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Vivasvan Soni. Mourning Happiness: Narrative and the Politics of Modernity. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2010. ISBN 9780801448171. Price: US$49.95

  • Daniel M. Gross

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  • Daniel M. Gross
    University of California, Irvine

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A large and serious book on happiness seems to us oxymoronic, which is precisely where Vivasvan Soni wants us to begin, with the uncomfortable feeling that our idea of happiness fits poorly. That feeling is confirmed by way of Solon's cryptic injunction that launches Soni's archaeology of the present (12): "Call no man happy until dead." Once we have dismissed the traditional interpretations of this proverb that would give us continual happiness (40), or no happiness (43), or only happiness in the afterlife (44), or only after heroic death (45), we are left with Soni's "forgotten interpretation" (47): Solon's happiness is a formal condition that requires the judgment of a community in retrospect, considering the totality of a life rendered in narrative form, paradigmatically in the Athenian funeral oration as it characterizes that life (82), and then in the Athenian tragedy as it compels one to experience the hermeneutic horizon of happiness at work (116). As opposed to utilitarians like Bentham and our pseudoscientists of happiness who provide the litmus test of our impoverished present "Am I happy?" (400 n. 130), Soni returns us to the ethics of Solon's "Will I have been happy?" (74) urging us to consider seriously what has been lost, and how. The book takes shape by way of these interlocking ethical and scholarly goals.

Soni's puzzle is compelling. Happiness is the most familiar expectation of our everyday lives evidenced by the rise of positive psychology, the "happiness index" that has global policy implications, and our idioms that suggest that we want to live happily first instead of, say, honorably or virtuously. In the US context that expectation finds comfort in the gravity of that famous phrase from the Declaration of Independence, but realization remains elusive. Good health? Fulfilling personal relationships? Relative wealth? The problem with these benchmarks is that they have shed any semblance of community and its responsibilities: by these measures the worst tyrant might be perfectly happy. And although that might strike us as a regrettable fact, Soni helps us understand why we should not take this fact for granted. In the absence of any satisfying evolutionary explanation for complications in our modern experience of happiness, we look for historical explanation. And compelling historical explanation is what Soni gives us, while contributing to narrative theory focusing on the novel.

With the rise of the trial narrative through the sentimental novel – initially Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, by Samuel Richardson – classical happiness gets permanently displaced by tests of character that take a particular shape. According to Soni's strict definition, a trial narrative "suspends the hermeneutic of happiness" (183). He explains by way of the modern philosophy which helps constitute the phenomenon: "The trial narrative seeks knowledge about the protagonist. In order to arrive at this knowledge, it makes the protagonist the subject of an experiment. When the trial shifts from an existential to an epistemological attitude, it demands that existential concerns be neutralized or put out of play, exactly as they are in Cartesian or Husserlian phenomenology. Thus the epochē produces a bracketed or suspended state in which the existential questions no longer apply" (182). With the trial narrative, Soni tells us, happiness is no longer a public phenomenon demanding communal judgment and responsibility. Instead happiness is a reward figured by way of positive affect, money, marriage, and death (267). Specifically in the sentimental novel such as Laurence Sterne's A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy, happiness is figured as a private affect or emotion expressed episodically, not tragically as in the classical model. And once happiness is reified in these various modalities, Soni concludes persuasively, "it cannot be interesting or valuable" which gives us the proverbial happy ending where our narrative powers fail altogether (241-242). A paradox that Soni explains beautifully: we are fixated on happiness despite the fact that it is deeply uninteresting.

Soni's case can be overstated as a pathetic fallacy: "The trial narrative colonizes the eighteenth-century narrative imagination and ... deforms the concept of happiness" (20). Or as paranoia: the trial narrative pioneered in the novel "becomes the underlying narrative structure of ... sentimentalism, Kantian ethics, Hegel's philosophy of history, social contract theory, and the political discourse of the American Revolution" (187). Or as synecdoche: "with the injunction that narrative must end with the onset of the time of happiness, the trial hermeneutic comes to occupy the whole space of narrative" (243). In each case Soni, who is a scrupulous and thoughtful scholar, makes the argument considering shelves of relevant scholarship and some of the smartest interlocutors across classical studies, literary history and theory, philosophy and political theory. In each case the strong claim is explored fruitfully as we see in detail how happiness is transformed through each of these arenas. However I can't imagine the trial narrative as defined by Soni will find a consensus at the heart of literary history to the degree suggested. Thus provoked, scholars will look for alternative explanations, and again Soni is meticulous as he distinguishes his trial narrative from its "prehistory" and its cognates including the story of Job and subsequent Christian narratives, "ordeal narratives" (227) such as the Odyssey, and biographical narratives such as Descartes's Discourse on Method and the Meditations. But further qualification would in fact strengthen the argument.

Consider for instance the Milton epigraph that introduces a key chapter on Richardson's Pamela: "That which purifies is trial, and trial is by what is contrary," which points only crookedly toward the trial narrative defined by Soni as that which suspends the hermeneutics of happiness. Lifted from Milton's Areopagitica – which was titled after a speech written by the Athenian rhetorician and author of courtroom speeches Isocrates, and which argues against certain kinds of press censorship – the epigraph more directly and meaningfully invokes rhetorical traditions of (courtroom) reasoning including argument in utramque partem, on both or multiple sides of the issue. Narrowly speaking such rhetorical reasoning was famously Miltonian starting with his Artis logicae through the set speeches of "Comus" and Paradise Lost where virtue is tested. Broadly speaking the Milton epigraph invokes rich traditions of inquiry in a fallen world where necessity (and certainty) is elusive, and where instead we live in a world of tragically human possibilities which can only be explored through the hard work of controversial reasoning and the narratives that result. All this is to say Soni is on firmer ground when tracking the modern fate of happiness, weaker when his version of the trial narrative explains so much. The "whole space of narrative" is large indeed.

I would not want the accomplishment to be diminished. Cast appropriately as a contribution to republican inquiry where politics is "responsive to our highest aspirations rather than merely acting as a check on our basest motivations" (7), Soni explains like no other what has happened to the once-central concern for "public happiness," which might still register as a value, but has no institutional support (456) like the welfare state that demands some concrete commitment to the happiness of others. No mere retreat to primordial self-interest, the poverty of our public commitments have a long and important history we can now better understand as it is tied, surprisingly, to the fate of a trivial concern.