On romance, tangentially

thu19mar2009—12w078d21%— 10h17m00s—0utc

From Greg Egan’s Reasons to be Cheerful, one of my favorite short stories ever, an exploration into the meaning of happiness and, tangentially, of romance.

Visions of Julia filled my head. I wanted to know what she was doing every second of the day; I wanted her to be happy, I wanted her to be safe. Why? Because I’d chosen her. But … why had I felt compelled to choose anyone? Because in the end, the one thing that most of the donors must have had in common was the fact that they’d desired, and cared about, one person above all others. Why? That came down to evolution. You could no more help and protect everyone in sight than you could fuck them, and a judicious combination of the two had obviously proved effective at passing down genes. So my emotions had the same ancestry as everyone else’s; what more could I ask?

The story —spoilers here— is about a boy who’s perfectly happy ) — in the Egan phrase I treasure: “clear-headed but emotionally indomitable, positively radiant with courage.” But that’s because he has a fatal brain tumor. He gets cured miraculously but is left so emotionally hollow he can barely move and decades pass him by in excruciating, numbing apathy. Until he’s given a sort of emotional prosthesis that unexpectedly grants him control of exactly what to be happy about.

It’s a fascinating and honest story. Like most of Egan’s fiction, it’s written for himself, he uses narrative not to entertain, advance an agenda or pander to an audience, but to explore far off ideas, to think them through to his own satisfaction. Narrative thought experiments if you will.

The power granted on the story’s protagonist leaves him staring right at the abyss of happiness:

…happiness itself meant nothing. Life without it was unbearable, but as an end in itself, it was not enough. I was free to choose its causes — and to be happy with my choices — but whatever I felt once I’d bootstrapped my new self into existence, the possibility would remain that all my choices had been wrong.

And that pretty much sums up my own conclusions on happiness. I don’t (yet) have those selfcontrol powers on emotions/moods/desires, but their plasticity has long fascinated me, so much so that I often make a point of choosing to like, choosing to be happy, disregarding whatever emerges “naturally”. To me, the mark of an educated person is that one be able to entertain a desire without accepting it, to “imagine this butterfly exactly as it is, but ugly instead of beautiful”.

Which is perhaps why I’ve also developed an strange detachment from my own emotions/moods/desires that now seems to me almost the very definition of human-ness ) — machines and animals just act on “emotions”, a rat just fucks because she’s in heat, a thermostat wants nothing more out of life than to fulfill it’s urge to regulate the temperature. Often I have to consciously decide to engage, to get carried away. I like it that way and moreover I strongly believe in the possibility and urgency of radical mood enrichment:

..our descendants, and in principle perhaps even our elderly selves, will have the chance to enjoy modes of experience we emotional primitives cruelly lack: sights more majestically beautiful, music more deeply soul-stirring, sex more exquisitely erotic, mystical epiphanies more awe-inspiring, and love more profoundly intense than anything we can now properly comprehend…

..our mood-enriched descendants may view us as little better than sociopaths. When naturally loved-up and blissful on a richer cocktail of biochemicals than anything accessible today, our post-human successors will be able, not just to love everyone, but to be perpetually in love with everyone as well. Whether we’ll choose to exercise this option just because it’s technically feasible is another question. Cynics may argue that the scenario of lifelong egoistic bliss is more plausible. It’s been well said that when we’re in love, we find it astonishing it’s possible to love someone else so much – because normally we love each other so little. This indifference, or at best diffuse benevolence, to the rest of the world’s population is easily taken for granted in a competitive consumerist society – or on the plains of the African savannah. Quasi-psychopathic callousness to our fellows is an ingredient of ‘normal’ archaic mental health. Yet our deficiencies in love are only another grim expression of selfish DNA. If humans had collectively shared the greater degree of genetic relatedness common to many of the social insects (haplodiploidy), then we might already “naturally” be able to love each other with greater enthusiasm. Sociobiologists would then explain why we all loved each other so deeply, not so little.

All of which I just wanted to write because I’ve been contemplating such things for years now but it has all been brought to the fore, being as I am so happily into her.

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