Making Better—Jennifer Michael Hecht
(music) Welcome to the Making Better Podcast, interviewing some of the world’s finest thinkers about a more optimistic future. Now, here are your hosts, Chris Hofstader and Dr. Francis DiDonato.
Chris: Hi, I’m Chris Hofstader!
Francis: Hey, it’s Francis DiDonato here!
Chris: And this is Episode 12 of the Making Better Podcast, featuring Columbia Professor Jennifer Michael Hecht.
Francis: And I’m really excited, because this is the first time we’ve had a poet on, who is actually going to read a poem.
Chris: Jennifer does do poetry, but she’s the author of three popular books: Stay, a philosophical history of arguments against suicide; Doubt, a philosophical history of atheism, and The Happiness Myth, a book that delves philosophically into modern culture and how we’re constantly being told to be happy.
Francis: Are you a fan of poetry?
Chris: Before we recorded the podcast episode with her, I read her entire collection called “Funny,” which is poetry but is also quite humorous.
Francis: I have this definition of poetry, let me run it by you: Poetry is truth beyond logic.
Chris: That’s poetic in and of itself!
Francis: (laughs) OK.
Chris: And with that said, let’s move on to the interview…
Chris: Jennifer Michael Hecht, Welcome to Making Better!
Jennifer: Thanks so much for having me.
Francis: Hey, it’s great to have you.
Chris: So you wear a number of hats—you’re a poet, you’re a philosopher, you’re a professor—how did you come to be all of those things?
Jennifer: Well, my father was an is a physicist, and I liked poetry, so when I went to college, which was where he taught—you know, it was very local, not the usual American college experience—yeah, I studied sort of everything, and by the end I literally had credits enough to be a history major or an English major and I just picked a line at graduation. But I kind of thought, because my father was (and still is) a college professor, and writes—he was home writing most of the time, and I thought I wanted to write poetry, so I decided to be a professor, and I wanted to know, to understand, a whole lot of different things. And history seemed like a skeleton that you could just keep adding things to, it gives you the structure so you can see what you’re doing. So history was what I was going to do, and I applied to graduate schools to do cultural history. I was going to write about poetry and history. I got a good deal to go to Columbia—I really wanted to leave the state, I grew up here, but they gave me the best deal and I didn’t have any money, so…While I was there, they kept saying “we’re trying to hire a cultural historian,” and I kept going to the interviews with them, they would give me the talk, and I would say, “great, I can work with this person”—and they just never hired one. Meanwhile, they had a Historian of Science who was already introducing me to some fascinating lines of inquiry, ways of thinking about these things, and I came to find that history of science was a lot like poetry. There was a kind of—how can I describe it—when you look at a society that’s spending a great deal of time measuring each other’s heads, why are they doing it? And the answer can only be poetic, the answer are things like, they were involved in empire, and they were suddenly scared about the difference between the French and the other peoples that they’re meeting. And yet, you look closely and they were more than any other race—which is, they said, was what they were doing—they compared French men and women’s heads, and concluded, of course, that women weren’t as smart. So the French threw that out pretty quick, with some dynamic men and women, but in any case, all of that kind of stuff, all history, is a little bit of a feel for it. You go into the archives, you unpack this box, and it could mean a lot of different things, but you use your own sense of psychology and the way things really work, and how competent are people? Like if you think people are competent and I think they’re not, we’re going to come to a very different story. I’m not going to come to a conspiracy theory story, ‘cause I’m not going to think people can manage that, right? I mean those are just examples, but I started to see that the history of science is a lot about how science didn’t work, how it was a cultural product, how it changed, and that felt like poetry enough to me that I got completely sucked in and I never really left. For a while, I felt a little uncomfortable about how totally different my two most important disciplines were—my history work and my poetry, but not now. Now it’s all come together, and it’s a very interesting experience for me. The book I’m writing right now is looking at how nonreligious people can use poetry, or already do use poetry, to do some of the tasks that religion used to do. So it’s glorious now, I can do research and just think about something and see what comes up.
Francis: That’s really fascinating. Can you just mention a couple examples of that, of how nonreligious people can use poetry in that regard?
Jennifer: Oh sure. The book I’m working on right now, it sort of is an idea that started from the most basic sorts of things, people at weddings and funerals and birth ceremonies, graduations a little bit, but especially weddings and funerals, have come to either add on poetry or replace religious items with poetry. And that started me thinking about how the sacred is constructed—you know, I’ve been saying for years that people, I call it “drop by and lie” religion where—and I’m not saying this is bad, I’m just saying it’s the situation that history has put us in, where many of us who are good people and just want to go along with what people want, and they don’t very much, and they’re willing to do the funeral or the wedding in a church or with religious aspects to it—but they still, they’re hungry for something that’s gonna speak to them, and say to them, here’s how we cope with death, here’s how we imagine the future with another person—and just create moments of heightened meaning. And that’s spread out to all sorts of different things, partially in work with my editor, who—and I’m a little older than her, and really it’s turned into more of a real guide, like here’s a problem and here’s a poem or three that can help change your perspective about it. But it also started in that I was giving a lot of talks and I would be invited to very scientistic places. And for a historian of science to see all these people so certain of science, when the whole thing that makes science cool is that it knows it’s 75% wrong today, and it’s going to work on those things, you know what I mean? Like, it knows it’s not right, that’s why it’s different than everything else, because it knows it’s not right and it’s looking. So aware of all the arrogance, and no mention of humanities, and I felt bad for people dealing with being human and not having the support of the humanities. And somehow we had just lost the notion that atheism, non-theism, a-religion, was for most of history in most cultures all around the globe, very much attached to humanities and literature. I mean, poets become poets because they don’t buy the story of what’s going on here. And so they’re searching for one they can buy. And if they’re leaning on religion, they become religious poets. So I was really trying to point out to people that we had this other resource, and while there I would end up—very often I’d quote Keats “when I have fears that I may cease to be…” I would tell them, look, this is a young man living in a Christian country, he’s just watched his mother die and tended her unto death of tuberculosis, then his brother dies of tuberculosis, and now he’s coughing blood in his white hanky—how does he feel? When he knows he could be a great poet and my god, he did more in his 26 years than anybody! There’s nobody who became a major poet at the age he did, certainly not in the English language, and what does he say? He doesn’t go to Jesus, he doesn’t go to God, he says he goes down to the shore, to the edge of the wide world to think until love and fame to nothingness do sink. He says, I go about and I see that giant sky—this part is my interpretation, but he’s saying he sees that ocean and he sees that giant sky and he knows that that’s what will shift his perspective and make it OK that we don’t live that long, we do what we can while we’re here.
