Book Notes: The Case Against Happiness

One of my favorite literary discoveries this year was Jean-Paul Pecqueur’s poetry collection The Case Against Happiness, which won the 2005 Kinereth Gensler Award from Alice James Books. That’s happiness as in “life, liberty and the pursuit of”. Pecqueur isn’t the first contemporary author to question the standard American Dream, but he stands out for his good-natured, funny and humble narrative voice, as well as his willingness to examine philosophical foundations instead of remaining at the level of shallow political polemic.

Pecqueur’s offbeat characters include an Aeschylus-quoting barber, a girl voguing for a supermarket security camera, and a shoe salesman who observes that Muzak makes him think of death. Like the narrator, they are constantly groping for a more substantial mode of existence that always remains just beyond the margins of thought and language. The poems’ wild associative leaps mirror the author’s inability to find the coherent, contented self that the Enlightenment promised. “Discord at the Cartesian Theater” begins:

Of how it came to be
that we can do what we like,
mostly, yet cannot know what we like
until we set the reconnaissance 
      dinghy adrift
upon the quarry pond of a fully 
      rationalized desire
you insist that we cannot profitably 

And yet you have seen what follows: 
      the cow
path meandering across the great 
with great gangs of bored thrill 
rambling on about how there must be 
      a beeline
to Sublime Overlook…

There you have it: the history of the past two centuries in 11 lines. The post-Enlightenment autonomous self is freed from moral and communal constraints on the fulfillment of its desires, only to be imprisoned by a new dogma of the intellect, which declares that anything that can’t be proven by science and logic is unsayable and therefore meaningless. Freedom collapses into sentimentalism and subjectivity, as we seek a shortcut to spiritual bliss without discipline. Pecqueur takes another stab at the rationalist metanarrative in “Like an Avant-garde Classic in Braille”:

Why all this Sisyphean fuss
and bother? Just the way it is,
you say? Well, let me reassure you —

that standard modernist yarn
about what there is and what
we can think about being
two different things like two
sweet peas in a pod

is simply that, a loose thread
loose in box of like threads.

A god-sized box.

A thread-sized thread.

There’s no cynicism or bitterness in this book, a rare achievement. Pecqueur does not place himself above his characters in the manner of Flaubert. To the contrary, their sincere bewilderment and nearly inarticulate aspirations are treated tenderly; their realness offers a glimpse of escape from the sterile world of intellectual systems and institutions, whose promises he finds hollow. In “We’ve Been There. Done That.” he writes:

I’ve met machines designed to 
the heart rate of the wingbeat of the 

luna moth, machines guided by inner 
projected from alphabetic satellites.
They were sleek and hairless post-
      human machines.
Meaning, forget about the Great Chain 
      of Being.

Forget about the woegriefgloom of 
We are not links broken off Orion’s 
      silver belt.
We’ve been there. Done that. We’ve 
      boarded ships
piloting themselves across oceans 
      portioned out

to the last molecule just as we have 
over the sunburst the bountiful plains. 
      So go ahead,
tell me again; say something I don’t 
      already know
or couldn’t just as easily find out the 
      hard way.

At first glance, it seems absurd that everyone at the mall would want to talk about the duende, or that the narrator’s mother would cite the burning of the library at Alexandria while looking for the stereo’s remote control. But rather than mock their pretensions, Pecqueur makes us recognize their unexpectedly rich inner lives. If this hodgepodge of erudite references (“these fragments I have shored against my ruins,” as T.S. Eliot would say) seems an insufficient vocabulary for them to voice their spiritual yearnings, the fault lies in the language, not its users. They believed in good faith that the life of the mind really was democratically available to all, whereas the opening poem informs us, “The door to the Center for Educational Renewal is never open./This is not a metaphor.”

Fans of John Ashbery, which I am not, may get more out of some of the poems in this book that I found unnecessarily hard to follow. Pecqueur’s playful spirit is hard to fault, even when he leaps a little too far. You have to love someone who writes, “Asked where I wanted her to place the flowers/I responded that everywhere would be fine.” This book contains hope for escape from the prison of self through sympathy and humor.

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