We Want to Be Happy—But Do We Also Want
Not to Be?

with a discussion of Madame Loisel, from the classic short story by Guy de Maupassant “The Necklace”

I once thought real happiness was just not in the cards for me. How could it be when everyone around me was a fake, my family was annoying and ordinary, no one treated me with the honor and deference I felt were my due—and anyway, I reasoned at the advanced age of 19, the chances of anyone feeling happy in this world for more than brief moment were a zillion to one.

How I saw happiness changed when I began to study Aesthetic Realism. First, I learned that whether or not I was happy didn’t depend on circumstances—on what I had or didn’t have, or on how other people treated me—but rather on how I saw the world. Happiness, explained Eli Siegel, is “going to come by a person’s being able to say: ‘I’ve honestly looked at the world in relation to myself, and I like the relation.’”

And I was amazed to read this, in Mr. Siegel’s “Questions for Everyone”: “Does something in me want to be unhappy?” Why would anyone want to feel unhappy?—but somehow, I felt this described me. With the next question, I began to learn why: “Do I feel more important when I’m unhappy?” The answer was “YES!”

With this began the most important, liberating, joy-giving education of my life! “Happiness,” said Mr. Siegel, “can be defined as the state of being able to say truly you like the world.” We like the world, I learned, when we feel reality’s opposites are together well. I felt this, for instance, as I stood on the shore at Coney Island—looking out at the vast expanse of ocean, as the waves rose and fell, were powerful and yet sent forth a delicate spray. In high school, I was excited to see, through the lens of a microscope, tiny beings in a drop of ordinary pond water, and to learn how the soprano part I sang blended and contrasted with the lower parts, making for the rich, haunting harmony in a 16th century madri­gal. In these instances, I experi­enced the central thing in happiness, because I felt—though I couldn’t put it clearly—at one with the world outside of me.

Meanwhile, the other feeling I described, that I’d never be happy, was with me a lot of the time, and I had no idea why. Mr. Siegel explained:

While the self wants to be happy—that is, be at one with the world—it also has a certain satisfaction in not being at one with the world, because [that might mean] you give up some of yourself for the world to take. Since we often are in a mood to have all of ourselves to ourselves, and we don’t want to give up any of it and so lose our ‘independence,’ this also means we don’t want to be happy.

This explains why, as I said in my first Aesthetic Realism consultation, I had trouble giving sustained attention to things: my studies, other people, books, even a sweater I was knitting. I learned that being able to say about one thing after another “It’s not that important”—had with it the triumph of feeling I was superior to the mundane world, and I had myself, undiluted.

One form this superiority took was feeling I should be treated with kid gloves, because I was more sensitive than other people, more easily hurt. I often felt left out. When I overheard members of my girl scout troop talking about a rehearsal for our show, I grew suspicious: Why wasn’t I invited? I sulked, finally forcing my mother to take me. As it turned out, only a few people were needed for the rehearsal. I was morti­fied; then I milked even this for another reason to be unhappy.

Seeing this tendency in me, my consultants once asked, “What is the great insult to you that you get from everyone?” I said, “I think it’s that they see me as a little kid.” They disagreed, saying “It’s that they’re not you. That’s the way we’re insulted by every other human being. They’re not us, and they seem to think they’re important anyway.” This was true! I took it as an affront that I wasn’t the first thing on other people’s minds. Yet when people did show interest in or concern about me, I felt they were butting in and wouldn’t leave me alone. No matter how you sliced it, I was going to be unhappy. Class Chairman Ellen Reiss once asked me if I’d felt I was “Picked-out-for-disaster Rosen.” Yes—and that I’m no longer driven by this feeling is a cause of tremendous gratitude for what I’ve learned!

My education about happiness and unhappiness continues
“Is our desire to be happy all that it should be?,” asked Mr. Siegel. “It isn’t; we can be pretty sure of that. Because to desire to be happy is an art, it’s a philosophy, it’s a big thing.”