Francis: While we’re on Keats, do you take the Ode to Grecian Urn “truth is beauty, beauty truth”—is that rhetorical, is that—how do you embrace or don’t embrace that part of that poem?
Jennifer: It’s one of these things that is poetically true and all poetically true things also poetically false in a way (I’m joking but I’m not joking)—So when Keats said it, and when Emily Dickenson said it, and when Emily Dickenson slightly shifted it and said it back to him, that what they were saying has a lot of strength to it. And the strength to it is partially that the imagination is where human beings live, and if what you know doesn’t match the inner life of a human being, it’s only interesting to us when we need that. What Keats says over and over in all sorts of different ways is that what happens in the imagination is a kind of truth for human beings, and it’s the direction we want to go in if we’re going to be wise and even happy, which kind of about this, just kind of giving, you just give once you realize you can’t get anything you want, really, not by taking it. So you make beauty, and you stop lying because lying doesn’t work, you don’t get anything, not for very long. On the other hand, if you tell me that a theory is true because it’s beautiful, I’ll sit you down, because that’s not how it works either. There’s no reason that a fleshy little short-lived piece of grub that we are, crawling around this dirt having been honed by evolution mostly to get food, avoid being killed and—not just having babies, that’s the easy, dumb part, it’s raising babies to the age that they can reproduce, that’s what evolution is. And there’s no reason that we are honed to even pick up the important information, let alone be able to make sense of it. So is there any reason that what we think of as “beauty” is always going to be true? How ridiculous, can’t be, we’re animals. However, within my human experience, those things are endlessly fascinating to look at.
Chris: Well, within your human experience you’ve written a number of books, in addition to the poetry. The first that I read was Doubt, your philosophical history of atheism. What brought you to atheism and what brought you to writing a history of it?
Jennifer: I was raised in a household with a very rational, smart but believing mother—sorry if I phrased it in an obnoxious way, but that was the case, and she—I’m learning more and more as I begin to ask her further questions—you know, she actually raised us with a little bit more religion than she was raised with, which is sort of hard to take in, in some ways. But my dad—also Jewish, both, they met in Brooklyn when they were kids, both very poor and just hung around with each other and then eventually got married. My dad is a physicist, as I said, and doesn’t believe in God, but my grandparents were the Holocaust generation. We were already here, people mostly came over around 1905. You know, there was just a lot of feelings about being Jewish, but my dad didn’t believe in God, and I remember asking when I was young whether he would be doing any of the rites and rituals that we did—and we didn’t do a ton of them, but we did some every year without fail. He said he probably wouldn’t be doing them if my mom wasn’t starting it. So, I came from a place where, I guess, I had more room to think about these questions, and as I’ve been saying for a long time—though it’s very hard to go back and know why I knew this, but as some point at twelve years old I had this, kind of an epiphany, like many young people have when you suddenly see the world differently than you saw it when you were a child, but it was just a, you know, a certain slant of light, and I suddenly felt like, if I had been born anywhere else, i would believe those things. And it made me see that we were animals on a planet, and we had a lot to deal with, and a lot of it was misinformation, and I knew that there was no god, and I had believed before, and I was sad for a little while, and then I broke out of the sad part of it and started, sort of, investigating. I think it was poetry that let me know that there were ways of—well, as Rilke puts it, living the questions. And that you can’t know answers until you get there, which as any person who’s getting up there starts to realize that’s true, but as a young person you have to first see it. So I was at Columbia, had already been an atheist a long time, didn’t think it had anything to do with much—a lot of people I knew were atheists, because I was so close to New York city and it’s a very open-minded world in some ways, at some times—and so at Columbia, I had to pick a dissertation topic, that’s what goes on. I had settled on France for—other long stories reasons—but I was reading a whole lot of different stuff, and I found in footnotes of two disserations mentions of the Society of Mutual Autopsy in France, turn of the 19th to 20th century, mostly it happened in the 19th century. I just found it fascinating, I could see there was something delicious in there and that other people were sort of scared of it, so they buried the headline—what does it mean, and is it serious scholarship to look at this? You know, when it was time to go do my research, again, because that’s what you do, I went to Paris and searched for the archives to the Society of Mutual Autopsy, and eventually found them. It soon became clear that they were radical atheists, that some of them were doctors, none of them were anthropologists because they were inventing it. These atheist people who came together first as atheists and anti-royalists in France said to each other—I mean, we have the letter that, where they say it—they say look, anthropology is gonna be where we can fight the church. Darwin wasn’t even on their mind yet, really, because Origin of Species wasn’t translated into French until 1871 by Clement *—and when she did she was one of them, and translated it with a huge preface, like 1/5 of the book size preface saying how this proves atheism, which she knew all along, even from Lamark, and the French reviewed it as “the translator has seen farther than the scientist”—and Darwin was irked by it and eventually asked for a new French translation. I think she had passed on by then, but she was a real interesting character—not all good, but awfully interesting, from our standards. So I was drawn into writing about these atheists, because they were doing something very interesting; they were dissecting each other’s brains after death to prove to the Catholic church that the soul doesn’t exist. They said as much, they were also trying to find relationships between brain morphology, weight, typology and traits, abilities, intelligence. And the reason they were doing this—and this finishes my thought from before I wandered off from that—it wasn’t Darwin that made them think they should invent anthropology, the science of men to use against the church, it was Broca. Carl Broca, I guess 1848, found the first definite relationship between an area of the brain and an ability. So it’s still called Broca’s aphasia, and it means if you have a lesion on your third left frontal convolution, you will have trouble speaking. We now know that the brain can sometimes compensate and build up in other parts, but this was the first time—and it really shocked the religious, who really had been saying, Catholic France believed, that the brain was a chair that the soul sat in, and that was so firm a belief that it made them feel, Oh my God, religion is wrong, we have no souls. They of course got used to it later said, right, the soul is different than that—but not at first. It really worked, it shook everybody in France, and you add to that that Darwin’s showing where we came from, but to the French atheists Lamark was enough. Even though Lamark was wrong, Darwin thought he was right, Darwin quotes Lamark a great deal and doesn’t dismiss it at all. He says, there seem to be these kind of inner push toward a certain direction of evolution. And Lamark had said that during the French Revolution, you know, a good deal before Darwin. So there is no, that we understand, there is no push in a certain kind of direction. The thing is, epigenetics, right now, is proving that Lamark had more on the ball than we thought, because indeed the way that a person lives, or what happens to you, including trauma, can change how your genes show up in the next generation—not because of DNA change but because of epigenetics.
