Theodore Zeldin

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.

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[*] Reviewed by John Sutherland in the issue of 1 September.