I’m grateful I can study how I’ve wanted to be happy and also not to be—and it’s a live subject. For instance, speaking with my husband, jazz pianist and music teacher Alan Shapiro, about the subject of this seminar, I saw how ready I’d been, just that day, to find reasons to be unhappy. First, when I woke up, I saw it was pouring outside, and driving to the class I was taking on Long Island would take longer; I just knew I’d be late, and I was! Not only that, but when I got there, the door was locked, and I couldn’t find my way when I went in through another entrance. I was late, soaked, and lost!

How might a person use occurrences like these not to be unhappy? The answer, Aesthetic Realism teaches, is to be found in aesthetics—in how opposites are present; and the central opposites are always self and world. For example: rain, weather as such, and time are big aspects of the world we meet all the time. A person could have a good time thinking about what rain is, and how it affects other things, such as roads, cars, grass, the colors of things, one’s own feelings. And we could ask: “What is my attitude to time? How do other people see it?” Though one might still be late, the state of mind making for this kind of thought has much more respect in it, and it would make for greater ease and pleasure.

I’m so glad I can learn about the moment by moment fight between wanting to be happy through liking reality and wanting to have the pleasure of contempt by finding reasons to be displeased. That I have a marriage in which my husband and I can be friendly critics of each other as to this is cause for tremendous gratitude.

What did she think would make her happy?
I’ll speak now about the main character in one of the most famous short stories ever written, read by millions of people—including high school students like those I teach: “The Necklace,” by Guy De Maupassant. As I do, I’ll be quoting from an Aesthetic Realism class in which Ellen Reiss discussed this story, showing it has centrally to do with the matter of what we think will make us happy—and how we also arrange not to be. The story begins:

She was one of those pretty and charming girls who are sometimes, as if by a mistake of destiny, born into a family of clerks. She had no dowry, no expectations, no means of being known, understood, loved, wedded by any rich and distinguished man; and she let herself be married to a little clerk at the Ministry of Public Instruction.

What this woman, Mathilde Loisel, feels is related to what I once felt: doomed to be unhappy because she was born, as she saw it, into the wrong family, and that “she had really fallen from her proper station.” Yet right away, we also have the thing that will make us happy: the aesthetic way of dealing with the world, which is in the style of Guy De Maupassant. There is in the sound of these opening sentences, Ms. Reiss explained, “a sweet ripplingness,” and then “a let-down.” His description of the ordinariness, even dullness, of French middle-class life has drama. For example:

She suffered ceaselessly, feeling herself born for all the delicacies and all the luxuries. She suffered from the poverty of her dwelling, from the wretched look of the walls, from the worn-out chairs, from the ugliness of the curtains. All those things, of which another woman of her rank would never even have been conscious, tortured her and made her angry….She thought of…silent antechambers hung with Oriental tapestry, lit by tall bronze candelabra,…of…delicate furniture carrying priceless curiosities….She had no dresses, no jewels, nothing. And she loved nothing but that; she felt made for that.

Said Ms. Reiss,”Everyone is something like this lady. We have a notion: If I had this [or that], I would be pleased….There’s a desire to be happy through owning the world.”

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting a nice home, or wanting to improve one’s situation in life—yet we should ask: Why do we want these? Is it to feel we’re getting along well with things, with reality, or to feel we should be in a position to look down on the lesser, more common­place beings of this world? Mme. Loisel feels the latter, and we see in this passage that she feels humiliated in not having what she thinks she needs to be happy:

When she sat down to dinner, before the round table covered with a tablecloth three days old, opposite her husband, who uncovered the soup tureen and declared with an enchanted air, “Ah, the good pot-au-feu! I don’t know anything better than that,” she thought…of delicious dishes served on marvelous plates, and of the whispered gallantries which you listen to with a sphinx-like smile, while you are eating the pink flesh of a trout or the wings of a quail.

