Some books are easy companions, and this essay collection, in which Spiegelman speaks affectionately of them, can join their ranks. His top seven picks for happiness are reading, walking, looking, dancing, listening, swimming and writing-activities that are free and accessible to anyone with a library card and a pair of comfortable shoes. As old-fashioned, and occasionally charming, as a Lawrence Welk waltz, Spiegelman proclaims his suspicion of new technology that might replace the book and regrets dancing that doesn't involve a partner and a prescribed step. "To today's sufferers, melancholics, and ordinary neurotics, can we safely say, 'Throw out your Prozac, pick up your Wordsworth?' The advice would revolutionize the health industry." Spiegelman, editor of the Southwest Review and professor of English at Southern Methodist University, is no self-help guru, but he is an intelligent, well-read and kindly soul. Back in the good old days, he found a set of activities that made him happy, and knows he's not the first to write on these subjects. But can a happiness-obsessed society accept that the simple act of looking at one painting all afternoon can make all the difference? (May)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happinessby Willard Spiegelman
What does it mean to be happy? Americans have had an obsession with "the pursuit of happiness" ever since the Founding Fathers enshrined italong with life and libertyas our national birthright. Whether it means the accumulation of wealth or a more vaguely understood notion of self-fulfillment or self-actualization, happiness has been an inevitable,
What does it mean to be happy? Americans have had an obsession with "the pursuit of happiness" ever since the Founding Fathers enshrined italong with life and libertyas our national birthright. Whether it means the accumulation of wealth or a more vaguely understood notion of self-fulfillment or self-actualization, happiness has been an inevitable, though elusive, goal.
But it is hard to separate "real" happiness from the banal self-help version that embraces mindless positive thinking. And though we have two booming "happiness industries"religion, with its promise of salvation, and psychopharmacology, with its promise of better living through chemistryeach comes with its own problems and complications.
In Seven Pleasures, Willard Spiegelman takes a look at the possibilities for achieving ordinary secular happiness without recourse to either religion or drugs. In this erudite and frequently hilarious book of essays, he discusses seven activities that lead naturally and easily to a sense of well-being. One of thesedancingrequires a partner, and therefore provides a lesson in civility, or good citizenship, as one of its benefits. The other sixreading, walking, looking, listening, swimming, and writingare things one performs alone. Seven Pleasures is a marvelously engaging guide to the pursuit of happiness, and all its accompanying delights.
“Few happy people write books, but when they do, they confer the blessings of wisdom and their sanguine nature on the unhappy many. I learned so much from Seven Pleasures. I felt that Willard Spiegelman was personally walking me through all the steps necessary to dance the tango of bliss that he has so delightfully mastered.” Edmund White, author of Hotel de Dream
“Willard Spiegelman's Seven Pleasures mounts a gentle and persuasive argument for what years ago would have been called a more civilized life. And it reminds us what we owe ourselves: that attempt to appreciate as fully as possible that we are here, right now, wherever here may be.” Jim Shepard, author of Like You'd Understand, Anyway
“Willard Spiegelman has written a tidy cordial of a book. Like a soigné combination of Don Giovanni and a college dean, he serves his nectar with a sassy, ironic instructiveness. He gets life right.” Wayne Koestenbaum, author of Hotel Theory
“Willard Spiegelman is our invaluably companionable philosopher of normalcy, and we are happy to benefit here from his wisdom, wit, and well-stocked mind.” Phillip Lopate, author of Against Joie de Vivre
“Spiegelman's essays are wonderful advertisements for taking pleasure in the ordinary, and reminders that we're never too old to take dancing or swimming lessons, or to learn to be lost in Venice. A lovely, companionable book.” Margot Livesey, author of The House on Fortune Street
“Willard Spiegelman has the secret of happiness. It worked for me and it will work for you. His book is your new best friend.” Raymond Sokolov, author of Fading Feast
“In Seven Pleasures, Willard Spiegelman reminds us that real happiness can be obtained with a radio, a library card, a public pool, and a pair of well-soled shoes. Spiegelman is simply a great essayist.” Mark Oppenheimer, author of Thirteen and a Day
“[The] impulse to share his enjoyment has resulted in Seven Pleasures, an appropriately entertaining and provocative book. Scholar, editor and teacher, Spiegelman is writing here--as a ‘loving amateur'--about happiness and ‘the pleasurable things you can do to promote it and to increase a sense of general well-being, of what is called sanguinity.'” Floyd Skloot, The Boston Globe
“Seven Pleasures explores a range of satisfactions to be enjoyed in the everyday life--or, to put it another way, in the no man's land between religion and pharmacology, what Mr. Spiegelman calls the ‘twin pillars of the American happiness industry.' Individual chapters focus on his own chief pleasures: reading, walking, looking, dancing, listening, swimming and writing. One theme of his ‘book of gerunds' is that ordinariness can yield much more pleasure than is normally assumed. All the striving for happiness in our culture may cause us to overlook the riches of the familiar and near to hand . . . The eighth pleasure the book provides is in the intelligence and grace he brings to the job.” Wes Davis, The Wall Street Journal
