On the Mixtures of Happiness and Sadness

I remember coming upon Lucky Curtains, the last of Granfaloon Bus’s albums, in a record store and seizing it in its gleaming wrapping. I purchased it, took it home, and for weeks listened to nothing else. It opened up something raw; my editing job (at a company that published career guides) went against who I was, and I knew it was time for a change. It was around then that I decided to become a teacher, and it took another year to make this happen. The music, this album, was part of the catalyst. Why? It’s hard to define and delimit these things, especially after all these years. But listening to the songs now, I hear not only the sadness that hit me then, but a happiness mixed in too, a kind of tentative, mitigated hope or at least ease.

Any mood, any emotion, is more than one thing at once; we are under pressure to name it one thing or another, to give it one emoticon or another, but it usually comes along with its opposite. Often when I am angry, I also see past the anger; often when worried I feel calm. Likewise, happiness and sadness go together so strongly that to separate them means to lose both.

On the Lucky Curtains album, the song “House” has all kinds of emotions together: happiness and sadness, security and tentativeness, expansiveness and enclosedness. Not only opposites, but gradations and hints, something outside of the polarities.

Whenever I mention being sad, there are those who jump in and try to fix it. Don’t! It is part of the happiness; it makes happiness possible. The dreariest thing on earth is one-sidedness. No one has to fall for it.

There are specific, obvious things to be sad about (climate change, the spreading Delta variant, hurricanes and floods, the disaster in Afghanistan, personal losses), but beyond that, sadness is a current in life; loss of some kind is always present. In János Pilinszky’s poetry I find an exceptional compression of happiness and sadness: a seemingly tranquil scene can contain endless grief. An example is his poem “Kegyelem” (“Grace”):

Bogarak szántják a sötétet
és csillagok az éjszakát.
Van időnk hosszan üldögélni
az asztalon pihenő lámpafényben.
Megadatott a kegyelem:
miközben minden áll és hallgat,
egyedül az öröklét működik.

In rough translation:

(Beetles plow through the dark
and stars the night.
We have time for long lingering
at the table in leisurely lamplight.
Grace has become possible:
while everything stops and listens,
eternity works all alone.)

The pivotal word here is “megadatott,” which is not the same as “megadott” (“it is given”). “Megadatott” expresses a tentative possibility. Grace is not certain; it just becomes possible in these still moments, which themselves are rare. The poem holds this rarity.

Last night I was listening again to Cz.K. Sebő’s “kétezerhúsz” (“2020”), a truly sad song. But if there’s a happiness in it, it has to do with being able to sing the sadness as it is, being at peace with it in some way. I think that is a kind of happiness, but not a cheery kind. I understand much more of the song than I did before; not just the literal meaning of the lyrics, but their tones too.

It’s hard to explain that happiness and sadness go together; lots of people know and understand this, but our current vocabulary doesn’t make much room for it. There’s so much pressure to be on the up-and-up, always doing better, feeling better. But literature and music (and other arts) make room for something else.

What is the mood of Dávid Szesztay’s “Késő” (“Late”), for instance? It starts out mournful, but then it lifts up into a kind of exhilaration. The word “but” here is misleading; the one mood follows from the other.

It isn’t just that different moods coexist. Rather, there’s something more important than mood. We (around the world, but particularly in the U.S.) place too much emphasis on being happy, being fulfilled, as though such a thing could be attained and frozen in place, and as though it were more important than the things we do and receive. I don’t mean that mood is unimportant, but it’s a background color, changing and blending and fading, a wash of sky.

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2 Comments

  1. Thanks, I needed that …
    Shared on my Facebook Occasional Page, “Occupy Chance”.

    Reply

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    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

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