Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Allure of Unhappiness

by Amanda Earl

“I think by the time you're grown you're as happy as you're goin to be. You'll have good times and bad times, but in the end you'll be about as happy as you was before. Or as unhappy. I've knowed people that just never did get the hang of it.”
― Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men

They say people cheer up after listening to the blues because they realize their lives are better by comparison or because they feel a kinship for others who've undergone bad experiences too. Kids love Lemony Snicket's "A Series of Unfortunate Events" where the characters are subjected to increasingly horrible misfortunes with miserable ends. In the award-winning, highly popular television series "Breaking Bad," the main character goes from learning he has cancer to cooking meth to selling it to becoming a drug kingpin. Every season becomes more and more dramatic and dire.

Why are humans attracted to tragedy? Edvard Munch's painting "the Scream," a portrait of a man in agony in front of a blood red sunset is one of the highest selling paintings in the world and has been the object of many an art theft. People stealing agony? Why, because they don't have enough of their own?

Have you seen Louis, the show starring the stand up comedian Louis C.K. as a stand up comedian? In the first episode he talks about how life is ultimately unhappy because we're all going to die. Even romantic relationships are doomed because the best case scenario is that you end up with someone for years and then one of you dies. A fairly bleak outlook, but not wrong. And most of us find this sort of comedy amusing, cathartic even.  Art, music, film, tv, and literature that  portrays or embodies some form of unhappiness gives us all a chance to laugh at life's absurdity and to relate to misfortune.

My own theory is that because humans go through a lot, have to deal with adversity, it is reassuring to imagine that others are also going through such. It's a feeling of solidarity and relief that we are not alone.

I've never been much for happy endings, either writing them or reading them. For the sake of this blog entry, let's say that happy ever after endings in fiction are those where the main character gets what she wanted by the end of the story: she ends up with the man of her dreams; she receives a million dollar advance for a book, etc. But basically whatever conflict she has undergone is resolved by the end of the story.

I occasionally write unhappy stories, but more often than not I write happy for now fiction. It just doesn't sit well with me to wrap up a story nicely with a tidy ending. Nor does it please me aesthetically.  It feels too improbable. I simply can't or don't wish to make it work. I can't reconcile it to any kind of reality. It feels too much like painting the walls of the psych ward pastel pink and blue in order to calm the patients down. It feels like placating. What I want to do in my writing is to stir things up, to make my readers and myself restless. To jar them out of complacency. Somehow suggesting that there is happiness at the end of the rainbow seems inauthentic to me.

It's not that I'm some sad sack who doesn't have hope that some things go right. After all, I am alive despite all odds to the contrary. But it's the struggle that attracts me, the process of clawing one's way up through seemingly insurmountable odds that I find interesting about people and about characters. I like to leave my characters still fighting rather than having fought.


  1. bonus: my playlist of tragic music:

    & NPR's the Saddest Music in the World:

  2. Replies
    1. i can hear that shout from here, Giselle :) thanks. & very glad you talked about Atom Egoyan's films in your post. perhaps a penchant for the tragic is a Canadian thing ;)

  3. Another great post, Amanda-

    There are times we look at the funny, the pathetic the out-of-place as mirrors of ourselves, just a little bit worse off. My guess is that's a healthy way to look at it. The old "Therefore but for the grace of fortune go I" kinda deal.
    However, some people do find a very comfortable but dangerous place, wallowing in misery. It becomes a place they know all too well. Sometimes they can't get themselves to leave that place. Life is not all terrible, not if your attitude's right. I do think it takes at least a look on the bright side every now and then just to round out things. Hey-- my astrological sign is Libra. My act is to effect balance.

  4. thanks, Daddy X. i'm a Libra too ;) in the end i think as long as the ending suits the work & isn't contrived, whether it is MFN, HEA etc. ;)
    i have to say i am more often than not moved to feel great joy through the sadder works than the happy ones, which are fun, but more like empty calories for me. some people wallow & some are blind to misfortune. we all get by somehow. acknowledging that life is tough & then being able to move on anyway is called resilience. which you have in spades :)

  5. To evoke a complex, comprehensive and ever-expanding range of emotions is ever writer's dream. Having experienced some of these misfortunes first hand helps sort things out a bit differently. Determining what's truly important, for instance.

  6. Here I just noted we should talk about the appeal of tragedy in my comment to Daddy - and that's just what you've tackled.

    I think your points are well-taken. There's another dimension to tragedy, a kind of transcendence, that also plays a role in its popularity, imho. The awful ending is at least sometimes the consequence of great passion, passion that ends up consuming everything in its path - passion that makes us gasp and wonder how we'd endure such intensity.

    Think about Romeo and Juliet - okay, they're rather stupid teenagers, but their death elevates them to a different plane. They've become immortal lovers. Or Love in the Time of Cholera. A lifetime of unrequited emotion. Even the old tear-jerker film Love Story has some of that quality. If the girl had lived, the story would be banal. Her death turns the tale into something with a hint universal meaning.

    1. thanks, Lisabet. nice to be on the same wave length & then Jean Roberta's post on tragedy to finish us up. oh dear, i don't think we ended this topic with an HEA. ;)

  7. In Katherine Dunn's Masterpiece 'Geek Love', she creates a horror that does absorb everything in its path leading uo to the final flaming finish. Great, imaginative work that has much humor of a quite dark variety

    1. shall have to check that out, Daddy X. thanks for the tip.

  8. Oh yes, "Geek Love" is outstanding. A complex story that goes where it has to go and pulls no punches along the way, with a brilliance of invention that seems all too chillingly plausible.

  9. Hi Amanda!

    I think part of the thing with tragedy, at least from the classical perspective was that it somehow made the viewer bigger or relieved sadness by giving it an outlet. It seems artficial but when people see a sad story and feel it themseles, it really does seem to me that our humanity is expanded somehow. I always think of the little dollar theater in my town as my second church because through stories I feel that extra connection with humanity.



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