by Tuan Phan
It’s all a question of dogs and donkeys.
My friend Omar and I were sitting at an outdoor bar in Florence, sipping six-euro beers in silence. In front of us was the Piazza della Signoria. Hercules had some hapless chap under his heel, his carved marble thigh muscles rippling with success; David was tensed, poised to defeat his gigantic enemy while helmeted Perseus, slick in black bronze, casually allowed the blood-dripping head of Medusa to hang loosely by his side.
We were surrounded by testaments of testicular success; we were soaking in the sights of the conquering of the elements by great mythological men. Appropriate to the moment, O. was reading Bertrand Russell’s book The Conquest of Happiness, and I was subtly shifting my chair minute by minute to catch the afternoon rays of light as they went in and out of clouds blocking the Florentine sun.
O. said, “I believe the saying that life is not a cohesive whole, but it’s made up of moments, some of them significant. This is one of those moments.”
“Most def. O., most def,” I replied.
“Look what we just passed through, t-phizzle,” said Omar. “In the Piazza dei Uffizi Gallileo, DaVinci, Botticelli, all the big shots in the Renaissance were celebrated and displayed on the walls. We just saw Michaelangelo’s last sculpture in the museum of the duomo. Western science, astronomy, philosophy had their beginnings here. This is the starting point of all Western Civilization, man, those fuckers made this, and we’re sitting right in it. I’m not one to talk about all this live life to its fullest once in a moment carpe diem shit, but this shit here’s an actual, nonnegotiable good moment in my life. THIS here’s the shit, t-phiz.”
“That’s beautiful, O.”
“That’s quite eloquent.”
Such was the typical conversation on my trips with O. Omar was slightly outside of the mold of the teachers I knew at Tasis; he was born in Morocco, lived in Lebanon for three years, moved to Paris, then to the states where his family was again constantly in motion. His father, a Moroccan economist who worked for the World Bank, and his mother, an American, were always mobile. O. spent the first semester in Tasis holed up in his apartment. During the second semester, however, when he decided he was going to leave the school and only had that one semester remaining, he went out nearly every weekday and weekend, took trips abroad and went everywhere, and was still able to impress the kids so much that our valedictorian’s speech referred to him throughout. The moments when O. was spontaneous, or when he has had a few pints or shots, were the funniest moments to witness, as he suddenly grew macho and drifted into a mix of slang and humorous bravado.
We sipped our beers then, and paused to ruminate on our good fortune. We were certainly not wealthy teachers, but we were on a spare weekend holiday we could afford, drinking probably the most expensive beer we’d have for the week for this view of the busiest piazza in Florence. And it was in fact, one of those moments when Florence seemed vibrant, intelligent, flirtatious, like a brainy muse whose bare buttocks accidentally grazed a Renaissance artist’s leg and caused him to think of a breakthrough in anatomically correct perspective drawing. The piazza where we sat had interesting angles and lines of activity, as tourists coming from various points diverged, took in the square, and left for other sites nearby. Some came from la piazza Republica, eyes agog at Hercules and the replica of David, and turned into the piazza dei Uffizi towards the ponte Vecchia, ready to buy the expensive jewelry on sale on both sides of the bridge, while others came from the bridge and meandered their way towards the center of the city, perhaps for a glimpse of the David, or something else besides the long line at the Uffizi. I was content to watch the play of light, and observe the absolute predictability of touristy motions, the camera ready for use, the parents pulling their children, the folks sitting down by the statues for a rest, the busy hum of Americans and Germans on holiday.
“How’s the book?” I asked, referring to Russell’s self help guide towards contentment, which Omar had resting on the table, with a bookmark, a solo dollar bill, showing that he was close to a third of the way in.
“Yeah. The conquest of happiness. It’s about the conquest of happiness, right?”
“Yeah. It’s good. It’s similar to the stuff I’ve been reading for my class.”
O. was finishing his year in Tasis as its Economics teacher, and was about to return to the states, to the Maret School in DC, to teach a course in philosophy that he was to design himself. He was thinking of using Russell’s History of the Western Philosophy as the foundation text for it.
“What’s the gist of his argument?” I asked.