“In this luminous, compelling book, Spiegelman comments on seven activities that can bring us ordinary happiness--reading, walking, looking, dancing, listening, swimming, and writing--injecting biographical elements into the universal messages he imparts. First, though, he tries to define, or at least capture the essence of, happiness. ‘Happiness,' he observes, ‘has received less respect and less serious attention than melancholy.' He notes the American propensity to see happiness as a right and contrasts it with the gloominess of the European mindset. With the exception of dancing, every activity he writes about involves solitude. In the reading chapter, he refers to his generation as ‘the last children born before the ubiquity of television'; if watching TV's early, fuzzy images was unpleasant, reading was fun. In the walking chapter, he flees Dallas, his hometown, for London, a city in which walking is normal, not a chore or something to be avoided (Dallas and much of modern America, apart from the older cities of the East and Midwest, are simply too big and, in the case of Dallas, too hot to walk in comfortably). Writing in a leisurely manner, Spiegelman takes time to make his points and, whatever activity he's engaged in at the moment, to be a thoughtful, genial companion.” June Sawyers, Booklist (starred review)
“Some books are easy companions, and this essay collection, in which Spiegelman speaks affectionately of them, can join their ranks.” Publishers Weekly
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Read an Excerpt
This book has had a long gestation. It started with the fox-trot. The fox-trot has no raison d'être. There is no reason to dance at all except one—pleasure—and the greatest pleasure is calculated uselessness. One evening several years ago I stood on the sidelines at Manhattan's Lincoln Center, watching the dancers at the three-week event called A Midsummer Night Swing. They were smiling; they were having fun. I took one look and realized that dancing can make you happy. This is a book about happiness, about the pleasurable things you can do to promote it and to increase a sense of general well-being, of what is called sanguinity.
A second beginning came out of a tête-à-tête between two people who knew they would never see one another again. Intimate conversations like this often take place on bar stools late at night in out-of-the-way places. Mine occurred last year in transit. I had just sat down in a plane and strapped on my seat belt when an attractive woman—mid-forties, well coiffed, well dressed, well-heeled, and wearing good jewelry—took the adjoining seat. After takeoff we exchanged amenities: "Where are you going?" "What do you do?," that kind of thing. At a certain point I sensed the conversation turning toward an always uncomfortable topic for an adamantly secular Jewish agnostic like me, but because my pleasant seatmate did not seem a garden-variety proselytizing evangelist, I followed her lead. She asked about my "spiritual" life, a coded but clear invitation to talk religion and salvation. I told her—politely, firmly—where I stood. Then she said that she had found comfort, and more, in Christ and his Church during an especially torturous period of pain and sorrow in her life. Whether this meant death, sickness, divorce, or the dark night of the soul, she didn't say. And then she asked, "What is the most horrible thing that has ever happened to you?"
Seldom at a loss for words, I paused. Then it came: "Nothing horrible has ever happened to me."
In Yiddish we say that a remark like this deserves a kine hora, an apotropaic reverse curse: "no evil eye." Say that something wonderful will happen and you guarantee that it won't. Even worse, to speak with confidence, let alone ebullience, comes close to bragging, and bragging always invites disaster to strike immediately. Every culture insists that you do something—spit, throw salt over your shoulder, knock on wood—to ward off that evil eye. Pride goeth before a fall. "Nothing horrible has ever happened to me." There it is. It's now in print and lightning hasn't struck me—yet. Ordinary disappointments occur, the blues, concern for loved ones, moments of uncertainty and anxiety, but nothing serious, deep, or long-lasting.
"Suffering," said Wordsworth, "is permanent, obscure and dark, / And shares the nature of infinity." I have not endured major losses. I have enjoyed good physical health. I have not known tragedy or chronic darkness, only more modest shades of gray. Everyone has what I call the phantom vita: prizes not won, jobs applied for but not offered, unrequited love. So what? If you miss a bus, you can get on the next one. We should not overly lament life's ordinary disappointments, but we must celebrate—soberly, not giddily or smugly—its ordinary pleasures. If we are lucky, these will suffice.
An old friend once asked me a question like the one posed by my American Airlines seatmate. "Have you ever been depressed?" she wondered.
"I've been sad, I guess, but never for long. What do you mean by depression?"
"Waking up in tears every morning, unable to get out of bed."
"No, I've never been depressed." And I doubt that I have deceived myself.
Because I am by inclination and profession a literary person, I often think—as I'll be doing in these pages—in literary terms, with literary echoes in my ears or never far from my thoughts. I was reminded of Paul Ivory, a character in Shirley Hazzard's The Transit of Venus, who says, "I have never suffered greatly . . . If you can reach fifty without a catastrophe, you've won. You've got away with it." "Got away with it" implies you've committed a felony, that your happiness has outwitted our common fate, that you have circumvented destiny. Life has looked positively on me. I have got away with it. Luck, or perhaps more than luck, has followed me.
