Gotham Diary:
14 April 2014

The darling novel of the moment is Jenny Offill’s Dept of Speculation, and I am nearly halfway through. It’s an agreeable read, but I am looking forward to being done with it.

I am looking forward to being done with it because I have taken a dislike to the narrator — the first-person narrator who, I’ve been told by all the reviews (which have also previewed many of the novel’s more trenchant passages), will soon disappear into the third person. “Dislike” may be the wrong word. What I’m feeling as I read is more like impatient disapproval.

The narrator is a thirty-something woman is unhappy with herself. This unhappiness is never really discussed, but it is woven into every sentence. Here, in a passage that refers to her husband and her daughter, is a throbbing instance of her unhappiness:

There is still such crookedness in my heart. I had thought loving two people so much would straighten it. (44)

Nothing can straighten our hearts, but we must come to terms with them on our own. Here’s how I read the second sentence: “I had thought needing two people so badly would straighten it.” And of course that’s the wrong way round. The only thing that it is at all proper to need from another person (emergencies aside) is inspiration — the inspiration to be a better, happier person than you are. Ideally, you wait to meet an inspiring person before falling in love. Meanwhile, you must prepare yourself for inspiration. You can’t be happier until you find something that makes you happy to begin with, and you must find this for yourself.  Once you have found it, however, the search is over; what follows is the hard, interior work of making yourself more apt at whatever it is that makes you happy, together with nurturing the faith that your happiness is important — that you must, out of self-respect, take care of it.

“Happiness” is a much-abused term, and I wish I didn’t have to use it, but no other word captures the delight-in-the-world that is the most important characteristic of happiness — what distinguishes it, sharply, from the idea of pleasure. Pleasure has been regarded as dangerous since people started writing things down, but it is only rather recently — since the abatement of religious strife in the Seventeenth Century — that happiness was discovered to be safe. Happiness involves pleasure, to be sure; but it turns its back on it, as it were, in order to make the world a more pleasant place. Adult happiness is the state of being pleased to give pleasure.

None of this appears to have occurred to our narrator, and I have to wonder if that’s because she is too sophisticated for happiness — too hip, perhaps. She certainly does not seem inclined to believe in anything. She trusts her husband, but that is not the same thing as believing in him. Belief is a kind of happiness that reaches far beyond contractual trust. The narrator loves her husband, but he does not really make her happy — nothing does — because she has not prepared herself for happiness.

In this she is like countless young people (who eventually become not-so-young) who come to New York in search of something. But there is nothing in New York except a handful of monuments and millions of other people. Aside from the monuments and the millions, New York is just like anywhere else, so there is no point to coming here to find something that can be found anywhere. The people who will succeed in New York already know upon arrival what that something is, and they have reason to believe that the sheer plurality of the city will encourage them.


The difference between reading Hannah Arendt and reading about Hannah Arendt is the difference between crawling over the Rocky Mountains on your hands and knees and flying over them in a jet plane. Although fast, easy, and comfortable, however, I’m not sure that there would be much of a point to the flight if it weren’t a return trip. That is all that I am going to say about Arendt today.

Except also this: reading about Hannah Arendt has given me the impression that I treasure her because she is a lapsed philosopher.