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Joy or Happiness

June 22, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

“Man wishes to be happy, and only wishes to be happy, and cannot wish not to be so.” - Blaise Pascal

Listening to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony recently got me thinking about the difference between joy and happiness. Why does Beethoven end the 9th with an “Ode to Joy?” Why not “Ode to Happiness?” So many authors have discussed the importance of the idea of happiness, but not necessarily joy. Assuming that Pascal (and many others) are correct in stating that happiness is man’s ultimate desire, it would be important to better understand the term. Mortimer Adler writes (in the Syntopicon): “Discussion begins rather than ends with the fact that happiness is what all men desire. Once they have asserted that fact, once they have made happiness the most fundamental of all ethical terms, writers like Aristotle or Locke, Aquinas or J.S. Mill, cannot escape the question whether all who seek happiness look for it or find it in the same things.”

The fact that happiness is difficult to define may also explain why joy is also difficult to define. For Beethoven’s piece, is the final joy only attained in the presence of God? Is joy a goal that must be reached in brotherhood, but not alone? Is it fleeting? The rising and falling movement of the music renders emotion, which for me, clearly expresses joy. I wonder, however, do all people react similarly? And, if I misinterpret the music’s emotion, does it make a difference?

I think of joy as a form of extreme bliss, though I am not sure if this is accurate or precise. Merriam-Webster lists joy as “a state of happiness or felicity,” but that does little to help me differentiate between happiness and joy. The same dictionary lists happiness as “a state of well-being and contentment.” Both definitions invoke the idea of a state of being, suggesting impermanence. Happiness includes the idea of contentment, though, which implies a level of permanence. Also, happiness is listed as one of the great ideas in the Syntopicon, while joy is not. In fact, the idea of happiness as a great idea is discussed in terms of permanence or a great achievement, rather than a momentary pleasure. And of course, the authors of the Declaration of Independence named the “pursuit of happiness” as an inalienable human right. From these usages, we can begin to craft an idea of happiness.

Classical philosophers are split between defining happiness as a temporal good or one that can only be attained in the afterlife. There seems to be agreement on the idea that happiness implies a state of contentment, but beyond that, the basis for happiness ranges from physical health to wealth to wisdom and to a virtuous life. Many of the things that they propose to measure happiness can only be measured at the end of life, which makes me wonder if temporary moments of happiness are incorrectly termed? Perhaps these shorter moments interspersed throughout life sometimes fall under the category of joy, but not quite happiness. Socrates develops an idea of happiness by explaining to Glaucon (in The Republic) that justice is “concerned not with the outward man, but the inward.” He moves then to state that happiness is a natural form inside every human. This essence cannot be separate from us, though it can be mistaken or missed altogether. Others, such as Kant, Milton, and Aquinas, explain that only imperfect happiness exists on earth, and perfect happiness will be attained in the afterlife. Regardless of philosopher, however, they agree on the value of the contemplation of happiness.

In writing the final movement of the 9th Symphony, Beethoven altered a poem by Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller titled “An die Freude.” According to the Cambridge Dictionary, freude can mean “joy, pleasure, delight, gladness or rejoicing,” but does not mention happiness directly. Instead, the German term expresses an ecstasy not present in Merriam-Webster’s English definition of joy (a state of happiness or felicity). I also like the way that “freudenvollere” (which means “more joyful”) compounds “joy” with the idea of being filled. In Beethoven’s piece, the music literally fills all space (ear, body, etc) with joy. It is a physical movement, which for me, is a most appropriate translation of “An die Freude.” Also important is the fact that Beethoven was near the end of his career when he wrote the piece. Nearly deaf at this time, I believe that a lifetime of experience developed the emotion of that piece.

I wonder if there is a difference in the entire conception between the two terms. Is joy meant to be transitory, ecstatic, fleeting and impossible to chase, whereas happiness is meant to attain a steady sense of fullness, as in a life well-lived? While I am sure we would all like to have some joy, typically we discuss happiness as an end in itself. Why? Possibly because of joy’s transitory nature. Possibly because joy, or an overfilling, seems too much to ask, whereas happiness appears attainable.

