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The Anatomy of Enjoyment

It is fainthearted to require something new to be explained and defended to you before you can decide whether you enjoy it. It is a weak mind which approves of only what it enjoys; it is as weak a mind which enjoys only what it approves of.

Approval is a kind of commitment. To approve of something is to vote in its favor. It is an act of conscious, conscientious judgment. Enjoyment is only to find something agreeable – to be pleasantly delighted, distracted, diverted, entertained, beguiled; or to find something bracing – the pleasantness of being no more than confused, shocked, startled, uncertain, lost, speechless.

I do not mean the kind of distinction where you approve of the outcome without enjoying the means. We all approve of having things clean; few of us enjoy cleaning. By approved I mean defended, in outcome and in means, as proper and worthwhile.

What does it mean to be proper? Propriety varies by company, place, and hour. Yet it is not relative, since it has normative force; nor is it abstract, as it is attached to context. Fashion, as (partly) the propriety of clothing, shows that propriety is a kind of language, declaring the extent and degree of one’s membership, and the ratio of membership to individuality.

But judgment is more than a checklist of proprieties and approvals. Insofar as there is a procedural standard, it is a graph with many dimensions and axes. Propriety answers to a rule and a precept. There is the precept in Rome to do as the Romans do; tempered by the rule that what is done in Rome (all roads leading there), does not stay there.

But young people do carry around checklists – the more precocious, the longer the list. The young zealot has a strict checklist of the proprieties of religion – attentively ticking off the signs and showpieces of religiosity. The young artist likewise proves their sensibility and genius by uncompromising bohemianism.

Youth is its own context; or for the young there is only one context. The young therefore cannot be judged wise or foolish, cowardly or courageous – not yet. Those who never ask themselves what is right age but do not grow up; nor do those for whom the discipline of youth becomes the cage of snarling, pacing adulthood. It is the softening of youthful rigidity – sometimes gradually by ripening, sometimes by powerful, kneading shocks – that leaves you able to function as an adult, neither thoughtlessly obedient nor vainly defiant.

What does it means to be worthwhile? There are two standards: one avocational, one vocational.

Time passes whether we use it or not; we benefit by everything we experience, directly or indirectly. To be worthwhile, something need only not demand an inappropriate level of commitment, or mislead or misguide us.

What is worthwhile avocationally always lies between what taxes laziness, and what imposes boredom. But the space between the two is elastic. The less lazy and the less passive in boredom the person, the more of what is done and undergone is worthwhile; the lazier and more easily bored the person, the less is worthwhile. And this is true even if the two persons do and undergo the same things.

But this is only where avocation is concerned. Vocation properly commits itself to more than a lifetime can accomplish, accepting responsibility for the concomitant minutiae and trivialities. The standard of the vocationally worthwhile is only profitability – not necessarily (though possibly) monetary, but yielding something, realizing something; something either defensible as being useful, or somehow self-justifying.

It is curious that a vocation, practiced long and well, comes with time to resemble an avocation. Laziness, or the indulgence of boredom, never become forgivable. Preoccupation rarely works an alchemy whereby chores become signs suffused with the sweetness of the achievement they lead too (they generally remain chores). Instead, the perception of time changes. Time put to use is prolonged, time merely spent is hastened, and our subjective time, if not our wall time, increasingly belongs to the most worthwhile.

Enjoyment is not only the wild pleasure that attends indulgence and is paid for in regret, nor is to find worthwhile the same as to enjoy. Our capacity for enjoyment belies our mortality. The idea of heaven is the ideal of pure enjoyment. It would betray the idea of heaven to call it right or worthy, as if there were some vantage of purpose from which is could be judged. Heaven names the end of purpose.

Enjoyment is not a single emotion. The shades and nuances of emotion which enjoyment entrains are distinctive to the individual: a peculiar compound, unique as a fingerprint, of happiness, joy, delight, contentment, satisfaction, satiety, pleasure, wonder, transport, ecstasy; with an equally unique shape of associations formed as the experience twists and compresses to find breathing space, hemmed in by capricious distastes, painful worries, and bad memories.

Enjoyment is not a judgment. The same person varies in what is found enjoyable, and even these variations are variable.

Look to the lovers. Some people in love find everything enjoyable; their worlds are illuminated by their passion – they cannot fail or fall – they are strengthened, purified. Other people in love find nothing enjoyable, they long, they pine, they worry, they regret, they pace, they walk in circles, they are without hope, bereft, now burned by desire, now crushed by loneliness.