Four years ago I was having lunch at a businessman's pub in central London with a college classmate, a journalist married to an Irishwoman and a longtime resident of the British Isles. Well-fed bankers in their bespoke Savile Row pinstriped suits surrounded us on all sides. We had just turned sixty. "Peter," I asked, "if you were to die tomorrow, would you be able to say that you'd had a happy life?"
"Yes," he replied. "Would you?"
"Yes," I shot back, gratefully. "This is why I don't want to die tomorrow." A decade earlier, a week following my fiftieth birthday, I had sunk into a momentary, uncharacteristic mini-depression, not quite a full-blown existential crisis or the dark night of the soul, just a dreary afternoon of clouded vision. Outside, it was January, bleak, gray, cold, and wet. Inside, I asked myself what life meant. And then it came to me: I realized that when one is fifty, life is more than half over, which is not necessarily true at forty. And, therefore, after fifty, one should not do anything one does not want to do, unless it is absolutely necessary. The happy man becomes a sprightlier version of Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener. "Can you come to dinner next week?" "I'm so sorry, I won't be able to." "Will you serve on this committee to change the university calendar?" "I'm sorry, I would prefer not to." No further defense, explanation, apology required. What a relief. Pleasure begins to trump duty. Voltaire said that "the pursuit of pleasure must be the goal of every rational person," and if you add maturity to rationality as a factor to account for, then after fifty it's pleasure all the way.
I had a happy childhood. I was a dreamy kid, distant, vague, dégagé, and as an adolescent somewhat surly. Never violent or aggressive, I preferred sarcasm, the little nasty remark, the occasional slammed door, and the retreat to the lair of my bedroom: that was the extent of my adolescent rebellion. No Sturm und Drang. I smoked cigarettes. I never would have thought of disobeying or running away. I was a good, relatively normal, suburban boy, figuring out the facts of life with some help from my friends, and enjoying the pleasures of reading, writing, and school, the one place (as opposed to the playing fields or most other venues in the outside world) where I felt genuinely comfortable. "Safe as libraries, safe as schoolrooms" instead of "safe as houses" might have been my motto. And schoolteachers were—although not godlike—my role models. My parents weren't intellectual or cultured enough for me: that was my biggest gripe with them. Once I had left home, set out in the world, and seen something of it, I realized that I had nothing to complain about. I had it made.
Home is where safety begins, and safety leads to ease. Ease can promote happiness, or at least its illusion. Life in the 1950s, which cultural historians often label the conformist decade, had at least one thing going for it. In spite of the cultural turmoil simmering and about to erupt in political and social upheaval, protests, assassinations, and war, America was calm for one brief moment. Call it the moment of the suburbs. And we, the children of the "Greatest Generation," grew up in it. We participated in the last flowering of truly middle-class culture. The so-called sameness of the suburbs had several advantages, one of which was—from the child's perspective—the lack of something to envy. Some of my friends lived in bigger houses and their parents drove fancier cars. Some people took extended vacations. The sophisticated ones (not too many) went to Europe. Mothers, few of whom had jobs, left back doors unlocked; in my neighborhood of two blocks of thirty-six fairly identical prewar houses, kids wandered in and out as though getting ready for dorm living a decade later.
The fiftieth anniversary of the publications of On the Road and Howl in 2006-2007 reminded us of the perpetual attraction of rebellion against the norm, of protest against conformity, of lighting out for the territory on the open road. Every chapter of American history, from Huckleberry Finn to Thelma and Louise, has its version of the road trip, the impulse to break away. The fiftieth anniversary of Peyton Place went rather less noticed, in part because the book's literary reputation has not held up well, in part because its lurid revelations seem much tamer in the age of Melrose Place and Desperate Housewives. Most of us lead our lives between the twin poles of escape and confinement, somewhere between the urge to break free and the intolerable neural itch to engage in hanky-panky at home.
No one in my teenage set drank, let alone took drugs. Grown-ups enjoyed the social cocktail, and although some of them—we discovered when we reached college—had serious problems with alcohol, I never noticed any bad behavior. I had one friend whose parents had divorced; she lived as an only child with her mother in an apartment. We all felt an unspoken sympathy for her, although she didn't seem to feel sorry for herself. Everyone else had two parents, siblings, and a house with front and back yards. Of what might have been festering beneath the placid veneer of domestic surfaces I had, needless to say, no idea. Later, we found out that two sets of neighbors were swapping partners, and, by the late sixties, marriages began to crumble, or at least to rearrange themselves. But in the fifties we all seemed to lead a generic life.
When I was in high school our group played a parlor game: Would you rather be happy or smart? We never asked ourselves, however, why one condition should preclude the other. The tacit implication was that they did; adolescents tend to wallow in their suburban angst. We thought happiness much overrated and, even worse, mindless. "To think is to be full of sorrow / And leaden-eyed despairs," wrote Keats in the "Ode to a Nightingale." We understood that perfectly. We wanted genius. We nervously prized our selfconsciousness; we liked to think. We thought a lot, mostly about ourselves and our thinking. We read Freud and we talked about sex. Talk: that's as far as most of us got, for all our bookish sophistication. In high school I was introduced to a group of good American Christian teenagers from Abilene, Texas. They went to church every Sunday morning. They spent every Saturday night in the barn doing what came naturally. At eighteen some of the girls were already pregnant and everyone was getting ready for marriage.
