Zadie Smith on Happiness

From here.

SMITH: The thing about happiness is novelists think they know something that other people don’t know. [David Foster]Wallace wrote about this subject quite well. And I witnessed it just last week when I was in Mexico at this resort. The things we think are going to make us happy, that we aim for, are full of nullity. If you go to an upscale resort, which Nick and I went to, never going to these places before, you think, “I want go somewhere with no culture. Just a beach, drinks. I’ll be able to have a good time.” And it’s like death, right? It’s a nice time, but it’s basically like death. And it’s lots of Americans walking around telling each other, “This is great, right? I’ve got a big fuzzy nipple drink and I’m in the pool, and I can see the sun setting. This has got to be happiness!” I heard one Texan saying to another, after a moment of doubt, looking slightly glum and bored, “If you can’t be happy here, you can’t be happy no place.” He knew he was unhappy. Many novels are about that. But I just read this book called Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis. He put it in the context of Christianity because it was the joy that made him a Christian. But this feeling of joy that came over him—Emerson had it, too—it’s completely different from happiness. Happiness is, “I won some money,” or, “You got the bird you wanted.” This is an inexplicable feeling of gratitude. It comes over you sometimes. And particularly if you are unreligious, you don’t know what to do with it. You suddenly get this wave of something beyond pleasure. And I think the novel has been a bit shy of describing that because it blends itself so easily to sentimentality. But I’ve had that feeling from time to time ever since I can remember. Nick always says this about me, and it’s true, I have to do everything I can to not be a Christian. I have to put all my energy into not being religious. It’s a daily effort. But I think we often pretend this feeling doesn’t exist-that it’s deceitful. When I was writing NW, I read A Simple Heart by Flaubert. It’s a long short story about a girl—a maid-—who has a parrot. She lives a perfectly nice, quiet, happy life as a maid. And then she dies. That’s it. What’s so extraordinary about it is how unusual that narrative is.

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