Regardless of the intent behind the 9th Symphony "Ode to Joy", I think Beethoven (and Schiller) nailed it. Music expresses emotion in a way that language alone cannot. To better understand what I mean here, listen to the wide variety of musical interpretations in German, English and Spanish (I offer a small sample below, but there are endless versions online). A comparison may highlight some key features of joy.

Ode to Joy Flash mob, Barcelona: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kbJcQYVtZMo

Miguel Rios sings Himno de la alegria: https://www.musica.com/video.asp?video=5285

Ritchie Blackmore, rock ‘n roll: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CrniC87g6X0

Flash mob, Nürnberg: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a23945btJYw

Baroque Symphony: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ljGMhDSSGFU

For more on happiness, consider joining our upcoming Quarterly Discussion on Augustine. Contact asimon@hmu.edu with questions or to register.

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Wise Words of Du Bois

February 23, 2018


Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Since Du Bois began each chapter of The Souls of Black Folk with a hymn or song, it may also be appropriate to preface this post with Mahalia Jackson's “How I Got Over”.

As we approach the end of Black History Month, it is worth our time to investigate the voice of W. E. B. Du Bois. He was a writer and activist as well as one of the founders of the NAACP. Born in 1868 in Massachusetts, Du Bois always found success in the classroom. After graduating as his high school's valedictorian, he attended Fisk University, Harvard and the University of Berlin. His introduction to southern life, while he attended Fisk University in Tennessee, served to open his eyes to the differences in black life between the north and south. His keen observation skills and cautious approach allowed Du Bois to understand and describe a complexity of issues affecting this split. He eloquently explains some of the reasons for the differences in his book The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903. The quotations below, taken from that text, demonstrate his keen observations, talented writing skills and desire for equality. Texts like this helped to explain the black experience to those who grew up white, with privilege or in other countries. In other words, these chapters identified problems that weaken and destroy society. Though they relate to slavery and its effects, he applies his keen observation to a society in the midst of any deep divide. His ability to translate such complex narratives led to understanding, civil discourse and progress. Many thanks to W. E. B. Du Bois for the eloquence and vision of these words.

All citations that follow are taken from his 1903 text: The Souls of Black Folk.

“So wofully unorganized is sociological knowledge that the meaning of progress, the meaning of 'swift' and 'slow' in human doing, and the limits of human perfectability, are veiled, unanswered sphinxes on the shores of science. Why should Aeschylus have sung two thousand years before Shakespeare was born?”

“And herein lies the tragedy of the age: not that men are poor, - all men know something of poverty; not that men are wicked, - who is good? Not that men are ignorant, - what is Truth? Nay, but that men know so little of men.”

“The white man, as well as the Negro, is bound and barred by the color-line, and many a scheme of friendliness between the two has dropped still-born because some busybody has forced the color-question to the front and brought the tremendous force of unwritten law against the innovators.... It is not enough for the Negroes to declare that color-prejudice is the sole cause of their social condition, nor for the white South to reply that their social condition is the main cause of prejudice. They both act as reciprocal cause and effect, and a change in neither alone will bring the desired effect. Both must change, or neither can improve to any great extent.”

“I freely acknowledge that it is possible, and sometimes best, that a partially undeveloped people should be ruled by the best of their stronger and better neighbors for their own good, until such time as they can start and fight the world's battles alone. I have already pointed out how sorely in need of such economic and spiritual guidance the emancipated Negro was, and I am quite willing to admit that if the representatives of the best white Southern public opinion were the ruling and guiding power in the South to-day the conditions indicated would be fairly well fulfilled. But the point I have insisted upon, and now emphasize it again, is that the best opinion of the South to-day is not the ruling opinion. That to leave the Negro helpless and without a ballot to-day is to leave him, not to the guidance of the best, but rather to the exploitation and debauchment of the worst; that this is no truer of the South than of the North, - of the North than of Europe: in any land, in any country under modern free competition, to lay any class of weak and despised people, be they white, black, or blue, at the political mercy of their stronger, richer, and more resourceful fellows, is a temptation which human nature seldom has withstood and seldom will withstand.”

