The Holiness of Diet Coke

When should you do what makes you feel good?


I’ll start by jumping straight into controversy: happiness is pretty fantastic. In fact, everyone everywhere should be happy. And the best way to live is to do what makes you happy. Got it, everyone? Just turn that frown upside-down! Do what feels good! Oh, and drink Diet Coke and buy a Volkswagen. Apparently those things help.

Or, if it makes you feel good, you could read A Room With a View. It’s a novel about passion, romance, Italy, and tennis: Lucy Honeychurch gets engaged to Cecil Vyse, a man she thinks she loves (but who doesn’t play tennis) — and is confronted with George Emerson, the man she really loves (because he kissed her in Italy) when he moves into the neighborhood. Will she marry Cecil or run off with George? E.M. Forster keeps us guessing until the last chapter, when (spoiler alert) she breaks down her inhibitions, breaks up her engagement, and breaks out for Italy with her new husband George.

The real book, of course, isn’t nearly as inane as that sounds. (Dramatic oversimplification, anyone?) In fact, it’s well worth reading, even for people who don’t like chick flicks. In my experience, any subject can be incredibly awful when handled by a chintzy writer and pretty fantastic when handled by a good one. My plot outline was chintzy. E.M. Forster is not.

One of the main points of his novel seems to be (more or less) Do What Feels Good. Lucy holds herself to Cecil’s engagement because of propriety: George is a bit uncouth and you don’t break off engagements to marry another man! (There are standards, you know.) But in the end desire conquers all. And here’s the fascinating thing: Forster makes the case that this is not just a feel-good happy ending but rather the objectively right thing to do.

“It is being young,” as George explains himself to Lucy and her officious cousin. “It is being certain that Lucy cares for me really. It is that love and youth matter intellectually.” This last sentence is the important one: love and youth matter intellectually. Standards and rules are intellectual things — we make them up in our minds. We can carve the words into stone or print them in congressional registers, but the laws themselves exist in our heads, in the world of ideas. Emotions, on the other hand, are very visceral, physical sorts of things. They operate on our hearts, not our minds. And typically, these standards and our emotions are at odds. We might salivate over the Snickers by the register, but although we want to stick it in our coat pocket, we don’t do it because we know stealing is wrong. The moral standard curbs our desire; when there’s a conflict between standards and emotion, mind and heart, the mind wins. But George is saying that this ought not be. Romance, passion, love, and youth are intellectually valuable, not just emotionally: they have a weight equal to (if not greater than) the standards they strain against. And in cases where the strain is especially great, it might mean that the standards, not the emotions, are in the wrong.

For George and Lucy, this means that although every shred of propriety and custom kicks against it, they must wed. There is true love between them, and the customs that would prevent this love cannot — ought not — restrain them. In a striking phrase, Forster describes this as “the holiness of direct desire.” Desire is holy, and since it is wrong to desecrate the sacred, it is wrong to dam desire, for custom’s sake or anything else. Because of this, Forster prophecies that to those who “have sinned against passion and truth, …vain will be their strife after virtue.” Passion walks with truth. In some cases it may even be truth. And its absence or denial will always make virtue impossible.

“ ‘I taught him,’ he quavered, ‘to trust in love. I said: “When love comes, that is reality.” I said: “Passion does not blind. No. Passion is sanity, and the woman you love, she is the only person you will ever really understand.” ’ ” — E.M. Forster

This isn’t exactly Do What Feels Good, but it’s close. And the sentiment is common currency today, featured in ad commercials and movies and inspirational quotes. (That’s largely why the plot of Forster’s novel is so easy to caricature.) Follow your passions; do what makes you happy. It worked out smashingly for George and Lucy.

Does it for everyone?

Iris Murdoch (and, for the record, I myself) doesn’t think so. Her novel The Bell (which, also for the record, is perceptive and thought-provoking and worth reading) takes place mostly within a small religious community settled around an Abbey at a place called Imber Court. The main characters are Dora Greenfield, flighty and adulterous wife of scholar Paul Greenfield; Michael Meade, leader of the Imber community with dreams of the priesthood; and Toby Gashe, innocent young boy on his way to Oxford. During the novel, Dora arrives at Imber Court to reconcile with Paul, Michael works to suppress his lusts, and Toby struggles to understand his shattered innocence. The lives of each of these characters (and more) are brought suddenly into combustion by a series of events involving the Abbey bell, which had been lost during the Middle Ages and is now about to be replaced.

Throughout her retelling of these events, Murdoch clothes desire in a decidedly different dress than in Forster’s novel. Murdoch introduces Michael as the pious leader of the Imber brotherhood, maintaining unity in the (slightly) fractious group and planning for the expansion of the community. When, a chapter later, she introduces him as also a homosexual, it is with no lessening of his dignity as a person or, apparently, of his devotion as a Christian. This last item is the tension Michael struggles with throughout the novel. He realizes that sodomy is forbidden: his vice and his religion, to borrow Murdoch’s phrasing, are incompatible. Even so, “God had created men and women with these tendencies, and made these tendencies to run so deep that they were, in many cases, the very core of the personality….For himself, God had made him so and he did not think that God had made him a monster.”