Such was not our lot, children of middle-class Jewish professional parents. We weren't tormented, just adolescent. We did not misbehave. My high school friend, the late novelist Laurie Colwin, that other anatomist of sanguinity, once remarked, "Show me a happy adolescent and I'll show you a psychopath." Colwin was exaggerating, of course, in her pronouncement. All writers do. People who commit foul crimes as teenagers or adults aren't or weren't normal unhappy kids but psychotic felons-in-the-making. We, by comparison, were Baby Beatniks, wearing black and scowling, pretending to be misunderstood by those bourgeois numskulls, our parents. We were, in other words, right on schedule.
Four years in college opened my eyes to people from different backgrounds, social classes, and religions. Mostly, these years deepened my adolescent habits and solidified who I had already become. We call the university our alma mater because it nourishes. Then came graduate school and, at the age of twenty-six, a geographical exile to somewhere far away, and the start of a professional life. Decades later I attended my twenty-fifth-year college reunion. It marked the first time I'd ever done anything in the Department of Organized Nostalgia. Never wanting to look back, I had little inclination to wallow in sentiment for its own sake, but I had a legitimate, modest curiosity about my several hundred classmates, many of whom put in an appearance. We had a pleasant weekend, gorgeous New England weather, and the gratifying frustration that comes from nipping conversation in the bud rather than allowing it to go on too long.
After the reunion I had lunch with a classmate. His weekend experience had differed from mine, and it had intimidated him. A fiercely independent, liberal filmmaker, he thought that our classmates were taking only the economic measure of everyone and he felt that he had come up short. But I reminded him: we had all been eighteen years old together. We saw these men, then boys, vomiting out of dorm windows, behaving badly, and making fools of themselves. Now one of them is a hedge fund manager, while another trims hedges in rural Alabama. So what? That's how life works out. These were facts, not judgments. Is the plutocrat necessarily happier or more successful than the day laborer? Of course not. "Counted sweetest / By those who ne'er succeed" (Emily Dickinson), success is the American bitch goddess and lives by inciting us to Envy, one of the seven deadly sins. We should, I reminded my pal, envy not the wealthy but the contented.
I wonder whether the medieval four humors do not offer as persuasive a way of understanding human psychology as anything more complex, Freudian, or up-to-date. Blood is for sanguinity and cheerfulness; choler for anger; black bile for melancholy; phlegm for sloth. As with the parlor game of birth order—a subject about which everyone has anecdotal and personal evidence—or with the cardinal virtues and seven deadly sins of Catholicism, which you can observe in yourself, so also with the four humors. You can rate yourself according to how and where you fit in. I'm lucky to have come from a gene pool of sanguinity, infused with a modest dose of phlegm. For happiness, as for physical well-being, a good piece of advice is to pick your parents carefully. Start with genetic predisposition. Continue with a stable home environment. Even if you don't like it too much, as long as there is enough to eat and something to occupy your interests, you'll be all right. James Boswell recounts a discussion with Samuel Johnson, a deeply melancholic man, about an unnamed "ingenious gentleman" who had "a constant firmness of mind . . . after a laborious day, and amidst a multiplicity of cares and anxieties, he would sit down with his sisters and be quite cheerful and good-humoured. Such a disposition, it was observed, was a happy gift of nature." Also blessed with cheerfulness, Dr. Johnson's slightly younger contemporary Jane Austen gives in her last novel, Persuasion, a memorable evaluation of a Mrs. Smith, who has fallen into reduced circumstances: "Here was that elasticity of mind, that disposition to be comforted, that power of turning readily from evil to good, and of finding employment which carried her out of herself, which was from Nature alone. It was the choicest gift of Heaven."
"Hap" means chance, and Nature's chanciest gift is happiness itself. Call it Nature, call it Grace, call it Heaven, or call it Genetic Destiny: the source counts for less than the gift. But more than a gift, happiness is also a custom, something that can be cultivated. Nurture can affect nature. Aristotle said that we are what we do, that excellence is a habit. Like excellence, justice, or any of the other Aristotelian virtues, and like elasticity of mind, happiness may come through grace or birth, but it may also come through training. It replicates itself via repetition. In On Beauty and Being Just, Elaine Scarry says that "beauty brings copies of itself into being," so that the observer, merely by staring and concentrating, can prolong contact with beauty and internalize it. As with beauty, so with happiness. And because our experience of beauty often disposes us to happiness, several of the following essays deal with the realm of the aesthetic: the visual and musical arts, dancing, and reading. The sanguine temperament; the nature of cheerfulness; the things that sanguinics, or at least I, do; and the things one can do to produce cheerfulness—these are the subjects of this book. We can start out happy, but we can also make ourselves happy.
