Well, it’s Wednesday February 3, 2010 and there’s a few things I want to tell you about. But first, a little about an older post:
The Boston Globe is going to print, this Sunday, a slightly adapted version of the “On Suicide” post I wrote to you bleaders a few weeks ago. I’m moved, proud, and a little shaken by the response this piece has received. As you bleaders know, I am generally billed as a poet, historian, philosopher and minor-famous atheist. Because of my books, especially Doubt: A History, I get invited to give talks and in these talks I have found myself developing what I lately call Poetic Atheism. I have recently realized that the Wednesday blog posts I’ve been sending you for the last year and a half constitute quite a whirlwind tour of what I believe about what life is for and how to figure out what we really think – and how to proceed. I went over to the list of blogs on this blog and scrolled to J and clicked and there unfurled a year and a half of carefully mined casual comments on the state of the estate, the condition my condition was in (the condition in which was my condition). What I like best about it, reading in either direction, is that the questions that are central to each of my books are all here, always deeply steeping in each other.
Writing for this site I have a sense of the people who might be reading me here that allows me a degree of honesty and comfort shooting from the hip. That is to say that if I had just sat down to write something interesting every Weds. and just kept them in a file, I don’t think I would have created anything like what I’ve ended up with after a year and a half of writing to you guys. So thanks. Thanks also to the commenters who gave me such a solid return of emotion on the suicide piece (Jan 11, 2010), it really meant the world to me after having opened myself up like that. Thanks also to those who got mad at the piece, though at first it also stung, it gave me information I needed to make a few adjustments. So yeah, thanks.
As for new business: Tonight at the Yeshiva University Museum (at the Center for Jewish History 15 West 16th Street, NYC) I’ll be taking part in a very intriguing evening. I’ve been mentioning to you that this was coming up: some artists were asked to make some art responding to Genesis, and as stated in the press release: “Before they began to work on their pieces, the artists and curators met with Jewish scholars to study the text of Genesis, and to learn about the Jewish tradition of text and commentary. In effect, the artists were invited to create new commentaries for the 21st century.”
Then we writers were brought in to each comment on one of the pieces of art. We had a few months and then we all sent in our writing so that they could be ordered for this evening’s reading and we have been told that the collection is fascinating together especially as book-ended by my poem in the front and a piece by novelist Dara Horn in the back. Fun right? I’m looking forward to finding out what that means. I’m also just plain looking forward to reading this poem I wrote for them, which will be rousing, I think.
Then tomorrow morning I get on a plane to Tulum, Mexico to again discuss modern research on happiness with a bunch of other scholars; kind of a think tank idea, we are being paid to come together, no audience, and try to find a way to collaborate across disciplines. We’ve all written books about happiness which have discussed the modern research. My book uses modern research where a study provides a new way of demonstrating philosophical ideas that are themselves ancient, or at least old. I just don’t think most of the studies are truly scientific. There is too much room for interpretation – in the questions, in the answers, and in the analysis of the answers as a whole. If you read a study that showed that people like you (women if you are one, or go with ethnicity) are happier when other people make decisions for them, you would just dismiss the study as wrong. If scientists in a lab tell me women have a lower threshold for radiation poisoning or something, if I doubt it I can ask for a repeat trial, but then I’m going to have to accept it, even if I hate it. But your gut tells you how weak the science is with asking happiness questions, and it’s very weak.
Nonetheless, how can we turn our backs on such a crucial question? If it could be shown to be reliably demonstrated that people with three children report themselves to be less happy than people with two children, we would want to know. So far we have very little that can be parsed this way. Mostly we have poetic evidence that is much deeper than scientific evidence. Happiness is complicated. You can feel happy and miserable over the same course of time; everything to do with talking about happiness is slippery and complex. In my book The Happiness Myth I apply what I call “happiness through historical perspective” – I try to loosen the hold of some of our present day assumptions and cultural norms by presenting some similar ones from the past. It seems weird today that 19th century women constricted their bodies with whale-bone corsets, but women today want to be able to see our own bones beneath our clothing. They were more concerned with shape than size, and we are more concerned with size than shape. It’s a cultural fad more than a piece of modern truth. In fact, we are generally blinded by temporal prejudice.
We think that because we know how to build stuff and go to the moon we are also the last word on the normal way to live. But most everything that we do today that stands out from history will someday mark us as our own particular time of weird cultural dances. Gyms are as weird as hoop skirts were. When it comes to the way we view sex, drugs, money, food, and much else, an anthropological squint at our own beliefs show us much that is absurd and wondrous, and sets us free from the tyranny of such beliefs. So anyway, this was my approach in the Happiness Myth and it makes me a bit of a weird addition to this think tank, but we’ll see; the goal seems worth trying. I leave tomorrow and come back Monday and will much miss my little kiddles.
Lastly there is this: Chins up. Stay alive till next Weds. when I shall encourage you yet again.