Michael is unwilling to unilaterally reject his homosexual desires — “he did not in fact believe that it was just forbidden” — and so, despite his efforts at self-restraint, he falls in love with beautiful Nick Fawley. This occurs before the novel begins, in Michael’s tenure as a schoolteacher before coming to Imber. Nick Fawley is one of his students; the desire is mutual. When Nick first begins visiting him late at night (for academic purposes), Michael dismisses the danger because the whole thing seems so innocent. Then one night, before he leaves, Nick rests his hand on Michael’s knee: “He knew in that moment he was lost. The touch of Nick’s hand had given to him a joy so intense, he would have wished to say so pure, if the word had not here rung a little strangely.” He and Nick become lovers, though the relationship is never consummated, until a traveling evangelist brings conviction, Nick confesses to the headmaster, and Michael is decorously sacked. Michael eventually returns to the religion he had begun to neglect and founds the community at Imber Court. Then beautiful Toby Gashe joins the Imber brotherhood and Michael, initially unaware, is drawn back into the same temptation.

A Diet Coke commercial would probably counsel Michael to hang the rules and pursue his passion. A Volkswagen ad might tell Michael to elope. Michael considers neither of these options (at least not consciously). But he nonetheless finds himself drawn irresistibly toward that which he despises and yet which he sees as somehow incontrovertibly good. “He could not believe that there was anything inherently evil in the great love which he bore to Nick: this love was something so strong, so radiant, it came from so deep it seemed of the very nature of goodness itself.” So far this sounds like a vivid application of Forster’s dictum. Yet when Michael applies this love to Toby, the boy is thrown into a tailspin of guilt and confusion, questioning his own morality and sexuality as his innocence crumbles around him.

“Out in the dazzling sunlight [Toby] felt unutterably sick and disconsolate. He was conscious of an obscure wish to do something violent….Now suddenly it seemed that since everything was so muddled, anything was permitted.” — Iris Murdoch

Deep and strong and radiant and seemingly good as Michael’s desire may be, the novel makes clear that there is something wrong in its expression.

Murdoch explains this when, in passing, she describes Michael’s love for Nick as “the old passion whose intensity had made him think it so pure.” Michael confused intensity with purity. He believed, with George and Lucy, that the more direct a desire is, the more holiness it imparts. Yet Michael’s story ends up rather differently than theirs. In one of the most famous scenes from A Room With a View, George impulsively kisses Lucy on an Italian field strewn with violets. In The Bell, Michael impulsively kisses Toby while enthralled by his beauty. The same action, the same motive. But where George’s kiss leads to love, passion, and marriage, Michael’s kiss leads to love, passion, and disaster.

In Forster’s world, love and passion lead infallibly to happy endings. In Murdoch’s world, intensity often masquerades as purity, leading to confusion and catastrophe. Which author is more accurate?

Despite the commercials, everywhere around us we see examples of desire gone astray. The sex offender wants to satisfy his lusts come hell or high water; the politician thinks she can bend the rules just this once to get what she wants; the future divorcees celebrate their wedding with as much joy as the longtime couple. We humans are frail, and so are our desires. That which pleasures us now often pains us (and our neighbors) later. Disastrously, however, our personal and cultural standards are just as unreliable as our emotions. The overbearing parent stifles her son’s creativity in the name of future career security while rigid traditionalists bind their daughters’ feet, widows hurl themselves onto burial pyres, and ignorant pastors preach hatred. The things we believe to be right often turn out to be just as wrong as the things we feel to be right.

For each of these examples, of course, there are dozens of counter-examples — stories of the parents whose rules protected their son from serious harm, of the college graduate whose counter-cultural passion for adventure led her to make a powerful stand for justice. Neither intense emotion nor authoritative standards are evil — but neither are they perfect, because we humans are not perfect. We are frail, fallen, and so is everything we create. As a result, wholly trusting anything human-made is probably a grand mistake. Murdoch’s novel understands this; unfortunately, Forster’s doesn’t.

“For the hard idea of truth we had substituted the facile idea of sincerity.” — Iris Murdoch

You probably expected a more pleasant conclusion from an essay about happiness. Sorry about that. Still, if we’re going to be searching for happiness (thanks, Coca-Cola), we should first make sure we have a good idea of what we’re looking for. And if we humans are fundamentally unreliable, we can’t define happiness by ourselves, whether our direct desires or our personal standards. We need a better foundation — a stable source. And if we need to look beyond everything human and human-made, that only leaves aliens or the divine.

This, of course, is a subject for another article; I only meant this article to raise the questions, because the questions are too easily forgotten. Pride — another of our weaknesses — makes us think that we are essentially good, reliable people. This is a convenient and delicious drug. But it is, unfortunately, a false one, and we need to recognize this if we want to live well in the world around us.