19 October 2006

In the Houses Always People and People

Filed under: First Lines — ktismatics @ 9:22 am

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

– Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, 1875

Unhappiness seems so tiresome, so repetitive, so routine, it’s hard sometimes to remember what Tolstoy had in mind. Tolstoy got his inspiration for writing the book from reading a newspaper article about a woman who threw herself in front of a train. I wonder if he was a happy man or an unhappy one as he set the train in motion that would eventually run down Anna Karenina.

There was a time when I understood. Here’s something I wrote a few years ago in a novel, when I was more optimistic:

A friend of mine had been a therapist, but she quit to become a business consultant. She said she didn’t care enough about people. As the slow flow of clients merged into a monotonous stream, she began to forget from one week to the next: is this the one whose wife is threatening to leave him, or the one whose neighbor is trying to kill her dog, or the one who’s trying to quit shopping? Everyone who came into my friend’s office could be slotted into one of a sadly small number of garden variety pathologies. No florid hallucinations, no multiple personalities, no hysterical anesthesias. Plenty of anxiety, paranoia, anger, narcissism, failure, victimhood.

Adjustment falls within a narrow bandwidth; the therapist is charged with tuning everyone to the same channel. Like Tolstoy said, more or less: every unhappy person is unhappy in his own way, but happy people are all alike. Stretched out on the procrustean couch, the client knows what the therapist is trying to do to him, and still he keeps his appointments with the executioner. He wants to be happy; he’s ready to be purged of all those idiosyncrasies that keep him unhappy. He comes prepared to tell stories about himself, stories he chooses specifically to elicit the helping reflex. It’s a ritual: the therapist bestows the recognized rites of restoration on the transgressor and the outcast. My friend found this work increasingly distasteful. So she quit.

When I was new at the Salon, I believed I could avoid falling into the trap. I had faith that the unhappy outsiders would prove far more interesting than the happy insiders they wished to become. Instead of snipping away at their stray threads, I would look for an alternative weave, a secret and subtle delirium unique to each individual. My job as I saw it was to enter into the client’s real strangeness; to have the client guide me into other ways of seeing, into exotic regions of the soul that we could then explore together. What I really wanted, of course, was to become the client. I didn’t want to pull them out into my normalcy; I wanted to climb with them into their madness. I guess I’m just a romantic at heart.

The narrator is looking back at a more optimistic time in his life, a time when certain forms of heroism could be attained only through the pursuit of unhappiness. It turns out, though, that unhappiness is mostly just boring, the endless repetition of failure and the disappointment that comes with hope.

Here’s my dream from last night:

I’m in high school, at my oboe lesson. My oboe teacher isn’t home; his wife is going to teach me today. She’s doing something in another part of the house. I’m waiting for her in the room where the lessons are taught, listening to the radio, a clunky black box shaped like a suitcase sitting on end, or maybe a loudspeaker from a P.A. system. I turn up the volume; it’s got too much bass. It’s playing some song by Led Zeppelin I’ve never heard before. In his instantly recognizable high-pitched voice Robert Plant sings about picking up a book off the shelf, perhaps it’s a dictionary. A piece of paper falls out of the book. He picks the paper up off the floor: it’s written by Courtauld, a beautiful aristocratic woman from days gone by, dead long before the singer was born. “Because of Courtauld,” the verse ends, then repeats, and I wake up.



  1. Maybe Tolstoy has noticed that happiness and unhappiness are bound up together as odd bedfellows….but maybe that’s just me talking like you when you were “optimistic.”


    Comment by Jonathan Erdman — 19 October 2006 @ 9:19 pm

  2. i am not as tolstoy-read as i ought to be as a fiction writer i suppose, so out of context i read that line as disdain for the happy folk. that they are dully similar. i myself interpret happy as “shallow perkiness” and even though i am wildly delighted much of the time – i live equally as comfortable with my depressive tendencies – hardly a candidate for the label of “happy.” however, i am undoubtedly an unquenchable optimist. a geek who relishes all deep emotions. and while i struggle to comprehend the reality of god, i find i also believe that there may well be fairies in my garden.


    Comment by stacy — 19 October 2006 @ 10:42 pm

  3. I think Tolstoy sees more creative opportunity in telling stories of unhappy lives than of happy ones. Perhaps all drama builds on an ongoing tension between happiness and unhappiness and the attempts to resolve that tension in favor of happiness. In comedy the resolution succeeds; in tragedy it doesn’t. There was discussion in The Hague about whether Christians regard imagination as a mechanism for resolving crisis, so that in heaven imagination won’t be needed any more.

    I believe that the quest for difference, heroism, destiny, whatever often requires exposing yourself to the unhappiness of isolation, misunderstanding, social pressure. If the quest fails then that unhappiness seems futile, masochistic, a big mistake.


    Comment by ktismatics — 20 October 2006 @ 12:28 pm

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