Wednesday, November 15, 2006

IF I'd done it (wink, wink, nudge nudge)

Classy. Stephanie Klein finds herself in even more illustrious company.

Seriously, though, whom do we blame? Because we must blame someone for this moral travesty. Simpson, obviously, is deranged. And broke, one assumes, otherwise even HE would surely want to preserve some shred of dignity. NO, no- I blame the enablers. Fox, Harper Collins and particularly, Judith Regan, the megalomaniac who insists- INSISTS! That she herself conduct the two-part exclusive Fox interview. That this woman would want to be so visibly associated with this endeavor speaks volumes about her character. You'd think she'd keep her head down all the way to the bank. I am so very proud that she is a fellow alumna of dear old Vassar College. Well, at least we have Maria Mitchell and Elizabeth Bishop (and Meryl Streep) to counterbalance.

Speaking of Ms. Klein, a recent entry of hers spawned several thoughts, some more pleasant than others. She announces an upcoming "project:"
"So my project, in the next coming days before Thanksgiving is to simply ask people, "Are you happy?" The trick is, it can't just be friends. I'm going to ask strangers. The checkout girl at the grocery store. The Starbucks barista. ...And I think it will be interesting to see not only how people react to it, but to see how I'll react, what I'll learn about myself. It's harder to ask the strangers we know we'll see again because it's initiating a certain level of intimacy, and they might just ask themselves, "who the hell is this girl, asking me this?" But I don't care. I also won't settle for a one word answer. I think if you linger long enough and keep eye contact, people will give you more. I think most of us like sharing our lives; it just takes some of us a while to open up."

No, Stephanie, YOU like sharing your life, all of it. I'll speak for the segment of the population that would be pretty offended if you, a stranger, walked up and asked me, a propos of nothing but your own self-involvement ("it will be interesting... to see how I react, what I'LL learn about MYSELF"),
"Are you happy?"
Pregnant or not, I'd probably tell you exactly what I thought of your question, and NOT answer it (I'm pregnant too, so that's hardly a free pass where I'm concerned).

Interestingly, though, her poorly-conceived project actually gets me thinking about happiness- it's a concept that used to fascinate me. Here's why:

I wrote my Master's thesis on the birth of West African feminism in Senegal in the 1960's and 1970's. I learned in researching and writing it that women who lived situations that I would consider unsustainable, such as being the second wife of a much-absent husband, considered themselves happy in a lot of cases. How could this be, my 23-year old mind wondered? I realized that one's own conception of happiness has more to do with the socio-cultural environment in which one happens to live. These women were happy, maybe, because their lives fit patterns that they associated with happiness. Being a second wife in Senegal is not as good as being a first wife, but it is socially acceptable and even desirable, certainly preferable to not being a wife at all. Polygamy is enshrined in the legal codes of most of the West African muslim-dominated countries I studied- a man can have up to four wives, if he can provide for them. The happy women I interviewed had nice houses, several children, often, but not always, fulfilling careers. They felt satisfied in their lives. Their lives were far from perfect, but they were happy (or at least that's what they told me).*

But what is happiness, really? Is it a constant? If the stars align and we achieve and create and pursue, will we ever find ourselves in a permanent state that we can call "happy?" Really?

I was trying to remember something eloquent (more eloquent than I've been here) on happiness, something I thought Virginia Woolf wrote- but found this instead:

"Happiness in this world, when it comes, comes incidentally. Make it the object of pursuit, and it leads us a wild-goose chase, and is never attained. Follow some other object, and very possibly we may find that we have caught happiness without dreaming of it." ~ Nathaniel Hawthorne (not my fave author, but he'll do in a pinch)

Also, Simone de Beauvoir notes in her Second Sex intro (I never made it much further than the intro- does that make me a bad person? Possibly.):

"But we do not confuse the idea of private interest with that of happiness, although that is another common point of view. Are not women of the harem more happy than women voters? Is not the housekeeper happier than the working-woman? It is not too clear just what the word happy really means and still less what true values it may mask. There is no possibility of measuring the happiness of others, and it is always easy to describe as happy the situation in which one wishes to place them."

This ended up being a default position I took in my thesis- that pinpointing the happiness of the women I studied, whether now or when pushing for feminist ideals in the 1960's, was impossible and not really my place or my business. I gauged women's progress in Senegal with tangible markers, where I could- how many women university graduates in 1973; how many women authors, scientists, politicians; provisions made for women in the Family Code... But what had I proved? Had their lives improved? Had they become more happy? Does women's liberation necessarily equal happiness for those who've been liberated? Should it? Should happiness be the goal of any movement?
And, most importantly, wasn't feminism a western concept, a round peg that I was unwittingly but unfairly jamming into the square hole of Senegalese independence, organization, and unabated, miserable poverty? YES. Of course the answer was yes and that's what my thesis became.

But back to Stephanie. What kind of answers will her question elicit? (Besides the inevitable -f*** off...) Most likely they will come in yes or no form, with some elaboration. But what will the answers prove? Can anyone truly claim constant, day-to-day happiness? There's contentment, satisfaction, but even if our lives are "going well," for how many moments in a given day can we count ourselves truly happy?


*I'm thinking now that my thesis interviews are ironically similar to Stephanie's project (ironic since I am now so critical). The difference, though, is that my interviews were scheduled, conducted by permission of the interviewee, in furtherance of a legitimate purpose- my thesis. Academic advancement or whatever. Still, I can't help but see similarities- young American girl asking older Senegalese women about "happiness" among other things is maybe as presumptuous as Stephanie Klein asking similar questions of her barista. Ah well...

1 Comments:

At 5:42 PM, Blogger Unsane said...

Yes-- what are the rightful demarcations separating cultural relativism from western universalism? I am forced to consider very similar questions to those you have tackled. I don' t like the postmodernists' answer of epistemological skepticism, though -- too many children dying in Africa for us to be skeptical about whether this is damaging or not.

 

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