Happiness—an elusive feeling, an ambiguous term—has received less respect and less serious attention than melancholy, its traditional opposite. The famous opening sentence of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina ("All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way") has become an epigrammatic dictum. But suppose this were—indeed, suppose it is—not the case? Suppose that sanguinity, the most condescended to of the four medieval humors, is not only the most enviable but also the richest, the most varied, the most complex of them all? That each happy person is happy differently? Melancholy (black bile) has had its anatomists—philosophers, scientists, and medical people—from Robert Burton, through Kierkegaard, to Freud. Choler is the stuff of most drama in life and onstage. Phlegm has become connected to indolence and torpor, to lack of energy. Like the other two dark humors, it is treatable via pharmacology. We use meditation, as well as medication and other forms of self-improvement, to snap us out of despair, to address a chemical or emotional imbalance. But no one ever seeks to correct an overabundance of cheerfulness. Instead, people simply believe that sanguinity is at best a fleeting sensation, an unattainable goal, or, more commonly, a sign of repression and denial: "Pollyanna isn't really happy; she simply is unaware of the depths of her despair." Depression does not necessarily cause, or its opposite diminish, soulfulness.
Unlike my airline seatmate, I have not found salvation through religion, and unlike my other, habitually depressed friend who woke up in tears, unable to get out of bed, I have not required psychopharmacology. The twin pillars of the American happiness industry have left only a small middle space for those of us whose optimism, and the means of obtaining it, are purely secular. We turn neither to religion nor to chemistry.
The American character has traditionally taken happiness as a destiny and a right. If we are unhappy, or so the thinking goes, perhaps the fault is ours. And we have the obligation and chance to remedy our bad fate. At its most banal, the need for and the pursuit of happiness have given rise to self-help books by the score, and to television gurus who put their guests through the rapid paces of a quick course in Psychology Lite. At its most distressing, the pursuit of happiness leads to the equation of satisfaction with instant gratification or wealth, or to sudden religious conversions, the joy of accepting Jesus as one's personal savior. Such is the legacy of what Harold Bloom has called the American Religion, a form of radical Protestantism that has held sway since the eighteenth century.
The quest for happiness has deep roots in at least one side of New England transcendentalism, the serious optimism of Thoreau, Emerson, and Whitman, and the largeness of spirit we associate with the American Renaissance. These are roots whose first modern fruit was the 1901-02 lectures of William James that became Varieties of Religious Experience, with its acknowledgment of the "religion of healthymindedness" as one such variety. James allows that "in many persons" (and not just "those who are animally happy"), "happiness is congenital and irreclaimable." Staking his claims in the psychology of religion and not in secular happiness, James predicted what would become in the hands of Norman Vincent Peale and other famous descendants in the twentieth century the power of positive thinking and the "mind cure" that have swept through our country since his day. Citing Whitman, James describes "a temperament organically weighted on the side of cheer and fatally forbidden to linger, as those of opposite temperament linger, over the darker aspects of the universe." Laughter, he allows, like enjoyment of any sort, conduces to a happy existence.
To many Europeans, the belief in happiness easily obtained offers the clearest proof of American naïveté, of the jejune idiocies of the New World. Graham Greene, a man who knew simple pleasures and experienced euphoria, did not take either as an inalienable right, because his generation had come of age during the First World War, which taught them that suffering was constant and hopes for happiness inane: "Point me out the happy man and I will point you out either egotism, selfishness, evil—or else an absolute ignorance." In 1846, Flaubert named in a letter the three requirements for happiness—"to be stupid, selfish, and have good health"—but then added, "If stupidity is lacking, all is lost." Like Greene, who found the American national ideal of the pursuit of happiness enshrined in the Constitution to be merely an excuse for greed, acquisitiveness, and materialism, Thomas Hardy refused an invitation to visit the States because our national policy of good cheer was antithetical to his own gloomier views. An academic friend of mine was discussing employment offers with his thesis advisor, a dour, distinguished Scotsman who, when Carl wondered whether a job at a certain university might bring him happiness, said with pity and wonder, "My dear boy, who ever said that happiness was in the cards?" Thus, the Old World when confronted with the Thoreauvian eagerness of the New. Sophocles knew the grim truth: "Count no man happy until he's dead."
It is too simple a distinction: the giddily self-obsessed American, eager for pleasure, advancement, wealth, and well-being, versus the Old World sophisticate with a tragic and communitarian philosophy tested in the fires of centuries of war, deprivation, and sorrow. The world has seen happy Europeans, melancholy Americans. Among the poets, who often know best, John Milton strikes a harmonious balance in his youthful poems "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso," offering two takes on human types, the cheerful and the thoughtful, the sanguine and the melancholy. In his quest for "heart-easing Mirth" and a life of "unreproved pleasures free," the Allegro personality includes love of landscape, of music and dancing, of sociability amid "the busy hum of men." His rival and opposite prefers contemplation and solitude, a "peaceful hermitage" where he can sit "Till old experience do attain / To something like prophetic strain." I'm hoping to go Milton one better and suggest a synthesis between the fun-loving, sunshine partygoer of the pair and the studious contemplative in the "cloister's pale." Ludwig Wittgenstein, that philosopher of severe demeanor and austere habits who apparently spent his happiest times in the trenches during World War I, said surprisingly on his deathbed: "Tell them I've had a wonderful life." Who would have thought it possible?
