Review: Michael Foley’s The Age of Absurdity: Why Modern Life Makes It Hard to Be Happy
Just when our enslavement to the demands of mass media and popular culture, both on the collective attention and on the pocket, could scarcely be more absolute, Michael Foley comes up with The Age of Absurdity: Why Modern Life Makes It Hard to Be Happy.
With so many branches and forms of communication dictating what we do, what we think, wear, watch and hear apparently solving the conundrum of that sub-title, we might be forgiven for wondering what more needs to be said. It is the mixed messages about how to look and what to believe that leave us perplexed about our prescribed, yet ever-fluctuating, value system, right?
Well, before that assumption prevails and a book is judged by its cover, it is worth observing that, whilst The Age of Absurdity is indeed a sobering primer that mercilessly critiques the eccentricities of the modern condition, it is also an infectious, instructive satire rather than a moralistic indictment revealing uncomfortable home truths.
The inaugural chapter, ‘The Absurdity of Happiness’, sees Foley charting the invasive and bewilderingly diverse box-ticking process apparently necessary to prove to society that an individual is “one of the crowd” – the material acquisitiveness, sexual adventurousness and independence which indicates that a person is “well-adjusted”, attractive, and, wait for it, normal.
Like Lester Burnham’s opening narration to American Beauty, Foley’s initial musings outline the tensions and frustrations abundant on the road to societal acceptance, ending on the suggestion that happiness is not contentment itself but the practice and satisfaction of the will.
Though there are points during this scene-setting when the poetic licence, infused though it is with impact and humour in its account of how, allegedly, “to fit in”, might leave us asking “And?”, Foley duly announces the intent of his project – to “…trawl philosophy, religious teaching, literature, psychology and neuroscience for common ideas on fulfilment”. A multi-generic quest for the origins and possibility of happiness, then, embracing the sciences genetic and social, fundamental doctrines guiding ethical conduct, and seminal texts Eastern and Western, to ask how satisfaction can be so elusive when humanity is so incorrigibly proud.
It would be difficult to stylistically pigeon-hole Foley’s book, but “a historical analysis” might be a valid classification, since it contains a wealth of reportage and insight into cultural and intellectual definitions of happiness, and curious case studies (including claims that children who reject offers of marshmallows may go on to be happier and more successful in their adult lives).
To be sure, Foley’s book is no self-help guide, those well-meaning but superficial handbooks for beautifully derided in Chapter Four, ‘The Old Self and the New Science’, but that is not to say he merely commentates. On the contrary, he also inspires, concluding that absurdity is neither to be celebrated nor scorned, but merely accepted, and that life’s manifest oddities and contradictions go far in accounting for and accentuating its beauties, both apparent and hidden.