In her picture of what will make her happy, Mme. Loisel is arranging to be unhappy. Here, she’s like many people: she cannot take pleasure in ordinary things, like good home-cooked food, and sees her husband as a fool for doing so; she cannot see everyday reality as having wonder. Asked Ms. Reiss,

Are we interested in seeing what the world is? Is that going to make us happy? Or is having it present us with certain things, give us the goodies…going to make us happy? What is it that will hold up?

And she explained how the art of Maupassant is a criticism of how Mme. Loisel sees: “The style here is a relation of richness and a certain bluntness. There’s terrific economy.” Yet, she explained, in this rather short story, “you feel there’s abundance.”

One evening, Mme. Loisel’s husband comes home with something he thinks will make her happy: an invitation to a ball at the palace of the Ministry of Public Instruction. Yet, Instead of being delighted,…she threw the invitation on the table with disdain, murmuring:

“What do you want me to do with that?”

“But, my dear, I thought you would be glad. You never go out, and this is such a fine opportunity. I had awful trouble to get it. Everyone wants to go; it is very select, and they are not giving many invitations to clerks. The whole official world will be there.”

She looked at him with an irritated eye, and she said, impatiently:

“And what do you want me to put on my back?”

Flustered at seeing her burst into tears, he asks: “What’s the matter?”

By a violent effort, she had conquered her grief, and she replied, with a calm voice, while she wiped her wet cheeks:

“Nothing. Only I have no dress, and therefore I can’t go to this ball. Give your card to some colleague whose wife is better equipped than I.”

Mme. Loisel is quite mean as she makes the mistake of many wives—blaming a husband for her unhappiness and punishing him. Cowed by her, he agrees that she should have a new dress, though it will cost all that he has saved for another purpose. But she’s still miserable: she has no jewels. Her husband suggests she wear flowers: “It’s very stylish at this time of the year. For ten francs you can get two or three magnificent roses.” “She was not convinced. ‘No; there’s nothing more humiliating than to look poor among other women who are rich.’”

“The idea that one’s ability to like the world depends on being made supreme in it is here,” said Ellen Reiss, and she asked, “What is it a child coming into this world is born for? Is it to see meaning in the world, or to dazzle the world?” Mme. Loisel thinks it’s the second, and so she agrees when her husband says she might ask to borrow some jewels from her rich friend, Mme. Forestier, whom she rarely visited “because she suffered so much” by the contrast between their situations. Generously, her friend shows her a box full of gold, pearls and precious stones, saying, “Choose, my dear.” Yet, despite their beauty, she still asked, “Haven’t you any more?”

All of a sudden she discovered, in a black satin box, a superb necklace of diamonds, and her heart began to beat with an immoderate desire. Her hands trembled as she took it. She fastened it around her throat, outside her high-necked dress, and remained lost in ecstasy at the sight of herself.

Then she asked, hesitating, filled with anguish:

“Can you lend me that, only that?”

And she does. Mme. Loisel has now within her grasp what she thinks will make her happy. At the ball, she dazzles many men.

She danced with intoxication, with passion, made drunk by pleasure, forgetting all, in the triumph of her beauty, in the glory of her success, in a sort of cloud of happiness composed of all this homage, of all this admiration, of all these awakened desires, and of that sense of complete victory which is so sweet to woman’s heart.

This is a description of a certain notion of happiness. Mr. Siegel writes:

The feeling of being agog in an honest fashion belongs to happiness. There is a desire to be gloriously dizzy and exaltingly abandoned. But that…is not going to be got by shortcuts….There is no porch climbing to happiness.”

And so, as they leave the ball at 4 a.m. and return home, she feels “All was ended for her. And as to him, he reflected that he must be at the Ministry at ten o’clock.” Inside their apartment,

She removed the wraps, which covered her shoulders, before the glass, so as once more to see herself in all her glory. But suddenly she uttered a cry. She had no longer the necklace around her neck!

