What’s it all about?

What is it all about really – this life? What are we after? What are we searching for? Why do we so often suffer with feelings of disconnection, incompleteness, anxiety? Sometimes it’s overwhelming, and darkness descends. At other times you must really pay close attention to discover it at all – and yet, there it is, a gnat bite of unsatisfactoriness. For what do we hanker?

What it comes right down to, in the end, is happiness – isn’t it? That somehow doesn’t sound serious or upright or ambitious enough, so we may find ourselves saying instead that what we want is more money, more fame, more power. Or perhaps, hoping to sound more noble, we lust after freedom, or truth, or to do good. We struggle for some great reform, start a revolution, dig in and bank up the sides of the status quo, fight for the reaction. Some of us hanker for more money; some to do more good work for others or to save the world. Some, in the case of the “effective altruism” movement, do both. But why would we want any of these things if not to be happy? Surely we only want money to be happy; to help others so that we feel ourselves to be good and useful and hence happy?

Maybe, but happiness alone is not quite enough. In his great novel, Wolf Solent, John Cowper Powys presents two visions that represent the extremes of what fate might hold in store for human beings. The first is the “face on the Waterloo steps”, glimpsed by the book’s protagonist at the railway station. Just to look at such a face is to enter yourself into the very depths of misery and despair. It is life without hope. It is the plain, unadorned struggle for existence – and the eagle digs his claws into your shoulders.

The second extreme, also glimpsed by the book’s protagonist on his literal and philosophic wanderings, is self-satisfied “happiness”. There, sitting in a neat garden, retired from life’s struggles at last, puffing contentedly on a pipe and enjoying his property and the passing show, is the face of a man with the look of a cat lapping up the cream. Contentment and indulgence. Perhaps this vision might sound more appealing to you. And yet, just think, how could you sit there lapping up the cream while you know that there is yet in this world that face on the Waterloo steps? It’s grotesque. Unworthy. Could we think of a better word than inhuman?

We arrive, then, at a tentative conclusion. The aim of existence is to be happy while pursuing a human life, a noble life. Except that this is not so much a conclusion – not something to be decided and resolved upon and that’s that. It’s more like an art, something that demands study and practice. What’s delightful about it is that it’s art we can all play a part in creating; no credentials nor any particular talents are required. If you are a human being, practising the art of living – whether it’s for one minute or one day or the next 40 years – is something you can actually do, every minute of your life. The result can be great happiness – for ourselves, and for our fellow creatures.–Stuart


4 thoughts on “What’s it all about?

  1. Without “the face on the Waterloo steps”, there is no smug contemplation, which is only to say, the life that is instead of the other. It’s rather hard to comprehend that it is not just the appropriation of social property as private property by the capitalist class that makes us miserable and them happy – if they are: this is just the mechanism. It is the *existence* of the capitalist class that is the cause of the face on the Waterloo steps. Each of us holds a whole world behinds our eyes, the same world, but in some of those worlds they are the winners and in the vast majority of those worlds they are the losers. Revolution is self-transformation: it is the world in the mind’s eye that needs to be overthrown, and the easiest way to do this, short of direct intervention with drugs and the like, is a vigorous and murderous spree of revolutionary rage. As above, so below, as the magicians would put it.

    You do seem to proposing a transformation from hell to heaven. I would suggest that it is the end of a hellish restriction, but the result is … well, all our tomorrows, if we’re being whimsical (and I usually am). So happiness is too limiting a notion – it excludes part of the human experience that must be there in order to live a full life. Just, when you head south of happiness, remember your safe word. And to lead a human, a noble life … dude, you know it’s excerpts of James Mill again 🙂 We should be reading more Moorcock and less Marx if we really want to know what the future holds. And probably some Lovecraft, too, though I’m sure “men laughing, and killing, and revelling in joy” violates a whole host of health and safety guidelines.

    Simon Wigley.


  2. I agree that “happiness” is too limiting a notion narrowly understood, which is why the man on the Waterloo steps and his counterpart lapping up the cream were brought in. And the man lapping up the cream was brought in to suggest that revolutionary transformation, though perhaps necessary, is not a sufficient condition for happiness. I hope you’re joking about the spree of murderous rage. It seems to me that the only result of that will be dead bodies, suffering, anger and fear – the conditions for more murderous sprees in the future.

    Thanks for your comments, I hope you’ll hang around and contribute more! Stuart


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