I have just published a work of fiction, Happiness.* I did not plan this voyage of the imagination in my spare time, as a jaunt to distract me from more serious labours. It is the culmination of all I have done and written. I could not go on accumulating learning for ever: I would never have enough. So I have spent most of the years since my last book thinking: I withdrew into long periods of silence. But my purpose was not to withdraw from the world. On the contrary, I wanted to consider it afresh, from a new point of view.

How to be happy? Can anybody be happy? I knew that an attempt to investigate such mysteries might end like a hunt for the Loch Ness Monster. But I had come to see the history of humankind as primarily a search for happiness.

All those long years when I had virtually lived in libraries, listening for the heartbeat in old books, had not been devoted to proving how empires, reputations and prices rise and fall, nor to chronicling how people have struggled to obtain power and wealth. What mattered more to them, it seemed to me, was how they felt deep down in themselves when they attained their aims, when they failed, when they suffered, when they raged, and how they battled with their own emotions. I realised I was searching for the taste that is left in the mouth when all else is forgotten, the taste that will not go away.

By good fortune, I had a laboratory particularly well suited to studying that taste. I had chosen France, where almost every variety of bliss has blossomed and wilted. The French have been my guinea-pigs, wonderfully articulate, providing a sample of humanity as peculiar as, perhaps, but more varied than, the Viennese one which Freud used to build his theories about unhappiness.

I decided the time had come to draw general conclusions from my studies of the past and the present. What future could there be for happiness, the world’s fastest-growing religion? It seemed to me that there are fashions in happiness, as in religion, and that they pass. The present century has lived beneath a cloud of gloomy prophecies, but it will not always be so: Aldous Huxley and George Orwell have not extinguished hope, or at least the determination to extract some joy from life, however cruel life might be. Security, serenity and success may not necessarily be the goals for which most people will always aim. There may be a future in which solitude will not decay so readily into loneliness. At any rate, I became convinced that the most common ideal of happiness today is an outdated survival from the past. Ultimately, people’s vision of happiness matches their vision of the universe. Once upon a time, the universe seemed to move like clockwork, and every person knew his place and his duty; when people believed every object was created to be what it was, they thought they ought to behave as they were expected to, and as their parents had done before them. However, in an expanding, exploding universe, made of electrons shooting madly around, where molecules play musical chairs, where everyday things can change their shape, where water, air and coal are, without magic, combined to make nylon stockings, where one can look forward only to the unexpected, happiness cannot much longer be what it used to be.

Since the only place where complete happiness can be found is Paradise, or at least since that has long been the conviction of the majority of people who have inhabited the earth, I tried to discover all I could about Paradise. But every vision of it seemed to be stamped with the mark of the epoch when it was written down. So I had to imagine for myself what Paradise might be like if viewed with the eyes of the next generation, if it were seen as offering a more-than-modern happiness, whose essence is that it is unpredictable. It would have to be a place where what counts is not what a person is, or has been, but what he could become, what his potential is. The faith appropriate for it could not be the one that holds sway on earth, in which a person bears the scars of his birth, his infant traumas and his upbringing for ever. I had to conceive how the inhabitants of Paradise could be liberated from their past, and cease to be always victims of one sort or another.

The effect of looking down onto the earth from such a point of observation, not from a balloon tethered to the clouds, but from outside space and time altogether, was that I saw myself as a collector of bric-à-brac, travelling through life in a furniture van, loaded with prejudices and theories picked up here and there over the years, usually by accident, theories that were likely to be regarded as absurd a century hence, though they might appear intelligent today, or have been so when I first collected them. I was impressed by how tenaciously, how desperately old ideas cling to the mind, lodging like wintering insects in its crevices. I tried to prise them out, as many as I could. Even some of the truths I used to regard as obvious and inescapable soon seemed strangely ephemeral. The thousands of lives I have got to know, in varying degrees, the millions I have read about, appeared to challenge the view that humans never change: people were becoming increasingly complicated and different from each other; it was no longer easy to pronounce judgment on them, to distinguish clearly the good from the evil; they were becoming so individual that soon not even the most sensual contact would be able to reconcile them for more than fleeting moments; they were becoming more difficult to educate, and their education somehow never quite achieved the object expected of it.

My own education, though carried to its formal limits, had left me ignorant about vast areas of knowledge. In vain had I taken to frequenting forbidden libraries, scientific ones which I had no qualifications to enter. I read technical journals, rubbed elbows with patent agents, visited industrial estates, of grim architecture but brimming with energy. However, the scientists, for all their achievements, were equally plagued by uncertainty; they could not give me the answers to the deepest questions of all. To be quietly sceptical was not a solution: it could only be a beginning. There had to be another way of satisfying the hunger for explanations, which are never convincing for long. My investigation of happiness had to go far beyond the search for a definition of it, or a review of what the sages have said.