“His argument is that true happiness is not based on external stimuli. That it’s internally motivated, and you have to actively approach it on your own. Something like that. I just started.”
I believe I wanted to mention here that it sounded like the opposite of Buddhistic philosophy, which says that you should let everything go, should be accepting of lost happiness and not strive for it, to search for a deeper joy based on an understanding of transience. But I’m not sure if I said this. Instead, I might have glossed over this point and noted the aggressive title.
“That’s pretty aggressive for a title, don’t you think? The Conquest of Happiness. Like happiness is something you’re supposed to tackle on a football field?”
“No man, that’s not it. Russell’s just saying you can’t approach it passively. He says it’s a series of obstacles you’ll have to go through to—”
I interrupted Omar and began to speak in faux jive, which sounds odd, I suppose, coming from me.
“I’m Bertrand Russell. Read my book. I conquered happiness, bitches. I tapped happiness’s a—”
“Don’t knock Russell, T.”
“So since you’ve read the book, have you mastered happiness? Has happiness called you its uncle?”
“Yeah. Yeah. I’d say I spanked happiness.”
“Would you say that happiness is your dog?”
“Man, T-Phizz, I DOGGY styled happiness.”
We laughed heartily, and I saw a middle-aged well-dressed man at the next table glance at us with a look that could only be described as one of absolute abhorrence and disgust. I felt a momentary surge of good vibe, akin to contentment, for indeed I believed that in this moment, as I observed the surroundings of classical antiquity, as the sun shone brightly on, that I had conquered happiness.
We began to talk then about the golden age of man, which Omar and I have theoretically argued quite a bit on. While descending the hills near the Acropolis in Greece, O. and I began this talk and the question of which age in our relatively short history and occupation of the world have human beings been happiest, and what constitutes happiness for us, and whether or not we have ever achieved it. We didn’t mention many specific time periods, because I was especially shoddy on history. I waxed nostalgic for the times previous when the world was less traversed and explored, when humans were only a part of the world and shared it with others, when we were not earth’s chief occupier, when there was mystery in its corners and a need for community that was absolute; when community was needed not only for company but also for safety; when one felt closer to the Gods, and nature and the elements. Perhaps because we were at the time walking in the heart of old Athens that I mentioned the golden age of man had probably occurred in Athens, in the time of the heart of the Grecian temperament, in the midst of the ruins of the Agora as Socrates led debates, or as the beginnings of scientific inquiry began, allowing us to explore the world around ourselves. Or maybe it occurred during the time of emperor Hadrian in Rome, when this civilization was subsumed under another’s but still celebrated, when the emperor took time to travel and survey his empire, and found that it contained all the elements of inquiry, curiosity, and good life. At that time, I believed, the ideas and the thought arriving from free time offered by their society was also not constricted with the detritus from our massive civilization now; they allowed us to live with nature as we lived with ourselves, as a part of our daily life.
O. disagreed, saying that while Socrates was holding court the city was always threatened, the world was constantly at war with itself, that those with time to debate philosophy found their time and sustenance on the labors of slaves who, if asked the same question, would not have counted their particular age as a golden one. And if anything, Socrates and Plato felt that the democratic republic was weak, on its last legs, and that in fact the Spartans and their warrior ascetic culture stuck closer to the philosopher kings of the ideal society written about eventually in Socrates’ and Plato’s Republic. Even they, O. argued, would have argued against their society as emblematic of the golden age of man. When I asked when he believes the golden age of man was, O. said we were ever progressing towards it, and that actually we are closest to it now. We could legitimately solve the problems of poverty if we re-pooled our resources, he said, the average citizen of the world has much more to live on than the average citizen in Grecian times or those in the Middle Ages, hence we have the capacity to be much more, at least, economically content than previous generations.
We ended our conversation regarding the golden age of man in Santorini, a volcanic island in Greece, as we were on our second day of the trip to the island. We were sitting at a dock near the town of Ios and waiting for the sun to drop into a pocket made by the faint impression of two islands and the endless blue of the sea. We had carried some souvlakis with us, and were sitting outside watching a few dogs play nearby. One of them was just hanging out, seemingly watching the same thing we were, and as we observed them a thought occurred to me:
Me: I wonder if dogs can enjoy views.
