by Steve Finbow
photos by Elisa Garcia de la Huerta
It was early evening at the end of June 2019, and I was looking out of my second-floor apartment window at the courtyard-come-car park ringed by abandoned eighteenth-century school buildings, a dilapidated and abandoned hotel and our brutalist slab of concrete and glass. Bees were bobbing among the lavender and butterflies sipping the nectar of water-blue irises, what I thought earlier was a pile of dog shit under the rear of our car I now saw to be a hen blackbird, it must be injured and, as I looked, it rolled over. At the same time, one of the courtyard cats, the black and white tuxedo one that lived downstairs, used the stone walls as cover and moved towards the blackbird. I thought of shouting but didn’t. I thought of going down to see if I could help the bird. I didn’t. I would let nature do what it has always done. As the cat slipped under a car, the bird sprang up, hopped from the shadow into the sunlight and flew up onto a wall above the confounded cat. I drank some of my white wine and watched the ebbing rays catch fire to the polychromatic glazed-tiles of the cathedral’s roof, the geometric shapes reminding me of Keith Haring’s dancing figures.
The fortified town of Langres, France, for that’s where I was living, was built on a natural promontory on an exact north-south-east-west placement, the cathedral being due south from where I was standing. Originally constructed in the twelfth century and rebuilt fully in the eighteenth, the cathedral is dedicated to St Mammes, an obscure third-century Turkish child martyr, who tamed lions, was tortured by the Emperor Aurelian and then executed by having a trident thrust into his abdomen, he’s a sort of B-list Daniel and his head – they say – abides in the cathedral.
I was taking a break from doing what I enjoyed doing early evenings, drinking wine, cooking and listening to music on random play on iTunes. I was preparing a salad to go with tuna, courgette and tomato kebabs and had just finished slicing the tomatoes, cucumber and avocadoes. I was two glasses into a bio-Chardonnay – I was saving the Stella Artois for later to drink while watching the football– and, at that specific time, David Bowie’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll with Me” was playing, ‘Gentle hearts are counted down / The queue is out of sight and out of sounds / Me, I’m out of breath, but not quite doubting / I’ve found a door which lets me out…’
As the red, gold and green tiles of the cathedral roof flickered and the crows bickered over the bragging rights to the highest roost on the cockerel weathervane on the north bell tower, a strange feeling overcame me. From the heels of my feet slowly up my calves and into my thighs, through my pelvis, my abdomen, my ribcage, the back of my neck, down my arms into my fingertips, then into my head, making my face flush, flowed a pleasant paraesthesia. I had had a similar experience fifteen or so years ago while giving a talk at Durham University, the same warm tingling sensation but that time it had been caused by stage fright, by anxiety and dread. This feeling was different and it was no wonder that, for a while, I was confused. I didn’t recognise the signs, what was happening to me? And then, as the shadows gathered on the roofs and the male blackbird sang his good-night cradle song, I realised what I was experiencing and it was a horror for me, a shock to my system, it was something like… like happiness for fuck’s sake.
Earlier in the evening, I had been reading Benedict de Spinoza’s Theological-Political Treatise and returned to it to re-read a passage that opens chapter three, ‘On the vocation of the Hebrews, and whether the prophetic gift was peculiar to them,’ it read, ‘True joy and happiness lie in the simple enjoyment of what is good and not in the kind of false pride that enjoys happiness because others are excluded from it. Anyone who thinks that he is happy because his situation is better than other people’s or because he is happier and more fortunate than they, knows nothing of true happiness and joy, and the pleasure he derives from his attitude is either plain silly or spiteful and malicious. For example, a person’s true joy and felicity lie solely in his wisdom and knowledge of truth, not in being wiser than others or in others’ being without knowledge of truth, since this does not increase his own wisdom which is his true felicity. Anyone therefore who takes pleasure in that way is enjoying another’s misfortune, and to that extent is envious and malign, and does not know true wisdom or the peace of the true life.’ This was a coincidence, I imagine that most books we read mention happiness in some form or other, even in the works of those arch-miserablists E. M. Cioran – ‘To resist happiness – the majority manages that; suffering is much more insidious. Have you ever tasted it? You will never be sated once you have, you will pursue it greedily and preferably where it does not exist, you will project it there since without it everything seems futile to you, drab’, and Fyodor Dostoevsky, ‘Infinite happiness lit up in her eyes; she understood, and for her there was no longer any doubt that he loved her, loved her infinitely, and that at last the moment had come…’ on both of whom, more later.
Again, ‘True joy and happiness lie in the simple enjoyment of what is good and not in the kind of false pride that enjoys happiness because others are excluded from it.’ True joy? Happiness? Simple enjoyment? Good? Others? Excluded? I do find a simple enjoyment in cooking and listening to music, although Trepaneringsritualen’s “Alone/A/Cross/Abyss” then playing was doing its utmost to put an end to these new feelings, ‘Alone // A cross // Abyss / Mother // Murder // Matter / Soul // Seed // Sickness / Body // Blood // Birth / Take My Hand I’ll Lead You Through Death and Death Again…’ I love the track but was not in the mood and so skipped forward to Brian Eno’s “Lesser Heaven,” which seemed to more fit my strange mood.
What is true joy? What is happiness? As far back as 1972, Marshall McLuhan had argued, ‘In today’s ECO-world of electric information that flows unceasingly upon us from every side, we all encounter the predicament of Alice in Wonderland. Now effects merge with causes instantly through speedup, while “software” etherializes “hardware” by design. All rigid distinctions between thinker and doer, observer and observed, object and subject are being eroded by the “rim-spin” of electric media. Old ground rules and human perceptions are being transformed by this new resonant surround where nothing is stable but change itself.’ And so in this super-charged mediatised world, what is ‘simple enjoyment’? In the world of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, the Syrian Civil War, the refugee crisis, the accelerated entropy of late-stage capitalism, what is ‘good’? What are ‘others’? And who is excluded from ‘happiness’?
Just before we commence our investigation, I would like to make a few things clear. I do not have a religious bone in my materialist body, which, when I die, will not be interred or cremated but donated to the London Anatomy Office for them to do with what they wilt. And, in form of a further rider, a very pale rider, this is not a self-help book, far from it, this is definitely not a self-help book, if anything, if you choose to proceed, dear reader, this is a self-harm book. Be warned. Be ready. Begin.
What is happiness?
We live in an anti-Kantian world of blame and entitlement with ever-diminishing forms of duty and obligation; a de-deontological planet losing any claim to what Jean-Paul Sartre called ‘a priori hope.’
To be continued…
About the author
Steve Finbow‘s fiction includes Balzac of the Badlands, Tougher Than Anything in the Animal Kingdom, Nothing Matters and Down Among the Dead. His biography of Allen Ginsberg was published in 2011. His other nonfiction works include Pond Scum, Grave Desire: A Cultural History of Necrophilia, Notes from the Sick Room and Death Mort Tod: A European Book of the Dead. The Mindshaft will be published by Amphetamine Sulphate in 2020. He lives in Langres, France.
For more information visit his page: http://www.creatrixmag.com/yes-yes-yes-after-the-flood/
Featured photo Elisa Garcia de la Huerta @auzit, Lushtopia, Rachael Uhlir, 35mm, Berlin, 2019 @rachaeluhlir