“Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.”
As artists and reflective human beings we have to find our place in the world. For some its easy. If you’re Nadine Gordimer you will naturally write about apartheid South Africa. If you’re Khaled Hosseini Afghanistan will make you. If you’re a Jewish writer the Holocaust is your thing. If you’re African – like Chinua Achebe – then war and colonialism are your tickets to fame. But we’re not all that lucky.
I was born in a safe country that hasn’t seen war or any major social upheaval for over 70 years, and my family history is exciting but ordinary, and I am neither black, depressed, oppressed nor gay. So to find my literary identity, the subjects, themes and motifs I have had to look outside of myself and my immediate surroundings. Which might be why I so seldom write about Malta.
A lot of writers in my position tend to take the easy way out and write about the contemporary zeitgeist. Hemingway wrote about the Spanish Civil War in For Whom The Bell Tolls and John Updike (a great writer but born likewise into a white, middle-class, suburban environment) wrote towards the end of his life about terrorism in The Terrorist (a horrible book from a great writer – a fascinating rarity). Others created a zeitgeist for themselves. Nabokov, a Russian émigré into Europe and later America, created the perverse romance zeitgeist in Lolita. Martin Amis, heir of Kingsley Amis, wrote about the under-classes of which he was certainly not a part.
And look as you might, try as you may, you will not find a more powerful zeitgeist today than terrorism, Islamism, radicalism, and all their attendant ills and woes: migration, racism, oil, etc. I’ve noticed, however, that a lot of the most prominent writers today don’t go near the topic – they don’t feel as if it’s PC, somehow. Leave the terrorism narrative to those directly affected by it. Leave it to the likes of Salman Rushdie, Khaled Hosseini, Mohsin Hamid and Laila Lalami. And wisely, a lot of Western writers are leaving the topic well alone. And I will too.
Not for the same reasons. I think no topic is off-limits to any writer. If I’ve never experienced terrorism I can rely on my imagination and still write about it. But I won’t. Writing, for me, is an a-political art. Of course, I am privileged to be able to say that. If I were born in the heart of Aleppo or Tripoli I might feel differently. But as it was, when I was growing up, my experience of novels was one of adventure, immersion, beauty, thoughtfulness and yes, hedonism.
I grew up reading the likes of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Kundera, Conrad, Amis, Bellow and Nabokov amongst others. And whilst politics isn’t entirely absent in these writers, it does not define them. What defines them is travel, socialism, eroticism, psychology – and I would dare say that what these novelists have to say has been more impactful than the most overtly political novels. Novels show people how to live, they make people doubt, they are works of grace and beauty, not of overt darkness and gloom. I think novels like The Adventures of Augie March have done more for our civilization than The Kite Runner or even 1984. Let me pick on The Kite Runner for a bit.
It is a novel I greatly admire and enjoyed reading, and I admire Hosseini as a great author and humanitarian. But what is the novel’s impact on those of us who read it? It touches us, opens our eyes, forces us to live in places we wouldn’t dare visit – all hefty and noble successes for any novel. But how relevant is it for us in our day-to-day lives? I may be wrong here, and please feel free to contradict me, but a book like Lolita is a far more powerful book than any of Hosseini’s work. In Lolita Nabokov shows to us the dangers of lust, shows us impulses that abide within all of us (yes, even you) and berates those who glorify it. Or look at the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, that teach us that the Great American Dream brings with it a Great American Downfall which we are all at risk of today, given America’s worldwide reach.
So what is my niche, my piece of the great literary pie? It is something I’ve had to seek out, work hard for, like any labourer. I’ve had to work for everything – I am not a middle-class writer, (by elimination, then, I am…) and ever since I was young I have dreamt big dreams. It is a natural by-product of growing up somewhere no one would dream about. I dreamt (and still dream) of seeing the world, meeting people I admire, living it up, tasting the best beers on earth, seeing great, dying landscapes, climbing mountains and swimming deep rivers. And these dreams are remarkable only to me. Everyone has dreams. But no one really stops to think about them.
