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Make me Unhappy: The Pursuit of True Happiness in Etgar Keret’s “So Good”

Lucy Beeching

 

Lucy Beeching

The University of Georgia

 

Make me Unhappy: The Pursuit of True Happiness in Etgar Keret’s “So Good”

 

Etgar Keret reflects on the concept of true happiness in his short story “So Good,” and the tale of his protagonist Itzik becomes a parable calling into question contemporary ideas of happiness and the influence of consumerism and capitalism on these ideas. This paper discusses the implications of this parable and expands on the concept presented by Keret that common pursuits of happiness involve a constant search for pleasure akin to hedonism. Out of this analysis comes an alternative to this hedonistic approach--a more complex and perhaps truer notion of happiness. Drawing on Aristotle’s comments on happiness in Ethics as well as Freud’s reality principle, this paper asserts that true happiness involves not only emotional and material pleasures, but the ability to function as a free-thinking and rational human being.

 

           

In his short story “So Good,” Etgar Keret calls into question the morality of what popular culture has come to call happiness and the quality of life accompanying its pursuit. While people will always differ on the subject of what makes them happy, Keret asserts his opinion that happiness as a feeling has become interchangeable with mere pleasure or satisfaction. As a result, humans no longer care to consider any happiness beyond pleasure, and instead are content to engage in an infinitude of experiences they think are desirable. By doing so, they are able to convince themselves they have reached a state desired by everyone, when in fact they have not. “So Good” encourages readers to momentarily detach themselves from this superficial idea of happiness by exposing it as a meaningless substitute for something greater. To do this, Keret personifies a few common expressions of happiness such as Opportunity, Sheer Enjoyment, and Success and pits them against his protagonist Itzik, who is utterly terrified of the life forced upon him by these beings. He anticipates the arrival of these temptations and attempts to ward them off with violence, dark thoughts, and pure determination. The story becomes a parable that uses Itzik’s refusal to yield to these seemingly positive beings to expose the cheap nature of the culture of pleasure being forced upon him.

            To emphasize his assertion that happiness as people perceive it is fraudulent, Keret provides a cultural critique of how consumerism contributes to the idea that happiness is something to be bought. He portrays the happiness into which Itzik is being “swallowed up” as a life of involuntary hedonism; with this state comes the loss of anything of real importance in his life and the denial of any true happiness, although the term “happiness” itself may have become meaningless (Keret 150). 

            The philosophical doctrine of hedonism views the positive human experience as a constant search for pleasure and avoidance of pain and asserts that all voluntary human action is in accordance with this principle. While such an existence may sound simple or ignoble, many ancient followers of Hedonism, including Epicurus, were actually ascetics who sought a higher, emotional form of pleasure, such as being amongst enjoyable company or educating oneself to reduce fear of the unknown (EBO). Hedonists like Epicurus specifically warned against overindulgence, which appears to be one of the defining characteristics of the happiness forced upon Itzik. Significantly, it is the figure of Sheer Enjoyment “with the takeaway pizzas and the porn magazines” which finally carries him away to live the happy life. Keret focuses in particular on sex and money-spending as the two activities society often equates with happiness: “Five years [Itzik]’d done at Club Med. Five years, damn them to hell. With a girl he loved…with sex both oral and anal, with money to spend like there was no tomorrow. He’d had it real bad. He knew it for what it was” (Keret 148). Itzik is unwilling to engage in the activities because, to him, they are not worthwhile endeavors and only provide momentary thrills that are ultimately meaningless; to maintain these feelings, he would have to constantly involve himself in those activities.

            As an alternative to this hedonistic way of life, “So Good” suggests a perspective more in harmony with Aristotle’s idea that happiness is not an accumulation of feelings of contentment, but rather the use of reason to govern one’s soul in accordance with moral and intellectual virtue (EBO). This involves having a sense of understanding and curiosity for others, and it is clear that Itzik values his ability to use reason to empathize with others. It is also clear, however, that Itzik himself does not appear to be any more in accordance with Aristotle than he is with hedonism. In fact, the finality of his situation and his overwhelming fear of any pleasure, even those Epicurus would consider virtuous, drives Keret’s readers to seek some happy medium between the two. He holds the particularly unfounded fear that once he is bound by happiness, he will be completely unable to contemplate all of the horrors of the world around him or to sympathize with those who remain unhappy.

