Book Review: Pascal Bruckner, “Perpetual Euphoria”

Woodstock: Princeton UP, 2010; 244 + xii pp

This has to be one of the most French books I’ve ever read.  Pascal Bruckner has written a whole book taking aim at happiness – a kind of obtuseness that is, on the face of it, the preserve of a particular kind of Gallic writer – and “the duty to be happy”.  It’s an interesting project, since – if it turns out to have any substance to it – it represents a possible counter to Millian aspirations about an hedonic calculus.

So what is Bruckner’s claim?  Well, to be honest, that’s a bit hard to answer.  The major downside of this book is that it lacks a clear argumentative thread, and includes too much that meanders off the topic.  It’s not even clear what kind of happiness Bruckner has in his sights – whether he’s talking about whoopee-glee stuff, or about general welfare, or about something else.  (OK: he’s talking about all of them; but he seems to swing between them pretty much as the whim takes him.)  And his talk about happiness is interlaced with talk about other things that – while he clearly thinks them related – aren’t easily a part of the main theme.

But he is interested in the way that a putative “duty to be happy” – culturally sanctioned rather than prescribed, but there, he thinks, all the same – is self defeating.  Partly this is because modernity has “raised human hopes so high that it can only disappoint us” (p 146): happiness, he claims

constitutes… the new moral order, and that is why depression is spreading and every rebellion against this slimy hedonism constantly elicits unhappiness and distress. (p 50)

(See: told you it was very French…)

Partly, it’s because being happy involves being happy: that is, it’s an unanalysed state that, as soon as we start to think about it, stops being happiness.  Happiness in amber is no such thing.  As such, the formula offered for being happy is, perhaps, that we should just forget it.  (There’s a nice quotation I could cite here, but I’ve lost it.  I’ll fill it in later if I find it.)

Bruckner does have a number of interesting claims to make in respect of the relationship between medicine and happiness; and since this is a medicine-related blog, it probably makes sense to concentrate on them.

One of the things that interests him is the manner in which medicine’s promise is contrary to what he thinks is a strong candidate for understanding health:

By trying to eliminate every anomaly, every weakness, we end up denying the principal virtue of health: a lack of concern about oneself or, as Leriche put it, the “silence of the organs”. (p 54)

I have to say that this is a picture that I find not unappealing.  For a number of years now, I’ve been toying with the idea of health (or perhaps the body) as being something that is most apparent by its absence, and of the body as being, in Heideggerian terms, “ready to hand”: that is, unnoticed except when it prevents us from fulfilling some project of which it is normally made an efficient part.  Demanding welfare, or health, or happiness, as a positive thing in its own right, on this account, gets in the way of our achieving the projects that might well end up being a better bet for generating happiness for us anyway.  (I think that there’s a hint of Williams’ “integrity objection” to utilitarianism here: that we derive happiness from projects, not as a project.)  For Bruckner, “[o]nly a sick person can think that ‘health is happiness’.  For someone who is not sick, health is just a fact and nothing more.” (ibid)  (And compare the claim on p 128 that “[t]o live solely for happiness would thus be to live for a few instants and throw the rest away”, which seems to indicate something like the same thing.)

Bruckner’s target – despite the title – is not happiness qua happiness, but rather the supposed “duty to be happy”, and the attendant risk that the quest to be happy simply makes us miserable; and his suggestion that the way to respond to modernity’s aversion to suffering is

to get used to suffering again, “make it a neighbour,” as Montaigne said about death, in order to rediscover a detachment with regard to it and attempt, so far as possible, to keep it at a distance (p 195)

is, in this context, worthy of consideration.  He makes a prescient claim that “[n]o doubt some group of scientists is currently building a ‘hedonometer’ to gauge the GNH (Gross National Happiness), the degree of beatitude in a given population, the way we measure the degree of humidity in the air”; but

[n]o matter how ingenious the calculation, we can count on the figures having little to do with “happiness”, which lies outside the domain of statistics and need (p 145)

If there’s any power to this claim – and he does seem to indicate an epistemic problem that faces utilitarianism (what, after all, is a QALY, and does anyone really care how many of them they have?) – then it indicates a problem with all kinds of welfare policies.  I quite like the idea of assessing happiness rather than dollar output in an economy: but I think that the point here is potentially well made all the same.

There’re also some genuinely funny moments.  Bruckner is cutting about the cult of wellness as expressed in gym membership, for example.

Bodybuilding illustrates the dream of re-creating one’s own anatomy, with the astonishing paradox that an excess of muscles tends to make a body look as if it were skinned or turned inside-out like a glove, as if to show, with all its visible veins and tendons, the outrage that has been done to it. (p 55)

How can that not elicit laughter?  It’s a wonderful passage.

Perpetual Euphoria is at times an aggravating read: it’s allusive rather than incisive, and there’s rather too much by way of the broad gesture.  But there’s also a lot in here to raise questions about what it is that we’re trying to achieve when we’re trying to be happy, and whether trying to be happy might be a problem in itself.  The idea that we need to make space for suffering as part of the human condition won’t convince many – maybe barely any – but it’s worth articulating all the same.

Oh, one last thing.  The author’s photo on the dust-jacket?  He’s smiling.