My family is as dysfunctional as anybody’s, but we have a good time when we get together. I just returned from four days of Thanksgiving madness — madness being here defined as many board games, several kids running around like banshees, several grownups hanging around the piano belting out torch songs, and a lot of food. At times during this marathon family-fest, I may have even enjoyed myself.
But it’s hard for a writer to be part of a happy family scene without a lot of irony getting in the way. Maybe this is why I kept finding myself feeling grouchy at various points during the weekend. It just seemed somehow unreal to have such a wholesome good time, as if Norman Rockwell was going to burst in any minute to say hi and try some dessert. And there’s just some instinct in me to start getting irritable in a contented crowd. I’ll start complaining about the food, or I’ll yell at a kid for shuffling cards wrong, or I’ll yell at a grownup for getting in my way as I walk towards the refrigerator.
Is happiness bearable? Are human beings capable of remaining in a state of mutual satisfaction for any period of time without finding some way to ruin everything? This seems like a literary question, and it immediately brings to mind Chekhov and his doomed cherry orchard, Dostoevsky and his nihilist romantics, and, more recently, Jonathan Franzen’s crazy Lambert family, heading home for Christmas with all the grace of a crashing pack of helicopters.
But as I ponder this question, I keep coming back to the works of a writer I would not usually group with these ironic Russians and postmodernists. William Shakespeare is the writer, more than any other I can think of, who best seems to address the question of whether or not humans are organically capable of maintaining a state of happiness for any long period of time. And the answer seems to be ‘no’.
‘King Lear’ is his play about a family that almost ended up, simply, happy. But … no. The King gets the bright idea to call his daughters to speak of their true feelings about him at a royal celebration, and one of the three daughters has to screw up the evening by saying something nasty. What got into Cordelia? Well, probably the same thing that gets into me when I invariably mouth off to a close relative over turkey. Sometimes, you just gotta say something.
It’s surprising how many Shakespeare tragedies begin with scenes of pure happiness. “Macbeth” and “Othello” both open at peak moments for their characters: Macbeth has just led a great military victory, and Othello is a beloved celebrity with a beautiful wife. But, no, somebody’s always got to screw a good thing up.
I could go on and on naming Shakespearean characters who seem to have a problem with the basic concept of happiness itself, who inevitably need to ruin a beautiful arrangement out of sheer spite. There’s Richard III, brimming over with sarcasm at his joyful neighbors: “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York”.
And there’s Hamlet, home from college, blandly telling us, “I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth.”
Have you ever experienced this phenomenon, either at family gatherings or anywhere else? And can you think of other literary sources to shed some light on this question: are humans capable of long-term happiness, or not?