In "Resolution and Independence," his 1802 poem of vocational and existential crisis, Wordsworth recounts his fall into a depressive moment only because of his acknowledgment of constitutional happiness:
But, as it sometimes chanceth, from the might
Of joy in minds that can no further go,
As high as we have mounted in delight
In our dejection do we sink as low;
To me that morning did it happen so;
And fears and fancies thick upon me came;
Dim sadness—and blind thoughts, I knew not, nor could name.
I heard the sky-lark warbling in the sky;
And I bethought me of the playful hare:
Even such a happy Child of earth am I;
Even as these blissful creatures do I fare;
Far from the world I walk, and from all care;
But there may come another day to me—
Solitude, pain of heart, distress, and poverty.
My whole life I have lived in pleasant thought,
As if life's business were a summer mood;
As if all needful things would come unsought
To genial faith, still rich in genial good;
But how can He expect that others should
Build for him, sow for him, and at his call
Love him, who for himself will take no heed at all?
This "happy Child of earth," who in fact had suffered a nervous breakdown in his mid-twenties seven years before he wrote this poem, registers the dangers of consciousness itself, especially when directed to the future ("another day"). He worries about pain of heart and all the natural shocks that flesh is heir to. Self-reliance has its own perils. But the wandering poet meets a leech-gatherer, someone far worse off than he, and the living embodiment of the poem's allegorical title. This visual reminder of real pain snaps the anxious speaker out of his self-imposed blindness and fears. Happiness prevails. It always does—as Wordsworth acknowledges in his epic autobiography, The Prelude—in someone whose earliest years have given him a base from which to construct a character. Wordsworth's mother died when he was seven, and his father five years later. He had, however, built up sufficient early strength to endure the buffets and losses, the breakups and breakdowns, visited upon him.
On this side of the Great Pond, not all Americans maintain the compulsory national belief in progress, the individual's need, and a constitutionally guaranteed right to keep smiling. The novelist Jean Stafford bitingly observed, "Happy people don't need to have fun." Or take our former Poet Laureate, Louise Glück, whose work until quite recently has embodied acerbic irony and a reluctance to acknowledge ordinary contentment. She says that we "live in a culture almost fascistic in its enforcement of optimism." When it's morning in America, a depressive person like Glück sounds like a party pooper. But Glück says in another essay: "The function of an ideal is to compel, in our behavior, its approximation. Thus the fantasy of perfect goodness and craving toward it inspire individual acts of goodness (also, possibly, rebellious acts of violence, the furious objection to the impossible standard)." Can we have an ideal of happiness to which to aspire, just as we have ideals of justice, beauty, courage, and temperance?
If you think of yourself as both cheerful and intellectually sophisticated (happy and smart), you will certainly have a mixed response to a recent trend in psychology labeled the psychology of happiness. It's a movement, if not exactly a craze. One clinical experiment required some people to force a smile, and others a frown. Afterward, the subjects were asked questions about their moods. Those who smiled admitted to having positive thoughts, and the frowning others, negative or sad ones. Another well-known study, this of an order of nuns, demonstrates the positive effect of keeping a journal—we might call this the writing cure—and it has long been known that meditation increases gamma waves, necessary for perception, consciousness, all higher activity, in the brain. The body possesses its own intelligence, which may influence and even surpass the brain's. Anyone who regularly deals with hard-of-hearing people will recognize the truth that when you have to raise your voice, indeed holler, at—for example—your deaf parents, although you may not be angry to begin with, by the end of the conversation you are seething with something like rage. Hostility doesn't make you scream. It's the other way around: having to scream increases your irascibility. Where the body leads, the spirit will follow.
So why not try smiling and see where it takes you? "Positive" psychology sounds too good, even insipid, to be true or to be believed. Worldly academics like me maintain a suspicion of happiness so easily acquired. "When you're smiling, the whole world smiles with you": the jaunty words of the old song inspire both foot-tapping and a skeptical shudder. When I began teaching, I was nonplussed by the genuine openness of my bright-faced students. Writing an informal assignment, many described how "my mom" or "my dad" was "my best friend." I winced. Who do they think they are? Whom do they think they are kidding? I asked myself, with a combination groan and chuckle. Are they writing this way to please the teacher? Have they never even heard of Freud? Don't they know that you hate your parents when you are eighteen, and are in constant rivalry with them? But then the most shocking response came to me: suppose it's true? Suppose they really do have unclouded, uncomplicated, indeed extremely pleasant dealings with Mom and Dad, have grown up with Ward and June Cleaver, Jim and Margaret Anderson, parents who know best? They, even more than I, seemed to have lived in the fifties. Who brought clouds on the horizon? Who said that misery was our lot? Is this our legacy from Freud?
