Is Unhappiness the Key to Happiness?

Bad posture, beer breath, the Sprockets catsuit—turns out you can sport despair most any way you like. Perhaps, per genre, you are Waspy and gaunt, wear lots of black, read Thomas Bernhard, shun camaraderie and social events, and, most important, … Read More

By / December 26, 2006

Bad posture, beer breath, the Sprockets catsuit—turns out you can sport despair most any way you like. Perhaps, per genre, you are Waspy and gaunt, wear lots of black, read Thomas Bernhard, shun camaraderie and social events, and, most important, appear to know something about the world the rest of us don’t. Or you’re Jewish. And possibly fat.

Thing is, if you’re Jewish, you’re getting the short end of the stick. The moody Jew always seems less Sid Vicious, more Larry David; less Robert Smith, more Lou Reed. (Nothing wrong with Lou Reed, though if I had to pick a rocker to sleep with, Vicious is a shoo-in.) These guys, the sexy ones, don’t choose despair, but experience it as a byproduct of being alive. But guys like Larry David and Woody Allen seem to covet despair like a drug. There’s even a certain pride there, like: Tada! I can leech the pleasure from most anything!

To wit, a story: I recently had a facial, a pillaging-of-the-skin experience for which I paid $150. Let it be said I don’t know how to wear makeup, I pronate in high heels, and that aside from the Semitic albatross called big hair, I’m not really the girly type. So when I say I got a facial, it is with the rider that this was bound to be unpleasant. And, in turn, thrilling.

At the spa, it was like this: The staff is obsequious and I hate every one of them. The girl at the desk tells me I look exhausted, then gives me a mesh duffel with flip-flops and an eggshell muumuu. She escorts me to a lounge, which is nice, except for the women in flops and muumuus. I head for a platter of snacks. I spy poppyseed crackers, whose shrapnel will likely end up in my teeth. I eat, like, twenty.

And, oh good, here comes the facialist.

We go to her room. She tells me to unpack the mesh and hang the muumuu; she says I can put my clothes on a chair, that I should lie face-up under a sheet and she’ll be right back. I find these instructions oblique. Am I supposed to get naked? I’m having a facial, why would I get naked? Am I supposed to wear the muumuu under the sheet? But she said hang the muumuu. I realize she’s going to return any second and that I’m still clothed except for my boots because in no scenario does it make sense to wear my boots. But what about socks? I can hear her about to come in, so I grab my cell phone and make like someone called while I was getting ready, hence the delay, sorry, sorry, only once she leaves, I’ve gotten no closer to knowing what to do. Finally I ditch everything but the underwear and get under the sheet hoping she’ll never know what decisions I’ve made. If she ends up between my legs, I guess something will have gone awry.

The facial gets underway. I am told I don’t know how to care for my skin. I am told I cannot continue to act like a child. I am familiar with this refrain, coming, as it does, from my mother and therapist alike. The facialist massages my arms. I get gooseflesh and worry she’s gonna think I’m aroused. Then she addresses her talents to a region below the ankle. If there are sock bunnies cleaved to the balls of my feet, I will hang myself. The longer she kneads my heels and calves—yep, my calves, good thing I haven’t shaved in two days—the more miserable I get.

Is this fun so far? This is the opposite of fun. But maybe it’s funny. I certainly hope it’s funny because if there’s humor to be wrung from every occasion we’re able to drain of pleasure owing to neuroses, grandiloquent self-abasement, and excess body hair, it’s the silver lining in an otherwise debilitating ethic.

Think big. It’s no secret that Woody Allen—paradigm of Jewish angst—originally titled Annie Hall “Anhedonia.,” which means an inability to enjoy life. Allen’s shlubby, neurotic conduct in the movie seems to question whether the pathology is congenital to Jews, or adopted. Does Allen open a compact of blow just so he can sneeze all over it and despair, or does he sneeze because he’s constitutionally incapable of enjoying the experience that is snorting blow? Affect, instinct?

Depends who you ask. Certainly a hankering for misery butts heads with one of the Socratic dialogues, the Meno, in which Socrates disembowels Meno’s idea that some people desire bad things. His logic goes like this: People who desire bad things know they will be miserable as a result? Yes. And miserable people are unhappy? Yes. Does anyone want to be unhappy? No. Ergo, no one wants bad things. The loony assumption here is, of course, that no one wants to be unhappy. I love this dialogue because it’s fun to watch Socrates dispatch—with élan—the possibility that people are fucked up.

I took this question to my shrink, who, unlike Socrates, is pretty well acquainted with the fuck-ups. Whence a desire for anhedonia, I asked her. Why covet a condition that can only result in misery? Her answer: preemptive despair. Preemptive despair! Since things never work out for the Jews—historically, there’s some truth to this—we’ve learned to steel ourselves against misery by being miserable from the start.

I found this hilarious. It’s just so Jewish. So convoluted. And it collapses the instinct/affect binary by suggesting that our affect is instinctual—i.e., if we can’t help but choose unhappiness, we’re dealing with a choiceless choice. One of these double-bind scenarios into which so many of our tragic heroes are thrust. Macbeth and Bovary, Lear, Raskolnikov, the “can’t help but” phenomenon accounts for at least fifty percent of literary tragedy, if not more. By the same token, if you tweak the phenomenon, you get comedy. Of course you do. Character as fate, a comedy of errors, people who are funny precisely because they can’t help but ruin everything. Yoked to the shrink’s theory, you get the atavism of misery—a Jewish narrative that spans centuries—and the narrative it inspires by way of entertainment.

And that’s why it’s no accident your “miserable Jew” archetype ends up being a funny guy for hire. “Killing your dad so you can marry your mom” isn’t exactly stand-up, but it’s good enough for a chuckle. Stick Smith or Morrissey in the presidential suite and he might fall into the jacuzzi, or lament travesties wrought by our idiot government and the agony of having to wake up each day. Jerry Seinfeld, on the other hand, or Jason Alexander, or Jackie Mason (okay, he’s not funny) will upturn everything in the presidential suite until he finds that used condom hewn to the box frame that ruins the special pleasure of staying in the presidential suite. Then he will lament said travesties and the condom, because it augurs devastating solitude for all his days. It’s the condom as prognosticator, as catalyst for anxious rant that ends up being hilarious. And excruciating. Ever notice how painful Curb Your Enthusiasm is? It’s the fulcrum of tragedy and comedy; of course, the difference is so slight.

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