The Wisdom of John Barth and How Happiness Will Save the Planet, Part 1 E-mail
Friday, 06 January 2012 00:00  |  Written by Steven Kotler | Commentary

Happy Mannequins photo by Procsilas MoscasI truly believe that without happiness, all environmental causes are lost. Eco-friendly living requires a great deal of tenacity, ingenuity, creativity and the willingness to let things go horribly wrong (I could tell you stories about my composting toilet that would… well, nevermind), and if you’re going to do these things and live this way—while being miserable—let’s just say that sooner or later your stamina is going to collapse and green living is either going to become a prison sentence or an idea abandoned.

Neither will save the planet in the long run. In fact, the only thing that will is everyone working together and being happy to do so. So while I normally write about the saving-the-planet portion of the equation, I thought I’d spend a little time on the happiness portion. Here’s why:

I’ve spent these past few months in hiding, finishing a book, doing nothing but writing. My days began before 4:00 am and I worked until 8:00 pm and then went back to sleep. Other than walking the dogs and riding my mountain bike, I have done nothing else (I have an absolutely amazing wife who made much of this possible—so big shout out to her!) for the past 70 days.

And, all this time, I’ve been ridiculously happy—ridiculously, deliriously happy. And I’ve been thinking about this happiness,and  that I’ve actually been deliriously happy most of my adult life and that this happiness has been increasing the older I get.

In fact, 10 years ago, I was fired from my dream writing job (one I spent a decade trying to get), then lost my dream girl (the one I thought I would soon marry before I met the one I actually married) and my health. I got sick and stayed sick for a long time. All told, I was probably in bed for three years. And here’s what’s weird about this—I’m happier now than I was then and look back at those three tragedies with great fondness, as they were launch pads forward into greater happiness, rather than “horrible things that almost ruined my life.”

And then I realized that I owe most of my joy to a man named John Barth. So I thought I’d tell you a little about him and a little about what he told me and a little about why he told me what he did… and for that we need to dial back the clock to 1989, to a time when I was 23 and desperate to go to graduate school.

It took me a very long time to get into graduate school. Three years in fact. The problem was that I wanted to be a writer and I didn’t know if I was much good. This, in itself, is not unusual. If you pick something peculiar to do with your life—meaning you don’t want to get a “real job” and pump out children and all the rest—most people will try to dissuade you from the idea.

The first time someone tried to dissuade me, I was in fourth grade. That makes me 10 years old for those keeping track at home. We were supposed to write a one-page family history, an assignment I fulfilled, only my history was delivered by talking dinosaurs. I’m not going to bother explaining how talking dinosaurs got mixed up in my genealogy—some things are just too personal—but I will say that I got myself into plenty of trouble. The teacher pulled me into the hallway and yelled. I was 10 years old and being yelled at for being creative. This might be a comment about our national educational system except that I was then attending one of the best public schools in America. Instead it’s a comment on how hard our society tries to keep people marching on the narrow.

I encountered this again in high school. The school tried to fail me my senior year because my devout senior thesis advisor decided my collection of terrible—I mean truly bad—poetry that was supposed to be my senior project (needed for graduation) was offensive to her religious sentiments. Now, certainly, my writing was then offensive, but public schools, free speech, hmmm...

Next I was asked to leave my collegiate undergraduate creative-writing program halfway through because “no one has any clue what you’re doing and we can’t teach you anything,” which might have been code for “you’re an obnoxious idiot, leave now and move to Los Angeles,” or they might have been telling the truth.

Anyway, by the time it was all said and done a lot of people had naysayed my career choice and no one really had supported it. So I decided that I needed an expert opinion. The expert I chose was a man by the name of John Barth, truly one of the great lions of 20th-century fiction, founding father of both the meta-fiction movement and the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars (tied with Iowa as being the top creative-writing program in America).

I decided, because I was then engaged in what might politely be called “experimental fiction” (or, not so politely: “absolute shit”), that Barth was the one guy around who could tell me if I really sucked or not.

The problem was that Hopkins only accepted 12 people into their fiction program and a great many of those, I later learned, had senators for fathers or congresswomen for mothers and anyway I got rejected two years in a row. But I wasn’t giving up because I had decided—sight unseen mind you—that John Barth was the only person who could actually answer my question.

They finally let me in after three tries and Barth did in fact answer my question. He answered more than that as well. In fact, most of my life has been spent living by John Barth’s advice and, as mentioned, I’m 43 years old and really happy. I have been really happy most of my adult life. I have not been wealthy, healthy or wise, but I’ve been damn happy. And that does strike me as the point.

Let me first explain what happened once I got to graduate school. I was young and arrogant and, well, young and arrogant. I had been then working on a very early draft of my first novel, turned in some 300 pages for my fellow students to read, and sat back and awaited their high, high praise.

There was no praise. The entire class hated my work. Seven said it was totally unreadable. One woman called it “a very poor use for blank pieces of paper,” another pointed out that I seemed to lack any understanding of the rules of spelling and grammar and might want to try re-entering the fifth grade before attending graduate school.

Barth took me into his office after class and sat me down and gave me a good talking to right about then. And this brings us to what he actually said. The lessons that changed my life and, perhaps, if you’re in need of a good talking to, then maybe they’ll change yours.

Barth’s first lesson is to learn how to spell.

Barth actually told me if I made one more spelling error he’d throw me out of the school I had just spent three years trying to get into. But here’s why. Barth believed one should know what the rules are before breaking them. Always break them intentionally, he said, because that’s where the real discoveries lie. Mind you, this guy broke with centuries of writing tradition and reshaped the modern novel. so perhaps knows from what he speaks.

If you know the rules—that is, you are informed about any decision you’re about to make—you get to make conscious choices. If you know the rules you can agree or disagree of your own volition. This is why people always say that knowledge is the path toward freedom. Equal rights for women, for people of color, the end of slavery, the beginning of the environmental movement, the birth of the animal-rights movement all emerged at points in time when new knowledge trumped herd mentality. When people intentionally learned all the rules and then just as intentionally broke them.

The subtext here is ‘respect the audience.’ Youth and arrogance assumes people are stupid, that they won’t notice the rules being broken or won’t do anything about it when they are. I have been alive a little while now and have never met anyone stupid. I’ve met a lot of people who speak a lot of different languages a lot of different ways, but if you can find a common tongue, I have met no idea that not everyone can understand. Let me put it a different way: bulldozing your way to progress is what Stalin tried to do. He didn’t know the rules (rule one: thou shalt not kill, like duh) and he relied on arrogance instead. Excellent plan there, Josef.

Democracy, meanwhile, even though it often fumbles around in the dark looking for a light switch, is what happens when you let everyone know what the rules are to decide for themselves if they want to play by them or not. With information comes choice; with choice comes freedom; with freedom comes flourishing. And flourishing is where the fun actually is. So yeah,I now know how to spell.

This way, says Barth, lies progress.

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Comments (2)add
Written by Teresa , January 06, 2012
To me human rights, individual privacy, the sanctity of the family, good health and equality come way before 'saving the planet'. There are a lot of totalitarianist ideas and evil going on in the name of 'sustainability' and to that I say a big 'no thanks'.

Also the 'green' high tech solutions being paraded on the Treehugger website strike me as being wasteful of resources and are designed to make us more passive, stupider and lazier as well as destroy creativity, individualism, freedom and privacy. Smart meters for example and anything with the word 'smart' in it conjures up red flags for me.

I read somewhere that pollution produced by an entity is only represented by inner pollution.
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Written by JamesY , October 13, 2009
Great advice...thanks. I'm looking forward to part 2.
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