Thinking the Impossible

Thinking the Impossible

One is never happy making way for a new truth, for it always means making our way into it: the truth demands that we bestir ourselves.  Jacques Lacan

Perhaps the most radical and disturbing claim of Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents (Das Unbehagen in der Kultur) is that happiness is itself an impossibility for the human being. Yet, if happiness is impossible given the breadth of human suffering, what are we to make of the desire for happiness, not to mention the supposedly unalienable right, as the United States Declaration of Independence has it, to life, liberty, and its pursuit? What does the freedom to pursue happiness actually entail?

Furthermore, what does it mean to speak of the unalienable? Is that where the promise of happiness is to be located? Can alienation be overcome? Is that even an ideal? And if happiness was not merely a "promise" but achieved, would we in truth be happy? Have we all become prisoners of the American dream to borrow Mike Davis’ apt formula? Could it be that the very demand for happiness is precisely what makes us unhappy? Perhaps happiness itself is a horror?

With this final question, we can add a twist. If happiness is a horror, which means happiness is perhaps not all that happy, then thinking the impossibility of happiness is not itself an unhappy thought. This is the assertion around which this seminar turns. We will focus on four artistic approaches to the problem all of which in differing ways grapple both with the impossibility of happiness and a joy that is not at all happy: the Marquis de Sade, Samuel Beckett, Clarice Lispector, and Alfred Hitchcock. In addition to works by these authors, we will also consider interpretations of their respective artistic approaches by George Bataille, Jacques Lacan, Gilles Deleuze, Hélène Cixious, and Lee Edelman.  

Reading List:

Marquis de Sade, Philosophy in the Boudoir and Selections from 120 Days of Sodom; The School of Libertinage and Juliette

Samuel Beckett, How it Is and Worstward Ho

Clarice Lispector, Hour of the Star, “The Egg and the Chicken,” and “The Disasters of Sofia”

Alfred Hitchcock, The Birds

George Bataille, “The Use Value of D.A.F. de Sade”

Jacques Lacan, “Kant with Sade” and Selections from Seminar VII, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis

Gilles Deleuze, “Exhausted”

Hélène Cixious, Reading Clarice Lispector

Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive