Pleasure principles

In happiness begins responsibility
By CHARLES TAYLOR  |  December 2, 2009

COOL FOR SCHOOL Spiegelman’s book is a delightful paradox: a companionable explication of (mostly) solitary pleasures.
We all dream of being James Dean — brooding, intense, complex — and secretly fear that we're really Ricky Nelson, the non-threatening nice guy we imagine doesn't have a lot going on.

Willard Spiegelman seems like a nice guy. He has, by his own admission, had the good luck to live a happy life without major disaster or suffering. But as a long-time professor of English at Southern Methodist University and editor of the Southwest Review, he has, ironically, ended up living his life among just those people — writers and academics — most ready to connect happiness with shallowness.

Spiegelman runs down the roll call of pedigreed kvetchers. Flaubert equated happiness with stupidity and selfishness. Graham Greene, really upping the ante, tossed in egotism, evil, and ignorance. During his own college days, Spiegelman and his friends in bull sessions debated whether they would choose to be smart or happy, as if the two were mutually exclusive.

Seven Pleasures is his thoroughly charming refutation of that assumption, which is so prevalent in both life and art. Subtitled "Essays on Ordinary Happiness," the book devotes a meditative chapter each to reading, walking, looking, dancing, listening, swimming, and writing. These are, as Spiegelman points out, pleasures open to all, none requiring riches or privilege, and all of them solitary.

"Noticing is pedestrian," he writes near the end of his essay on looking. "It's what we do when we are walking around, taking stuff in and registering the surround." That, of course, is both a critic's delineation of method and a declaration of freedom — the freedom to wander, to pay attention to what you want to, not to be bound by plan or convention. And then comes the responsibility: "Observing means you've got to stand still and wait, trying to save yourself by the act of looking."

Spiegelman clearly has the patience to wait and the concentration to look. The book is a delightful paradox: a companionable explication of (mostly) solitary pleasures. The subject of each essay is really a springboard for the observations each activity has afforded him. In his essay on dancing, which he took up a few years back (he's in his mid 60s), he admits that as an academic he is interested in the why but adds that "the primary goal is pleasure." And that's the heartbeat of this book.

It would be deadly, and pedantic, to go into a discussion of each subject here. What matters is that, true to his primary goal, whether he's responding to the beauty of dancers on a summer night or what we still call high culture, Spiegelman has let pleasure guide him. It's pleasure, he understands, that makes possible our insights, our empathy, our capacity to appreciate life and art.

Seven Pleasures might be read as a discursive companion to Mike Leigh's great film Happy-Go-Lucky, with its insistence that the indefatigable happiness of its heroine, Poppy (Sally Hawkins), was not unmindfulness but deep-rooted connection, a refusal to feel separate from anything human. I've only skimmed the joys of this volume, whose pleasures can be called civilized without that being a euphemism for timidity or numb refinement. It's a fully alive piece of writing, a book in which happiness does not mean "settling for." And when you think about it, from "Waitin' in School" to "Garden Party," Ricky Nelson was a pretty cool guy to be.

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