Chris: Some contemporaries though, like Steven Pinker, who argues that we’re evolving to be a better species.
Jennifer: I don’t agree with that. His methodology is so different from my own that it’s not something I worry about processing very much. I don’t think that that’s the case—I think if anything, it’s going in the other direction, and I mean that largely in terms of, well, it’s a totally separate conversation and not that interesting. Whether we grow more moral over time is a wonderful philosophical question, and I don’t know the answer, and I try to live as if I believe that some gains are lasting; but in the United States right now, that’s a little hard, it’s a little hard to keep that kind of optimism going.
Chris: Well that’s why we started the podcast, though, was to try to provide an alternative, optimistic approach to what’s going on out there in the news…
Jennifer: Very much needed…you know, there’s this Muriel Ruckheiser poem—I don’t think I can remember the exact words—what is, the poem essentially starts that she, “I lived in the 20th century the first, “I lived in the first century of world wars, most days we were entirely mad” You know, and just like—that gives me a little bit of relief, just feeling like, oh, hearing from someone who says that in order to go around with normal life when the world around you is doing things you thought you’d put your body in front of; I mean, the babies in cages right now, I mean—if you hear my voice catch, I don’t want to talk about it, it’s too upsetting. But you know, it’s very hard to figure out all the right things to do. So yeah, it’s hard to keep up optimism when the world is literally dying around us, you know? No, the world isn’t getting better.
Francis: Human consciousness might be evolving in a lot of people—like people are getting more educated, in some ways people are becoming more spiritual in a non-religious way—maybe it speaks to a litte of what you were referring to, where there’s an interest in reverence, a basis for reverence, or the sacred in life, even void of religion or Gods. And the thing is, though, that power is being concentrated amongst people who haven’t been along for that ride. And we have a lot of people who are capable of living really peaceful, productive, amazing lives who are in a society that’s not geared toward permitting that. And this relates to a question I wanted to ask you about, happiness. You have people who say, for whatever reason, aren’t particularly empathetic. They are very, very narcissistic and selfish, and what happiness means to them is kind of like destructive to the earth, to a lot of other people. So I guess what I’m getting at now is, you have power in the hands of a lot of these people who are at that level of narcissism and destructiveness, and then you have all these other people evolved in another direction that really don’t want power. So how do we bridge all that, how do we get out of this mess? Are we allowed to say it’s OK for Donald Trump to keep doing what makes him happy?
Jennifer: No, of course not. And there’s a great deal of philosophical work on how, in order to achieve a certain kind of freedom, some people have to have less freedom, and especially in order to have a rule that values tolerance, you have to have to censor the intolerant people. People have trouble with that, but there’s sort of a lot of philosophical and sociological work—not that I’ve read it all—but that idea of limiting his happiness, that’s not a problem. What’s a problem is, as you say, the whole system is not set up to support the things that a lot of us care about. You know, when you’re young—I don’t know, I guess some people try to get theirs when they’re young, but a lot of other people try to change things. And you know, for overall fixes, you should’ve asked me ten years ago when I thought I knew everything—I’m joking, but what I have right now is that I’ve noticed, as I was sort of pointing at before, that the only thing that really works for me is being vulnerable, telling versions but trying to speak the truth about who I am, which is a mess a lot of the times, you know? I mean, yes, I could pretend that I’ve got everything together because I have these accomplishments, of these books and the other things, different prizes mean different things to different people, but it’s just not true. I’m 100% sure that success doesn’t make anybody more than possibly 5% happier, but it’s a good chance it makes you 10% less happy, because you don’t get what you want. You thought you wanted love, but impressing people does not get you love. It doesn’t. It gets you attention, it’s gets, you know, it’s you some stuff. But what works is crying in front of people when they’re crying, and just trying to say, let’s have strength in this together, and part of the way that happens for me is because I am thinking about life and death all the time, because I’m a poet, because I’m an historian, because I’m someone who’s trying to bring some poetry to people who might need it and who don’t think of it as something that can help. And so the other thing is that Stay book, we really haven’t talked about my argument against suicide. I’ll just put this capper on then, or segue, which is that I never feel so bad about myself that I can’t appreciate that I put the work in and made that book happen, because it helped. I mean, I hear from people, I don’t really want to expand on what I hear back from the world, but it lets me know that you can make a difference, you can help, or at least I can, when I can get myself to do the thing I can do sometimes—which is not all the time. So that your question, what can we do to get out of this mess—I frankly wish that Winston Churchill would go on the radio and say, let’s all just march down to the White House and—or just march down to the internment centers, that’s the first thing. You know, that this could happen while I’m alive and seeing it, and I’m still trying to figure out how I could, I don’t know, I try a lot of different things, and guess what—you get in trouble a lot of the time. So it’s really hard. But yeah, the Stay book lets me always know—though Doubt did too, people still reach out and tell me that they were just dying of guilt and misery and solitude in the middle of the Bible Belt and now they feel OK! So, for me, you do whatever you can do, and you don’t worry too much about that the whole thing’s collapsing because there’s a good chance to whole thing’s collapsing.