“It is, then, the strife of all honorable men of the twentieth century to see that in the future competition of races the survival of the fittest shall mean the triumph of the good, the beautiful, and the true; that we may be able to preserve for future civilization all that is really fine and noble and strong, and not continue to put a premium on greed and impudence and cruelty.”

“The function of the university is not simply to teach breadwinning, or to furnish teachers for the public schools, or to be a centre of polite society; it is, above all, to be the organ of that fine adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life, an adjustment which forms the secret of civilization.... Patience, Humility, Manners and Taste, common schools and kindergartens, industrial and technical schools, literature and tolerance, - all these spring from knowledge and culture, the children of the university. So must men and nations build, not otherwise, not upside down.”

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Consumer Narratives

December 1, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Before reading today's blog, I suggest watching the following four minute music video:

Taylor Swift “Look What You Made Me Do

It would be hard to pin down my musical tastes. Truly, I can listen to nearly anything. While I am not an expert in anything, I feel pretty compelled to discuss Taylor Swift's recent video for “Look What You Made Me Do” from the album Reputation, released in 2017. This song pulls hard at an anger that feels primitive. To me, both song and video are haunted with complexity – in the sense of anger that lacks any specific resolution. This is sort of a coming-of-age video, but is hardly that concise.

Taylor Swift signed her first album deal at age 14 and has been at the top of the charts since. I cannot imagine life as a teenage celebrity, though America has certainly had a number of them. It seems that we often read about their crisis later in life. I suppose that I will call it a “coming-of-age” crisis for lack of a better term, but it's far more than that. Their struggles are splashed about by media, fans and critics forever, forever google-able. And I am sure that the constant demand of reliving life outside of your private space makes life feel a bit out of control. As a result, in the video, the new Taylor stomps on all previous Taylors while also claiming that the old Taylor is dead. It makes me wonder...what are we singing along to here?

What follows are my notes on the video. The fast and furious pace of the video only increases anxiety, anger and emotion. The colors move from dark to vibrant depending upon the scene. And Taylor's eyes center the whole piece – closely engaging with us, or shutting us out entirely.

First: Haunted, dark, destruction, TS lights shine from a graveyard filled with fog, crows, and some mystery swamp. Her tomb reads: “Here lies TAYLOR SWIFT'S REPUTATION”. Then zombie Taylor crawls from the crypt, scraping. Demoralized? Or free? Not sure yet. She sings: “I don't like your little games, don't like your tilted stage, the role you made me play, the fool, no I don't like you.” Why intro with zombie Taylor? This is a retrospective. Are we supposed to understand a self-continuum? Is there a point at which the self becomes something other? Is she irretrievably separated from the former, more naïve self? Is the zombie born from a combination of innocence and pain?

Quick switch: There's a flash of beautiful, young, all-dressed in white Taylor in the grave. Eyes closed, casket open. Is she a bride, virgin, child, all of innocence? Then flash forward to young, rich Taylor soaking in diamonds, surrounded by mirrors – reflections of self. She focuses on us. Repeats, “No I don't like you.” Only now we know more about what she doesn't like, “I don't like your perfect crime, how you laugh when you lie, you said the gun was mine, is it cruel? No I don't like you.”

Next: mirrors evolve into Taylor at the top of a golden throne, red dress. Papal throne? Snakes crawl up the throne. All snakes stop at “OH!” Snakes slither and also serve tea. Are these false prophets, or false friends? How can a celebrity trust anything? (If I were you, I wouldn't drink the tea, Taylor.) She sings, “I got smarter, I got harder in the nick of time. I've got a list of names and yours is in red underlined. I check it once and then I check it twice, OH”.... She's about to jump again, but I'm stumped here. What is the red dress underlining? This hardened version of Taylor (in response to whatever made her hard - and I think the viewer has a number of ideas about those outside forces) wears a vicious, red underbelly. This hardened version has consumed at least some of what made her hard while simultaneously quoting Santa Claus. And that worries me.

