the sammy maudlin of the modern condition:
mark kingwell's philosophy lite

Better Living: In Pursuit of Happiness from Plato to Prozac
Mark Kingwell
(Viking Penguin, 411 pages)
better living cover
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The only thing more gloriously banal than society’s preoccupation with happiness is a book about society’s preoccupation with happiness.

This would be the only sure thing one is left with after reading Mark Kingwell’s near-400 page rumination on self-help culture, mood-altering drugs, and the life of the mind in his new book, Better Living. Both this book and Kingwell’s previous Dreams of Millenium are studies of anxiety, emotional and social, personal and political. His choice of subjects is hardly trivial, but his ambitions seem hobbled by a lack of focus or intensity - his insights never add up to anything larger than the impressive range of quotes, anecdotes, and implications from which they are built. It might have something to do with his style, which seems composed of equal parts philosophy primer, and the kind of autobiographical lifestyle journalism available in magazines like Details or Esquire.

In a passage in his previous book, Kingwell literally strips naked and examines himself in a mirror. In Better Living, he becomes even more frequently a first-person narrator, a tactic that, while perfectly suited to a subject like “the pursuit of happiness”, brings with it undeniable perils. In attempting to even define happiness, you face sticky ideas like morality, virtue, and relationships, which must be confronted with complete honesty, or else risk frustrating or alienating your reader, who seeks little more than a totally original insight. Only a saint or a masochist can be completely honest, and while few would buy a book by the former, the bloodstained accounts of the latter have always been popular reading. Kingwell is neither, and like most of us average souls, he seems doomed to find his objective just beyond his grasp.

As a philosophy professor, Kingwell comes to his quest better armed than most - he can explore a facet of his argument with the maps provided by everyone from Plato to Bertrand Russell. As a critic of popular culture, he also finds illumination in the work of Drew Carey and the epic that is "Melrose Place".

Perhaps this would explain the meandering trajectory of the book - television is, as Kingwell admits, the compelling but sleazy Lothario of our age, promising us everything, but leaving us jilted and unsatisfied. In his attempt to corral the quicksilver vagaries that both obscure and define happiness, Kingwell aims for the stars, but remains fixated on the cold blue light of the tube. His search for better living is like happiness itself, both profound and mundane.

©1998, 2002 Rick McGinnis