O: No, fizzle, they don’t see that shit.
Me: I think they can.
O: That’s ridiculous.
Me: Check it out, that little dog. He’s totally enjoying a view of the sea. He’s just like a human being staring at landscape.
O: Stop talking shit, man.
Me: I’m serious, O. He’s the pure example of someone living the golden age of man, except that he’s a dog.
As the conversation continued I gradually won Omar to my side, and we both concurred that the dogs of Santorini were enjoying the golden age of man, as dogs. We went through the requirements for the achievement of the golden age. What does it take for a society to achieve the highest possible median level of happiness for all its citizens? This second time taking on the question, we concluded that it had to do with everyone having the rudimentary requirements for survival first, and that the threat of nonexistence did not loom over all our citizens. Secondly, that there be a sense of freedom in choosing one’s destiny, the belief that there is some agency, intention or overall positive effect to what one’s actions were in life. Thirdly, a sense of freedom or free will, the sense that one can do whatever one likes to do, that the action one is currently doing is the action one most wants to do at that moment, that still does not impinge on others having this same freedom. Only then can a golden age be achieved. As we discussed the dogs of Santorini, we came to realize that they were much closer to the golden age of man then we – the traveling teacher tourists of Santorini – were, because they had achieved all the three levels necessary for the age to come into being. They had the essentials of nourishment from the Souvlakis joints on the island that give them scraps – these souvlakis were delicious emblems of Greek cuisine, delicious and nutritious, and much better than the chicken and potatoes at our school. Unlike us, they do not have the same need to experience purpose in their lives, so the second requirement was altered. These dogs simply lived their lives, roamed the streets of Santorini in packs; their lives were already justified while we always questioned ours; they’d say to themselves: I run in packs, therefore I am, or as Omar said, “I’m with my bitches, ergo sum…” The third, the sense of boundless freedom so deprived of all citizens of mankind, was achieved by these dogs from their experience of the endless days of sunlight in Greece, the views of the infinite blue that is the Mediterranean, the mild, cool sea winds that blow upon their ragged fur as they roam the coast of Santorini, frightening tourists, feeling badass, alive and alert, a part of the natural order of things. The dogs of these Grecian islands, I said, all experience, daily, the Wordsworthian sense of the sublime, that intimation of immortality we once had as children when we looked upon the world and its wilderness for the first time and knew the true meaning of wonder. We, estranged tourist teachers living on the scraps of free time allowed to us, are no longer possessors of such an intimation; we grow morose in our landlocked cities, turn melancholy and oppressed by the smog from our own machines, hemmed in by our un-graded papers.
Then what were we, boarding school teachers of Tasis on vacation, comparable to, if not to the dogs luxuriating in the ocean soaked sun of Santorini? The donkeys of the island, O. and I concluded. The donkeys, those dumb, uncomplaining beasts that carry tourists up and down the hills and slopes of the city, clanking slowly from step to step, sometimes stepping in and sometimes smelling their own shit. Like laborers without hope, haven’t we papers to grade after this spring break, after this momentary glimpse of freedom experienced by the dogs? Parents to talk to, administration to argue with, students to debate grades against, drunken students to discipline? We were Sisyphus pushing up his boulder, and we were experiencing the momentary elation allowed to us at the mountain top; we were given a brief glimpse of our situation, a momentary cessation of our ills, and soon would we not be anxiously waiting for the inevitable labor up the same hill, the same boulder of labor and duties? Do we not have bills to pay, relationships to upkeep, student loans and taxes to remember to pay? Yes, we were the donkeys, stupidly strapped to our labors, carrying tourists and their camera bags up and down the white stones of the town.
And yet, concluding this, we sat with our souvlakis in hand, watching the Mediterranean Sea dash to and fro against the dock, the same sea that housed the lines of Homer, that pushed the Odyssean raft along in wavy winds of physical poetry. With a glass of Grecian wine nearby, fresh caught fish on the table, and our legs kicked up on a chair, allowing our lazy eyes a scanning of endless ocean and boundless sky, azure upon azure, we sat. “Nice view,” I said, and O. nodded in solemn agreement.
Tuan Phan‘s story won the Bronze Award for Culture and Ideas in the Second Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.