In Search of Happiness: Recreating the Past

A few years ago I read an essay by Paul Theroux in which he wrote that we spend our entire adult lives trying to rediscover those moments of perfect happiness that we had as children.  To this end, we gravitate toward certain types of people, places, and experiences in an effort to recreate those tiny, intangible slices of perfection that lie strewn across the landscape of our youth like fallen leaves.  Now, I’m not in total agreement with Theroux’s thesis because it implies that our search must always yield nothing but clumsy approximations of what once was.  It also assumes that everyone has a happy childhood, which of course is not the case.  Moreover, I’m sure most people share with me the belief that we can match those childhood memories by creating new, equally blissful ones as we age and mature.  But at the very least, I think he’s on to something.

My best memories from childhood are of family road trips to Michigan, Florida, New Mexico, Colorado, California, Oregon, and Montana, together with weekly visits to our local Barnes and Noble.  Although in the beginning I was always a little annoyed at how long it took to reach our destination, eventually I came to appreciate the journey itself at least as much as the arrival.  Long drives taught me patience and nourished in me a love of idle thought and contemplation.  Too much patience can lead to excessive idleness, just as too much idle thought and contemplation can lead to inaction, anxiety, and depression.  But if tempered, each of these tendencies can be a good thing.  I know for a fact that I still haven’t achieved the proper balance, but I’m working on it. 

As with road trips, initially I hated going to Barnes and Noble every other day, every week, but before long, an hour or two in that bookstore every few days turned me into an explorer.  My parents would wander off to their favorite sections, my dad either to the science fiction or the technical isle, my mom to the art section.  They would look at my sister and me and say, “About an hour.”  Usually that one hour would become an hour and a half, and that hour and a half would become two hours.  After about fifteen minutes I would hunt down one of my parents and ask, “Can we go now?”  They would always answer with a concise, unsympathetic, “No.”  It was after those first fifteen minutes, once I knew there was no way out, that I began to really explore the bookstore and the mountain of information and excitement it had to offer.  At some point, our trips to Barnes and Noble became my favorite part of each week.

Now, at age thirty, the one thing I yearn for most of all is travel, and I don’t mean travel by plane (although I fly quite a bit), but travel by car, or bus, or train–the kind of travel that allows me to see in greater detail what lies between my point of origin and my final destination.  This kind of slow travel allows an opportunity to become acquainted both with the countryside and with other people in a way that air travel generally does not.  I learned more about human beings in one bus trip from Yosemite National Park to Fresno, CA than I’ve learned over the course of weeks spent in some places– because travel by bus forces people to talk to each other for extended periods of time.  It provides a perfect opportunity both for “idle thought” and meaningful conversation with strangers I’ll see only once in my entire life, but whom I’ll never forget.  These are people, and more importantly, types of people, whom I never would have met had I not set foot on a bus. 

And since I can’t always be on the road, usually I satiate my hunger by heading to the bookstore and perusing the aisles for something new–some book or author I’ve never noticed before, or even an old book I had long forgotten about.  In other words, the two things I want most of all are to travel and to read–to wander into bookstores and lose myself amidst an endless maze of books and knowledge and wisdom, to make my away through the arteries of our country and our world in search of interesting places and interesting people.  In short, I want to recapture my youth.  I want to be happy.

Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”: Beyond Words

There are books you avoid because their heft intimidates you and there are books you avoid because you doubt they can possibly live up to their reputations.  Then there are books you avoid both because you fear them and because you can’t imagine a work of literature achieving the perfection so many attribute to it.  For me, ten years ago, Crime and Punishment was such a book.  Until about a month ago, Les Miserables was such a book.  And until today, War and Peace was such a book.  Now, I get it.

Tolstoy didn’t write a novel.  He created a world.  He outdid historians in his depiction of the Napoleonic wars and their effects on Russia and Russians.  He elucidated the aristocratic lifestyle.  He philosophized and quested for meaning and purpose in life.  He revealed the constrained circumstances of Russian women who depended on marrying well to advance.  He expounded on the ineffability of human life and historical events.  Etc.

The powers of language are always suspect in this book.  Tolstoy writes now with precision, now with force, now with delicacy, yet from his argument–sometimes subtle, sometimes explicit–that life and history defy description emerges the idea that language itself is deficient and even dishonest.  Tolstoy takes feeble words as his tools, pieces them together, and in doing so transcends their limitations and creates something that is far larger than its constituent parts.  His underlying thesis (or, rather, one of his underlying theses) is that no essay, no historical tome, no library of a million essays and historical tomes can describe or explain a historical event, be it large or small.  You can’t tell what happened; you have to show it, and even then you’ll leave out almost everything. 

I know almost nothing about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, of what it meant to be a Russian before, during or after the invasion.  I know almost nothing about who or what drives history, about who or what causes people to be good or bad, smart or dumb, brave or cowardly.  But about all of these things I know infinitely more than I did before I picked up War and Peace.  Which is saying a lot and almost nothing at all. 

I leave off with two quotes by Tolstoy that sum up his book better than I can:

“The subject of history is the life of peoples and of mankind.  To grasp directly and embrace in words–to describe–the life not only of mankind, but of one people, appears impossible” (p. 1179).

“What is War and Peace?  It is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still lesss a historical chronicle.  War and Peace is what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed” (p. 1217).