I’ve been spending considerable time lately thinking and reading about “happiness” and what it takes to attain happiness, so it’s probably not surprising that these two poems by Wistawa Szymborska jumped out at me since they offer a rather different view on the subject than I’ve found from most modern psychologists.
Although the image in “Experiment” is quite shocking,the questions it raises about how we define “happiness” might be even more telling.
As a short subject before the main feature—
in which the actors did their best
to make me cry and even laugh——
we were shown an interesting experiment
involving a head.
a minute earlier was still attached to . . .
but now it was cut off
Everyone could see that it didn’t have a body.
The tubes dangling from the neck hooked it up to a machine
that kept its blood circulating.
was doing just fine.
Without showing pain or even surprise,
it followed a moving flashlight with its eyes.
It pricked up its ears at the sound of a bell.
Its moist nose could tell
the smell of bacon from odorless oblivion,
and licking its chops with evident relish
it salivated its salute to physiology.
A dog’s faithful head,
a dog’s friendly head
squinted its eyes when stroked,
convinced that it was still part of a whole
that crooks its back if patted
and wags its tail.
I thought about happiness and was frightened.
For if that’s all life is about, _
The image presented here reminded me why I didn’t continue to take psychology classes at the University of Washington when I was an undergraduate, even though I enjoyed most of the undergraduate classes I had taken because of the sight of electrodes sticking out of the brains of lab rats. That image palls in comparison to the image of the disembodied dog’s head in this poem.
It’s the contrast between that image of a disconnected head attached to a machine and the head’s positive reaction to the smell of bacon and to a pat on the head that makes the poet, and the reader question what “happiness” really is. If good food (bacon) and other’s admiration (pat on the head) are really all it takes to make you happy, you might want to question your definition of happiness.
Wistawa continues to question whether happiness should be the real goal of life in the very next poem in the collection.
The world would rather see hope than just hear
its song. And that’s why statesmen have to smile
Their pearly whites mean they’re still full of cheer.
The game’s complex, the goal’s far out of reach,
the outcome’s still unclear — once in a while,
we need a friendly, gleaming set of teeth.
Heads of state must display unfurrowed brows
on airport runways, in the conference room.
They must embody one big, toothy “Wow!”
while pressing flesh or pressing urgent issues.
Their faces’ self-regenerating tissues
make our hearts hum and our lenses zoom.
Dentistry turned to diplomatic skill
promises us a Golden Age tomorrow.
The going’s rough, and so we need the laugh
of bright incisors, molars of goodwill.
Our times are still not safe and sane enough
for faces to show ordinary sorrow.
Dreamers keep saying, “Human brotherhood
will make this place a smiling paradise.”
I’m not convinced. The statesman, in that case,
would not require facial exercise,
except from time to time: he’s feeling good,
he’s glad it’s spring, and so he moves his face.
But human beings are, by nature, sad.
So be it, then. It isn’t all that bad.
Having been told most of my life that I “need to smile more,” I can’t help but love this poem. It’s hard not to question the broad smiles of our politicians, especially when there seems so little reason to smile. In fact, the amount of smiles seems to be in inverse proportion to the bad news reported. I haven’t heard from many “Dreamers” lately, but “Human brotherhood” doesn’t seem on the immediate, or distant, horizon. Like many introverts I score rather low on “happiness tests,” and often find myself wondering if “human beings are, by nature, sad” or whether my many years of reading post-modern literature makes me see humans as sadder than they really are. I may not be an optimist and I may not be as “happy” as some psychologists think I should be, but like Wistawa I’m convinced that being sad some of the time isn’t “all that bad.”