Sunday, January 02, 2011

`The Weirdest Entry in Our Lexicon'

The happily understated theme of Dick Davis’ A Trick of Sunlight (Swallow Press, 2006) is happiness, that elusive state pursued with dogged persistence by our species. Davis limns it like this in “Happiness”:

“The weirdest entry in our lexicon,
The word whose referent we never know --
A river valley from a Book of Hours
Somewhere in southern Europe long ago.

“Or once, to someone walking by the Loire,
A trick of sunlight on a summer's day
Revealed the Virgin in rococo clouds:
The peasants in the fields knelt down to pray.”

Happiness seems an unintended side effect, like hives or a dry cough, the occasional byproduct of right living. The praying peasants weren’t seeking happiness, it just happened, as etymology suggests – the Old English hap means “chance, fortune.” Happiness seems inversely proportional to the effort expended seeking it. Persons pursuing it relentlessly seem at least as grim as those pursuing unhappiness. Davis looks at the theme again in “Can We?”:

“Can we convincingly pretend,
And not to others but ourselves,
That we are happy? And if we could,
Would that mean we were, pro tem,
Uncomplicatedly, just that,
Happy? And what would that be like?
The mind runs through its obvious
Loved carnal candidates…Well, maybe.
But probably it would resemble

“Less some celestial debauch
With someone quite phenomenal
Than being in a symphony
By Haydn: having all of it—
It doesn’t matter much which one—
The whole ebullient edifice,
Just there, available and real,
Impossibly to hand, forever.”

Is happiness ever unmixed, a pure state like pain or terror? And doesn’t it tend to evaporate as we become conscious of its presence? It’s not synonymous with pleasure, though like some pleasures it seems dependent on self-forgetting. Aquinas says happiness is rooted in "goods of the soul." Davis’ idea that “being in” a Haydn symphony may constitute uncomplicated happiness is suggestive. “Being in” implies not passive hearing but engaged listening – but listening to what? Music that is elegant, ordered, intelligent and spirited, with an impression of unlikely inevitability. Davis’ friend Edgar Bowers put it like this in “From J. Haydn to Constanze Mozart (1791)”:

“I carry one small memory of his form
Aslant at his clavier, with careful ease,
To bring one last enigma to the norm,
Intelligence perfecting the mute keys.”

That’s when we, like the peasants in “Happiness,” happily give thanks.

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