I believe, however, that an informed sanguinity stands a chance. With some effort, one can find contentment, happiness, call it what you will, without the consolations of religion and without the help of psychotherapy and pharmacology. In a secular age, or within a secular disposition, cheerfulness may finally win out over its sibling humors. Freud said everything boils down to love and work. In this book I don't deal with work, in the sense of vocation, or love, in the sense of Eros, reproduction, interpersonal relationships. If those things are not going well in your life, everything else may be moot. But even if love and work aren't thriving, the fox-trot might come in handy.
If it's seldom fun to be sad, it's often fun to read about or see the sadness of others. We enjoy a good cry. Part of our pleasure comes from moderate, inevitable sadism, the opposite of envy. La Rochefoucauld said: "Dans l'adversité de nos meilleurs amis, nous trouvons toujours quelque chose qui ne nous déplaît pas" (There's always something in the misfortune of our best friends that doesn't displease us). The misery of others increases our own feelings of well-being; it fills us with Schadenfreude: "There but for the grace of God." Looking at, reading, or hearing about happiness, on the other hand, often inspires both envy and boredom. But rather than condescend to sanguinics, or treat them with ill-concealed contempt, I propose that we can trust and learn from them. It is the province of the cheerful, built into our hard-wiring, to believe that change is possible. This is one of the things that make us sanguine in the first place.
The following essays explore activities that come from and lead to ordinary happiness. I'll put it more straightforwardly: things I do in a quest for neither simple-minded gratification nor out-of-body ecstasy. The sanguine temperament may take to them naturally. The melancholic may take them up with resistance, but then respond to them with bodily and emotional uplift. In The Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle famously described the relationship between an abstraction and its human manifestations. How does one become just? By doing just deeds. Who does just deeds? The man with the sense of justice. Consider exercise. It produces endorphins; endorphins make people happy; happy people don't kill their husbands, according to Elle Woods, Reese Witherspoon's character in Legally Blonde. It sounds silly, but it is true. Through persistence and habit as well as luck, one can increase one's quotient of optimism, even cheerfulness.
A reader will find this book to be not quite a memoir, but not a nonmemoir either. I am in it on every page, sometimes in the first person, sometimes commenting and speculating, sometimes referring to the observations of others. The individual essays build on the assumption that parts of my life may interest others, who will find in it aspects of their own. I promise to steer clear of the formulaic advice of self-help narratives and conversion experiences. Although I describe myself, I write about activities that anyone can perform. Stendhal said: "The beautiful is a promise of happiness." For him and for others that promise is made real in the pursuit of beauty. Or, to quote another French novelist on looking at pictures: "Great painters initiate us into a knowledge and love of the external world" (Proust, on Chardin).
In "Walking," "Swimming," and "Dancing" I meditate on physical pleasures that connect body and mind. All the essays grapple with the relationship between doing and feeling, and with what Wordsworth, again, calls the "ennobling interchange / Of action from without and from within" by which we attach ourselves to the world. The sanguine person derives pleasure from the performance and the pursuit of these activities without necessarily becoming addicted to, or obsessed with, them. Enjoyment exists somewhere between choice and obligation: it initiates us into the kind of knowledge and love that Proust attributes to Chardin, that master of the everyday.
Like physical action, aesthetic attentiveness (listening and looking) and literary engagement (reading and writing) bring pleasure and confer dignity. Even writing, with which I end, has been too often depicted—as have all artistic ventures—as the province of neurosis and pain. The cases of such long-lived artists as Shaw, Goethe, and Hugo prove that (according to John Updike) "writing can be a healthy, life-giving activity, sustainable—in Shaw's case with the help of teetotalism, vegetarianism, and bicycling—through a generous mortal span." In addition, my subjects are all familiar ones. Out of ordinary routine come both the creation and the enjoyment of art, as well as the perpetuation of happiness. I approach my subjects, as Michael Kimmelman says of himself in the opening of The Accidental Masterpiece, in the spirit of the loving amateur, someone whose life has been enriched by art. I also take to heart Giorgio Morandi's remark that "nothing can be more abstract, more unreal, than what we actually see." Everything comes down to the mind and the body, to the relationship between our somatic, sensuous, and aesthetic apprehension of the world and our thinking about it.
This is also a book about aloneness. Everything I write about, with the exception of dancing, is best accomplished unaccompanied. "Solitude sometimes is best society," as Adam says, albeit with perilous consequences, to Eve in Paradise Lost. Wordsworth famously defines "the bliss of solitude." I discovered in Julia and Derek Parker's Capricorn that "fondness for solitude is [a] Capricornian characteristic." (Has astrology doomed me, born at the end of December?) Reading and writing, my two bookends, are usually considered solitary acts, so it gives me a start to watch young people with laptops scribbling—if that's the right word—in Starbucks and other open spaces. Reading and writing ought to be, or at least they used to be, done in total seclusion. A taste for contemplation, meditation, and being alone with one's thoughts is the primary prerequisite for swimming and walking solo, as well as for listening to music. You can talk to someone in an art museum, engaged in conversation while responding to a picture, but you cannot do so in a concert hall without interfering with the music itself.
