HOW TO BE HAPPY THOUGH HUMAN
(I am taking an extended summer holiday, and also doing some fiction teaching here on Kythnos, and there will be no new post until FRIDAY, AUGUST 28th. I do hope you have an excellent summer, wherever you are. You can always contact me direct about anything, at firstname.lastname@example.org)
The above is the provocative title of a book, that became very popular when it appeared in UK Penguin in 1957. Originally published in the USA in 1932, when the author W Beran Wolfe was 32, it expounded a no-nonsense formula for human happiness based on Adlerian psychotherapeutic theory. Born in 1900 in Vienna, Wolfe was educated in the States, and then returned to Austria to be Alfred Adler’s assistant. Alfred Adler (1870-1937) as I’m sure you know, was one third of the great triumvirate of German-speaking psychoanalysts, the others being Sigmund Freud and the Swiss, CG Jung. Beran Wolfe was killed in an accident in obscure circumstances in 1935, so only had 3 years to enjoy his success in the United States, and had been dead 22 years before he made his impact in the UK. His only other well known publication was the modestly titled The Art of Understanding Women, which appeared in that perennially genteel and insightful publication Esquire. He claimed he did all his writing between 11pm and 3am, and always had gramophone records playing as he did.
His self-help book uses the classically Adlerian notions of organ weakness/organ inferiority and inferiority complexes, as a means of explaining the weak choices and weak lifestyles some of us ultimately embrace, and our concomitant and often profound unhappiness. Any of us can have some kind of deficiency in our somatic integrity, but we always have available to us the choices of either positive or negative compensations. As an extreme example, he cites the sad and real case of an American man with some rare and rotting and malodorous skin disease, who could have gone away and become a recluse or an alcoholic or a drug addict, or committed suicide. Instead he compensated for his ‘organ inferiority’, by taking a job in a stinking glue factory, where his hideous condition was no hindrance, indeed a positive advantage. Using the same logic, Wolfe mordantly commented that though he had listened to dozens of patients agonising about their claustrophobia, and the way their lives were ruined by their fear of being locked inside public lavatories, he had never met a single one who had attempted a positive and truly adult psychological compensation. By that he meant turning the problem on its head, and inventing an appropriate foolproof safety device, where one would always be able to get out of the panic-stricken scenario. On the same lines, he was always drily bemused by the rich and spoiled of his clients, who spent hours on end fretting about the deep meaning of life, complete sometimes with esoteric philosophy, their possible involvement with oriental religion or Madame Blavatsky or yoga, and who always turned a shade of spectral white when he asked them the simple question, why don’t you go out and get a job (and in passing contribute to the world in whatever way you can, and possibly find a sense of meaning in life that way)?
Another thing he saw as an antidote to deep-rooted human unhappiness, was the patient cultivation of a hobby or an art or an interest, but as something pleasurable in itself, rather than one other thing to get competitive and neurotic about. No slouch in this regard himself, with their permission, he took to sculpting the busts of some of his patients, no doubt with his favourite classical music playing the while, an early and unselfconscious example of that unlovely neologism of ‘multi-tasking’. His major ethical proposition, was that a mature adult always wishes to give and contribute to the world, whereas an infantilised neurotic habitually and vainly wants the world to service/pamper him or her. The neurotic, instead of inhabiting what Wolfe would have called the healthy Main Arena of Life, prefers what he derisively termed The Sideshows, namely things like alcoholism, drug addiction, gambling, crank philosophies, crank religions, obsessive compulsions, phobias and other kinds of regressive emotional states. On that scale, I wonder if one sign of my own possible senescent vulnerability, is that as far as I can see, I have no hobbies now, as a 64 year-old man. To be sure, I did as a schoolkid of 12, and avidly collected cigarette packets from all around the world, as the only example of often stunningly beautiful graphic design I had access to in ugly old West Cumbria in 1962. I also saved stamps, fitfully if passionately, and by that means came to know the exotic and incredibly alluring names of Oubangui-Chari (now the Central African Republic) and St Pierre et Miquelon (a French ‘possession’ but next to Canada), not to speak of Upper Volta (later Burkina Faso), and the far from alluring designations of British and Italian Somaliland. These days, my only hobbies are collecting books of mostly foreign fiction in translation, and CDs of jazz and classical music, but they are not so much a pastime as something as vital as eating, as far as I’m concerned. If that sounds altogether precious, believe me if I didn’t have at least my jazz and opera albums ready to hand here in Kythnos 24/7, I would get in a very low way.
Here is someone of whom Beran Wolfe would have heartily approved. The Swiss, Ernest Ansermet (1883-1969) started life as a distinguished maths professor, and then became one of the world’s leading musical conductors (talk about spurning obsessive, neurotic sideshows with a vengeance). He founded his own orchestra, the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, and was one of the first important conductors to take jazz seriously, writing in praise of Sidney Bechet in 1919. He vehemently disliked everything that Schoenberg stood for, and in 1961, using Husserlian phenomenology combined with his brainbox mathematical training, eloquently condemned the 12-tone idiom as false and irrational. While he was at, it he also castigated his idol Stravinsky for his indulgence in the same thing.
Attaboy. How to be happy though human.