May 2009

Benjamin Jacob Hollars

nonfiction

Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness by Williard Spiegelman

Willard Spiegelman wants to be left alone. In his collection of essays, Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness, he explores the seven activities (reading, walking, looking, dancing listening, swimming and writing) that, if done properly, can award the participant the greatest degree of happiness. And as he also notes, six of these seven activities are often done in solitude. 

At its worst, the collection falls victim to babbling grandfather syndrome -- in which a man recounts the wisdom of his years. But at its best, it’s a thoughtful, provocative reflection on the specific methods we can employ in order to attain humanity’s Holy Grail -- “happiness.” Spiegelman’s collection reads like a self-help book for intellectuals, cramming its pages with philosophers and poets as evidence of his claims. But while it overflows with cultural history, it lacks a scientific approach. Undoubtedly, to quantify “happiness” within the scientific realm would prove quite challenging, yet it is a challenge that might have paid off. In his introduction, he describes his book as  “not quite a memoir, but not a nonmemoir either.” Yet his reliance on the personal anecdote and cultural history -- while ignoring science -- often makes the book feel like a three-legged table wobbling on two legs. 

Spiegelman soars, however, when discussing the primary theme threading throughout all his essays: aloneness. Solitude is a “dying or at least an endangered custom,” he writes in his essay “Reading.” “Sitting alone, in quiet, in one’s room: how many have the capacity to do that?” He states that “serious readers are solitaries for whom art is an intensely private matter.” Later, in his essay “Looking,” he continues supporting his claim, arguing that spending time in a museum is “not a spectator sport” and “Why should I have to overhear people screaming, or even speaking quietly… and ruining my fun?”

However, perhaps his most successful essay of all, “Dancing,” completely avoids the question of aloneness. Instead, it focuses on the strange partnership which develops, noting that dancing “resembles looking, listening, swimming, reading: you disappear in doing it.” This notion of “disappearing” seems crucial to Spiegelman’s arguments. According to Spiegelman, happiness is not born from fame or popularity, but rather, from solitude and vanishing into a state of self-awareness. “Losing myself in the activity,” he writes,  “…is what appeals to me.” Further, he argues that dancing “teaches awareness, deference, and kindness: what other activity does that?” 

Finally, his essay “Swimming” allows the argument to come full circle. In it, he offers an explanation for swimming’s rare occurrence in literature: because it “excludes husbands, lovers, everyone else in the world, indeed everything else except one’s thoughts.” Keeping ourselves underwater is perhaps humanity’s most extreme attempt at blocking out the world above the waterline. But what we can learn under those conditions -- a shortness of breath, but at long last, free of the distractions of others -- is, at least according to Spiegelman, a kind of happiness we couldn’t find anywhere else.

Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness by Willard Spiegelman
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
ISBN: 0374239304
208 Pages