Chris: Seeing you talk at the QED conference, I think it was 2016, and then coming home to Florida and reading Stay was a really transformative event for me. I mean, I previously had been hospitalized twice for suicide attempts, and another time for ideation, and Stay just spoke to me so profoundly that I, I never think about suicide any more, unless I’m thinking about somebody else.
Jennifer: Me too! I mean—alright, the truth is I’m a little ideational too, and the words still sometimes go through my mind, but I just bat it away now, I don’t sit and think Oh my god, what did this thought, that I can’t go on, mean, and what does it mean about what I have to do—if it comes to my mind now, it’s with the same intensity as if you’re driving and someone cuts you off and you think, I gotta get that guy!—and then you just dismiss it. I too suffer from a kind of darkness and self-criticism and hopelessness that sometimes gets the better of me. And so I too have been very much helped by the arguments that I was able to put together and make vivid enough to me that I don’t really have to do any work about it any more, for myself.
Chris: Do you have some idea on how potentially humanity can avoid committing sui-genocide?
Jennifer: Well, I certainly have been thinking a lot about the similarities and differences between the mass shootings and suicide—because those mass shootings that we’ve been having in the States are mostly suicide affairs, that is, they don’t even have a backup plan, they went in to kill themselves and, I’ve seen people say but the prime thing was to kill others, and other people say the prime thing was to kill themselves, they just decided to take people with them—I don’t know what the prime thing was, but I’m sure that there’s definite overlap in the hopelessness and the sense that many people have that they are the only ones who see how absurd this whole thing is. People do seem to perk up a little bit when they read a book that tells them that these feelings have been going on for a long time, and maybe they’re not the majority, but they have friends and there is a place where your pain will be embraced and a better world nurtured. So, what’s going on with the biggest issues in America today seemed to me to be problematically interwoven with religion—I have seen the monied Christians who are happy to say, I mean for the last 40 years, saying, yeah, we hear your environmental problems but the Lord gave us this planet and we should have dominion over it, and never said anything about using anything up, and when we do use it up, then the Second Coming comes—if they believe these things, then dealing with religion is a really good place to deal with this, including what they could possibly be thinking about Christian brotherhood with what’s going on at the border, but more importantly in terms of it being specifically a Christian idea. Controlling women’s bodies, which led to so many deaths when we didn’t have abortion rights in the past, because if you can’t do it you just get an illegal abortion, that’s what always happens and people just die, that’s the difference. People in a certain state go to another state, and if that state’s illegal, they die there. So that one and the environmental issues, and what about the insanity of the tiny percentage of Americans who have all the food and stuff and they give a little to charity because they want people to be happier, are you kidding me? People want work, people want education, simple stuff that they’re stockpiling money for some weird social game, and a lot of them say that they’re Christian that are making these decisions on the basis of religion. I’m not saying Christianity is the only religion that does that, I’m just living in a country where the Christian vote is the one that really seems to determine things and it’s let me feel that the platform I’ve built for myself, it does have a lot of different pieces, but unless I’m invited into something that seems like it would use my talents, it sort of looks to me that my best way of helping the world is to continue to show people the delights of an open mind, and that’s what I’m doing.
Francis: I’d be curious to know what your feelings are, or what your thoughts are, regarding the need for myth in society and how religion has always been a way that, I think, humanity’s kind of answered that question? But when the metaphors turn into facts, you know that’s when you get the kind of religions we have now. I was wondering if you had any thoughts about that in particular, like what sort of myths would help people today, if at all, and who is writing these myths and how are they affecting society?
Jennifer: It’s absolutely true that human beings make models in our heads, often when we are quite young, maybe we change them once or twice as we mature, and the myth has to be something that would make some emotional sense to us about what’s success or love or being a good person, or being an important person, would mean. I’ll bring up Churchill again, just because it’s—I was just reading it, and I was thinking about what makes people act, and what makes them passive. That’s really been the question that drew me into history in the first place, I really wanted to know. All you have to do is read a little bit of history, and you realize people rip up a few cobblestones for a barricade to have a revolution almost every day. But the vast majority of the time, it goes zero, it goes nowhere. Even when it gets going a little, it’s usually just a riot or just a little—it’s not a full-on rebellion, it’s certainly not a full-on revolution. What makes people act? It’s definitely not when things are the worst, when things are the worst, like American slaves revolted in places where they were not treated the worst—because they weren’t so broken that they couldn’t. It’s hard to see, it’s not always the worst treatment, the worst situation, sometimes it’s losing what you thought you were about to get that would have made things better, and you can’t tolerate going back, so it’s not even something new that’s bad. So what makes people, what makes people act? And at a speech like Churchill’s, you know, saying we’ll fight in the streets, we will never surrender—I’m susceptible to that, you know? People—language creates these myths as well as, of course, a certain amount of lived behavior, but I’ll sidestep a little bit and say that I count myself lucky that we’re living in a time when people are putting their vulnerabilities more on display in public than in recent history where I live. So that, somebody says, come read my new Instagram article! And my first thought is a kind of competitiveness, ‘cause once this person snubbed me at a party—you know, whatever it is, and then I go and look at the thing, ‘cause I want to know, is there anything here, and what I find there is this beautiful reckoning with a tortured inner self—I put the book down feeling less alone, stronger, wanting to try to be nice again next time I see the person, but it’s not really about that. It’s that I feel not in this alone, and that myth, the myth of—let’s say it’s two different myths: a myth of never showing weakness, like the Kipling “If” poem, and never breathe a word about your loss; or on the other side, people who are very much interested in taking away the mythology of their own success because they know that envy and desire hurt them so badly that they don’t want to be part of that. But also seeing that there’s cultural room to say, “I was in pain.” I mean, there’s not much cultural room, you’re allowed to say you were in pain, you were an addict, you’re not really allowed to say that you’re in agony right now and on a regular basis, and still have problems, you know what I mean? With issues, that they love that you solved, but are not really interested in the binges in between your moments of absolute purity. Nevertheless, with all caveats, still, we’re living in a moment where there’s room for the mythology to be—and it too is a mythology, but it’s a closer to reality and closer to health mythology—the mythology that a human being is a person who falls down and keeps getting up, rather than that if you fall even once, you’re done and you should go hide. But yeah, the mythology—that’s part of the poetry, it’s part of what reading is—you know, you read a book where someone makes it through a difficult thing by maybe debasing themselves for awhile. Maybe putting up with something they shouldn’t, but don’t know how to get out of—and then you see how it ripened them, to use Shakespeare’s term, “all is ripeness.”
