Negative Aesthetics and the Relative Absence of Literary Narratives of Happiness

To the Conditio in/humana there belongs not only the fact that misery weighs more than happiness but also the fact that suffering and negative experience in general tend to yield much more, aesthetically, than happiness and positive experience could ever do. Paradoxically, the pleasure that arises from the enjoyment of art is based to a far greater degree on the artistic processing of negative than it is on that of positive experience.

Were we, therefore, to undertake to scour, in pronatalist spirit, through cultural history and the world’s literature in particular for representations of human happiness, the yield of such an undertaking would surely be much poorer than that of a parallel one in antinatalist spirit. As regards poetry, at least, Thomas Hardy once remarked: “Was there ever any great poetry which was not pessimistic?” (Thomas Hardy, Notebooks) Partially responsible, we may suppose, for this relative absence of literary narratives of happiness is the fact that literature is really only engaging when it finds resonance in the reader’s sense of sympathy and a sense of shared misery is easier to awaken than a sense of shared joy.

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