Review – The Bonfire Of The Vanities

The Bonfire of the Vanities

by Tom Wolfe, published 1987

During a these days rare dinner with friends our conversation turned to the time men spend away from home and their families, working their jobs. In this era it has become fashionable for women to work jobs and make money as men do, but save for a few standouts who are either childless outliers or work from pure necessity due to a failed relationship and mounting obligations, women do not “work as men do.” They don’t spend as much time at it and they certainly are not existentially defined by it. You may fall on either side of this line in your suppositions and beliefs, but where I fall is that this is the nature of man and woman.

In this role of provider, of striver, it becomes difficult if not impossible for a man to dissociate himself from his work such that he can stand independently apart from it without falling down on top of himself. He can always find a way to justify spending just a little bit more time at the office, or networking on the golf course, or catching up on emails after hours and so on, rather than reading to his kids or helping with household chores or kissing his wife on the forehead. Not because he’s trying to shirk his “duties” — far from it, for a man’s duty is to work! — but because in so prioritizing his time he is more fully expressing and embodying himself and defining who he is through his productive ambition.

There are two terrifying prospects then for men– to have no productive work to throw oneself into, or worse, to have work that doesn’t matter, to the man, to his family and to the world.

“Bonfire” is a story of the undoing of many characters. Great and small, main characters and side acts alike, each person is ultimately undone in this story in various dreadful ways, like the cuckolded Arthur Ruskin who succumbs in a plate of his fancy food at a French-dining scene. But the most terrible undoing of all, at least as far as a man is concerned, is the undoing of Sherman McCoy.

The major drama of the story follows McCoy in the criminal aftermath of his hit-and-run in the Bronx. But this drama serves only to distract the unobservant reader from the more existential moment when McCoy tries to explain to his six year-old daughter what he does for a living. In that moment, he learns that his work is inexplicable and meaningless.

Though touted by himself and others as a “Master of the Universe” at a major bond trading firm, Sherman McCoy comes to the understanding that he is at best a lowly salesman and at worst a janitor. He makes his money by trying to convince other people to buy and sell things and the residual value of these transactions, though large in absolute terms to an individual, are nonetheless like so many “golden crumbs” to be swept up from the table or floor of even more gluttonous organizations and actors.

Although seemingly talented, good at what he does and maybe even in a sense born to do it, it is essentially menial work and McCoy is replaceable, not strategic. He experiences this fact tangibly when, as his personal drama percolates, he witnesses the ways in which his former world goes on happily without him. This is the truly crushing blow for him, when he begins to have trouble sleeping and contemplates an existential way out of his misery.

Though cast as a social satire and an attack on financial hotshots and others of privilege, the book is perhaps better understood as a warning to men in general. That warning might be to anchor your work in your self and not to anchor your self in your work; as long as you are alive you will have your self, but you may not always have your work, at least in the way you’ve always understood it.

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Satisfaction Versus Happiness, And Change And Finality

A theme for discussion between a good friend and I over the last couple of years has been the existence of a dichotomy between life satisfaction and life happiness. We have been debating whether there is a difference between being satisfied with life and being happy about one’s life. We have discussed whether happiness is possible, and, if so, whether it is a desirable emotional state over an extended period of time. A related idea is whether one should measure the moral quality of one’s life by the metric of happiness (ie, if I am happy, then I live a “good” life and if I am unhappy, then I live a “bad” life).

I can’t say we’ve come to any meaningful conclusions so far and part of the problem seems to be that we can’t even agree on any meaningful definitions. This probably is not a unique or original discussion but we’re not familiar with the literature on it or else skeptical about the approach of some who have made attempts. Normally I am hesitant to engage in philosophical inquiry without agreeing on terms ahead of time but this is too “meta” at this point to do anything but grope around in the dark for a place to start so I’m going to pen a few thoughts as they stand now, as they come to me.

