The Habit of Interestedness: On Eva Brann’s “Pursuits of Happiness”
By Peggy EllsbergJanuary 3, 2023
Pursuits of Happiness: On Being Interested by Eva Brann
St. John’s, with its famously demanding curriculum, hovers like a high-achieving angel over the landscape of American higher education. The college is a paracosm, attracting brainiac teachers and students who do not mind learning ancient Greek and reading serious texts week in and week out. Students encounter immortal geniuses, ancient and modern, including Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Machiavelli, Locke, Darwin, Marx, and Tolstoy. Brann at one point mentions how much her colleague and mentor Jacob Klein enjoyed teaching the undergraduates at St. John’s, describing them as rude, crude, and rambunctious, but compelled at all times to defend every assertion they made. The college seems to bestow upon its members a friendship and a loyalty that, to me, sound like bliss.
The preface to Pursuits of Happiness: On Being Interested opens with an epigraph from the 20th-century poet Wallace Stevens’s Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction (1942) and this comment: “I was led to this very long poem, of which I understand about five stanzas.” A prodigious scholar, Brann here begins by manifesting a modesty and self-deprecation mixed with a sense of adventure. Not everyone who commands Greek philosophy as Brann does also tackles Wallace Stevens. In fact, poets and philosophers are traditionally situated at opposite ends of the spectrum of critical interest, though throughout Brann’s works they convene. Her books teach us how to cultivate an interest in something — a connection, a proximity, a book, a person, a smashing idea.
Brann’s new book sweeps across the vast range of things that hold her interest. It thus invites us to enjoy the life of the mind and to live from our highest selves. A thoughtful encounter with this book will make you, I swear, a better person. The book includes chapters on Thing-Love, the Aztecs, Athens, Jane Austen, Plato, Wisdom, the Idea of the Good. The first half provides an on-ramp to the chapter titled “On Being Interested,” which falls in the dead center of the book. This central chapter serves as more than a cog in the wheel: it is an ars poetica. Addressing issues of attention, focus, and interest itself, as well as how and where to deploy these functions throughout our lives, “Being Interested” offers a solution for any seeker intrigued by the notion that happiness is not an accident but a vocation. Brann characterizes the pursuit of happiness as “ontological optimism […] to be maintained in the face of reality’s recalcitrance.” In her 2010 book Homage to Americans: Mile-High Meditations, Close Readings, and Time-Spanning Speculations, Brann recounts her experience of waiting for a delayed flight at the Denver Airport. Rather than whining about the tedium and soul-sucking banality of the event, she turns her exquisite attention to the actual experience of “waiting.” Possessed of a consistent ability to enjoy, Brann seems literally incapable of boredom.
Brann has dedicated a long and intellectually brilliant life to liberal education, in particular to the education of those fortunate enough to inhabit a democratic republic. A German Jew, she escaped Nazi Germany in 1941, graduated from Brooklyn College, and got a PhD from Yale in archaeology. She also studied classics at Oxford. On January 21, 2019, St. John’s interviewed her in honor of her 90th birthday. Given that Brann has been a tutor (their word for “professor”) at St. John’s since 1957, the interviewer inquires, “What has kept you here?” She responds with characteristic candor: “I’ve had invitations to go other places, so I can say with some pride that it’s not because I have no other place to go. There are some other places in America where I could [go] […] but none in which I feel that the institution is so perfectly geared to good teaching and where I’m so certain of having colleagues to talk to.” The interviewer then asks whether she has a favorite among the Great Books, and she answers: “I’m a great lover of the Odyssey.”
In her beautiful 2002 book Homeric Moments: Clues to Delight in Reading the Odyssey and the Iliad, Brann begins a chapter with this sure-footed invitation:
It’s all right to describe who Odysseus is up front because he really does not change […] between the first and the last day of his odyssey. He is a grown-up, a man who is what he is, when he leaves for Troy, and he is the same when he comes back home twenty years later. […]
[W]ith his endurance goes tremendous self-control.
She here describes the qualities of her own mind — grown up, stable, noble in purpose. One of the blurbs for Homeric Moments refers to Brann as “a great and patient teacher.” Greatness and patience also characterize her newest book. In Pursuits of Happiness, I can detect her capacity — as in Odysseus — for self-mastery. I can also detect her recursive dedication to concepts like “delight.”
