Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Anthony Trollope And The Texture Of Human Unhappiness

As you may know, I am a fan of the novels of Anthony Trollope. For those of you who aren't Victorian-novel-enthusiasts, Trollope was a contemporary of Dickens -- and, in certain respects, sort of an anti-Dickens. Partly because of the political overtones of their differences, Dickens is far the more popular writer these days. And I get that. But I still think we need Trollope.

Dickens and Trollope are different in topic and style. Topic-wise, Dickens's books often feature poor and lower-class characters, and often have a sort of point to make about them. The poor are downtrodden; they are noble and worthy; they deserve better treatment. Trollope's books feature aristocrats, and they focus on family, money, and politics. Who will marry? Who will inherit? Who will prosper?

Style-wise, Dickens's books are often humorous, and I hope I'm being fair to Dickens when I say that they feature characters who are painted in vivid and simple colors. Good people. Bad people. Angry people. Grateful people. Trollope's books, on the other hand, are psychologically realistic and, as a result, full of ambiguity. There are people who are kind but also weak. People who are loving but also scheming. People who are torn between their commitments and their longings and, like all of us, bumble through as best they can.

Nathaniel Hawthorne said that Trollope's books were so realistic, they were "just as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with all its inhabitants going about their daily business, and not suspecting that they were made a show of." Trollope's books are so realistic that even though Trollope himself was sort of an anti-feminist, the books are plausibly feminist: they are full of complex, multifaceted female characters who think and reflect, act on their own internal motivations, accomplish a wide variety of things, and often bridle at the limits of their social roles. It's like Trollope found himself forced to tell the truth about women's inner lives and social status -- even when that conflicted with his beliefs.

So part of Trollope's unpopularity is the potentially suspect nature of writing only about rich British people. It's also that Trollope's topics are seen as soap-opera-ish and light. And Trollope's reputation took a hit when it was revealed that he made himself write a certain number of lines every morning -- for most of his life, every morning before starting his day job working for the postal service. This seemed to people unserious, workmanlike, and not consistent with literary genius.

I feel these views of Trollope are unjust, but I don't spend a lot of time talking and thinking about it. I mean, we're hardly lacking for stories about rich British people. But Trollope was on my mind recently as I was thinking recently about our bizarre cultural climate.

One thing I feel we learn from Trollope's books is the vast range of misery-sources that have nothing to do with money and social status. You can have money, status, even servants, and still feel not only unhappy but also cruelly shafted out of the good things in life. Maybe you're oafish or unattractive to others. Maybe you're a figure of fun. Maybe the person you love doesn't love you back. Maybe you're inextricably attached to someone who is driving you crazy. Maybe you devoted your life to a project that the world, moving on, decided was pointless. Maybe your life is predictable and dull. Maybe, despite -- or because of! -- your privileged life, you just can't get your shit together. 

I think this lesson is crucially important. First, it's important to know for yourself, so you can think about your life. Yes, you need a certain amount of money and social status to live. But more of those things is not a ticket to happiness, and neither is anything else, really. Instead of trying to get to misery-elimination, why not aim lower? Misery-management is, perhaps, a more appropriate goal.

I don't know if you remember when the DVD of Sesame Street was first issued, and it came with a warning: "These early ‘Sesame Street’ episodes are intended for grown-ups, and may not suit the needs of today’s preschool child." Writing in the New York Times, Virginia Heffernan wrote that "People on 'Sesame Street had limited possibilities and fixed identities, and (the best part) you weren’t expected to change much. The harshness of existence was a given, and no one was proposing that numbers and letters would lead you 'out' of your inner city to Elysian suburbs. Instead, 'Sesame Street' suggested that learning might merely make our days more bearable, more interesting, funnier. It encouraged us, above all, to be nice to our neighbors and to cultivate the safer pleasures that take the edge off -- taking baths, eating cookies, reading."

An era in which we're constantly told to live our best life and be thrilled about it could use this kind of acknowledgement of the basic principle-of-conservation-of-unhappiness.

A second reason we need to be reminded that people can have money and social status and still feel miserable and shafted is that these days, a lot of people with money and social status feel miserable and shafted. And sometimes because of this, they're making a certain amount trouble for the rest of us.

I'm not saying "oh boo-hoo for them" and I'm not saying "oh the poor rich people" and I'm not saying "oh, we should care more about rich people's problems." It's more like: we should remember, as we think about human nature and how we're all going to live together, that this is, in fact, a thing.

I'd never deny that books should give us insight into the lives of others and that -- duh -- when those lives are only those of British aristocrats, something has gone off the rails. But with all the stories and narratives out there, I hope we can make some room for the Trollopes of the world.

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