Francis: I have a book I would like your opinion on, then, what about Candide by Voltaire? His take on happiness, what do you have to say about that?
Jennifer: It’s very limited, so it’s a mistake for a lot of people, but it works for a while—ok, so let me be more specific: at the very end of Candide, having been beaten and shit on by the world, having seen his friends have their limbs whittled away, having watched the people that they love get leprosy and awful, disgusting things happen to them—at the very end of that tiny little book, he comes up with the final line, that should cultivate your own garden. We should each just hide from the world—that ain’t gonna work, that’s not a workable situation. But look who wrote it—Voltaire isn’t most to be admired for what he wrote, he is most to be admired because he was the man who invented public protest against religious abuse. The Church was gonna torture a father because, I think, somebody murdered the wife and children and the father was Protestant and the wife and children were Catholic, and so there was a kangaroo court and they were going to kill the husband for being Protestant, essentially. (I’m not sure I remember this story precisely, but) Voltaire said, everybody who reads me, everybody who can hear me, everybody, we have to do this stuff to make this not happen. And it worked! And he kept doing it, he kept taking up subscriptions to pay for better legal stuff for people caught in this, and it was picked up. It was one of the big things we learned from the Enlightenment, and it was Voltaire’s good heart saying, I’m not going to sit here and watch this, and I’ve got just enough fame to start talking a little bit. So, he’s not a man who just cultivated his own garden.
Francis: Maybe that’s how he cultivated his garden.
Jennifer: Well, yes, if you make all of France your garden, then I’m fine with the statement. But I think that Candide, even his name, means “innocent,” and so he’s always a babe in the woods, throughout the book, even when he’s learned everything, he’s still the naive voice. He’s Candide, and you can’t be Candide in a world like this.
Francis: Well, it seems like a lot of people think that it’s all good, it’s nice to have Candide around for them to read and maybe reassess that theory.
Jennifer: Yeah, it’s true. I read it first when I was pretty young. I read it in the English version for some Western Civ class, and then eventually read it in French when I was learning the language—not too taxing, in that book, but you know it’s definitely stayed in my mind tremendously as these different voices—you know, Dr. Pangloss saying “This is the best of all possible worlds,” and all of us tried to believe that things are running about as well as we could hope, and—I mean, if you’re mature enough to have seen your own plans go awry a few times, you stop being too arrogant about how things go wrong, and Pangloss was wrong. It’s not the best of all possible worlds, that was another way that Voltaire was making fun of religion, because that basis of it, being the best of all possible worlds, was based on, you know, God made the world, so it must be that every horror that you see is somehow useful in a way that makes up for it—which is just, it’s the most morally repugnant thing I can imagine. It’s just so awful when I hear any religious idea that the world is gonna be made fair, is moral, it’s a shanda, as we Jews say, it’s a shame.
Chris: Well, this brings us to your book, The Happiness Myth, where you discuss quite a few different visions of happiness and synthesize parts of them into an overall objective.
Jennifer: The Happiness Myth is, in a way, my history of science education. The Happiness Myth is what it looks like to be a scholar writing about issues that are not anything to do with, sort of, how we live our lives every day kind of thing. But you look around and you see behavior that you don’t see throughout all of history, you see in other forms, but we take very seriously some things that are not standard in the human way. So, I looked around and I saw on every street corner in New York City, there were—and every city I went to—there were these glass-walled gyms where, in the time of an energy crisis, we have able-bodied, healthy men, women and young people, running on a machine actually called a treadmill, called doing work going nowhere, and we plug it in! So that it even draws energy! We take the escalator to the Stairmaster, and we do that because we are showing class, that’s how it’s always been. We hire teenagers or foreigners to mow the lawn, to do the normal housework, to do the stuff that would have kept us fit, and we have dirty clothes that we keep—you know, we have gym clothes we keep in a separate bag marked “leisure,” and that’s where we’re willing to sweat. And this cult of the body beautiful, which is about those windows—whenever we see it, through history, historians say, oh that’s a militaristic trope. Right? We see the ancient Spartans, men and women exercising naked, all the sculptures were about physical beauty, we see it in fascist Germany, we see it in the slave plantations in the American South, that a sports culture that has nothing to do with production is created to retain the masculinity of the upper class. So we can get the poor people to sweat, but we stay muscle-y. And it looked to me like, as a nation, we were trying to show everybody else, look how strong we are—but we’re also so rich that we’re not actually going to do the fighting, it’s a sort of symbolic, sort of sexualization of the nation and also just this—so how was I thinking like that when I never saw anyone think anything like that? I was thinking like that because I had been using the tools of the history of science applied to history of philosophy, trying to just tell a story of the history of people who didn’t believe their religions. And the result of it left me feeling like the people around me were in a hypnotized trance about the value of fitness, about the importance of taking this drug, but never taking that drug, about the idea that our food isn’t as nutritious as it used to be. You know, a lot of these things are very old human stories, slightly changed in every time in history and in our time in history, you know, changed just enough so they seem new and true—but it’s all temporal prejudice. If we could just get it through our heads that the future will see us the way we see the past, it really helps. I’ve heard from a lot of people who it helps, so it doesn’t help everybody, or rather, I don’t know what happened exactly with The Happiness Myth, but I guess I came out with it too fast after Doubt. But for me, that was a book that was, I guess my first intellectual-poeticism, a kind of feeling around for what’s going on. Like in the case of Thiness, a hundred years ago, all different sizes of women were allowed, it was just a matter of being an hourglass shape. Now, you can be shaped like a board, shaped like a boy, shaped anyhow you want, but we don’t want to see whalebones in the corset under your clothes, you can wear a loose T-shirt, but we want to see your bones. So we’ve internalized a lot of these kinds of strictures that we think we’ve