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Math whiz turned literary scholar
South African native Vivasvan Soni ’91 studies happiness

By Regina Diverio

Photo: 2001, Frank Fournier

The pursuit of happiness may be our unalienable right, but in the field of literature it was unexplored terrain until Vivasvan Soni ’91 tackled the concept for his Ph.D. dissertation at Duke University. His spin on an unconventional topic prompted fellow academics to sit up and take notice.

"We always knew he was one of our best students," Frederic R. Jameson, chairman of Duke’s literature program, told The Chronicle of Higher Education in September. "His notion of [happiness] — having to do with modernity and the classics — threw everything into a new look."

Intrigued by ancient Athenian lawgiver Solon’s instruction to "Call no man happy until he is dead," Soni tracked the concept of happiness from ancient Greece to modern times. With the Greeks, he says, happiness was determined after a person’s death when the community judged that individual’s life. By the 18th century, however, happiness transformed into an abstract emotion, judged solely by the individual. It became a "mere sum of pleasures," without ethical underpinnings. Using centuries of biographical narratives to substantiate his thesis, he concludes that this change had enormous political consequences, manifested in the French and American Revolutions.

Soni’s novel scholarship earned him a postdoctoral fellowship at Yale and a tenure track professorship at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, teaching 18th-century British literature. While his path to becoming a literary scholar began at Princeton with courses in literary theory, Soni credits growing up under apartheid in Durban, South Africa, with shaping his intellectual life.

"As I was growing up," he explains, "it was safer not to reflect on culture and politics; in fact it was dangerous. So I ended up in the sciences." But his interest in science led him to Princeton, where he majored in math. Far from the segregation and discrimination he experienced as an Indian growing up in South Africa, he found "the freedom to think about other matters — like the power of politics and culture to shape one’s life."

As he prepares to publish his Ph.D. dissertation and and he and wife Ursula Swiney anticipate their first child due in April, Soni says, "I feel I’ve lived my life consonant with the notion of happiness already engrained in me."

Freelance writer Regina Diverio is the former editor of Drew Magazine.