The pursuit of happiness

A few years ago I read all of Victor Klemperer’s Diaries – from 1933 to 1959. I read them in the subway on the way to work, at a time when I felt overwhelmed and miserable. I figured it would be therapeutic to read about the daily life of someone who had it so much harder than me, which would allow me to find greater happiness and pleasure in my comparably easy, safe, comfortable life.

Klemperer was a university professor (Philology) and writer, and Jewish, and therefore subject to the cascading laws, prohibitions and bullying that made life miserable and ultimately unbearable for anyone Jewish living in Germany. The only reason he escaped the camps was his marriage to the long-suffering, faithful Eva, and a daring escape during the bombing of Dresden.

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From 1935 Klemperer was stripped of his academic title, job, citizenship and freedom and eventually forced to work in a factory and as a day laborer, bagging herbs and shoveling snow. In 1940 Eva and him had to leave their beloved house in Dölzschen and were rehoused under miserable conditions in a Judenhaus, where they were routinely questioned, mistreated and humiliated by the Gesta

po. They are not allowed to keep their beloved cat Muschel so they get a friendly vet to put him to sleep. Food allocations go from bad to worse to nothing; at some point they are living off rotting potatoes. Jewish friends and acquaintances one by one disappear. Their health deteriorates. They live in abject terror and in constant fear of their lives.


During the terrifying bombing of Dresden towards the end of the war they leave the city, Victor sheds his identity, and they end up in Bavaria. After the war is finally over they mostly walk back to Dölzschen, through an often apocalyptic Germany, with their few belongings, dressed almost in rags, pretty much begging for food, and relying on the (enforced) kindness of strangers.

And then, all clouds lift. Their house is theirs again. The end of terror and fear, of homelessness and hunger.

“… by the second night we were already in our house, a still indescribable feeling, still like a waking dream, since then we’ve been living in a fairy-tale world, a comical, imaginary and yet very real but somewhat uncertain world …”

Klemperer’s life takes an almost comical turn for the better from this moment on. He is offered a professorship, he is treated like a returning hero, people simper and bow before him, he gets restitution, a driver, political office. Eva dies, but a smart and beautiful 26 year old student of his falls in love with the 71 year old Klemperer and they marry. Even though they live in East Germany they get to travel abroad. He gets awarded prizes and honors. He’s an influential teacher, and his students adore him. Despite his lifelong fears about his health he lives to a ripe 79 years.

You’d think he’d be the happiest man in the world.

Not only did he survive, but fortune favored him more than he ever imagined.

And yet, almost ever page of the 600+ pages of the 1945 – 1959 Diaries are filled with complaints, fears, self-recriminations, worries, paranoia. His happiness decreased proportionally to all the good things that happened in his life.

Perversely, some of the happier times in the Diaries occur in the 1930s where he manages to extract happiness from life on the knife’s edge, full of uncertainty.

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The stoics maintain that happiness can only exist in the contemplation of loss, that in order to feel happy we need to meditate on a time when we will no longer have that which makes us happy.

Which is kind of what I was trying to do, on the Q train in the winter of 2008.