freed ourselves from, and that kind of thinking is, as I say, it’s poetic, it’s not something you can prove right or wrong. You can certainly set up other examples to the point where I might rethink what I’m seeing, but The Happiness Myth is not so much how to be happy—though I do, there is a section on the most lasting, ancient and present wisdom about how to stay happy, things like “remember death, it makes you live.” It lets you live, if you’re hiding from it all the time you don’t live, and if you live, you care less about the dying thing. So, there were some specific things to say, ways to think about worrying and ways to not worry—things like That, in sort of the front of the book, where I say the one thing that a lot of reviewers sort of grabbed onto, but I don’t talk about it that much in the book, which is that there’s “good day happiness” there’s “good life happiness,” and there’s ecstacy. And you need a little bit of ecstacy in your life, but it doesn’t have to happen every year—you need to have moments of transcendence where you danced like a crazy person and you felt one with everybody—there has to be some of that kind of stuff in your life, but you know, I’ve heard from people who believe in God because 50 years ago at church camp, they had a feeling near a rock. These transcendent moments matter, but if you don’t want to deal with the parking, you don’t have to go to the rave every weekend. You don’t have to go do these things much, but a good life tends to have some. Good life happiness is often the opposite of good day happiness—to have a good day, you often have to do things that will add up to a good life, but that aren’t that much fun today. And so that was a piece that people did find attractive, the notion that you can forgive yourself, because you can’t serve all these masters on the same day. You won’t have a good week if that’s the week where you have an ecstatic experience, ‘cause you’re probably gonna feel lousy the next day, given that ecstatic experiences tend to be a little hard on the body, or travel, or whatever—I’m just trying to say that, that was something that was a piece that I felt like I sort of came up with, and that helped people think about happiness, but a lot of the book really was just saying, check if what you’re terribly worried about is something that is a longstanding goal of humanity or a real weird little thing of your moment. You know, I talk about “Fletcherizing” in the last century, this guy Fletcher decided that if we chewed our food, if we chewed every mouthful thirty-two times (I’m guessing, I don’t remember anymore), that that would lead to health. You know, there were cartoons about it in the paper all over Europe and America saying you can’t go to dinner parties anymore because everyone’s Fletcherizing, they’re all just chewing, and they have the Jameses, Henry and William, are both chewing! I mean, you can be very smart, but it feels good to take part in the things that that people around you are doing, and often it’s healthier even if it’s a stupid thing, to be doing something everyone else is doing—not indicting anyone for it, I’m just saying if you’re feeling like being normal and doing just the normal, good stuff is beyond you, check to see which of those things are transcendent problems that you really need to deal with, and which are just—you don’t like corsets? Well, you live in the wrong century, that’s the only problems. You don’t have a problem, you know what I mean? And so The Happiness Myth was mostly debunking a kind of acceptance that we do, and I had so much fun with that kind of thinking, you know, just to say wow, there was famine in every generation—certainly in Europe, there was famine in every generation until about—by 1850 we’d started to get the railroad tracks down, so in the past there’d been enough food on earth, they just couldn’t get the food to the starving people fast enough so that the food doesn’t rot and the people are still alive when you get there. So, it was before refrigeration, so the history of us as starving beings is so long and deep, the story of us with the wolf at the door, and in essentially a quarter of a century we turned into a people of great bounty. Many of us are living in countries where there’s certainly enough food—it’s not always the food you want to eat, but the food is everywhere and so abundant. I mean, we didn’t have supermarkets before, you went to a market there might be a board with two applies on it. It wasn’t even there to be purchased all the time. So the abundance of our supermarkets, it just seemed to me important to make the point that after millennia of worrying about being too thin, as soon as we got the food, we just kept on worrying. We just flipped it over and said, now we’re scared that the food, we’re having too much food. That kind of thinking, to sort of, just kind of shake everything a little bit and see how it looks—for me, it’s always what I find the most emancipatory. And so I offer it, and it works for people who think like me.
Chris: And you write about, in Happiness Myth, about people going to gatherings and community and things like that; I go to QED every year and that’s where I was first exposed to you, and Francis, my co-host, here enjoys Star Trek conventions, and you mentioned them specifically in the book.
Jennifer: The society that we live in right now broke down a lot of the small communities—family got more important and national government got more important. A hundred and fifty years ago, as many have argued, if you went up to a peasant in the fields of France and asked what country they were in, they wouldn’t know. The overall–they would know what county they were in, just as if you ask a person on the street today what planet we are away from the sun, to my surprise, they don’t know. But if they all had little buggies that flew into space, they would know. The government, the overall nation, became much more important, and the nuclear family as a place of love, meaning, comfort, became much more important and everything in the middle disappeared. Even the last century had those Elks Clubs, these sort of clubs for men after work, those have all disappeared; and there were ladies auxiliaries, which were how a lot of women had their socializing. So my tendency, my personal tendency is to hide—I will isolate if given a chance, especially when I’m writing well. I have two kids, they’ve just entered teenage-hood, and a husband and a dog, and I have a life, and so it’s not like I’m alone, but I can seal myself off from the rest of the world rather easily. And then when I nudge myself back into it, I realize that it feeds you in all these ways that I was missing, that I didn’t realize I was missing. But for me, the push—I have to make the effort to go be with people, and other people have to make the effort to spend some time alone. I have all sorts of techniques for keeping myself busy and interested, alone, and having this little family which right now, of course, young teenagers, they need you a lot—and so, that’s where I am right now. So I don’t want to sound like somebody who believes that being with people is always the way to go. I do think it is more healthy.
