EDITOR’S NOTE by Melissa Swantkowski
What if happiness isn’t worth searching for? What if we let go of the idea that permanent bliss is attainable or even desirable? And if we allow that melancholy is our natural state, who’s to say this isn’t, in fact, happiness? But by doing away with the search for happiness and instead aiming for its opposite, does unhappiness become just as elusive?
In “Unhappiness, Guanajuato” by Pablo Piñero Stillmann, the narrator, Joaquín, doesn’t find any answers. (That would be too easy.) Instead, we get a disjointed narrative, a story about a man who joins a cult of sadness and the legacy of unhappiness he leaves for his family, delivered in small snippets of history and personal anecdote. And after he’s delivered his story, he may be more lost than before. I hate to talk about unreliable narrators because on some level every narrator is unreliable — part of what gets a reader involved is buying into what the story is selling. But Joaquín announces his intention to deceive the reader on the first page: “The false reason why I’m telling this story: A smokescreen.” In less skillful hands, this piece could go awry at the start, the reader asking herself why she should continue, but Stillmann’s prose is confident and deft and each section of the story drives it forward.
The story comes together as a collage. Standing back from it, the reader could pick almost any moment as a point of entry. Each section has its own impact separate from its influence on the narrative. Something in this structure mirrors life: What if at any point, you had chosen a different moment, a different path? What I like so much about this piece is that by visiting a society of unhappiness — a town where happiness is outlawed — we are asked to really examine our obsession. If focusing on feeling sad all the time is impossible, even ridiculous, then surely seeking happiness above all else must be just as unnecessary. Where do we go from here? Who knows.
Fiction Editor, Bodega
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ALSO KNOWN AS RUMINATION.
As much as it might seem incredible to someone like you or I, happiness, wait, Happiness, hasn’t always had a positive connotation for everyone. This will be easier to accept if you consider that no one thing has been anything, always, for everyone. Most things have been many things for at least some people. Nothing has at times meant Everything and at others meant Some Things. For long stretches of time Nothing actually meant nothing. But I must stop myself because I have the tendency to spin uncontrollably into spirals of confusion and — sometimes — complete nonsense.
FOR EXAMPLE: MADDEN’S SAVAGES.
The first records of a society which considered Happiness to be something to avoid rather than the Ultimate Goal come from Scottish anthropologist Newman J. Madden. When he died in 1809, Dr. Madden was working on a book about a tribe, which he simply referred to as the Savages, dwellers of a village near what today is Alice Springs, Australia, people who associated Happiness with death and decay. “We are born crying,” wrote Dr. Madden, “and die, when we die as nature intended us to, with a lazy smile on our faces, so it shouldn’t be surprising that the Savages think of bursts of happiness as little pushes and shoves towards nonexistence.”
The manuscript goes on to explain a ritual wherein Madden’s Savages — which some modern anthropologists think might be an offshoot of the Noogri tribe — slashed their infants’ cheeks as a rite of passage, rendering them forever incapable of smiling. (Portraits of the brutally scarred faces of Madden’s Savages can be found among the anthropologist’s papers at the University of California, Berkeley.)
THE FALSE REASON WHY I’M TELLING THIS STORY: A SMOKESCREEN.
Then there was, of course, the Sorg (Grief) cult in Stockholm during the late 19th century, whose members would go years without being exposed to sunlight, which was dismantled after their unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Sofia of Nassau. During America’s Great Depression something called the Frown Militia, a gang of ultra-right-wing manic-depressives who wanted to take over the country, appeared and quickly disappeared in Oklahoma.1
But much has already been written about these and other cases of note. Besides, I am not an anthropologist nor did I ever finish medical school. The only reason I feel compelled to write this is that my grandfather died last week. He himself once belonged to what in academic circles are known as societies of unhappiness.
You can call it a cult, commune, or whatever else provides you with a better understanding of the phenomenon. I call it a society. All they wanted was a paradigm shift that would better suit their reality. I’ve heard of worse things.
Dr. Blanco’s society of unhappiness might be the most recent one on record. From the very little that has been written of it, it’s still unclear if it was founded in 1946 or 1949. My grandparents Tomás and Mariana didn’t join until the autumn of ‘52.
The youngest child of one of Mexico City’s most prominent families, at thirty Tomás de Feo had already built a name for himself as a lawyer and a professor, even serving as a trusted legal advisor to President Miguel Alemán. Alemán, as Mexico’s sitting mandatary, officiated Tomás’ marriage to Mariana Schiffner, a beautiful young woman who’d turned sixteen only a month before the wedding.
