Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness, by Willard Spiegelman. New York: Picador, 2009. 208 pp. $16 (paperback).
In Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness, Willard Spiegelman asks: “In adulthood, what should—what does—one read? No longer having the luxury of youthful promiscuity, knowing that the clock ticks, that every choice of something eliminates something else, what should you do?” (p. 49).
Spiegelman suggests rereading “those books that gave pleasure in the past.” He adds:
A photographic memory is not necessarily a blessing; there’s a charm in forgetting, so if you’re not cursed with perfect recall, you’ll have the joy of discovering some things as though for the first time, while others will hit you with the refreshing rush of repetition. As an older version of the person you’ve always been, you can have things two ways at once: something old, something new; something recalled, something revealed. (p. 49)
Although Spiegelman does not directly advise going back to what one loves and extracting still more pleasure from it, or learning to convert a declining memory into a source of enjoyment, he nevertheless provides example after example of himself doing just such things. Whereas other books about happiness tell readers how to become happy, in Seven Pleasures Spiegelman simply discusses the activities that have made him happy and shows how he has learned to deeply enjoy his life.
The activities, without exception, are unexceptional. They are reading, walking, looking, dancing, listening, swimming, and writing. But Spiegelman approaches them in a remarkably new way. Consider this, on dancing:
The fox-trot, like the waltz, the two-step, the polka, the swing, and all the others, has no raison d’être. There is no justification for it but one. I would like to understand Wallace Stevens’s adverb—in the phrase “merely circulating”—quoted . . . neither in its modern, deprecating sense nor in any other ironic one, but in its etymological truth: “mere” means “pure,” “undiluted,” “perfect.” Likewise, dancing again and again around the floor produces the human feeling that partakes of the essential and the ornamental in equal measure, what Wordsworth, in the preface to Lyrical Ballads, labeled the “grand elementary principle . . . that constitutes the naked and native dignity of man”: pleasure, pure and simple. (p. 124)
Spiegelman’s approach to dancing is unabashedly sensual and, at the same time, intellectual. For example, in addition to discussing what he enjoys about dancing, he integrates what authors he loves have said about it and, later in the book, how this activity relates to others he finds enjoyable. . . .