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BOOKS & THE CULTURE Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit BY CLAY SMITH Happiness: A History By Darrin M. McMahon Atlantic Monthly Press 544 pages, $27.50 Happiness: A History seemed like a very happy book to me until page 15. Happiness, as people say, is short-lived. Page 15 is the last page of the introduction to this book, and in the last two sentences of his introduction, Darrin McMahon, a Florida State University history professor and the author of this comprehensive book, closes with a real downer: “Might not the search for happiness entail its own undoing?” he asks. “Does not our modern commandment to be happy produce its own forms of discontent?” He titles the introduction “The Tragedy of Happiness,” so I should have seen it coming. But when you’re sitting on a beautiful, deserted beach in Mexico with good friends and your biggest concern is whether you should eat lunch closer to noon or one, the word “tragedy” seems like a bluff and the phrase “the tragedy of happiness” a failed attempt at satire. That seemed like happiness, being on that beach after a cumbersome few weeks of searching on the Internet for the perfect isolated beach and determining how to get there. A lot of people don’t consider a trip to a deserted beach in Mexico real happinessor any vacation, for that matter; it’s apparent when people on vacation say they have to go “back to the grindstone,” or when they tell people they’re going “back to the real world.” Still, I had fleeting thoughts about finding lasting happiness right there on that beach and began plotting how to return more oftenlike six months out of the year. Back in Texas, reality set in. Abandoning the miasma of vague thought that a remote Mexican beach tends to induce, I turned to Happiness. After devoting the kind of attention to this book that it deserves, it is clearer to me than before that Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Herodotus, and other trusted thinkers also would not consider a trip to a deserted beach in Mexico to be any kind of true happiness. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t try. It is one of the virtues of this book that McMahon approaches his overwhelmingly large topic like a particularly erudite journalist, hunting down the most relevant passages, examples and quotes. Despite the abundance of evidence he offers that happiness is unattainable, Happiness is actually a rather happy book. McMahon has a voice that is forthright, vibrant, absolutely clearheaded, and humorous; he is steadily confident that there are answers to be found in the epochs he explores, and cognizant that happiness is not purely a philosophical concern. One of the passages McMahon highlights comes from Reveries of the Solitary Walker, a series of essays Rousseau wrote at the embittered end of his life apparently more for himself than for publication: “Of all the places where I have lived,” Rousseau writes, “…none has made me so truly happy or left me with such tender regrets as the Island of Saint-Pierre in the middle of the Lake of Bienne,” in Switzerland. “I was barely allowed to spend two months on this island, but I could have spent two years, two centuries and all eternity there without a moment’s boredom.” On that island, Rousseau felt “selfsufficient like God,” with “no sign of the passing of time, and no other feeling of deprivation or enjoyment, pleasure or pain, desire or fear than simply the feeling of existence, a feeling that fills our soul entirely.” That, Rousseau decided, is happiness, not “a poor, incomplete and relative happiness such as we find in the pleasures of life,” but “a sufficient, complete and perfect happiness which leaves no emptiness to be filled in the soul.” Unlike, say, the nature of time or the cosmology of being, happiness is a philosophical subjectmaybe the only onethat everyone feels a profound and innate need to master. It is also difficult for philosophers to treat happiness in a wholly academic way \(as McMahon points out, even Aristotle began his own investigation of happiness by referring first to popular notions about happiness, but it hasn’t always been that way. Rousseau’s elaboration of what it was like to be on the Island of Saint-Pierre was a relatively novel thing to do: The notion that everyone has a right to happiness may seem second nature to us, but Rousseau and other Enlightenment thinkers were the first to proclaim it, after having inherited centuries of mind-numbing documents asserting the whereabouts of the precise earthly coordinates of Eden \(not to mention centuries of insistence that the only true path to happiness was a Bishop Pierre-Daniel Huet asserted in A Treatise on the Position of the Earthly Paradise that, as McMahon puts it, “the happy home of humanity … stood in the Tigris and Euphrates delta, in modern-day Iraq.” The bishop thought, like so many others of his time, that if he could find the home of Adam and Eve, humanity could finally fathom happiness. Just 45 years after Huet wrote his treatise, the Enlightenment had so dramatically elevated the secular nature of human concerns like happiness that Voltaire mordantly parodied Huet and his ilk; “earthly paradise is where I am,” he wrote. Voltaire and other Enlightenment thinkers had to topple more than just eons of stultifying religious doctrine, however. McMahon returns throughout the book to the story of Croesus, the wealthy king of Lydia \(now part of 22 THE TEXAS OBSERVER FEBRUARY 10, 2006