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 Dukes 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 Solons 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 persons
death when the community judged that individuals 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.
Sonis 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 ones
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 Ive lived my life consonant with the notion
of happiness already engrained in me."
Freelance writer Regina Diverio is the former editor of Drew