Jump to car crash. “Look what you made me do, look what you made me do, look what you just made me do, look what you just made me do!” Gold race car meets streetlight in slow motion, jewels flying next to coffee, platinum blond hair swirls on the head tilt, still slow motion. Sunglasses permanently fixed, masking the ever-expressive eyes. She wears a cheetah coat and black sequined dress and grasps a Grammy award. Passenger = cheetah. Paparazzi watches, snaps photos, but doesn't help in any way, and never fear, damage exists on the car alone. No one is concerned – driver and cheetah included. Flames from the car flicker in the background, upstaged by flashing cameras. This feels very personal – and makes me think of the impossible emotional situations that celebrities must navigate every day.

Next: Taylor swinging in a cage. This is not the circus? “I...don't like your kingdom....keys they once belonged to me you asked me for a place to sleep, locked me out and threw a feast”. Birdcage... are we talking Maya Angelou's birdcage? Does a birdcage now represent all levels of imprisonment? Orange dress, island flair, the horrendous juxtaposition of color in captivity. Who are the guards – they look like ninjas from a chess club? Don't they know that white makes the first move? And still she swings above their knives in the cage with champagne and lobster. How are we to interpret that? Maybe the feast is something altogether unhealthy. Maybe the feast is flesh. (I am waiting to see the zombie again – she feels very close to the crypt inside this cage.)

Now: Bank robbers in catmasks, everyone falls to the floor. Choreographed? Group of ninja men have been replaced by girls who stash gold. Taylor rips off her mask: “The world moves on another day another drama drama but not for me all I think about is karma karma.” Gold baseball bat tips to the screen, points like the eyes. Baseball bat circles and all cats look up. Look up, towards the door. Is this another type of jail cell – why are the pretty little cats loading up riches? Maybe there's something richer than gold.

Now she's in a motorcycle gang? I mean, now she's in a motorcycle gang. Maybe the same girls, without cute masks. Does everything take place at night? Tough to tell with the constant switching. Headlights on, face center: “Maybe I got mine, but you'll all get yours!...

“Baby I got smarter, I got harder in the nick of time.” Enter S&M Taylor. Red and black theme continues. “I check my list and yours is in red underlined”. Santa's list again, underscored by red and blue neon underlines. (Remember the feast and the tea? More of the thing that she hates has been imbibed.) Even harder now, bodies appear robotic and synthetic. The bodies, the robots, reflect red lights, not stop lights, but more like red light districts. (I don't know about you, but I'm waiting for the ball to drop like in Minority Report.) If we have entered a new zone, this may be darker than the crypt at the beginning. Are we still in a retrospective? How does time function in a music video – especially one which may weave in a bit of autobiography? I'm learning that virtual death comes at a great cost to the still living.

Black fishnets. Now she's the boss. Strong entrance, messy hair. Those doors swing open as the birdcage didn't. This must be free. In four minutes, this video has shown a number of geometric realms...lots of lines and cages ripe for crossing and opening. The chessmen have all changed into queered figures wearing “I love TS” tops. Who is the you? Media? Audience? People from her past? And what defines participation at this point? It seems we all listen, snapping along with the beat, feet tapping, a quick sway of the hips, much like Taylor's fishnet self. Is she inviting us into the room, or removing herself from all connection? Or maybe something altogether else.

“Rep” at the top of the pile. Doesn't trust anyone. She kicks at the climbing Taylors. Can we say that she's standing on the backs of more innocent Taylors? Or that she's kicked all previous versions of Taylor out? Taylor and her rep stand in front of a neon cross. If she hasn't smashed your innocence, I think it might be coming. Wait for it.