Chris: Something I struggle with is agoraphobia, and I sometimes can get so anxious I can’t leave my house, so…
Jennifer: Yeah, it feels like, it’s more like feeling judged, like do I look alright? Did anyone, did someone just look at me funny? and I’ll just feel like, oh, it’s easier to not go out. So for me, I do advise anybody who has the same tendency that I do, tendency to isolate, to practice, to just keep practicing, and to frame it in a lot of different ways. One of the ways I’m framing it lately for myself is the idea of practice: like if I feel very uncomfortable with something, why should I do it? Go practice, go see, go try—not that I am always able to do that, but when I am being social on a regular basis, even if that’s once a month, but especially if it’s more like once a week, yeah, I’m definitely better for it, I feel better. So I think, my feelings about concerts and conventions, they change a little bit over a lifetime. Before we went to recording, we were all talking about music, and that going to hear live music was always a major thing for me and, just felt so alive, that experience. When I can—I don’t do anything but sing, but when I can—or play the drums, you know I can’t really play the drums but I can bang on something—I find that kind of experience very, very satisfying and good. And yet again, like a lot of people, I’m not always able to do these things. When I got a little bit—I guess I aged out of listening, going to the kind of live music that I had been doing—since then, I guess, it’s always a little bit of an experiment. I did a lot of going to readings for a long time—that’s not quite the same, it’s a little bit attached to the world of work for me—but I guess it’s true, that that is what I continue to do that gets me into a social place and grounds me a little. I go to readings and lectures, so I meet people and I talk to them, but yeah, there’s something interesting for Americans and many people all over the world that sports gatherings take the place of a lot of religious behavior, even if they’re very religious, they may never have a chance to be shouting and upset and then shouting happy with a crowd of thousands—and that’s part of what the religious life gives some people.
Francis: I’ve also heard that sport events are one men are allowed to be emotional with each other—but I’ve also been thinking a lot lately about how social media has really in some ways alienated people from each other, it’s like we’re all connected in a way that—now I’m friends with people on Facebook that I haven’t seen in 30 years, in elementary school or something like that—but at the same time, it kinda creates this illusion that you are interacting with other people in a way that is satisfying.
Jennifer: I…stepped way back, for, whatever, I don’t know what it was, maybe five years, pretty much soon after it came out, and I get Facebook messages from nine to ten years back. But it really started to be something that everybody was on and doing, around eight or nine years back for me, and I did it like everyone else—pretty regularly, in and out of, you know, moods where I was posting every day, or every other day, or a couple times a day—now I’m pretty much off. I found that I scan Facebook and Twitter and Instagram at least every day, probably a few times—maybe not Twitter, Twitter I’ll check more infrequently—but probably every day I check these things to see what’s going on. I often get important news from a lot of different weird kinds of news, from just a quick scan. But overall, personally, it was harming my well-being more than it was doing me good. I’m frankly glad that it still exists and everybody else is on there, because then I can check in, and check my world, and I can click “Like” on a few things and then get out of there before I start to get—and I am not proud of this, but it is true—I start to get envious. A lot of the people that I’m Facebook friends with, because I’m a writer, a lot of people are writers or do-ers, or people writing about how happy they are, about each birthday, each holiday, each anniversary, each everything, and—I don’t think it’s good for my head. I shut it all off and the birds are singing outside. Yes, there’s also someone using a saw. I found that curating my world during the 2016 election, I simply ended, I blocked, I un-friended everybody—even the people I went to high school with—anybody who wanted to talk about this guy as worth a shot, I just said no. No, no, nope, no. And so I have the most radically left-wing atheist poet list of 5,000 friends on a rolling basis, and most of them I don’t know, but I have started Instragram in September. For the most part I just put silly pictures on there, or pictures of my art—I always have some sort of art project going, because when you’re working very cerebral ways and giving a lot of yourself in mothering—well, it’s just really nice to make something. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but just to make things. And so I make things—I don’t know, I probably sit down and do some kind of art at least once a week and sometimes every single night, for months on end, just because I can’t quite handle myself, and that’s what settles me, and that’s where I can be at peace, ‘cause I’m never competing when I’m making art, I’m not trying to…I mean, I do weird things with my art and sometimes I get in the newspaper for it and stuff, so it’s like I’m not showing the things. It’s not that my art’s so good that I get that sort of thing, it’s that I think of these weird things and carry them out and—yeah. Like, I’ve been painting rocks. I find rocks in New York City, I bring them home, I wash them, disinfect them, paint them bright colors of all sorts of different designs, and then polyurethane them and then put them back out on the street. I’ve been doing it for a bunch of years now, but I had a different weird project before this, all self assigned, and they give me some joy! And this one is a lot of fun, because the world is involved. Of course, they steal the rocks, but I just find bigger and and bigger rocks. People have caught on—anyway, I don’t know why I’m talking about it, but someone did write that up in the newspaper. So do I have some ego in it? Yes. But the reason that it calms me is because it’s not about ego. I’m giving it away, I don’t sign most of them. I like color, and I like how simple that is, and I’m sitting around with my kids just being with them, and I don’t care what we’re watching, and so I have a little project for myself—just do some art. And again, it’s this project has held my attention so much because I hear back from people, so it’s community-building even though I’m alone when I’m doing it. When I put them out, people come running up and give me hugs and stuff, because it—I don’t actually know why everyone likes it so much, but they do. Well, the kids, I do know there are kids, every time kids walk down the blocks where they are, they run and they’re counting them, and it’s just so—it’s beautiful. A woman came up to me and said, she showed me her phone, and she said “I want you to see this,”—it wasn’t her kid who wrote it, but she went to her kid’s school, and they had been asked to write what they could do to make the world a better place, and this kid wrote “I can paint rocks and put them out for my neighbors.” It was like, that was his charity act that he could think of, which must mean it gave him something to see these, you know. Yeah, that’s just the sort of thing that really gets me, makes me really happy, feel connected, but I’m not always in the crossfires, you know…anyway.