Eva Brann loves her college and her country, the country that hosted her beginning in 1941 (she is a naturalized American citizen) and which she has faithfully repaid with her gratitude and her attention. She has studied and glossed in print the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, and the Federalist Papers. Her capacious reach has included a translation of Jacob Klein’s Greek geometry. She is a person of many strong interests. The central chapter of this book, “On Being Interested,” offers a road map to staying happy: cultivate real interests.
The book presents “happiness” not as a pursuit in the sense of a chase after wealth or success, but as a vocation. She also calls it “ontological optimism […] to be maintained in the face of reality’s recalcitrance.” “If you want to be happy for the rest of your life,” to quote the old song, she recommends, without hesitation, “the habit of interestedness.” Like a seamless web, this new book considers experiences such as delight, enjoyment, and curiosity. Brann entitled her important 2008 book Feeling Our Feelings after an experience at a playground: “I was swinging [a four-year-old boy] in a park in Cambridge, Massachusetts […] ‘Swing me higher,’ he said. ‘I want to feel my feelings.’” She claims that these feelings emerge from the thing we call the soul. Happiness is neither beatitude nor euphoria nor gratification, but it is, rather, interest — in sublimity, for example; and unlike “pleasantness,” Brann’s happiness emerges from a habit of showing interest, of feeling our feelings.
Brann respects the unseen. Leo Strauss — like Brann, a German-born Jew who made his home not only in the United States but also in Great Books teaching, mostly at the University of Chicago — spent his final years with the community in Annapolis. Along with Strauss and Klein, Brann seems to find atheism unacceptable. Also like them, she identifies as a conservative. I interpret this not as a political position, but as a statement of her commitment to conserve old truths — from the American founders, the Greek poets — and of her belief in philosophy over ideology.
For John Locke and his disciple Thomas Jefferson, happiness is not pleasure. Like those precursors, Brann teaches Americans to free themselves from attachment to superficial gratifications and to pursue a higher-quality contentment with life. She locates this contentment in our “interestedness.” We are, she implies, morally, what we eat. She believes that Americans own the birthright of happy freedom, a conviction she reveals especially in Homage to Americans. As an American, my encounter with Brann’s work calls me back to a sense of my own good fortune. Against a keening background noise of lament — over the economy, the climate, the pandemic, the predations of technology, crime — Eva Brann’s bright witness lifts me up and out.
“‘Interested’ is one of the best words I know,” she says; when you find something that draws your attention, her injunction is to “[b]arge on.” Daydreaming is a species of thinking, and therefore okay. But avoid boredom! Being bored makes you boring. “Boredom is the antithesis of interest,” she asserts. Also, being “interested” makes you more “interesting.” Brann finds “inter-esse” — being between or amongst — in her country, her friends, her college, and her books. So, she instructs, pick up an excellent book and read well. Talk it up with others. Choose your interest actively:
Choice is surely involved in becoming interested. But do you choose the object or does it seize you? I like to think that becoming interested follows upon the display of the object’s attractive power, as the peacock “displays” its fan. Our choice is to follow through, to get serious, for it’s one thing to light up with the fire of fascination and another to bank that fire so that it becomes a steady heat, an ardor.
Brann says that infecting her students with a habit of interestedness is a pedagogical challenge. So might it be for each of us as individuals seeking contentment with our highest selves. For all of this, Pursuits of Happiness: On Being Interested offers a playbook. Brann provides this instruction: “Pretend interest (though it is not exactly a virtue but a gift), as if fulfilling an obligation, and keep up the pretense until the real thing befalls you, and you are unfeignedly interested.” And she recalls “the slightly manic pursuits” of childhood:
My sandbox cities with their flowing rivers (vainly sanctioned hydraulics; the garden hose was forbidden in the sandbox), my fiercely organized and reorganized stamp-collection, and my little phonograph (1934 — pre-CD) clandestinely played under the blanket, my frisson-laden underworld.
Brann’s central chapter explores how interest is a sort of love. She cites “our chaste love for our teachers” — and I feel certain that Tutor Brann has been much loved in her 65 years as a “curato[r] of [her] community of learning.”
Peggy Ellsberg is a poet and scholar who teaches English at Barnard College. She is the author of Created to Praise: The Language of Gerard Manley Hopkins (Oxford University Press, 1987) and editor of The Gospel in Gerard Manley Hopkins: Selections from His Poems, Letters, Journals, and Spiritual Writings (Plough, 2017).
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