            Keret presents an all-or-nothing situation in which those who have given in to the expressions of happiness around them are no longer able to behave like rational and free-thinking humans. Itzik’s father provides a stark example of this; he is described as “a grinning zombie who loved daytime TV…and kissed [Itzik’s] mother every chance he got” (Keret 147). In Itzik’s eyes, the love of one’s spouse is no more pure a form of happiness than engaging in pornography. He makes no distinctions between virtuous and vicious pleasures.  By making Itzik’s situation so extreme and, frankly, unbelievable, Keret is acknowledging the impossibility of a modern life of pure Aristotelian values. Any attempt at applying Itzik’s harsh standards of a noble life to the real world would be laughable, and furthermore, Keret provides Itzik with no alternative to his refused happiness than to sit in his room and be depressed. His failure to differentiate between such emotional pleasures as loving one’s children and winning the lottery leads to the conclusion that there is no way for Itzik to be happy at all. This is not to suggest that Keret believes happiness to be unattainable, but that simply by juxtaposing the two extreme examples of dealing with happiness, one all-inclusive and one strictly non-inclusive, he forces his readers to consider their own situations.

            The characterization of Itzik’s father as a zombie suggests that he has a complete lack of spirit or volition, and Itzik wants to avoid this fate for himself at any cost. As a defense mechanism, Itzik fills his head with unhappy thoughts--Holocaust Memorial Day, homelessness, child abuse, AIDS. Happiness continues to bear down on him, however, and Itzik begins to forget about these things. His head is instead filled with memories of his mother tucking him in at night, old-fashioned ice cream, and the joy of someday having a family of his own. These warm memories and positive hopes for the future would perhaps be labeled “feelings of contentment” by Aristotelian thought, but they do not seem intrinsically bad or impure (EBO). Admittedly, these feelings may provide little more than emotional comfort; because they keep one’s thoughts in either the past or future, they deny one the ability to be present in the moment and therefore spur that desperate search for something “better.” Keret is perhaps critiquing not these thoughts themselves, but the tendency of some people to remain grounded in the past or to think constantly in terms of their future while ignoring their present condition.

            Freedom, as a component of moral virtue, is essential to Aristotle’s idea of happiness (EBO). Although Itzik may have enjoyed his time at the Club Med resort, it took the grief of his grandmother’s death for him to regain his volition, without which “he’d still be there now” against his will and without the ability to experience the pain and suffering of losing a loved one (Keret 148). It seems strange that someone might prefer the sadness of losing a loved one to complete euphoria, but by using the grief associated with death as the incident necessary for Itzik to regain himself, Keret implies that such suffering is essential to humans. A life in which one was unable to stop experiencing pleasure, even in the event of a tragedy, is not a life worth living. Furthermore, although pain for its own sake may not be desirable, it is a necessary component of achieving more complex forms of happiness, because it allows people to develop a more mature idea of what happiness truly means, as they compare their personal experiences with pain to experiences of happiness or pleasure.

            In addition to its constant association with pleasure, pain is also an unavoidable part of life. Experiencing pain and discomfort, whether physical or emotional, cannot be avoided and is often a sacrifice that must be made in order to achieve some sort of comfort, gratification, or happiness at a later point. The ability to assess situations and make decisions regarding displeasure as something that will result in a final payoff of pleasure is the basis of Freud’s reality principle, where over time the mind develops the ability to suppress desires for instant pleasure with the goal of achieving long-term or more complex pleasures instead (EBO). Itzik himself does not follow this principle, but his reaction to the instances of pleasure around him attests to society’s need to re-evaluate their own thoughts on instant gratification versus long-term happiness. 

            Keret critiques the role of commercialism in the development of the false idea that happiness is a feeling that must be maintained by constant engagement in certain experiences; this becomes apparent when he makes numerous references to television, a perpetrator of this idea. Itzik’s television is deemed to be an unsafe portal through which these agents of happiness can corrupt him, even when something so seemingly wholesome as the “family channel” is playing, calling attention to the irony of this cheap form of entertainment often used as something people choose to enjoy together in place of actual human interaction (Keret 148). Rather than knocking on his door, Sheer Enjoyment attempts to sneak up on Itzik by hiding in bushes outside, illustrating the deliberate attempt of capitalist businesses to constantly capture our attentions and “entertain” people, oftentimes without their conscious consent or awareness.

            Television is only one of the many facets of commercialism Keret exposes as forces that must be fought against if this false state of happiness is to be avoided. With her promise of money, Success takes on a purely materialistic role in Itzik’s battle. Keret reduces Success to a single image of winning lottery tickets, buying into the widespread notion that there is no greater accomplishment than obtaining and spending money, even if it is obtained without effort or self-determination. Even the notion of Opportunity has been commercialized. She is the first to attempt entry into his apartment, and about this Itzik remarks: “They always sent [Opportunity] in first…probably figured she was expendable” (148). Along with consumerism and capitalism comes the idea that life is full of endless opportunities, which like everything else can be replaced in an instant; this insinuates that most opportunities are of poor quality to begin with. In fact, it is the poor quality of these pleasures that causes people to constantly seek them, choosing quantity over quality and many repeated instant gratifications over something more meaningful and true. Itzik says to Opportunity, “I’m not my father, I won’t let you drag me away in some van festooned with Disney characters and a shit-eating grin on my face,” but while he points out his disgust at the blissful obliviousness of his father, Itzik does not propose any meaningful opportunities in its place (148), perhaps implying that there are no opportunities worth taking.