There’s a slight mention of my grandfather in Alemán’s colossal and self-serving autobiography. After dedicating a single paragraph to Tomás’ rise and fall, Alemán concludes that “[l]icenciado de Feo was a man whose genius sadly morphed into complete lunacy.”
HIS MIND WAS ALL ANYONE SPOKE OF.
Mariana’s father, my great grandfather Knut, described Tomás in his diaries as “an ambitious man with rare intelligence who, nonetheless, seems to know nothing of what the joys of life can bring. Most of the time he’s deep in thought and what he seems to be thinking about is DEATH.”
THE MIRALARGA EPISODE.
Not long after the wedding there was an episode in which Tomás refused to leave his office on the thirty-second floor of the Torre Miralarga for over seventy-five hours. After finally stumbling out into the hallway, the young lawyer adamantly refused to be institutionalized and was back to work the following week.
MAJOR DEPRESSIVE DISORDER.
I understand perfectly what Tomás was going through because his nasty melancholic gene squeezed its way into my father’s bloodstream and then skipped onto my brother Javier’s and mine. It must be said at some point, it might as well be here, that my father, Jerónimo de Feo, hanged himself one night from the thick branches of a Coral tree in the courtyard of his law firm in downtown Mexico City.
My sister, Tamara, I’m proud to report, seems to be free of the disease. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and four children.
THREE NUNS WALK INTO A HOSPITAL ROOM.
So yes, Tomás de Feo was a dark cloud of a man, but for a large part of his life he, like everyone else, was obsessed with finding Happiness. From a very early age he read the great philosophers and left dozens of notebooks filled with scribbled notes of his reactions. I’ve read hundreds of pages from his notebooks and must say that it’s painful to trace the mental footsteps of a man who is so clearly not in control of his spirit. One day he’d write something like, “Happiness is understanding that we are everything, everything is us.” Then, after twenty pages filled with minuscule scribbling, he’d come to the conclusion that, “to be truly content one must accept that he is nothing. We don’t exist.”
Tomás attended seminars on Happiness, made at least five trips to Boston to visit one of the psychiatrists who was working to include Major Depression in the first version of the DSM, escaped to Buddhist retreats and even dabbled with hallucinogenics. Nothing worked.
Finally, in 1952, frustrated by the only problem that his brain couldn’t seem to resolve — for it was a problem of the brain itself — Tomás tried to take his life by ingesting a cocktail of sleeping pills and rat poison. It was a miracle, or at least that’s what most would call it, that Mariana felt ill while at a visit to her sister’s and decided to return home early that day. So it was that Tomás awoke in the Hospital Católico with three nuns praying at his bedside and Mariana weeping behind them.
Not long after his botched suicide attempt, Tomás published an essay in El Universal’s culture supplement titled “On Escaping Melancholia.” The essay, which catalogued my grandfather’s search for Happiness, was widely read in Mexico, and a French translation even made it to the pages of Le Monde. As a result, my grandfather received dozens of letters from the depressed and their close ones thanking him for raising consciousness about the disease.
Then one day he opened a letter from Dr. Efraín Blanco. Dr. Blanco’s missive was aggressive and condescending. Tomás, according to Dr. Blanco, had been doing it all wrong. “Sadness is Man’s natural state,” reads Dr. Blanco’s beautiful handwriting. “Escaping melancholia is as unnatural as fasting or chastity. It is Culture along with the powers that be who have convinced us that smiling, which, as everyone knows, not only feels but also looks unnatural, is the face’s most positive expression. Chasing Culture’s promise of Happiness — a mirage, at best — is as ludicrous and destined to failure as those imbecile rodents who follow each other off a cliff.”2
THE ROAD TO UNHAPPINESS.
It is unclear why Tomás and Mariana got in their Chrysler Town & Country and drove to see Dr. Blanco that October day. Half my family argues that Tomás, who was also known for his sudden bursts of uncontrollable rage, had his revolver with him and was planning to kill the only person who had ever dared to call him obtuse. The other half of the de Feos argues that he just wanted to talk with the man. After all, why would he have taken his wife on a road-trip to witness a murder?
I’ve driven that road that my grandfather took to Guanajuato many times because as a student I did my residency in León, the state’s most important city. After a few weeks of commuting I decided that in one of those drives to Guanajuato I’d detour to Dr. Blanco’s estate. Young and brazen, I began asking around in de Feo family events if anyone knew exactly where the estate was located. My family spoke about the society frequently, but they always did so in vague terms, never providing anything as specific as location. All I could find out was that it was a few kilometers from a little village called Loma Escondida.