Dreams are intimately wound up with happiness. And dreams, today, stand on a high altar. We are all told to dream big, to be ambitious, we all have rights now, we can all pursue happiness, and we admire those who break barriers and do the impossible. And we all of course want to be happy.
But what is happiness?
What is its opposite?
Is it a high or is it stable?
Why do we need to be happy?
The best definition – best for it is simple and expandable – is Epicurus’, the grand-daddy of the subject; for Epicurus happiness is the absence of pain. It is kinetic, still, unmoving. As long as you are free of suffering you are by definition happy.
Most of you would reel at this overly simplistic, un-ambitious sentiment. It’s as if I’m telling you that all your lofty dreams and hopes are, in the end, worthless. So long as you have food, friendship, family, and are in good health you need nothing else. And logically it sounds correct – yet the thought is still terrifying.
Why must we want more than what we have if we already have enough? If you go to Africa and tell a starving child that you’re not happy until you get your promotion, he would laugh at you and probably kick you in the groin – and rightly so. Perspective much? It makes sense, right? But still you – we – want more.
You want, we all want, what is known as Natural Happiness – the type of happiness that comes from outside. A lottery win. Your favourite team winning the league. A change of scenery. We’re all familiar with those (maybe not the lottery win). But then there is such a thing as Synthetic Happiness: the type of happiness that comes from within. And I’m not being Buddhist here – God forbid! Let me be scientific.
This is based on an experiment carried out by Dan Gilbert (his TED Talk on happiness is one of the most viewed). Imagine two scenarios. One winning a massive lottery and the other becoming a paraplegic. Which scenario would you prefer? Thought about it enough? Well, it turns out studies have been done on this, and lottery winners and paraplegics were interviewed a year after their life-changing experiences and they both report the same amount of happiness about their lives. (You might ask, couldn’t they be lying? There is a margin of error, but the double-blind experiment ensures validity.) So is it possible that millionaires and paraplegics can be equally happy? It turns out they can be. This is the phenomenon known as Synthetic Happiness, where people synthesize their happiness from their surroundings, rather than look from it from outside.
(There is also a psychological fault innate in all of us known as Impact Bias. “The tendency to overestimate the hedonic impact of future events.” You dream your whole life of climbing Kilimanjaro, for instance, and when you do, it turns out to be a disappointment.)
And still you’re not convinced. Still you won’t abandon your dreams and settle for what you have. Here’s the thing: I’m not telling you to. I myself am a Socialist Epicurean but I never cease striving to make my dreams a reality, despite all the pitfalls I might encounter. But the job of a novelist is not to preach. His/her job is to make you think, re-evaluate, and wonder. It is the very nature of storytelling – the virtual reality test. Imagine our remote ancestors telling stories millions of years ago on the plains of Africa, teaching their children how to hunt lions using stories to simulate the experience, so that, if they fail, they will not actually get mauled.
And this is why writing about happiness is more important than terrorism for me. Terrorism, radicalization, forced migrations – these are all things that have been around for a long time, but they are not innate in us. The need to be happy is, the need to find purpose in life is too, avoiding suffering, finding your place in the world… these have been ever present quandaries throughout the history of our species. Nor will they go away – but terrorism will, and religion too, hopefully, as will the Trumps and Saudis of the world.
I don’t write to make people happy (though I wouldn’t mind if it’s a by-product), I’m not a sugar-spice writer, but I do want to show readers how their fellow human beings around the world try to carve out a piece of immortality for themselves during their time on earth. I want them to think about their insignificance and how they could overcome it, briefly. Remember that even the most powerful men on earth are insignificant in the whole course of history, the planet, the Solar System and the whole 14 billion-year history of the Cosmos. We are nothing. And that is liberating, because it means, during our short tenure on earth, we can be whatever we want ourselves to be.