            Itzik’s situation also addresses the contemporary intolerance of sadness. Evidence of this attitude can be seen in the increasing frequency with which prescription antidepressants are administered to people of all ages, at least in the United States where, according to the Center for Disease Control prescriptions for antidepressants have increased by 400% since 1988 (NCHS). It seems that the distinction between normal human experiences like grief or suffering and long-term depression has been deemed unimportant. Medication has become the all-encompassing solution to any deviation from the state of normalcy people have come to call happiness: being “happy” all the time seems to be the only normal state of living.

            This idea in itself sets an impossible standard by which people have come to judge their day-to-day emotions. If being in a “bad” mood or feeling down is abnormal, it follows that only a complete absence of these feelings is normal. For instance, Itzik’s story implies that his state of happiness prevented him from mourning the death of his own grandmother. Instead, he was expected to move onto the next instance of pleasure; to show any emotion perceived as negative would be to admit he was no longer happy and would require intervention. It is important to note that as Itzik struggles against this notion that it is abnormal to feel anything other than happiness, he conjures not just feelings of his own personal sorrows, but also the pain he feels for the suffering of those around him.

            The polarity of Itzik’s situation forces him to partake in an endless search for ultimate contentment and joy at the price of losing all insight or empathy he might have for his own suffering and for those around him. Also at stake is the conception he seems to be harboring of himself as a clear-thinking and curious individual. As he is dragged to the doom that awaits him, the happy life, Itzik’s shirt is changed from one that says “Why?” to one that says “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” (Keret 150). Keret is suggesting that with a surfeit of happiness comes apathy and, consequentially, a loss of character.

            In addition to this irrational and never-ending search for the “better,” Keret alludes to the importance of temperance and the freedom to make rational decisions in the face of an excess of pleasure and “happiness.” As Itzik is offered pizza, porn, techno music, and a minivan, here again the underlying tones are critical of a society that offers constant pleasure and entertainment to a completely unnecessary extent. He employs his wavering self control for a final time as he screams to Sheer Enjoyment “Hey, babe, I hate my pizzas cold” (Keret 149).

            Keret is suggesting that through overexposure to things like sex and food, society has become desensitized to the actual meaning and importance of such things and has also experienced to some extent a loss of control. When experiences of pleasure, no matter how superficial, are constantly offered at little or no cost, it becomes difficult to deny them, sometimes to the point of the formation of self-destructive tendencies like overeating or substance abuse. In cases such as this, the mental addiction of constantly looking for the “better” is replaced with an actual physical addiction, but the inability to function as a human of reason remains a side effect.

            According to Aristotle, these pleasures in particular--eating, drinking, and sex--cannot truly be associated with happiness because ultimately they are no more than forms of nourishment experienced by every animal (EBO). Human beings have the ability to reach a state of wellbeing beyond carnal and sensory pleasure because of their ability to function through the use of reason; therefore, to be happy is to be a well-functioning human who is engaged with the world around him.

            In the end, Itzik surrenders to his fate surrounded by green trees and a bright blue sky, while the temperature is “just right, not too warm and not too cold” (150). Itzik experiences these pleasures as he approaches the van that will transport him to his future wife and accompanying life. Adorned with pictures of the television show The Simpsons as well as mortgage ads, this van provides Keret’s readers with one final image of the never-ending bombardment of advertisements disguised as entertainment forced upon a society that seems unwilling to use the power of its own reason to overcome it. Yet in addition to these sensual pleasures and exposure to advertisements, Itzik also begins to sense that the love of his life will “be there, waiting for [him]. [They]’ll have an amazing future” (150). Keret seems to be mocking Itzik’s crumbling will in the face of these promises of a happy future despite his strong determination thus far, insinuating that just as pain is an unavoidable part of life, so is happiness. It is significant that Itzik is not being dragged back to a life of gambling and sex, but to a loving family. So while exposure to consumerism and shallow pleasures is not likely to end, there is no reason to give up on the notion of happiness completely, and Itzik’s story is testament to the possibility that even if one should try to avoid happiness, there is no guarantee of success.

 

 

Works Cited

 

Encyclopedia Britannica Online . “Aristotle,” accessed April 10, 2013,

            http://britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/34560/Aristotle/254721/Ethics#toc2...

 

Encyclopedia Britannica Online.  “Epicureanism,” accessed April 10, 2013,

            http://britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/189732/Epicureanism/68371/Criticis...

 

Encyclopedia Britannica Online. “Human Behavior,” accessed April 10, 2013,

            http://britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/275332/human-behaviour/24910/Psych...

 

National Center for Health Statistics. Health, United States, 2010: With special feature on death and dying. Table 95. Hyattsville, MD. 2011.

 

Keret, Etgar, Miriam Shlesinger, and Sondra Silverston. "So Good." The Girl on the Fridge.  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008. Print.

 

 
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