Four Meditations on Happiness – reviewed by Rob Boddice

‘Four Meditations on Happiness’ by Michael Hampe (Atlantic Books, 2014)

FMHWhat if, at the conclusion of Plato’s Republic, Plato had appended a short essay of explanation? Would it have robbed the dialogue of its allure, or added to its mystery? Michael Hampe’s book engages in a philosophical tradition of speaking through fictional voices, and I say with some trepidation that I wish he had not added an ‘afterword’ of explanation under his own name. One journeys between frustration and fascination at the absence of the author himself when reading this book. It is a work that cannot be read in, or reduced to, its parts, the whole comprising a compelling narrative development. Hampe’s constructed polyphony is a masterpiece of comic/ironic emplotment. The introduction of the ‘real’ authorial voice at the end suggests a lack of confidence in the work’s success. Will teachers send their students – most likely undergraduates in philosophy, but equally relevant to science-and-technology studies, psychology, and sociology – to the afterword first to make sure that they ‘get it’? Is not the temptation to re-read and cross read blunted by the terminal unmasking? I tend to think it’s better not to know how a trick is done, let alone why.

Why my trepidation? Throughout Hampe’s book, his fictional voices berate the would-be reviewer. The unhappy and appropriately named Stanley Low, whose fictional life and death frame the fictional prize-essays in this volume, decries academics who read books to review them, or who use them to generate more books (p. 22). His ray of hope, in the figure of the savant gardener (angel?) Gabriel Kolk, reframes Low’s cynicism, refusing to take a position or to make judgements: ‘the person who passes judgement is lying, because they are denying the complexities which exist beyond these simple contrasts in the judgement’ (p. 215). To review seems to negate the process, highlighted by Kolk, of ‘making people aware’ through ‘a display of different voices’ (p. 209).

The premise of the book is a prize-essay competition, organised by an academic institution that becomes defunct before the prize comes to be judged. Stanley Low, made redundant by the closure of the institution, finds the pile of entries and decides – the voiding of the prize notwithstanding – to read them. The book contains the four essays that seemed to him to be best. Each answers the question ‘Can human life be perfected and, if so, in what way can people find happiness?’ (p. 18). The four essays each come at the subject from distinctly different approaches, at some points directly contradicting each other and at other points seeming to enrich each other. Some notes sound more loudly or consistently than others (capitalism and religion have a lot to answer for when it comes to misery), but until we get to Kolk’s essay, which summarises the death of Low (accident or suicide?) it is never quite clear where Hampe is taking us.

Each of the four essays is littered with mistakes and unsupported assertions of various magnitudes. As one begins reading the essays the tone infuriates. When dealing with fictional characters one does not know to whom to ascribe the mistakes. Are they characterisations or authorial blind spots? As one progresses, it becomes clear that Hampe is building a range of views, a set of convictions or ideologies, and representing them in their unshakeability. The essays are not in dialogue, but each serves to show both the advantages and the limitations (of assertion and argument) in the others. The first avows, with scientistic dogma, an extreme faith in the power of science and technology in its capacity to get us away from unhappiness (while at the same time denigrating faith, capitalism and postmodernism). The second rejects this view and focuses our attention on the present moment. It is also anti-money, as well as anti-power and anti-pleasure. The third gives us a précis of Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents, amongst other things, and asserts that happiness is impossible because of the collision of interests between the individual and the collective in which she resides. The fourth rejects that duality and instead focuses on the relationship among actors (including objects) as a whole, with happiness dependant on the degree to which an actor is adapted to her world. Here enter accident, luck, and social construction.

There is a running irony in the assertion, repeated across several of the essays, that chasing goals – vanity, ambition, telos – leads to unhappiness, when each essay is purportedly an entrant in a prize-essay competition. These prophets of happiness are, it would seem, profoundly unhappy. It is as if it were the lot of the scholar to be able to speculate on happiness, though never to know it. The cap to the irony is Kolk’s essay explaining Low’s death. Kolk refuses to take a position on which essay is the best and moreover refuses to take a position at all. Kolk describes how to take a positionless position and justifies this position as positionless (an anti-position methodology). This comes before an assertion: to acknowledge ‘the individual differences in life, experience and thought’ is a ‘prerequisite of human happiness’. Kolk is, one presumes, the channel for Hampe’s voice, or the justification for the absence of Hampe’s voice. The pieces of the narrative fall into place, demanding a re-reading or return. The memory of the early chapters as infuriating gives way to an appreciation of the text’s inculcation of reflexive, evaluative and re-evaluative reading. This is no manifesto on how to be happy, but for those who want to understand what is stake – politically, medically, technologically – when happiness is measured, prescribed, or proclaimed, this would be an ideal starting point.

There is no value added by Hampe’s explanation at the end that Kolk ‘is not me’ (p. 228). The final metaphor for Kolk’s positionless appreciation of variety is of a jazz quartet, where each instrumentalist plays variations on a theme, adding a singular voice to a collective piece, heightening appreciation not through competition but through engagement with unexpected variations and approaches. On face value, this justifies the four essays’ disparateness and the lack of a cohesive conclusion on happiness. There is no winner of the competition; there is only the ensemble. The final irony, of course, is that Hampe himself here plays all the instruments.

Reviewed by Dr Rob Boddice, who is completing a monograph entitled ‘The Science of Sympathy: Morality, Evolution, and Victorian Civilisation’, detailing the implications and applications of a Darwinian natural history of the emotions. Boddice is Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter (Assistant Professor) in the Department of History and Cultural Studies at Freie Universität Berlin and Researcher at the Centre for the History of Emotions, Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin, Germany.

Correspondence to Dr Rob Boddice.

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