An Intellectually Romantic Exchange

Between authors Simon Van Booy and Siri Hustvedt for an article in BOMB Magazine (Summer 2011)

I read the exchange between Siri Hustvedt and Simon Van Booy from BOMB Magazine. It touched me deeply and reminds me of a philosophical discussion I had (by written letters) between myself and an old beau who lived in New Zealand many years ago. He asked me if I would rather be happy or content. I still debate the idea frequently. My thought on it is that happiness is a fleeting emotion. One cannot be happy all the time without psychosis. Siri touches on this in her letters when she said “My goal in life is not to walk around in a permanent state of euphoria. This would be as pathological as falling into a lasting depression.” Contentment, however, is an ideal attainment in which one is satisfied (whether happy or sad) with his or her life. However, I think people can fall into the trap of settling and mistake it for contentment. I think that is one of my greatest fears because when you settle, you give up. You are no longer trying to improve, learn or discover. You accept things as they are without question or believe that you cannot change. I think I fell into that trap at this time in my life. A recent trip to Europe (Czech Republic and Austria) made me aware of this like a sharp, stinging slap to the face.

But this brings up stoicism. I have not been able to find stoicism yet. It is out of my reach, as many things seem to be these days. In her letter, Siri says, “Stoic philosophers make a fundamental distinction between what human beings can and cannot control in their lives. There is much we don’t have any power over, and the stoic response to what can’t be helped is to say: Away with it. I will not concern myself with it.” However, she says in a later letter that she is “convinced that what we think of the self is grounded in emotion”. That one is “guided by emotions”. To be guided by emotions, I think, makes stoicism impossible, or difficult at best. I relate to Simon when he says that he lives with ongoing and incessant confusion and that happiness is a way of seeing. I am almost always confused and my struggle has been to maintain a methodology of seeing such that happiness is consistently attainable. But, this implies that happiness is within everyone’s reach. Siri thinks this is a “corrosive delusion”, but I think happiness can be attained… To be maintained, however, is problematic. The definition of happiness also escapes me. Sometimes I see something, such as a very old couple showing a tender moment of love, and I am both happy and moved to tears. It is a mix of happiness and profound sadness. I have these moments a lot and they are strengthened by art, music, nature and contemplation. Stoicism is something I have yet to grasp, but desperately want to achieve. My emotions run too deep and can be overbearing. It would be nice to be able to rein them in. Writing helps.

On a different note, Simon mentioned something in his letter that I found very interesting. He believes that “the idea that loving one person is impossible, unless one is prepared to love everyone. Otherwise love is circumstantial. . .” I completely agree. How is it possible to only love one person in a lifetime? I’m not arguing against faithfulness or commitment. But, it seems to me that not everyone is made for an idealized, life-long true love. Some are. My sister is one. But I am not. This is not coming from a place of bitterness, but from my own personal ability to love many. I have had several loves in my life; including my current. I still love all of them and I’m sure that I always will. Upon reflection, however, I’m not sure that I actually understand love. I am fascinated by many people and have a propensity to an infatuation of intellect and talent. But, few encounters stir my soul. When that happens, I feel mad with emotion and desires. It reminds me of the line from On the Road. “The only people for me are the mad ones . . .” I love that line because I feel mad most of the time and I’m attracted to people who do not fit society’s mold.  So then, what is madness? What is love? What is happiness? These are too subjective and I do not think can be trapped into a definition.

I heartily thank Simon and Siri for reflecting on such intimate and interesting topics in their exchange. It certainly opened my heart and mind to new thoughts, and for that I am grateful. It also introduced me to Simon’s book The Secret Lives of People in Love… an absolutely beautiful book. I will talk more about that later.

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