Francis: That is really beautiful. I’ll be looking out for them. Do you do them on the Lower East Side at all?
Jennifer: I haven’t, no, and I definitely have found that if I concentrate them on a few blocks, they get stolen much slower, because people see that there’s a project, it’s not just a pretty thing. So it’s mostly around the Bergen Street stop on the F train in Brooklyn. But once you’re there, you’ll see ‘em. I’ve done like four hundred and seventy-something, and those are only the ones I numbered! I don’t even number half of the ones I do. It’s been going on for about, I don’t know, four or five years.
Francis: Reverence for beauty I hear in your work, and sort of your philosophy of life—I was wondering if you could speak to that at all, about the meaning of beauty in your life, and maybe how it relates to society today.
Jennifer: As you raised earlier, I do care about beauty and truth together, though I don’t always know what the relationship is. But I think that the easiest, truest answer is that it is just what makes me feel engaged in life when things are hard, but in a different ways when things are great. I see beautiful things and I have an urge to understand them, interact with them, copy them, try to do them—I mean, it’s wonderful that I’m not a good enough artist that I can ever copy anything, it turns out different, you know? Totally different! I can’t make it—I guess I’ve never really tried, but I’m saying, it’s not that I’m great at what I’m doing, so it has to be that I just love color, stuff like that. But yeah, It’s when I’m struck by something that I get a feeling of something that just plain is transcendent. It is true that we are the sentient little node of the universe, and when we’re removed from all thought by beauty, and we just want to take part in it or support it or try to do it, that’s life sustaining for me. It just, it’s like love, it’s like when you’re doing a hard thing and your friend shows up—it just brightens and sweetens. But then there’s the deeper aspect of, what is meaning? You know, I believe that the atheist world sort of—and the religious world, looking back—and all saying, how can you have meaning without meaning coming from God, and I certainly believe that the only reason anybody would say that is that we just broke up with this character called “God” who we’d assigned the source of meaning to. It’s ridiculous. Right now I have a whole range of things that mean a lot to me, and so do you, and some of them are just about what we’re going to have for dinner, and some of them are deep and wide and generous and—these ways that we are feeling, to me says, we have more meaning than we can handle. We’re not in a meaning-deficit; we’re in a justice-deficit, we’re in an understanding-deficit, but I don’t think we’re in a meaning-deficit. I think we have as much meaning per person as we’ve ever had, and it’s just about understanding how that makes any sense. And for me, it always is hovering around truth and beauty, these aspects of human experience that are always just beyond us.
Francis: Not to put you on the spot, but do you have a poem you’d like read?
Jennifer: Yeah, sure. I have one by heart, I can give it to you—it’s nice and short. This is called “History,” which it’s one of the poems of mine that gets reproduced a lot, and it’s kind of funny because it draws on the Garden of Eden scene, without of course being in any way religious. So, History:
The only soul in all of time to never have to wait for love
Must have leaned some sleepless nights
Alone against the garden wall
Cold, stupified, and wild
And wished to trade in all of Eden
To have but been a child
I gather that is why she left and fell from grace
That she might have a story of herself to tell
In some other place
Francis: Thank you.
Chris: The poem of yours I enjoyed the most was “funny ha ha,” from the book Funny, because it was so absurd and…
Jennifer: It’s hard to talk about poetry.
Chris: It is. I’m really struggling to find words for why I liked it so much.
Jennifer: Because the way that poetry can act out, even like the way the words are acting. They’re acting out a kind of exuberance. I think that poem sort of catches that—it’s not something I can just do, but just this feeling of, just being able to give it all away. That’s the one that starts…
Chris: “A horse walks in a bar..”
Jennifer: Oh, that’s a different one. That one’s “Funny ha ha”?
Jennifer: Oh. I thought it was a different one. I guess I was thinking of “funny strange.” All of the poems in the book have old jokes in them, except for the sonnets that introduce each—but there’s also “funny ha ha” and “funny strange” which are slight outlier for me, but the “horse walks into a bar, why the long face”—and this project was so interesting to me. I wrote one poem with an old joke in it, and I fell in love with it, and then I just started going—any time I heard an old joke, I would just twist it around a thousand different ways until I could see something human in there. And, you know, “a horse walks into a bar, why the long face”—it gets right to the fact that, to some degree, we just already are what we are. And you know, why do I have a long face? Sometimes because I am sad, and that’s why the long face—it’s like, it’s part of who we are. But you keep trying, and throughout the book it’s, all the jokes have that kind of, what I say in that final essay—if you slow down a joke, it becomes philosophy, and if you speed up philosophy, it becomes a joke. And that proved terribly true on many occasions.
Chris: OK. We always ask everyone the same final question, and that’s is there anything you’d like promote or plug, whether it’s yours or somebody else’s, or something you’d like to leave our listeners with?
Jennifer: I think maybe I’ll just give a shout-out for the poetry that’s coming out these days. It’s a very vibrant art now, after many years of being a little bit insular.
Chris: Well, what do you think about the relationship between Hip-hop as music culture which is sort of street poetry?
Jennifer: Yeah, it’s great. You know, there’s definitely times when I’m listening to something, I’m like “damn, that’s good.” Yeah, there’s lots of different kinds, of ways of looking at poetry. The thing is, the poetry that’s on the page, that’s the written word, is engaged in different kinds of jobs, than you can do when the art form is mostly meant to be listened to. But you know, there’s definite overlap, no question. There are poets in the music business, no question. You know, if I’m just giving a shout-out to poetry, I’m asked whether there’s music that fits into that category, I would say a small percentage, but absolutely. And again, I mean, Dylan got the Nobel Prize for a reason—we know his lines, they’re good lines. You know, on a personal basis, I certainly would stand under that flag—but I also, you know I listen to some music that I don’t love the words to, because, you know, it rocks.
Chris: Thank you so much for joining us.
Jennifer: Thank you so much. It really was a great conversation, I appreciate it.