One thing we’ve pondered is whether there is room for any negative emotions in a person who is happy. Does one have to feel and describe oneself as “happy” ALL the time, MOST of the time, A LOT of the time or just SOME of the time to honestly bear the moniker? Does being happy mean ignoring or even repressing the negative emotions one might experience (sadness, anger, disappointment)? This gets at the question of whether happiness is authentic and human– does being happy necessitate disconnecting part of your emotional apparatus and living a kind of emotional lie?

What are the necessary components of a happy person’s life? Can one be happy in poverty? In sickness? In loneliness? Can one be happy in a moment of failure, or a lifetime full of it? Can the stupid be happy? The incompetent? The mean? Are there different varieties of happy, or just one? Different qualities, or just one? Is the happiness of an accomplished, healthy adult the same as the happiness of a decrepit moron? Is a child’s happiness like an adult’s? (And is an adult’s even possible?)

Is happiness possible for everyone, or just a lucky few? Does it come with hard work and discipline or is it connected to the genetic lottery and inbred disposition? A popular idea is that everyone can find work they love that they’re passionate about, yet only few people seem to describe their jobs or careers as emotionally fulfilling. Is happiness like these wonderful jobs or social roles?

Another thing we wonder about is whether happiness comes from accomplishments and milestones, things achieved and earned or accumulated, material or otherwise, or whether happiness is an outcome of process, procedure and the act of living itself? Can one be making progress towards things one wants, without ever getting them, and be happy or does a goal need to be seized to secure happiness along with it?

My friend spent some time reading some Arthur Schopenhauer with his wife and while I haven’t read it, the synopsis I got from him is that life is a living hell and the best one can hope to do is get as far away from the flames as possible. This view of the world might seem reasonable for someone living with chronic hunger, crushing poverty or within an active war zone or communist regime. But is it a reasonable conclusion for a young couple in a major American city who are closer to joining the top 1% than the bottom 1%?

This is where the idea of happiness becomes a moral weapon. If we don’t suffer any particular hardships, but we also don’t find ourselves emotionally fulfilled by our lives, does this mean we are not happy and must compound our circumstances by heaping moral approbation on ourselves for this emotional failure? Could we allow ourselves to acknowledge we are merely satisfied with our lives and get on with living them?

I think about dying (hopefully decades from now) without happiness. Ignoring that death itself doesn’t seem to be a happy circumstance however you go about it, I wonder if reaching that point and having a final or recent thought being “I didn’t manage to achieve happiness over the course of my life” kind of takes whatever satisfaction you might have up to that point away from you at the last moment leaving you with truly nothing. Not your life, not your friends and family, not your wealth and not even a final happy thought before you blink out of existence. (For those who cherish the idea of an afterlife, what if you make it into the kingdom of heaven a moral saint but your soul is plagued by a Woody Allen-esque neurotic paranoia with regards to contentment and joy? I realize the very notion might be blasphemous or at least theologically untenable but work with me here on the existential problem I am grasping at.)

Now what if I reach my point of universal departure and I am not happy, but I am confident my life was a satisfying one? I have no major complaints, I’ve got a few things I care quite a bit about and I learned enough about those things and how I relate to them to effect some kind of meaningful impact according to my values? Should I be disappointed at that point if that was the most I could manage?

I then try to follow this logic back from my eventual time of death to my present existence. Where am I “going”? I won’t know until I get there. What if where I am “going” is where I am right now? And I am not rapturous about life, but I am not miserable?

What if not much changes between now and then? I’m about who I am, I have about what I have, I suffer no major indignities, troubles or traumas and I just keep going about the routine I am in albeit as a slightly older person with each iteration? I dream and scheme, I work toward these goals but I don’t get “there.” Can I be satisfied with a satisfying life? Or must I start chastising myself somewhere down the line for my personal stagnation? Is life that much greater if it’s characterized by greater intensity and frequency over time of a particular pattern I’m engaged in right now? Is one happiness and the other only satisfaction?

I doubt anyone would want to read a book about my life right now. He ate this. He read that. He walked the dog. I might not live a life worth retelling by the time I die, either. Is that some kind of existential problem for me?