I drove toward the general area and once I got close enough to Loma Escondida I began to ask the locals for directions. Everyone looked at me like I was asking them if they knew which road to take to El Dorado. “Doctor who?” they said. “Never heard of him.” As I was about to give up my search for the estate I pulled into a gas station to buy some snacks and asked the cashier, a good-humored old man, if he knew how to get to where I wanted to go. He laughed. “Tristeza?” I was confused. “Nobody knows about that place anymore,” he said, “but we used to call it Tristeza.”3
Tristeza was a ghost town. Its cement, unpainted villas were falling apart and the paint of the black mansion where Dr. Blanco once lived with his three wives and dozen children was fading. I didn’t stay long. My companion felt scared and uneasy and begged me to take her away from Tristeza. I don’t blame her. The town’s all-around vibe — a term I stay away from — was unsettling.
I often try to imagine what Tristeza looked like when Tomás and Mariana arrived that afternoon in the autumn of 1952. Sure, the villas and the mansion were terribly depressing even then — I’ve heard that all furniture, clothes, and belongings had to be painted black — but there were broccoli and strawberry plantations that must’ve looked beautiful even amid so much gloom.
Dr. Blanco, who was by all accounts an incredibly charming man, must’ve made some impression on Tomás, because that night he and Mariana drove back to Mexico City, packed their bags and drove right back to Tristeza. A cement hut only a few meters from the black mansion welcomed them.
Some have suggested that Dr. Blanco wasn’t even a real doctor, but rather a classic example of the charismatic and psychopathic leader who in this case found a “cause” that just happened to be psychiatric in nature. False. Dr. Blanco was, at one point, a real psychiatrist.
I looked up Dr. Blanco’s records in the Mexican Psychiatric Association (AMP). Here are my findings:
Elías Blanco arrived at the Washington University School of Medicine in Saint Louis in 1926. No one, at least no one that I know of, knows anything about him before then. In 1932 Dr. Blanco arrived in Mexico City where he started his practice. In 1936 he had his license taken away for what the AMP called “improper use of medication” and “multiple violations of AMP stipulations.” At some point during the next couple of years he moved to Guanajuato with a dozen or so of his patients. One of those original settlers of Tristeza was Diana Velasco-Cabañero, co-heir to the fortune of railroad tycoon Alonso Velasco-Cabañero. Diana would later become one of Dr. Blanco’s wives and give birth to two of his children.
It seems logical to think that those first settlers of Tristeza were all either depressives or bipolar, though that very well may not be the case. As I’ve said repeatedly, not much is known about Dr. Blanco’s society. That everyone wore black we know because there exist, amid Dr. Blanco’s papers in the library of the Universidad Nacional, two hazy pictures of Tristeza taken from above, maybe from a tree, maybe from an actual observation tower that was later destroyed.
Happiness was outlawed in Tristeza. We know from a letter to his family that Guillermo Vaca snuck out to the post office, that if someone was deemed to be happy they would immediately be put away in a small cement hut with no windows and a narrow steel door.4
According to Mr. Vaca, the hardest thing about living in Tristeza was staying productive while being sad. Dr. Blanco was, after all, delivering kilos and kilos of strawberries and broccoli to León on a regular basis and someone had to do the picking. In his letter, Mr. Vaca tells of people working on the field breaking down in crying fits or suddenly falling asleep.
SEX IN TRISTEZA.
Have I wondered if Mariana was one of Dr. Blanco’s lovers? Of course I have. She was a very beautiful, very young woman. (The leader liked them young.) Meanwhile, Dr. Blanco was a middle-aged man of short stature and a pencil-thin mustache. Some people say that the only reason he began the society was so he could have access to women that would, in a regular environment, not even give him the light of day. I am not one of those people.
FOOD IN TRISTEZA.
The inhabitants of Tristeza didn’t eat the strawberries and vegetables they grew. In fact, they didn’t eat fruits and vegetables at all. Dr. Blanco, who was an iconoclast if he was anything, thought that we only have positive ideas about those foods because they make us feel “good.” Also prohibited in Tristeza were foods rich in carbohydrates. A normal lunch in the society would consist of pork, fried eggs, wine and coffee. “We consume foods that make us sluggish,” said Dr. Blanco in a rare letter to one of his close friends from St. Louis. “Sluggishness leads to discomfort, irritability and sedentariousness (sic.), which in turn lead to questioning and contemplation.” Exercise, except in the form of sex, was also prohibited in Tristeza.
