Foreword | January 31, 2014

Gregg Easterbrook describes a seemingly puzzling fact about the condition of people now living in the United States and Europe. In many undeniable ways we are living in a better world than our forebears. Most of us have unlimited food at affordable prices, with hunger being a less common problem than overindulgence. Our average lifespans in the past century have climbed from forty-four years to seventy-seven, with the life expectancy of women in Sweden, for example, climbing at a rate of three months per year for the past two centuries. Many of the plagues of history, such as smallpox and polio, as well as many infectious diseases, have been defeated, while infant mortality has declined by 45 percent since 1980. Mortality from cancer has declined by 1 percent a year since the early 1990s, despite an overall ageing population. Over the past century, there have been numerous advances in comfort, less bondage to backbreaking physical toil, decreased average work hours, as well as advances in freedom of expression, political freedom and sexual freedom. By almost every statistical measure, our overall physical conditions have improved markedly, a fact that is observable in even a relatively young adult’s life. The great paradox, however, is that the average percentage of people who describe themselves as “happy” hasn’t budged since the 1950s.

Easterbrook runs through an interesting set of possible explanations for this, including theories that contemporary life is plagued by choice anxieties, collapse anxiety, abundance guilt and a movement from material want to a want of meaning. Perhaps the most likely explanation is the fact that human beings get used to their material circumstances fairly quickly, and their measure of what is enough and what is too little adjusts accordingly. I used to imagine that the spread of electricity, radio and better systems of travel during the early twentieth century must have been an amazing and wondrous experience for those who lived through it. Yet in reality, changes in comforts and material well-being—both public and private—are quickly absorbed and assumed to be the natural order. The other reality, which Easterbrook discusses at length, is that while the lack of money causes unhappiness, having it in abundance doesn’t cause lasting happiness. The paradoxes here go deeper than the obvious. For example, millionaires as a group are no happier than people of average income, the disabled and chronically ill report a slightly higher sense of well-being than the populations at large and, as a group, older people are happier than young people.

Happiness is more likely to be affected by friendships, love, and meaningful work than by merely having lots of money and amenities. Perhaps this is obvious enough not to even seem paradoxical. For most of the major religions of the world, the fact that happiness cannot come from wealth or living conditions alone is hardly news. But as one delves more deeply into the human condition, true enigmas do arise—of a kind that only imaginative artists and philosophers begin to address. The scary proximity and interconnectedness of good and bad fortune, and even of good and evil is a reality that we have been particularly aware of since about a hundred years ago, when the world commenced ripping itself apart with world wars and the Modernists began envisioning their Wastelands. Before then, philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche were already doubting easy, dogmatic premises about good and evil, and later the Existentialists carried that uncertainty still further by doubting there was any reliable meaning in the world other than what we give it through agency and choice. Much of our winter issue reminds me of this doubt and of the potential uncertainty of the given; it reminds me, too, of the need for action and choice to get beyond them.

In his story “Salvage,” Hal Walling describes a young man, Blake, resident in a small town on Vancouver Island, who has ties with the local drug culture. He is perceptive and aware of his own flaws and motivations, but when a friend of his is killed, he feels a strong sense of guilt. During a drug deal he just avoids being arrested and then learns that his dealer’s violent brother is coming after him to kill him. In this well written story of an underside of contemporary life, Blake escapes the island and goes to visit an old friend where he faces an even worse tragedy—one that results in an inescapable self-realization. John Fulton’s “What Kent Boyd Had” is a story about the rise and fall of a successful attorney, the eponymous Kent Boyd. It begins at the apex of his life. From a poor, Pentecostal background, Boyd has worked his way to the top and has everything he could want, with a few very minor insufficiencies. As the story catalogues all the things the protagonist “has,” the reader watches Boyd make a single impulsive choice that causes the whole construct of his success to topple. He makes a rather sorry rebound, and the story takes him to his final years, where he reflects on what exactly makes a life valuable.

