Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Ray Bradbury on the Real Happiness Machine

Here's another story by Bradbury that I liked. It's called "The Happiness Machine" and it is, I think, about the ordinariness of happiness. Happiness is often thought of as a state of exaltation, or at least some kind of subjective, positive feeling that is desirable in its own right. It is decidedly not normal, out of the ordinary, something to be desperately sought and, when found, jealously guarded. We commonly feel that in order to be happy, we need to be able to enjoy all the good things in life, need to be healthy and fit, young and beautiful and reasonably well-to-do. Then we can rush off, from highlight to highlight and pursue happiness to all those fancy places where it is to be found (or, more likely, to be bought).

This assumption is shared by the protagonist in Bradbury's story. His name is Leo Auffmann, and he has set his mind to construcing a "happiness machine". Finally, after having tirelessly worked on it for some months or so, all the while completely neglecting his wife and children and his own health, he has a result, the machine is finished and it's working. However, to his dismay his wife is not the least interested in the machine, which, in her view, has almost ruined her husband's life, not to speak of their relationship: "Man was not made to tamper with such things. It's not against God, no, but it sure looks like it's against Leo Auffmann. Another week of this and we'll bury him in his machine!" And what's all this artifical happiness good for anyway, she asks, and flatly refuses even to give it a try. "If you died from overwork, what should I do today, climb in that big box down there and be happy?" Then his son uses it and is utterly miserable as a result. Leo doesn't understand. And then his wife finally gives in and decides that she will, after all, try out the machine. We hear her voice from inside. Apparently she sees and hears and smells wonderful places, Paris, Rome, the Pyramids, feels herself to be dancing (not really, of course), gasps "Amazing!", and then - she starts to weep. It's the saddest thing in the world, she says when she comes out. She had never missed any of this, and now she does. Now she wants do see Paris, but knows that she can't and won't. The machine let her feel young again, but she knows she isn't. It's all a lie. Nothing of it is real. The happiness machine is in fact a sadness machine. The problem is that we have to go back to reality, and reality is not like that: there are dirty dishes to be washed, beds to be made, children to be fed.

Moreover, it is not even desirable to have those wonderful experiences all the time and whenever you want to: "let's be frank, Leo, how long can you look at a sunset? Who wants a sunset to last? Who wants perfect temperature? Who wants air smelling good always? So after a while, who would notice? Better, for a minute or two, a sunset. After that, let's have something else." "Sunsets we always liked because they only happen once and go away." When Leo replies that this is actually very sad, this briefness, the ephemeral nature of the good, she says: "No, if the sunset stayed and we got bored, that would be a real sadness."

Then, the machine catches fire and they let it burn until it is no more. They can now go back to their lives, which are very ordinary, but not so bad after all, to "putting books back on shelves, and clothes back in closets, fixing supper" and ordinary things like that. And then Leo finally discovers "the real Happiness Machine", which is a life that is shared with other people, doing everyday things, and being there for each other. Nothing more is needed: "There sat Saul and Marshall, playing chess at the coffee table. In the dining room Rebecca was laying out the silver. Naomi was cutting paper-doll dresses. Ruth was painting water colors. Joseph was running his electric train. Through the kitchen door, Lena Auffmann was sliding a pot roast from the steaming oven. Every hand, every head, every mouth made a big or little motion. You could hear their faraway voices under glass. You could hear someone singing in a high sweet voice. You could smell bread baking, too, and you knew it was real bread that would soon be covered with real butter. Everything was there and it was working."

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