with grander plans rush past. With the dangers and tragedies of existence firmly in mind, they can take pleasure in a single, uneventful, sunny day, or some pretty flowers growing by a brick wall, the charm of a three-year-old playing in a garden or an evening of banter among a few friends. It isn’t that they are sentimental and naive, precisely the opposite: because they have seen how hard things can get, they know how to draw the full value from the peaceful and the sweet – whenever and wherever these arise.
The wise know that all human beings, themselves included, are deeply sunk in folly: they have irrational desires and incompatible aims, they are unaware of a lot, they are prone to mood swings, they are visited by all kinds of fantasies and delusions – and are always buffeted by the curious demands of their sexuality. The wise are unsurprised by the ongoing co-existence of deep immaturity and perversity alongside quite adult qualities like intelligence and morality. They know that we are barely evolved apes. Aware that at least half of life is irrational, they try – wherever possible – to budget for madness and are slow to panic when it (reliably) rears its head.
The wise take the business of laughing at themselves seriously. They hedge their pronouncements, they are sceptical in their conclusions. Their certainties are not as brittle as those of others. They laugh from the constant collisions between the noble way they’d like things to be, and the demented way they in fact often turn out.
The wise are realistic about social relations, in particular, about how difficult it is to change people’s minds and have an effect on their lives.
They are therefore extremely reticent about telling people too frankly what they think. They have a sense of how seldom it is useful to get censorious with others. They want – above all – that things be nice between people, even if this means they are not totally authentic. So they will sit with someone of an opposite political persuasion and not try to convert them; they will hold their tongue at someone who seems to be announcing a wrong-headed plan for reforming the country, educating their child or directing their personal life. They’ll be aware of how differently things can look through the eyes of others and will search more for what people have in common than what separates them.
The wise have made their peace with the yawning gap between how they would ideally want to be and what they are actually like. They have come to terms with their idiocies, flaws, ugliness, limitations and drawbacks. They are not ashamed of themselves – and therefore, don’t have to lie or dissemble in front of others. Without self-love or vanity, they can give those close to them a fairly accurate map of their neuroses and faults and of the reasons why they will be hard to live around (and therefore often aren’t such difficult companions).
The wise are realistic about other people too. They recognise the extraordinary pressures everyone is under to pursue their own ambitions, defend their interests and seek their own pleasures. It can make others appear extremely ‘mean’ and purposefully evil, but this would be to over-personalise the issue. The wise know that most hurt is not intentional, it’s a by-product of the constant collision of blind competing egos in a world of scarce resources.
The wise are therefore slow to anger and judge. They don’t leap to the worst conclusions about what is going on in the minds of others. They will be readier to forgive from a proper sense of how difficult every life is: harbouring as it does so many frustrated ambitions, disappointments and longings. The wise appreciate the pressures people are under. Of course they shouted, of course they were rude, naturally they want to overtake on the inside lane… The wise are generous to the reasons for which people might not be nice. They feel less persecuted by the aggression and meanness of others, because they have a sense of where it comes from: a place of hurt.
The wise have a solid sense of what they can survive. They know just how much can go wrong and things will still be – just about – liveable. The unwise person draws the boundaries of their contentment far too far out: so that it encompasses, and depends upon, fame, money, personal relationships, popularity, health… The wise person sees the advantages of all of these, but also knows that they may – before too long, at a time of fate’s choosing – have to draw the borders right back and find contentment within a more bounded space.
The wise person doesn’t envy idly: they realise that there are some good reasons why they don’t have many of the things they really want. They look at the tycoon or the star and have a decent grasp of why they didn’t ever make it to that level. It looks like just an accident, an unfair one, but there were in fact some logical grounds: they didn’t work as hard, they don’t have anything like the drive or mental capacity…
At the same time, the wise see that some destinies are truly shaped by nothing more than accident. Some people are promoted randomly. Companies that aren’t especially deserving can suddenly make it big. Some people have the right parents. The winners aren’t all noble and good. The wise appreciate the role of luck and don’t curse themselves overly at those junctures where they have evidently not had as much of it as they would have liked.
The wise emerge as realistic about the consequences of winning and succeeding. They may want to win as much as the next person, but they are aware of how many fundamentals will remain unchanged, whatever the outcome. They don’t exaggerate the transformations available to us. They know how much we remain tethered to some basic dynamics in our personalities, whatever job we have or material possession we acquire. This is both cautionary (for those who succeed) and hopeful (for those who won’t). The wise see the continuities across those two categories over-emphasised by modern consumer capitalism: ‘success’ and ‘failure’.
In our ambitious age, it is common to begin with dreams of being able to pull off an unblemished life, where one can hope to get the major decisions – in love and work – right.
But the wise realise that it is impossible to fashion a spotless life; one will make some extremely large and utterly uncorrectable errors in a number of areas. Perfectionism is a wicked illusion. Regret is unavoidable.
But regret lessens the more we see that error is endemic across the species. One can’t look at anyone’s life story without seeing some devastating mistakes etched across it. These errors are not coincidental but structural; they arise because we all lack the information we need to make choices in time-sensitive situations. We are all, where it counts, steering almost blind.
The wise know that turmoil is always around the corner – and they have come to fear and sense its approach. That’s why they nurture such a strong commitment to calm. A quiet evening feels like an achievement. A day without anxiety is something to be celebrated. They are not afraid of having a somewhat boring time. There could, and will again, be so much worse…
Knowing all about wisdom doesn’t, of course, guarantee that we will in fact practice wisdom. The Ancient Greeks were highly concerned with the concept of akraisia – translated as ‘weakness of the will,’ whereby we know an idea but it isn’t active in our minds. For it to become so, we also have to ritualise ideas – not merely know them.
We might initially associate ritual with archaic ceremonies, like a coronation, or with cultish gatherings. But when we boil it down to its essence the point of a ritual is to mandate a set of actions and attitudes, in order to get us into a valuable state of mind. It is – like a recipe – a set of rules that, if we follow them carefully, will bring about a certain result; not in this case a bowl of watercress soup or a crème brûlée but, rather, a state of heightened appreciation. Unlike a recipe a ritual usually comes with instructions about when you have to do it. Recipes leave it up to us – when you happen to feel like making a risotto, here’s what to do. But a ritual includes directions about when you should do it – every 365 days after your birth, when the new moon rises or when the cherry or plum trees are in blossom (as with Hanami, ritualised picnics in Japan are devoted to an appreciation of the transience of natural beauty). The ritual comes with a date; it makes an appointment in your diary, placed there by your culture. The ritual is rightly worried we’ll forget to pursue a particular pleasure – so it comes with a reminder.
Often with a ritual the details have been honed and refined over a long period of time. People have thought quite hard how to get the most out of what they were doing. Rituals frequently invite us to quite specific patterns of thought and action. The Jicarilla Apache of New Mexico, for example, have an elaborate ceremony for adolescent girls which last for several days. The girls must wear special costumes and must pay close attention to a particular stories and songs – designed to foreground a range of admirable qualities. The ritual is hugely ambitious because it aims to transform how they think about themselves and how they see their place in society.
This approach to rules is a revision of the Romantic ideal of spontaneity, the luck moment, which is excited by ideas of happy accidents and chance encounters. It’s not that these are always terrible ideas at all. It’s just that they aren’t the only template we need. If we only follow them a lot of good things won’t happen, or will happen only very rarely.