Seth Fried’s fable “The Evil Tyrant of Ten Kurk” questions the prevalence and acceptance of evil. It depicts a nation of people who are dominated by a malevolent tyrant and yet who are also fully complicit and accepting of him. Their acceptance comes not just from naiveté but partly from calculation. It is a story that questions the senselessness of tyranny and the less obvious effects on people who live under its sway, perhaps even wondering if the horrors of such a rule may serve to distract citizens from deeper, more existential fears. Jane Gillette’s “Meditation XXXI: On Sustenance” tells about a est-Coast landscape architect and his natural-foods-advocate wife, who relocate to Indiana to start a restaurant specializing in locally grown food. The supremely successful husband fully embraces the vision of starting a locavore restaurant, and they put their all into it, only to have their vision come crashing down around them. It is a story with the feel of parable and metafiction about how a grand and irreproachable ambition tinged just slightly with arrogance or blindness can end in disappointment and loss.

Jonathan Fink’s essay “The Dreamers” explores the effects of the fracking boom in the town of Midland, Texas. While unemployment falls and incomes and home prices soar—which isn’t an entirely good thing for many residents—the quality of local life, the water, and the environment decline. In his essay “The Edge Effect: Surfing with Peregrine Falcons in La Jolla,” Nick Neely follows lay ethologist Will Sooter. Sooter is a retired headhunter who has spent thousands of hours studying and photographing the once-endangered peregrine falcons around the La Jolla Bay. The essay profiles Will and his obsession with the birds, while vividly narrating falcon behavior in the coastal California setting.

Sarah T. Schwab’s interview of Daniel Talbot gives us a look into the life of the scrambling theater scene in New York and California. Talbot is the director, playwright, producer and literary manager of Rattlestick Playwrights Theater and also the artistic director of the Lucille Lortel and NYIT Award-winning Rising Phoenix Rep. In the interview Talbot talks about being a bicoastal artist and about Rattlestick’s commitment to off-Broadway theater. Talbot is radical in his belief in both the significance of theater as an art form and the fact that theater is not condemned to only consist of expensive, large-scale enterprises: “What I love about theater is that it’s this pure space that represents back to us everything we are in physical action, from the way it’s made, from the way it’s marketed, from the way people come and see or don’t come and see it. It’s a Truth box, and it represents back to us on every level what we are.”

The poems in this issue include Jennifer Atkinson’s laments for the green places lost to or endangered by environmental encroachment and other man-made disasters. Both global and local in their concerns, her poems take us from the Chernobyl Power Plant Eco-reserve to Sri Lanka’s war-torn landscape to a ferry on the Hudson River and to the speaker’s own neighborhood, where an open field will soon be mown. She reminds us that “Only we will miss / The leaning tree when it finally falls.” Alexandra Teague’s poems bring us back to the American Wild West during the violent years of the 1860s. Issuing from “this terrible engine” of the Winchester repeater, also known as “the gun that won the West,” these gripping, poignant poems examine how fear, violence and loss—individual or collective—are inevitably entangled, and how they often bleed into one another and take new forms. Michelle Boisseau’s poems experiment with scale, exploring the fine lines between the up-above and down-below, the vast and minute, the transient and timeless. Each of her poems is like a compact universe in which we “fall through violet galaxies, / fresh and ancient as thumbprints.” If it’s true that human perception is limited by mortality, then these poems suggest that our imagination can sometimes ferry us across the timeless space and vast unknown. Kristine Somerville’s visual feature “The Logic of Dreams: The Life and Work of Ruth St. Denis” describes a career in the arts that lasted many years and overcame endless obstacles to redefine the importance and nature of modern dance. Her childhood was spent on the verge of poverty on a twenty-acre farm in New Jersey. She made her way slowly upward, from dance classes to dime museums to dance troupes, performing on stage and rooftop gardens. For four years she danced as a Belasco player before having an unlikely epiphany that led her to study costumes and style and systems of movement. Somerville describes St. Denis as at heart a Romantic who believed that dance in some way connected the observer with the divine, yet with the establishment of the Denishawn School she became the leader and eventually the great mentor of a whole new kind of modern dance, with its emphasis on the strange, the mysterious, and the unconscious mind. Despite her hard-earned practical success, St. Denis’s long career was tempered by money troubles, as the costs of maintaining the Denishawn Company often exceeded its income, to the point that finally, during the Depression, it had to be abandoned.

Andrew Mulvania covers recent biographies of poet Sylvia Plath. Nowhere is the scary proximity of good and bad fortune, absurdity and action more apparent than in the life of Plath, for whom death was always so close and whose career lasted so briefly.

If you are a student, faculty member, or staff member at an institution whose library subscribes to Project Muse, you can read this piece and the full archives of the Missouri Review for free. Check this list to see if your library is a Project Muse subscriber.