Javier Gomá Lanzón

Happy Platitudes

"Seen from without, stereotypes inspire an instinctive aversion. But from within, alas, from within one understands their significance too well"


Happy Platitudes
Foto: Matt Popovich| Unsplash

If there was ever a time when clichés and pat phrases abound, it has to be this time of year when we wish each other “Happy Christmas”, “Happy New Year”, “Happy 2021” and, if you’re Spanish, “Happy Incoming — Happy Outgoing!” (Feliz entrada y salida). When I have felt uneasy with these platitudes and tried to improve on them with some wittier burst of ingenuity, I have normally put my foot in it, proving once again that when they are still alive despite so many attempts to replace them, it must be for a good reason. I am not unaware of the Romantic doctrine that exhorts us, in the name of originality, to despise platitudes, those tired old commonplaces that ordinary people repeat without giving it a second thought. But when I stop to think about it, I always find that at bottom platitudes, generally speaking, contain a truth. Not a definitive truth or one without exception, only a first or an apparent one but, as Oscar Wilde wrote, only shallow people overlook the importance of appearances.

Since antiquity the study of rhetoric granted topica a central position in the art that teaches us to find the most persuasive argument. This art divides reality, natura omnium rerurm, into certain “places” (topoi, loci), related to people and things which facilitate the discovery (inventio) of the most appropriate argument for each occasion. Anglo-Saxons are pragmatic, autumn is melancholy, Hitler is wicked, young people are inexpert, vacations are longed for, life goes by in a flash, pulses give you gas, tomorrow I begin to diet. Commonplaces constitute a compendium or stock of observations made by people of sound judgement over long periods of time. Of course, if they are used incorrectly they are a fount of ugly prejudice of which History affords us numerous examples (regarding women, homosexuals, blacks, gypsies, Jews and so on). But this risk of corruption should not cause us to forget that they generally come to a conclusión that has been distilled from long experience. They are not necessary truths, like scientific or logical truths, but only probable evidence, arrived at through induction and open to exception, but they have the general run of cases working for them. That is why we draw on them in conversation and the person to whom we are speaking generally takes them to be valid without need of explicit proof.

They are, in short, mental conventions or habits created by thinking to help us remedy the finitude of human existence. We cannot know it all, we cannot prove everything, but, before we draw a mental blank, commonplaces come to our rescue; they can be right on target a good part of the time without our fussing too much over them and thus, thanks to them, we concéntrate comfortably on what we know how to do without wasting our time on tedious verifications (“stereotypes are a real timesaver”).

Felices tópicos 1

Foto: Wilhelm Gunkel | Unsplash

It is a commonplace to wish everyone  a Happy New Year. What can we say about this happiness that we wish for so much? Flaubert wrote to a friend: “Don’t you think that life would be more tolerable if the notion of happiness did not exist? We expect things from life that life cannot give us.”  Far be it from me to freeze the heart’s ardour with the cold blast of reason. I read an Indian proverb that said: “There is only one sin that the gods do not pardon: putting out the fire that warms the heart of men”. And so, if the flame has been kindled in somebody, he does not deserve having a new tax imposed on that form of wealth. Yet nature, whom we call a mother, behaves like a heartless executioner of her children, incapable of taking pity on the ill fortune she has in store for them. One of the most moving moments of The World as Will and Representation occurs in Book IV, in which Schopenhauer ponders the adage Natura non contristatur, which is to say  Nature never grows sad, she doesn’t care a bit about our happiness. “As if destiny even wished to add mockery to the misery of our existence, our life must contain all of the sorrows of tragedy and, nonetheless, we cannot sustain the dignity of tragic figures; in the ample details of life we are bound to be ridiculous comic characters.” (§ 58). The need is pressing, therefore, for a revision of the ancient concept of happiness in order to find one that is truer to the harsh reality of human existence.

When we say “happy coincidence” or “happy thought”, the word “happy” refers here, not to that euphoria of sentiment that we have ruled out, but to something particularly opportune, apt, propitious or admirably achieved. Understood in this way, one can indeed imagine human life as a sequence of happy stages: happy childhood, happy youth, happy maturity, happy old age. Not, of course, like a possession which is assured, but rather like a sometimes achievable ideal.  And one discovers —a revelation that sneaks up on you with your first grey hairs— that this second and more modest definition of happiness consists, in large measure, of embodying with aplomb, one after the other, the commonplaces associated with the stages of life: naive childhood, passionate youth, satisfied maturity and weary old age.

Felices tópicos 2

Foto: Annie Spratt | Unsplash

Seen from without, stereotypes inspire an instinctive aversion. But from within, alas, from within one understands their significance too well. I will speak of that third stage that I know so well from experience. One catches oneself bringing children up with the same sermons that one’s father used, repeating family traditions that bored him when he was a child; he shows pictures of «the kids» to those who have never shown any interest in seeing them; he grows that unprepossesing belly typical of the average man which so repulsed him when he did not have one himself; he relies too much on the pijamas with an elasticated waistband so as to avoid the torture of trousers that stubbornly remain at one size while their owner moves up two or three notches. And the final blow: in this pandemic there have even been those who have, after deploring the idea, toyed ominously with the possibility of donning a tracksuit as at-home wear. It looks so comfortable!

That is what the humble happiness I am proposing consists in: in feeling good about confirming in oneself, opportunely, the platitudes that go along with every stage in life.

Having said this, I think few will deny that I have earned the right to wish all the readers out there, with good rhetoric and a clear conscience, a very happy new year.

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