My post on ‘Epicurean Happiness in a Post-Post-Apocalyptic World’ is available to read on the Ploughshares blog. Read an extract below, or find the full post HERE.
Philosophies for achieving genuine happiness and a good life are never intended to create dystopias. Nevertheless, many writers enjoy taking these ideas to their extremes, creating in their fictions worlds where ethical theories are subverted into the dark and uncanny. Nicola Barker’s H(A)PPY is one such work.
In this novel, which won the Goldsmiths Prize (sponsored by the University of London), in 2017, Barker explores the dystopian extreme of a recognizably Epicurean understanding of happiness. She does so, however, in a slightly different way from many dystopian writers: rather than presenting the dystopian vision of a “happy” society in easy opposition to an implied non-dystopic iteration, Barker interrogates the boundaries between the two, asking if there is, in fact, something desirable in the dystopic vision—and if the alternative—perhaps a society we recognize—is really any better.
As a hedonist, Epicurus’ views on happiness are often misconstrued as calls to excess and indulgence. (This has not been helped by Epicurus’ delight in rhetoric designed to shock: “I spit on the noble and those who emptily admire it, when it doesn’t make any pleasure.”) In fact, the opposite is true. In his Letter to Menoeceus, Epicurus explains:
When we say, then, that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some through ignorance, prejudice, or willful misrepresentation. By pleasure we mean the absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul. It is not an unbroken succession of drinking-bouts and of merrymaking, not sexual love, not the enjoyment of the fish and other delicacies of a luxurious table, which produce a pleasant life; it is sober reasoning, searching out the grounds of every choice and avoidance, and banishing those beliefs through which the greatest disturbances take possession of the soul.
Happiness, for Epicurus, is grounded not in appetites and desires, but in ataraxia, or tranquility, which is achieved through the absence of bodily pain and mental stresses. This absence of pain and stress, taken to its extreme, is the foundation on which “The System” in Barker’s novel is built.