In his early poem Endymion Keats asks, "Wherein lies happiness?" He proposes an answer: "In that which becks / Our ready minds to fellowship divine, / A fellowship with essence; till we shine, / Full alchemiz'd, and free of space." When we make ourselves happy, through love, or artistic activity, he says, we are magically improved and separated from mortality. We become pure light. We reach heightened, improved versions of ourselves by losing ourselves. But experiencing art whether as spectator or participant—reading, writing, listening to music, or looking at pictures—will not make you a better person. I do not make naïve claims for the moral efficacy of art or pleasure. Pleasure does not lead to ethical behavior; art does not make one a more responsible citizen. Looking at pictures enhances visual sensitivity, listening to music enhances auditory sensitivity. One becomes attentive to the objects at hand, and also to oneself. Like athletes, aesthetes can be bad people.
Elizabeth Bishop, who once called herself the unhappiest woman who ever lived, articulated a seemingly casual ars poetica: "What one seems to want in art, in experiencing it, is the same thing that is necessary for its creation, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless, concentration." In the same letter, to her friend Anny Bauman, she continues: "Art only flourishes in leisure time, I guess." All the activities described in this book demand some quotient of leisure as well as concentration. A sense of humor—not taking oneself too seriously—comes in handy as well. One forgets oneself in the pleasure of doing something "useless": dreaming over a book and becoming part of it; losing oneself in writing words, which, although chosen, still manage to have an independent life and their own seeming volition; focusing through the eye or the ear on the seen or the heard; living through the body in acts of walking, swimming, or dancing, in which the small ego has vanished or been transcended.
In the early years of the republic, John Adams wrote movingly to his wife: "I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain." Adams stands Bishop on her head. If one is lucky, one can condense and contain the work of three generations in one's own life, moving from practicality to a higher uselessness, from economy to luxury, from necessity to ornament, from work to leisure. Such a move does not betoken frivolity, or a lack of concern for worldly cares and sorrows. It acknowledges the need in everyone's life—like that of the people in Bishop's poem "Filling Station" (see chapter 3)—for a note of "certain color."
Color, like ornament, is far from extraneous. "Mere" decoration (think of "mere" in its earlier meaning as "pure" and you have a different story), like the frivolity of dancing, may constitute the necessary uselessness that Bishop demands. As we need sleep for waking, we also need color, ornament, and everything "superfluous" to help us get through life's exigencies. Pleasure and leisure offer replenishment, and replenishment increases sanguinity. Amy Clampitt, a poet whose life and work exuded ebullience and joie de vivre, said of herself in a 1982 letter: "I simply regard myself, in spite of everything, as one of the fortunate people who happen to be around." Her tone of informal contentment also contains her gratitude for her good luck—her fortune—in having been born or become such a person. It's a sense that I share with her.
In Studies in Hysteria, Freud wrote to a patient: "No doubt fate would find it easier than I do to relieve you of your illness. But you will be able to convince yourself that much will be gained if we succeed in transforming your hysterical misery into common unhappiness. With a mental life that has been restored to health you will be better armed against that unhappiness." Can we go Freud one better? Can we replace common unhappiness with ordinary cheerfulness, with what Wordsworth calls "a summer mood"? While acknowledging the hap, good fortune, and neurological and hormonal constitution that produce sanguinity, one must also move onward with a sense of self-confidence, with a belief in the possibility of happiness as a habit.
Life is short. On that all the authorities speak unanimously. In the Agamemnon, Aeschylus puts into Cassandra's mouth one version of the grim truth: All of life's happiness is a shadow, and its misery, too, "is nothing, a child's rude scrawl / on a writing slate that a damp sponge wipes away" (trans. David Slavitt). And Ecclesiastes (3: 20): "All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again." We can change the tune, but the words remain the same: Whether you think, like Kander and Ebb, that "life is a cabaret, old chum," you've got to admit that "from cradle to tomb / Isn't that long a stay," that winter will descend soon enough, that life is a series of small triumphs that ends in one large defeat, and that—therefore—we should honor the pleasure principle and the hopefulness inherent in enlightened Epicureanism. Voltaire, who had some sardonic things to say in Candide about unreflective optimism, also urged us to "read and dance—two amusements that will never do any harm to the world." And I agree.
Excerpted from Seven Pleasures by Willard Spriegelman
Copyright © 2009 by Willard Spriegelman
Published in 2009 by Douglas & McIntyre Ltd.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
Meet the Author
Willard Spiegelman is the Hughes Professor of English at Southern Methodist University and has been editor of the Southwest Review since 1984. He lives in Dallas, Texas.
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