Getting More Serious about Pleasure
When it comes to work, we tend to be – almost universally – highly strategic and thorough in our approach. We think extensively about where our talents and opportunities may lie, we spend years (and a fortune) on training, we devote extraordinary energy (and our most vigorous decades) to progressing up the ladder and keep a vigilant and jealous eye on the progress of our rivals.
Our leisure hours promise to be, by contrast, the easy bit. We don’t expect there to be particular complexity in this section of existence. We want to relax and have fun and tend to envisage that the only obstacles to such goals might be time and money. We adopt a welcoming, unsuspicious manner and readily take up the suggestion of others without gimlet eyed scrutiny. Sometimes, without thinking about things too much, we end up in a water park or hosting a barbecue.
What we may miss for many years is the real price of our negligence. We forget that our lives are so much less than they might be because we insist on being haphazard where we might be devotedly analytical. We stick to being guided by hearsay and muddled instinct when we should harness reason and independent reflection; we are a lot more miserable than we might be because we cannot take our own fun more seriously. And we don’t because we are touchingly but ruinously lacking in vigilance about our individuality: we assume that what will work for others will work for us too. It doesn’t readily occur to us to take our uniqueness into account.
A corrective to this highly costly absence of mind comes from an unexpected quarter: the history of art. What we call a great artist is someone who, first and foremost, has learnt to take their pleasure seriously. Most young artists don’t. They like art of course, but they don’t drill too deeply into what they in particular, they as unique beings with a highly individual history, sensory system and temperament, are inclined to like. That is why the chief characteristic of inexperienced artists is derivativeness: their art reflects what everyone else around them tends to like and make in their particular era and circle. It’s the art of people without a capacity to take their own fun seriously.
Consider, for example, the career of the Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti. Born in 1901 in the canton of Graubunden, he attended the Geneva School of Fine Arts and his early minor work reflects the dominant influences of the times: in particular the work of the Italian artist Segantini and of the Impressionist school, especially Manet and Fantin-Latour. One thinks of his portrait of his sister Ottilia and his views of the lake of Sils and surrounding mountains. There is pleasure here for sure, but not a pleasure with any deep roots in the personality of the creator.
Alberto Giacometti, Ottilia, 1920
Alberto Giacometti, View on the Sils Lake Towards Piz Lizun, 1920
Then Giacometti left Switzerland for Paris, he broke with his family, thought very hard about who he really was; and eventually re-emerged as the great artist we know today, the maker of unique haunting elongated figures that speak to us of a longing and a loneliness we may never before have been able so clearly to sense in ourselves.
Alberto Giacometti, Man Pointing, 1947
To become an artist in this sense isn’t first and foremost about technical discovery, it’s about the strength to stay faithful to one’s self.
We are not, most of us, making art. But we are involved in the business of getting to know and please ourselves – as any artist must. For too much of life, we assume we may be like everyone else. Only gradually, if we are lucky, do we come to see that our characteristic way of drawing pleasure – from nature, books, films, dinner parties, clothes, travels, gardening etc. – bears the imprint and distinctive timbre of our particular individuality. To lean on an associated example, we learn how to be proper fetishists. The sexual fetishist is to the ordinary lover like the established artist to the novice: they too are someone who has worked out what they in particular really like, and held on to it with rare fidelity and tenacity. While most of us go along with general suggestions of what good sex might consist of, the fetishist discerns their own proclivities. They realise that they might like a particular kind of floral material or a leather watch strap, the sound of water or the feel of a gold chain, a pair of socks or a black monogrammed briefcase. The fetishist is akin to the artist in having the stubborn presence of mind to defend their own tastes, even – and especially – when these depart from the mainstreams. One thinks, in this regard of the mature Le Corbusier’s attachment to including ramps in his buildings, whatever the design challenges or client objections, or of a lover who dares to ask their partner to put on a pair of ankle length white athletic socks before entering the bedroom. Great fetishists, like great artists, know the power of details to generate happiness.
The power of details to make us happy
Most of us are, by contrast, fatefully modest about what we enjoy. We don’t dare to foreground our own discoveries. What we do with our leisure hours is therefore marked by a dispiriting uniformity. We go skiing because we hear that’s meant to be fun. We invite guests around for dinner and talk about what everyone else talks about and have melon for a starter. Our weekends unfold a bit like those of all our colleagues. We die with our particular appetites and intense sensations tragically unexplored.
To save ourselves, we need the equivalent of an artistic breakthrough. We should – across the board in our leisure pursuits – be prepared to be redemptively weird. If we were to use only ourselves as our lodestar and point of reference, what would a dinner party look like? What would we eat? What would we talk about? Where would we sit? What have we – the we that’s going to be dead in a few decades and will be as though it never existed – enjoyed in the past and might we recreate going forward? What might a holiday specifically geared to our tastes and proclivities be like? What bit of the standard tourist itinerary might we ditch? Which of our hitherto stray or guilty pleasures might we dare to bring into focus and anchor our days around? What might we learn to say no to and contrastingly, to emphasise going forward?
It’s so often drummed into us that we may be selfish and should learn to relinquish our interests for the sake of the community that we fail to notice an even more horrific possibility: that in many areas, we’re not selfish enough. We fail to pay any appropriate attention to our fragile, extraordinary and scarce nature. We don’t give outward expression to our true sensations. We don’t give our weekends and our spare time the imprint of our own characters. We don’t ask our lovers to turn us on as we should. We kill our uniqueness out of politeness and a fear of being odd. We spend far too much of our brief lives defending an impossible idea: that we are pretty much like anyone else.
Questions to develop an independent pleasurable self
What do you like to eat? In what order and how and at what time?
What do you like to talk about? And what bores you deeply?
Where do you like to travel to? And what do you keep doing only out of guilt?
What do you like to read?
What do you, who will be dead soon, enjoy in bed?
Who would you like never to see again?
What would you do if you only five weekends left?