Why Yes, I Do Love Life
Blaise PASCAL, no relation to present company.
A GRANDMA, who lived to a ripe old age.
A HIPSTER, who died before her time.
Setting: On the Islands of the Blest, the honored dead enjoy an eternity of warm, perfectly sunny weather. They drink excellent wine crafted in the fertile uplands. They stroll hundreds of miles of pristine beaches.
Unlike you, they never have to sneak in the wine.
Prologue: from “The Worldly,” (“Le Mondain,” by Voltaire, my translation) spoken by VOLTAIRE before the curtain, 18th-century style.
Let them regret who may
A long-lost good old day
Ruled by Queen Astraea,
In happy times of old
They say the streets were gold.
In Eden they would play.
As far as I can see
Providence put me
In just the proper age;
She is a sage.
Though grumblers abase it
They do have to face it:
Right now’s the time to be.
The arts in all their kinds
Are dear to decent minds.
These things I hold aloft —
Effete, and soft.
Good pleasure and good taste
In ornament no waste.
Or so the Worldly finds.
My impure heart adores
How sweet Abundance stores,
And happily she feeds
New joys; new needs.
She spins gold from the earth,
Assays vast oceans’ worth;
Air itself she implores!
Do you know what drew us?
The mere superfluous
But truly needful things —
The Iron Age sings!
VOLTAIRE: Say, anyone have a look at the U.S.A. lately?
GRANDMA: Yeah, but it’s been a couple of… wow, it’s hard to keep track of time up here, isn’t it?
VOLTAIRE: Up here? It’s hard to keep track of direction. But how goes it… down there?
HIPSTER: The same as always, life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness. And a perpetual crisis.
PASCAL: Ah yes, the pursuit of happiness. But happiness never does manage to get caught, and what little they have is always threatening to go down the toilet.
VOLTAIRE: Something to do with government bonds, no doubt.
PASCAL: It usually is. Oh, and you might find this interesting, my dear philosophe — there’s a bit of a debate underway among three distinct propositions: One, we should have more kids. Two, we should have fewer. And three, the mere act of having any children at all is indefensible.
VOLTAIRE: I would think the natural inclination rather settles the argument, doesn’t it? “Be fruitful and multiply” — never was an easier command given to the Jews. Or to anyone.
PASTEUR: It’s not for the parents’ happiness alone that you should have kids. It’s for the kids’, too. Or so they say.
VOLTAIRE: How do they come to suspect that the children will be happy? Have the Americans been reading… Leibniz?
PASCAL: The argument, if you can call it that, goes something like this. Premise one: You do not want to die. Therefore life must be pretty good for you, no matter what your station. So it must be good for others, too… and so have more kids. They will thank you for being born.
VOLTAIRE: But every birth means one more death, and death is miserable. In a sense, all parents are killers. Better not to have children: if the child-to-be misses out on some pleasure, no one really cares, and at any rate, the pleasure he might enjoy is always uncertain. But if the child-to-be misses out on death, then he has done better than any now living. And the only certain way to do that is never to be born.
PASCAL: I see you’ve already divined the third position in the debate.
VOLTAIRE: It was easy, for me anyway. I never had any children.
PASCAL: It wasn’t for want of trying.
VOLTAIRE: Ah, true.
PASTEUR: But what if the first argument’s right? What if it’s better to bring someone into the world, because life really is a blessing? The premise bears all sorts of joyful extensions, if only we look for them.
PASTEUR: You’d hate to have your buttock cut off, right?
VOLTAIRE: What? I mean — I would. Yes.
PASTEUR: Or even a part of it?
VOLTAIRE: Or even a part of it. I’m quite happy, thank you, with the flesh that nature has given me.
PASTEUR: But you acquired that flesh through your own efforts at the dinner table. If it’s such a misfortune to have even a piece of you cut off, then being a part of you must be really, really great. So it would appear that you have a moral obligation to get fatter. Grow those buttocks! Let ever more carbon and nitrogen take part in the miracle of life!
VOLTAIRE: You said this was a… joyful… extension. Didn’t you?
PASTEUR: Joyful after your manner. Ironically joyful.
VOLTAIRE: Oh. Of course.
