Rummaging through a junk shop recently I came across a poster for Ray Lawrence’s 1985 film, Bliss. The film was based closely on Peter Carey’s 1981 novel of the same name. Seeing the poster brought back memories of both the book and the film. These memories, quite appropriately, created a small moment of bliss.

I had been introduced to Peter Carey’s short stories at university and had devoured Bliss, his first novel, when it was first published. Carey is a wonderfully creative writer and Bliss delivered a wickedly comic satire of modern life in suburban Australia.

I lived in London for part of the eighties and I remember taking some friends to see the film at a cinema near Piccadilly Circus. I was delighted to see the wonderfully funny story played out in such distinctively Australian locations and against the Sydney skyline. But my English friends found the film quite comfronting (as had, I found out later, some of the audience at its screening at the Cannes Film Festival in 1985). Some did not understand the satirical intentions and took the story at face value.

Bliss means extreme happiness or ecstasy. In a Christian, religious context it is the ecstasy of salvation or the joy that comes from spiritual connection with the divine.

Bliss, for several centuries, has been associated with ignorance as Thomas Gray describes in 1742 (from On a Distant Prospect of Eton College):

Yet ah! why should they know their fate,

Since sorrow never comes too late,

And happiness too swiftly flies?

Thought would destroy their paradise.

No more; where ignorance is bliss,

‘Tis folly to be wise.

In the opening pages of Bliss, the central character dies and has a post-life experience sliding “between the spaces in the air itself”. The character is Harry Joy and he is experiencing an ecstasy.

Harry Joy returns to life and as he appraises his life he comes to believe that he has been living in hell. One aspect of this is that he believes all of his advertising clients are producing products that cause cancer. Harry believes that he has been living in a state of bliss not seeing the evils around him.

Peter Carey ran a very successful advertising business. Ray Lawrence, the director,  spent most of the time between Bliss and his next film, Lantana (2001), making television commercials. They both must have had a blissfully wicked  time lampooning the evils of advertising.