Look to the winners. Some people in triumph swell and float, crowds of strangers part for them, their worth is proven, their existence justified, their glory planted and growing, they are the strongest, fastest, smartest, coolest, their friends hang on their words, strangers seek their advice, they need only want to have, their future is full and short, they will blaze and burn out for all to see. Other victors are finished, their lives are over, their purpose served, they are obsolete, worn out by training, practice, and struggle, too old for further victories, the sun past its zenith, the sun setting, nothing but an already passing name; losers in truth by so many sacrifices and so many overlong deferrals that became unwitting sacrifices, and what is left only a long, empty future, chewing over memories of victory until they have lost their savor, while the hard use they have put body or mind to in youth haunt and make torment of old age.

Nothing is certain to be enjoyed, there are in fact no standards or criteria, not even for an individual. The same person may be at one time exalted, at another time devastated, by love or victory or anything else – by prosperity, progeny, power, wisdom, renewed health; or even now in enjoyment, now in agony, now in indifference, from day to day, hour to hour; or, in some commodious souls, all at once.

Enjoyment is not a judgment; but that does not eliminate the phenomenon of judgment from enjoyment. Enjoyment is an act, and stands in the same relation to the judgment preceding as does any other act. Like other acts, enjoyment is best undertaken by plan, next best by chance, and worst by force. What you pay to enjoy you plan to enjoy; and though it is less potent than what is spontaneous, you cannot live in the expectation of the accidental and unpredictable. As food must be had every day to sustain the body, so something must be enjoyed or the capacity of enjoyment shrivels and turns bitter. All creatures are creatures of habit.

Those who live by whim and happenstance are at once discontented and trusting. Why are they discontented? Nothing is more absurd than to require the justification of discontent. Can you justify your hunger? Trust comes from security, real or imagined, or from folly. (Folly being distinct from imaginarity security in that willful folly manifestly spurns thought, while imaginary security – a condition more pitiable than contemptible – takes thought, but is too weak to bear it.)

The really secure, as far as life allows, are the wealthy, the healthy, the likeable, the liking, the lucky. They haunt history as patrons, spectators, commentators. We find them about town or on tour. Everyone else wishes to be them; but their wish is to have the narrower spirits of genius – and only by keeping company with such narrower spirits are they ever remembered, hanging onto the lights that are the beacons of the otherwise unbroken darkness of history.

To be able to force yourself to enjoy things is a necessary skill. What moves us most, what becomes most precious to us among our experiences, is often what we have at first doubted – what we had, at first, to force ourselves to enjoy. But this has two dangers.

1​. To force enjoyment of everything – or just of too much – ends in a kind of mirror or complement to despair. When tragedy and comedy become indistinguishable, life loses form, and the mind becomes a confusion of powerlessness – whether comedy becomes tragedy, which we call despair, or tragedy becomes comedy, which we have no name for, but should fear as much.

2​. To allow too many others – especially strangers; friends have the right to insist on introducing you to new things – to allow them to force you to enjoy, ultimately enfeebles your capacity for enjoyment; not only in the shrunken will, but in the abuse of the faculty. Enjoyment needs rest: not to close, slacken, and sleep like eye or arm, but like the stomach, intervals to digest, variety sufficient to keep up the appetite. No one, I suspect, enjoys food as a well-raised child – the set mealtime, the plate to be cleaned, the woeful specters of starving Armenians. (“Clean your plate. Think of the starving Armenians.”) Gourmandise is a privilege of adulthood, and is only obtainable to an individual through the swings and jumps of whim and fancy.

Gourmands are quick to enjoy and slow to approve – unlike critics (of food or generally), who commonly are quick to approve (if they hear the shibboleth), and slow – torpid – to enjoy. Creative individuals, in their spheres, are always ready to enjoy – even determined to do so where they lack the inclination to criticize. It is only zealotry which – with or without approval – withholds enjoyment from another faith’s holidays or ritual spectacles.

Not only religions, but cultures, regions, peoples, are usually distinct in their atmospheres, the diverse lights of different countries, the moods of their arts. You may enjoy the Aztec temples without approving their rituals. The educated must regard spectacle entertainments with disapproval, as tribal rites, as (bread and) circuses, as opiates. But if you end up in the stands, it is vain to be sullen, not to do your best to enjoy. And where music is in order, it should always be enjoyed as part of the occasion, even if you cannot stand it. Food and company on journeys can and should be enjoyed – however opposed to what you eat and keep at home – without determining your habits when you return.

