“Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.” – Ernest Hemingway
Why would Ernest Hemingway say something like that? Was it based on his observations of human behaviour, or was it something that was pulled out of his own deeply unhappy psyche. I wonder if he even meant “intelligent” and maybe was thinking of something more along the lines of “aware.”
I don’t know, and obviously can’t know now, so I’m not going to waste energy on conjecture, just stay with what’s given. We know Hemingway took his own lifein 1961 by putting a shotgun in his mouth and blowing the roof of his head. That’s not the action of a person awash in happiness, now is it?
You can’t really blame him though; the last years of his life were damned miserable. He had been severely injured in a small plane crash in the fifties that left him near dead. In fact, some papers actually published his obituary at the time of the accident thinking he had died. He developed depression and was treated with electroshock treatments that he claimed stole his memory.
His depression increased, and this resulted in more shock treatments, which led to – well, you get the picture. It doesn’t help that his family seems predisposed to committing suicide. His father, brother, and sister all took their own lives prior to him. Some claim there is an illness in his family line that lends a predisposition to deep depression, and when you consider his granddaughter also took her own life, you do have to wonder.
So was Hemingway simply looking in a mirror when he said, “Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know” or is there more to it then that? Remember that during his life Hemingway was surrounded for a great deal of the time by some of the most brilliant artistic and intellectual minds of the twentieth century. He counted among his friends James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Sherwood Anderson, Gertrude Stein, and Morley Callahan, to name just a few.
He lived in Paris during the 1920’s period of artistic and intellectual upheaval, when ideas and creativity were on the menu of every outdoor café and bar in the city. He would have seen some of the finest minds of his generation in the throes of addiction, the high of creative exultation, and the depths of despair produced by the inability to create.
As a novelist he would have had to be able to attune himself to the workings of other people’s minds so that he could create characters and portray emotions with accuracy. Even if it only meant that in his imagination he was able to create an image for himself of what was going on beneath the surface of the people around him, it still helped him gain an insight into the way the mind works. So he could have come to the conclusion that led to that sentence based on his observation alone easily enough.
As I think about the quote I realize that it merges two sayings: the one about being your own worst enemy and the other about gifts being a double-edged sword. I think the two sayings may be connected somehow. Intelligence is a gift allowing us to see with clarity and understanding, enabling the ability to solve problems quickly. The other side of that blade is knowing all the potential resolutions to a problem including the negative ones. It’s being able to see the negative and realize the potential for failure that allows us to become our own worst enemies.
If you are in the middle of an artistic block, unable to create at that moment for whatever reason, how easy would it be for the intelligent person to marshal unassailable arguments that prove he or she will never create again? It goes without saying that these circumstances aren’t limited to artistic people. Thinkers of any kind can run afoul of the same problems.
People who use their intellect on a day-to-day basis and think about the implications of the headlines in the newspapers or their own knowledge of how the world operates can easily begin to imagine the worse. A diplomatic spat will become the war that destroys humanity; reported unrest among farmers is only the first step in the complete breakdown of society; or reports of a corrupt police officer is a signal that a police state is imminent.
These are the people who conservative politicians and pundits the world over accuse of being negative. By not agreeing that everything is just dandy and pointing out the flaw in the government’s policies, they are accused of being unpatriotic troublemakers. It’s hard to be content, let alone happy, when you see people of like mind being vilified in the press and intelligence being indirectly ridiculed as something unmanly and ridiculous.
This leads to another reason why happiness among the intelligent is so rare. The more intelligent you are, the fewer people there are in the world who you can talk to as equals. The majority of a people are of a certain intellect that allows them to be content with the world around them, unquestioning and accepting of who and what they are and why they are here.
The minority who is blessed and cursed with intelligence sees a potential beyond simply getting up in the morning, going to work, and raising a family. They also wonder why they can’t be happy and content with what makes everybody else happy and content. Everybody else chatters happily about television shows and what they are going to do over the holidays, but to him or her it all sounds like meaningless noise.
Can’t they see that the stuff is being used to distract them from the fact that 80% of the food they eat is made of plastic? That the vehicles they drive are killing their grandchildren’s future? That the tax rebate check the government sends them is why they don’t have the services they had ten years ago?
Why is it, the intelligent person wonders, nobody even blinks when a government changes it’s reasons for starting a war four times during the lead up to and the end of it? How can they so easily forget that a year ago a politician was saying one thing and this year he says the complete opposite? To the intelligent person, all of this is as obvious as the clouds in the sky. What makes them unhappy is not just that these things happen, it is the fact that nobody seems to care.
There is a lot of truth in Hemingway’s quote that started off this train of thought on my part, but I also believe that happiness among intelligent people is not quite as rare as he would have us think. I would qualify his statement by saying that intelligent people are more prone to depressions and unhappiness than other people, but they are also capable of deep happiness.
Ernest Hemingway was a keen observer of human life as befits a novelist, but he was also an exceptionally troubled man. He had four unsuccessful marriages and seemed to be constantly running away from some inner demons. By the end of his life he had descended into being a caricature of one of his own characters. His pessimistic outlook really needs no other explanation.