First of all I had to find a new form of writing. Words are not just beasts of burden, made only to carry thoughts. They have their own life, rich memories, and while seeming to be only playful, they can lead one in directions one would never have found without them. Gradually I evolved a manner of writing which seemed appropriate to my purpose. But it fitted into no established genre: the conventional scholarly approach of the historian could no longer suit me. I had become too aware that, in trying to understand human beings, there was no way of escaping the influence of one’s imagination; there was no need to, either; lack of imagination was far more dangerous. Increasingly, I saw scholarship as needing to become a consciously artistic activity. Academic prose could no longer suffice for me, rejecting as it does all the possibilities for the rearrangement of the facts of life which modern art has discovered.

My attitude towards the past was changing. History can remain the supreme source of wisdom only when what matters most is tradition and custom: but when freedom is valued above all else, fiction, in which everything is possible, becomes the most inspiring form of literature. History and fiction had to treat each other with a new kind of respect. When it comes to searching for truth nowadays, the most anyone can hope for is to catch a glimpse of the universe as though by the flickering light of fireworks, and that is what the imagination can produce; even the triumphs of 20th-century science have been inspired by visions which were not far from being poetic. Some scholars had rejuvenated the writing of history by marrying their subject to the social sciences, but that marriage is already about half a century old. To advance beyond this ‘New History’, I probed towards a ‘Free History’, born of a union with all the arts, through which the originality of our times has been most fully expressed. I envisaged making far more use of the imagination as an aid to understanding. The result would not be history at all, in any conventional sense, since it would abolish the essential frontier between fact and fiction, though it would be no more far away from history than abstract art is from academic art; certainly, it would not aim to replace conventional history, which will always be indispensable. More than a decade ago, as a historian of France, I had felt the need to use something that resembled an Impressionist method. Now I went further, because my purpose was not to write a book simply to present my findings, or to give lessons, but to establish another sort of relationship with the reader, and with the mountains of information that surrounded me and were threatening to engulf me. It is just not possible for a human being to cope by traditional means with all the knowledge that is being discovered.

I accepted, and I did not regret, that everybody would always see the facts, particularly on such subjects as happiness, in a different light. I did not propose to paint yet another picture showing people governed by inexorable external forces – the environment, or heredity, or economics, or collective mentalities – so that everything appears linked by a chain of cause and effect, and so that everything is more or less inevitable. Instead I imagined how the world might look if the firmest outlines were drawn around the discontinuities, rather than the continuity, in human affairs, around the resistance of individuals to the pressures facing them, rather than the pressures themselves, around human contradictions rather than the pretence of conformity, and around the whim of the mutant gene which inexplicably calls destiny’s bluff. That involved confronting over-complexity with something other than simplification or despair.

To know one’s limits has long been the favourite recipe for mundane happiness. But not to have had one’s abilities fully used and recognised is now the most common disappointment of old age, the most painful stigma of failure. So I extended life beyond the grave, to give people a chance to fulfil their promise: almost everybody dies too young. What would they do if they had all the time they needed, all the freedom they wanted? I stretched fact, like elastic, until it turned into fiction. My aim, however, was not to escape from reality, nor simply to tell stones about particular individuals or specific events. The reality I aspired to illuminate was not that of people as they appeared to be, but the potential encapsulated in them, which they found it so difficult to set free. Instead of accumulating clues to explain characters, I used characters as clues to the workings of the imagination, which ultimately determines happiness. The clues were there not to create a theory which I hoped to impose on my readers, but to stir their own imaginations, to provide fresh ingredients for their own thoughts; thinking has this in common with cooking, that its quality depends on what one puts in, and one needs to search constantly for new ingredients, for new ways of adding them, if one is not to have the same result each time. My metaphors have not been mere decoration: they have been probing tools, instruments of discovery, spaceships to link different parts of the universe that did not normally speak to one another. Nor have I used humour just to amuse myself: to have a good look at the universe, it helps to turn it upside down, and see what falls out. Rather than write a learned treatise about the importance of the imagination, I set my own to work. And stripping facts of the pretence that they have only one face seemed to give them a new dignity; they can no longer be employed to support a dogma.

If books had to have labels, like medicines, stating what effect they might have, whether they aim to arouse desire or wonder, to satisfy curiosity, or to keep the mind empty of worry for a few hours, then I would say that, as far as I am concerned, this one is intended for those who are aware how easily the mind can become set in its ways, and who do not wish to accept that it must inevitably grow stiff and arthritic, even more rapidly than the body does. Too often, the imagination has enjoyed full freedom only secretly, when asleep, in dreams, where it is wasted. Imagination is mankind’s most under-used resource. People once wanted to be quite sure as to what they thought, so that they did not ever need to think any more, so that their imagination could rest. But, now that stability and certainty have become impossible ideals, such an attitude means only that they bar themselves from exploring the infinite pleasures of the mind, and from discovering new forms of beauty.

If books had to have directions for use – do not exceed the recommended dose – mine would say that it should be taken in spoonfuls, perhaps no more than a chapter or two a day. For it is designed to be mixed with the reader’s own thoughts, to stimulate those thoughts, to encourage taking temporary leave of one’s habitual beliefs, putting aside one’s customary caution, opening every door one passes, refusing to hurry, and knowing only that one will never fully know what it means to be alive.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences