On the Inarticulacy of Bliss (Part 1)


It is difficult to know what to do with so much happiness.
With sadness there is something to rub against,
A wound to tend with lotion and cloth.
When the world falls in around you, you have pieces to pick up,
Something to hold in your hands, like ticket stubs or change.

But happiness floats.
It doesn’t need you to hold it down.
It doesn’t need anything…

From Naomi Shihab Nye’s SO MUCH HAPPINESS

An Italian friend of mine from Germany wrote me the other week. Her email ended with the following lines:

I started to read your blog. Be happy! Life is just great!

Her admonition—kindly meant and touchingly delivered—was not the first of its kind. People read what I have to say and come away with the impression of a soul in distress.

Nothing could be farther from the truth.

If I appear immersed in melancholia, it’s simply because it’s productive of my art. Happiness is inchoate. At its most articulate it barely requires three words: I am happy (end of writer’s sentence; end of reader’s interest). There are only so many ways one can express joy, and the majority of them disdain the vulgarity of speech.

Everything apart from happiness, on the other hand, lends itself to the volubility of discourse. Anger, despair, exhaustion, grief, irony, contempt—all of these have the vast keyboard of language, and one can compose preludes, études, symphonies, nocturnes, serenades and sonatas,  among very many others. Happiness plays a single note, tuneless and wordless, and it is often set at an imperceptible pitch.

Which is why, I suppose, I should declare in advance: I am happy! If the vast majority of the lines that I write offer no testimony, no witness, no memorial to it, it is because my muteness is the testament—because, as the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said: Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. Writing, unlike music, cannot convey the ineffable and in this failure lies the greatest tragedy of my craft. In it, too, lies the source of its most exalted achievements—the impossible ideal towards which all writers aspire.

But since I cannot be so bold (at least not yet), I will trade the audacity of the writer for the humility of the philosopher—and speak with silence rather than words. 

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