“Are you happy?” the former curator at my work asked me. Funnily enough, a co-worker and I had just been talking about this.
I always felt that each person was their own barometer. I consider people who are stupider than me stupid; people who are smarter, smart; people who are more beautiful, beautiful; people who are uglier, ugly. Given that no one is average in every way, our perception of others and ourselves is necessarily skewed.
So how could I know if I’m happy? Sometimes I think “How could I possibly be happy?” At other times I think that maybe I’m the happiest person on Earth and I just don’t know it.
I remember going to the Liberté dairy production facility in Saint-Hyacinthe with my brother. He was interviewing workers about sustainability for a university assignment and he’d asked me to videotape it. They told us that they’d created a yogurt drink with the most eco-friendly packaging they could produce. The product had been a commercial failure because the container had the dreaded carton spout instead of the less eco-friendly but more convenient plastic cap. Customers want to make more environmentally friendly choices, they said, just as long as they don’t have to make any sacrifices.
After being cooped up in Montréal for two and half years because of the COVID pandemic, I go spend the Holidays by the harbour in St. John’s just as cases are rising again with the Omicron variant. Still, men on Grindr want to hook up. I think about erotic thrillers, one of my favourite movie genres, about men who are willing to risk death for sex.
“They should make an erotic thriller that takes place during a pandemic,” I think.
Wait a minute… This isn’t the first pandemic. Erotic thrillers reached the height of their popularity in the early 90s before the internet eradicated the need for them with easily accessible porn. I google “erotic thrillers AIDS”. It only took me thirty years to make the connection.
“[The] death instinct would thus seem to express itself – though probably only in part – as an instinct of destruction directed against the external world.” –Freud, The Ego and the Id (1923)
At the Liberté production facility, the person in charge of sustainable development told us that, because it is the action they can easily do, consumers tend to only think in terms of recycling. And, because plastic no. 6 isn’t recyclable in most areas, they try to avoid buying products that use it. Instead, they buy products that use more plastic. They feel better about recycling more plastic than they do about buying less.
I always felt that every inch of happiness was something that had to be fought for and, even more importantly, protected; that my happiness was hanging by a thread.
The pandemic made me realize that everyone’s happiness is. People would rather die than not stand in line to consume an underwhelming brunch.
“In the animal world we have seen that the vast majority of species live in societies, and that they find in association the best arms for the struggle for life: understood, of course, in its wide Darwinian sense – not as a struggle for the sheer means of existence, but as a struggle against all natural conditions unfavourable to the species. The animal species in which individual struggle has been reduced to its narrowest limits and the practice of mutual aid has attained the greatest development are invariably the most numerous, the most prosperous, and the most open to further progress. The mutual protection that is obtained in this case, the possibility of attaining old age and of accumulating experience, the higher intellectual development, and the further growth of sociable habits secure the maintenance of the species, its extension, and its further progressive evolution. The unsociable species, on the contrary, are doomed to decay.”
Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution
What was I thinking those times I had unprotected sex? Mostly that it didn’t matter, that I wanted to die anyway.
I watch Theo Anthony’s Rat Film, an essay documentary about Baltimore’s rat problem.
“There’s never been a rat problem in Baltimore,” a city exterminator tells us, “it’s always been a people problem.”
Anthony brings up American ethologist and behavioural researcher John Bumpass Calhoun. Between 1958 and 1962, Calhoun conducted a series of experiments on Norway rats. He created a “rat utopia”, an enclosed space in which 32 to 56 rats were given unlimited access to food and water, enabling unfettered population growth. However, the population never exceeded 200 rats and stabilized at 150. By the end of the experiment, the only ones still alive had become asexual.
Since then, I’ve only been able to see Grindr as a virtual cage.
“Abuse of the military metaphor may be inevitable in a capitalist society, a society that increasingly restricts the scope and credibility of appeals to ethical principle, in which it is thought foolish not to subject one’s actions to the calculus of self-interest and profitability. War-making is one of the few activities that people are not supposed to view ‘realistically’; that is, with an eye to expense and practical outcome.”
Susan Sontag, AIDS and Its Metaphors
I put my recycling and garbage on the curb. The next day, it is gone.
Out of sight, out of mind.
I watch Nosferatu the Vampyre. In Werner Herzog’s retelling of the story, Count Dracula moves from Transylvania to Wismar, spreading the Black Plague across the land. Bodies pile up on the streets.
“This metropolitan world […] is a world where flesh and blood is less real than paper and ink and celluloid. It is a world where the great masses of people, unable to have direct contact with more satisfying means of living, take life vicariously, as readers, spectators, passive observers: a world where people watch shadow-heroes and heroines in order to forget their own clumsiness or coldness in love, where they behold brutal men crushing out life in a strike riot, a wrestling ring or a military assault, while they lack the nerve even to resist the petty tyranny of their immediate boss: where they hysterically cheer the flag of their political state, and in their neighborhood, their trades union, their church, fail to perform the most elementary duties of citizenship.
Living thus, year in and year out, at second hand, remote from the nature that is outside them and no less remote from the nature within, handicapped as lovers and as parents by the routine of the metropolis and by the constant specter of insecurity and death that hovers over its bold towers and shadowed streets – living thus the mass of inhabitants remain in a state bordering on the pathological. They become victims of phantasms, fears, obsessions, which bind them to ancestral patterns of behavior.”
Lewis Mumford, The Culture of Cities
In his memoir To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, Hervé Guilbert chronicles his fight with AIDS. In one chapter, he sees an old friend, a psychiatrist, who tells him he has found a good trick to talk to his patients about AIDS. He tells them, “Don’t pretend you’ve never wished for death at one moment or another before you contracted this disease! Psychological factors are crucial to trigger AIDS. You wished for death, well, here it is.”
My friend Aurora and I are hanging out on her balcony on a cold spring day, a spicy hot chocolate in hand. I complain about my incessantly runny nose.
“Maybe your body needs to expel liquid,” she says. “When’s the last time you cried?”
“I shed a tear this morning, actually.”
“Why did you shed a tear? I thought you were happier than you’ve been in years.”
“I am. Maybe specifically because I’ve been more alone than I’ve been years. So it’s bittersweet.”