I often dream of Tristeza. In some of these dreams I am Dr. Blanco, while in others I am my grandfather, myself, or an anonymous member of the society. There are some dreams in which I am God, looking down on Tristeza through the clouds. Mostly, these dreams cause me anxiety and stress, but sometimes they fill me with serenity. There is a recurring dream in which I am riding a goat in a never-ending strawberry field and the goat slowly dies. Interpret that if you like, but I find that the more I study dreams the more meaningless they become. That might be true for everything under Reality.
I also daydream about Tristeza. (I am certain that adult daydreaming is a sign of stunted maturity.) When I had a job I’d spent most of my time in the office thinking about the society. Now, unemployed, a dweller in the big house my mother left me, I spend afternoons in her old room scratching my rough cheeks and pretending I am an inhabitant of Tristeza or nursing the fantasy that I am a high-ranking member of the government’s secret police sent along with a team of soldiers to shut the society down. For a long time it shamed me how often I thought of Dr. Blanco fucking this or that wife in the bedroom, the kitchen, the living-room. The thought of him in bed with young Mariana often enters my head and I’ve stopped trying to push it out. It must be there for a reason. I like to picture Tristeza’s inhabitants, clad in black, mumbling and grumbling, cursing this and that, feeling at the same time alone and part of something. It is, I guess, a collective loneliness, which is as good a loneliness as there is.
It’s hard for a man of my age and circumstance to take a stance on anything, much less on something as hazy and personal as Tristeza, Guanajuato. At times I think that living there would’ve worked for me, whatever that may mean. I’ve felt the taunting tyranny of the Happiness bait since I can remember. Maybe Dr. Blanco would’ve allowed me to escape from it. There wasn’t a single suicide that I know of in Tristeza, a place whose dwellers were mostly prone to suicide. That puts a bitter smile on my face.
MY MOTHER SLEPT CALMLY IN HER CRIB.
Not to say that Dr. Blanco wasn’t a charlatan. In 1957 he took all the broccoli and strawberry money and disappeared forever with a Tristeza newcomer. But aren’t all leaders charlatans? If they’re not fooling us they’re fooling themselves. (And when they find out they’ve been fooling themselves they go on to fool us.)
Tomás and Mariana stayed in Tristeza for a few months after Dr. Blanco’s departure in hopes of saving the society. In fact, my uncle Ernesto was born in post-Dr. Blanco Tristeza. But the new leadership failed. All hope had left with the money. My grandparents returned to Mexico City in 1958 and in 1962, driving back from a party, Tomás shot Mariana in the temple and then drove off a cliff.
THE REAL REASON I AM TELLING THIS STORY.
I, of course, would’ve never had a child on purpose. I hope not to sound too drenched in self-pity when I say that I am well aware of the black stain that runs through my genetic material. But, alas, it happened.
A few weeks after my forty-first birthday I received a call from Teresa Alba, a beautiful Nicaraguan graduate student who had come to Mexico for a conference and whom I met at the lobby bar of a hotel. She asked me if I remembered her. Of course I did. I hadn’t slept with a woman for years before I slept with Teresa and hadn’t slept with one since.
“I — We had a son,” she said.
My knees buckled. My throat went dry. I remember grabbing on to a large portrait of one of my aunts that decorated my bedroom wall. “Excuse me?”
“Are you sure?”
“He’s three months old,” she said. “If I remember your face correctly the little guy looks just like his father.”
“How did you get my number?”
“I wasn’t even going to tell you, Joaquín. I guess I’m not as cruel as I thought.”
I suggested that maybe she was crueler. I was angry at myself, which means I was angry at the world.
I met little Octavio in the Managua airport a couple of days after the phone call. He was sleeping in his mother’s arms. Next to Teresa stood her newfound boyfriend, a young poet with a kind smile and a high-pitched voice.
I’d like to say that holding Octavio cured me, saved me, but the truth is that it only made things worse. As I paced back and forth in Teresa’s house with my son in my arms, I could see it in his eyes, the disease, the lifetime of —
I’ll stop here. I don’t even know if I want him to read this. But maybe it will help him hate me instead of himself.
- Unlike what most people think and common sense suggests, the Frown Militia got its name not from the facial gesture associated with being sad, but rather from its founder Wallace T. Frown.
- Dr. Blanco was, no doubt, referring to the popular (and completely false) myth that at a certain age lemmings commit suicide by jumping off a cliff.
- Mr. Vaca, who was once rescued from the ledge of a twenty-story office building, was not complaining about Dr. Blanco’s policies, just describing them.