Those of us who will not dare to enjoy what they do not approve are not directly lessened thereby. Neither our sense of the world nor the orbit of our sympathies comes from the diversity of our experiences. The world is too large, the human race too near infinite in numbers and kinds. Not one life, not a dozen, could compass it. Our understanding either receives an inherited or borrowed perspective from few others; or obtains perspective, through reading, from the distilled experience of many others. No matter how much you see; no matter how many countries you stand in; the world and the human race you know are not reflections from experience, but images you have taken either from tradition or philosophy.

Nonetheless, when we will not dare to enjoy, we are lessened, as anyone is lessed by cowardice: we lose our sense of self. We do not get to know the world by experience, but it is how we get to know ourselves. The science of self is an empirical one. We proceed by an experimental variation of conditions, and in the comparison of each contrast we discover the laws of our particular microcosm.

Animals belong to the environment they are in; human beings belong all at once to all the environments they have ever been in, to every construction they can put upon them, to every perspective they can take on them. As we gain in this capacity, as where we are becomes everywhere we have been, we gain in humanity.

Inattentive minds cannot be force-fed what they need; but attentive minds can get by on very little. They do not need grand tours or gallivanting Wanderjahren. A garden, for example, or any spot of growing earth, is not one place, but many: multiplied by seasons, by the generations of flowers, by visitors human or animal present or clinging to it in memory, by the state of mind you bring to it, by the purpose that brings you to it – to savor, to work upon, to hide in.

There is no meaning to the approval of those who never disapprove. Relativism is the privilege of irresponsibility. To act is to choose; to choose is to judge. What we only enjoy, we only regret losing; what we approve of, we fight for. If it is not hypocrisy to say I enjoy things I could not do, it is not hypocrisy to say I enjoy things I would not do. But the least thing you approve of should be more important to you than the greatest things you enjoy without approving.

There are two ways to approve without enjoying: to approve, but choose not enjoy; or to approve, but be unable to enjoy.

To approve of victory, but to choose not to gloat; of accomplishment, but to choose not to celebrate and trumpet; of an afterlife, or some abstract immortality by posterity or participation, but to choose honor in grief; these are wise choices. Good taste and compassion often reserve enjoyment from things which, viewed in themselves, ought to be enjoyed. Enjoyment belongs to what we do for ourselves; in what we do for others, enjoyment may become condescension, mockery, even cruelty.

Where there is much to be forgiven, you can approve of forgiveness but not enjoy extending it. The more you compassionate the needy, the harder giving becomes, because it brings you nearer their state.

But most of the time, what we approve of without enjoyment is what we have become bored with. Every passion fades by like degrees. First there is unmixed enjoyment, love, satisfaction, delight; but however fascinating, we must look from it from time to time to other things. Where there was steady fire, now we only flare when we return. Then we only plan to flare; fire becomes a power, not a practice. The power untried atrophies; and we are left approving with our whole being what we can not longer enjoy.

There is nothing steady in life which is not subject to this failing; but it is not inevitable. Passive boredom is not a phenomenon, but a vice – one whose indulgence inevitably poisons every experience, empties every life.

There is a difference between boredom and blind habit. The former is the absence of enjoyment; the latter is the absence of the awareness of enjoyment, an awareness which returns sharply in its deprivation. This is the fate of everything approved of and enjoyed: whether continuous or periodic, occasional or unique, it is unresistingly assimilated, until it acquires the indispensible invisibility of the foundation of a house or the smooth working of internal organs.

We see clearly what we approve of but do not enjoy; we see what we enjoy but do not approve of; but we do not see at all what we approve of and enjoy. It is therefore conditional to the philosopher, the poet, the mystic, the penitent, the flâneur, the ruricolist; to anyone creative or sensitive, who would see what others do not; to be able to withhold or supply enjoyment as needed, separately from approval. Together they conceal; separately, the arc between them can illuminate any experience.

Brevity

It is the lesson of poetry that more can be said briefly than can be said at any length. Brevity is wit itself. All comebacks are laconic. All attacks should be surprises. Quotations and proverbs contract with time. The short version on the lips, not the rambling original in books, gives the author credit and fame. Repetition for rhetorical effect may be eloquence; variation may be illumination; but most repetition is redundancy, and most variation is vanity. Something is always sacrificed to pad the page or word counts, or to the smearing thin of thick, subtle concepts to lubricate the passage of a dromedary audience through the needle’s-eye of understanding. Eloquence that must be dug out is eloquence buried alive. What the mind retains of prose is its flensed, poetic skeleton. Digressions may be ends in themselves; but illustrations and examples are passed over or forgotten, if not burnt in as metaphors. If you write to instruct, ineloquence is inevitable. Prose is not poetry; but even in prose you must have a poet’s discipline, and a poet’s principles: better lost than found for the wrong reason.