Her husband, already half undressed, demanded: “What is the matter with you?”

She turned madly toward him: “I have—I have—I’ve lost Mme. Forestier’s necklace.”

Her husband goes back over their route, trying to find it.

He went to Police Headquarters, to the newspaper offices, to offer a reward; he went to the cab companies—everywhere, in fact, whither he was urged by the least suspicion of hope.

 She waited all day, in the same condition of mad fear before this terrible calamity.

Loisel returned at night with a hollow, pale face; he had discovered nothing.

Rather than admit they have lost the necklace, they decide they must replace it, no matter how much it costs—hoping Mme. Forestier won’t notice.

They went from jeweler to jeweler, searching for a necklace like the other,

…sick both of them with chagrin and with anguish. [At last] they found…a string of diamonds which seemed to them exactly like the one they looked for. It was worth forty thousand francs. They could have it for thirty-six.

Spending all their savings, entering into “ruinous obliga­tions,” borrowing from usurers. M. Loisel “compromised all the rest of his life” to pay for this diamond necklace. To their relief, Mme. Forestier doesn’t notice the substitution.

Maupassant describes in vivid prose the change that takes place in Mme. Loisel as she now, because of her own conceit, must live “the horrible existence of the needy.”

She took her part…with heroism. That dreadful debt must be paid. She would pay it….She came to know what heavy housework meant and the odious cares of the kitchen. She washed the dishes, using her rosy nails on the greasy pots and pans. She washed the dirty linen…; she carried the slops down to the street every morning, and carried up the water, stopping for breath at every landing. And, dressed like a woman of the people, she went to the fruiterer, the grocer, the butcher, her basket on her arm, bargaining, insulted, defending her miserable money sou by sou.

After 10 years, they paid off everything. And though Mme. Loisel now looked old, “with frowsy hair, skirts askew, and red hands,” we can see that her idea of what would make her important and happy has not essentially changed.

Sometimes,…she sat down near the window, and she thought of that gay evening of long ago, of that ball where she had been so beautiful and so feted.

One day while taking a walk, she sees Mme. Forestier and decides to tell her the truth about the necklace. She greets her old friend, who doesn’t recognize her and is shocked to see how she’s changed.

“Yes, I have had days hard enough, since I have seen you, days wretched enough—and that because of you!”

“Of me! How so?”

“Do you remember that diamond necklace which you lent me to wear at the ministerial ball?”

“Yes. Well?”

“Well, I lost it.”

“What do you mean? You brought it back.”

“I brought you back another just like it. And for this we have been ten years paying. You can understand that it was not easy for us, us who had nothing. At last it is ended, and I am very glad.”

Mme. Loisel’s pride here is of two kinds, representing two ideas of what will make her happy: one, the justice of being able to meet an obligation fairly; and two, being able to be superior—here, by feeling she’d successfully fooled Mme. Forestier. But had she?

Mme. Forestier had stopped.

“You say that you bought a necklace of diamonds to replace mine?”

“Yes. You never noticed it, then! They were very like.”

And she smiled with a joy which was proud and naive at once.

Mme. Forestier, strongly moved, took her two hands.

“Oh, my poor Mathilde! Why, my necklace was paste. It was worth at most five hundred francs!”

The deep theme of this story, said Ms. Reiss, is: “If we go after substitutes for liking the world through being fair to it as we see it, are we asking for disaster for ourselves?”

The great news is: People can learn to have the happiness that comes from seeing the world truly and liking it. “In happiness,” said Mr. Siegel,

there is the wonderful and the ordinary. Every person has to feel that his feet are on the ground if he is to be happy; every person has to feel there is something wonderful about the ground and it isn’t just ground….Aesthetic Realism does think that happiness is the most wonderful thing in the world, and yet it is a study.

That study can enable women and men everywhere to have real, lasting happiness!

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  • Copyright ©2017 by Leila Rosen