GRANDMA: There are joys to life, though. There are. Real ones, too. Having children. Having grandchildren. Singing hymns. The bloom of the flowers.
HIPSTER: Sure there are pleasures. Reading a good book, or having a good cup of coffee. Music. Get-togethers with friends.
GRANDMA: I can’t imagine. Whatever you’d get up to, it was probably something revolting.
HIPSTER: Not as bad as you’d think. Some of it might be familiar stuff, too. One time we had a canning party.
PASTEUR: A canning… party?
HIPSTER: Oh yeah.
GRANDMA: Just like I said, revolting. Canning’s a chore. And not even a fun one.
HIPSTER: It can be fun sometimes. I mean, why not? It’s great to make something with your hands. Take work back from the machine. Feel independent, for once. Like, you’re really in charge of your life.
GRANDMA: If you liked canning so goddamn much, why didn’t you move back in with me? I’d have you canning every day of the week.
HIPSTER: But then it wouldn’t be fun. And besides, every day of the week? What did you can so much of?
HIPSTER: You mean, like, from dinner leftovers?
GRANDMA: That way they don’t go bad.
HIPSTER: And you call me revolting.
GRANDMA: That’s not revolting, that’s survival. Eight decades of frugality, sweetie. But you—well, you wouldn’t know, would you? [Grandma, who teetotaled in life, has resolved to make up for lost time.] When I was younger I planted my own green beans for canning. And just look at you. You go to the grocery store, you buy your green beans from France or Argentina—and then you can them. Oh ho ho! Such a little saver you are!
HIPSTER: [Gasps.] Why I’d never! We always went to the farmer’s market.
GRANDMA: The farmer’s market? Weren’t no market in my day. Just us farmers.
HIPSTER: And the companies who owned you. I’ve read The Grapes of Wrath.
VOLTAIRE: Have you ever noticed that there’s a certain tension between being a hipster and being a cosmopolitan? To be a cosmopolitan is to suspend your judgment, or at least very carefully pretend to. But to be a hipster you need this excruciatingly precise judgment. On everything. And you need to flaunt it.
PASCAL: So which one are you?
VOLTAIRE: Never mind. [Sips his champagne. From the bottle.]
HIPSTER: Okay, fine. Canning wasn’t the same thing to me that it was to you. You can’t step in the same river twice. What am I supposed to do? Apologize for liking something?
GRANDMA: Did you knit?
GRANDMA: Bake your own bread?
GRANDMA: Those weren’t hobbies for me, and if you had to survive by them, you couldn’t. I’d just like to you admit it. That’s all.
PASTEUR: Let me ask a question. Why would you want to survive that way? There’s no need anymore. You can buy canned vegetables for pennies in the grocery. The bread’s cheap, too. Germ theory and modern sanitation makes food- and water-borne illness extraordinarily rare in the developed world. And a single machine knits faster than an army of hipsters. Aren’t you, well, you know… supposed to be happier that way?
PASCAL: Otherwise you nineteenth-century folk really shouldn’t have bothered.
PASTEUR: I guess there’s the love of knowledge for its own sake. But that never was quite my style. I really thought I might make people happier. That’s why I did all that stuff.
PASCAL: I tried to warn you. But did you listen? Vanity, I tell you…
HIPSTER: The Bible doesn’t always end in Deuteronomy. Sometimes it gets as far as Ecclesiastes.
VOLTAIRE: With the same results, my dear girl. It’s an exercise in creative unhappiness.
PASCAL: Don’t blame the Bible. The world has gotten more adept, and less religious, and it certainly has not gotten any happier. Not even by a little.
VOLTAIRE: Come now, my great good man, are you mad? You’re never going to convince the rest of us that scientific progress is in vain. Not all vanity is in vain, even. To Hell with Ecclesiastes.
GRANDMA: Don’t talk about Scripture like that. It’s not respectful.
VOLTAIRE: I’d prefer we not talk about scripture at all.
GRANDMA: Probably for the best.
HIPSTER: Odd, isn’t it, that living in the afterlife doesn’t clear up any of these questions.
VOLTAIRE: As one of my biographers put it, I spent 83 years dying. I never had good health. I loved life anyway.
HIPSTER: And you didn’t even have an iPod.
PASCAL: Pity him! Better that he were never born!