Repeat: “I don't trust nobody and nobody trusts me. I'll be the actress starring in your bad dreams.” The Taylor pile falls, of course, but you knew that it would. And then she says, “The old Taylor can't come to the phone right now....Why?...Oh, cuz she's dead.” Two second zombie shot and then choreographed fishnets jump in. The lyrics “look what you made me do” repeat often, kind of like smiling when you mean to cry. Has she figured out how to laugh while lying? If so, then innocence isn't subjugated, it's replaced by something mean, nasty and slimy, like the snakes.

Taylor's plane awaits, gold, of course, but sawed in half, dripping with the red-painted “reputation”. Outside the plane, all former video Taylors argue amongst themselves. The Grammy Taylor says: “Umm, I would very much like to excluded from this narrative.” And I think you know the answer to that.

Is anyone satisfied at the end of this song? The angst aches. What is my reputation as a consumer, and, honestly, can I be excluded from this narrative?

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Pop Culture Preview

November 17, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

This book review was originally published in the November 2017 issue of HMU: Dialogues.

Tube Talk, Double Features, and Sound Bites, three new publications from the Great Books Foundation.

In February, Harrison Middleton University will cohost the inaugural Southwest Great Books Weekend  which will focus on a new popular culture series from the Great Books Foundation. We will discuss essays about television (Tube Talk), film (Double Features) and music (Sound Bites). Their focus on popular culture offers some timely and important readings worthy of discussion. I was fortunate to grab a sneak preview, and so I wanted to express my enthusiasm for February's event. These essays offer any number of interesting discussions. More than that, however, I think it is vital to take a better look at the culture that we are currently making, promoting and consuming.

First of all, these three genres unite in the fact that each medium is meant to be shared. We follow television shows and films on social media, we pick favorite characters, dress in character and create intricate fandoms. We talk about our favorite media at work, in school, on the phone or at coffee shops. Clearly, we want to share our opinions or questions with others. What better opportunity, then, to share our ideas with a group of open-minded individuals interested in the same topics!? The three volumes look at what these personas might tell us about ourselves as individuals, or as cultures. In addition, they include articles of events of such originality that there is literally no word or phrase yet adequate to describe the intricate relationship between show writers, on-screen character and impersonations.

An article from Tube Talk discusses one unnamed phenomenon that has been generated by fans of Mad Men. As technology continues to evolve, it increases our avenues to connect, but also blurs the lines surrounding reality. For example, Twitter accounts impersonating Mad Men characters quickly arose, and though the show stopped after seven seasons, the Twitter accounts continue – in character. I wonder, what enjoyment do we get from assuming the voice of characters in something like Mad Men? One blogger says “I try and think like [Roger Sterling], tweet what he might say. It’s creative, and a lot of fun.” This requires a serious engagement with the time period, an understanding of cultural constraints in that society and, of course, a thorough study of the character. The Twitter-author-voice must thoroughly know the character to presuppose what they would do. And of course, in creating an alter-ego, there is the question of losing the alter-ego. 

The rise of Twitter in tandem with shows like Newsroom and Mad Men, which relate to a relatively recent time of American history, has created a different kind of fandom than that of, say, Star Trek. Yet the urge to become or live in a fictional skin continues. The introduction to Tube Talk claims that “[Television] is the greatest mirror that our global society has ever held up to itself, and even though sometimes we may not like what we see, it is impossible to look away.” I would further say that, not only is it impossible to look away, we should not look away. Rather, we should attempt to understand the underlying culture as a way to change what we do not like, or to better understand that which we do not know. For example, in the introduction to Double Features, Nick Clement writes, “The collective practice of gathering with a group of strangers in a darkened theater to watch images moving on a screen represents one of the more unusual agreements that human beings can reach.” Funny, but his comment also opens up a number of different questions regarding film culture, human connection and historic trends.

These books offer some excellent insight into current culture. They are an essential reminder that, for better or worse, we actively participate in a dynamic era filled with mixed media and art forms. It is essential that we realize our involvement in these forms if we have any intention to understand ourselves and our society. If we intend to create the best future for ourselves, our children and our communities, then it is worth our time to understand contemporary art forms. I look forward to discussing these books in February!

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