Self-help without the sugar

Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness by William Spiegelman. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2009.

In Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, ISBN 978-0-374-23930-5, $23), William Spiegelman, an English professor at Southern Methodist University and editor of the Southwest Review, examines some of the activities which have brought him joy in his life: reading, walking, looking, dancing, listening, swimming, and writing.

In the introduction to this delightful book, entitled “Being,” Spiegelman offers a fine short analysis of happiness. As he says himself, he counts himself among the blessed; he reached the age of 50 without a major catastrophe in his life and so counts himself a happy man. Yet even to those who are melancholic or depressed, Spiegelman’s Seven Pleasures offers avenues to the joys in life. He writes that “with some effort, one can find contentment, happiness, call it what you will, without the consolation of religion and without the help of psychotherapy and pharmacology.” To this bold statement he adds:

“In this book I don’t deal with work, in the sense of vocation, or love, in the sense of Eros, reproduction, interpersonal relationships. If these things are not going well in your life, everything else may be moot. But even if love and work aren’t thriving, the foxtrot might come in handy.”

Readers of Seven Pleasures will naturally gravitate toward those chapters that match their own interests. The section on books and reading, for example, will attract those who value reading. Oddly enough, however, many readers may find those subjects with which they are best acquainted dull compared to those less familiar. In my own case, the two most exciting parts of the book were “Listening” and “Dancing.”

In “Listening,” for example, Spiegelman exhorts his readers to listen, to listen truly, to classical music. So much of what we hear these days — the radio in the car, the plug in the ear while we sweat off pounds at the Y, the piped-in music of the mall and the restaurant — is background music, popular tunes that may make us tap our feet or sing along, but which rarely engage our total being. Spiegelman here speaks of the great pleasure in trying to listen to music, to analyze it, to feel it in our very bone and marrow.

He also urges us to find, and listen to, silence. Looking back at the tragic events of 9/11, Spiegelman writes that he found solace in attending a local Quaker meeting. Here he sat for an hour in silence, an hour which “brought me as close to a religious experience as I am likely to come.”

Spiegelman’s essay on “Dancing” is a delight to read if only because he reminds us that “taking dance lessons — like trying to do anything new after the age of twenty — challenges and humbles anyone, especially a person without a natural gift, and even more, a person who himself makes a career of teaching.”

Later he writes that natural dancers “get it right, right away. The rest of us must go over the sequence until the mind has been numbed and we can do it with our eyes shut or in our sleep. Practice makes, if not perfect, then at least possible.” Spiegelman’s enthusiasm for dance, for its grace and its mannerly ways, will make many non-dancing readers consider taking ballroom lessons.

There are moments in Seven Pleasures when Spiegelman’s enthusiasm for one of the pleasures of his life make him appear a snob, supercilious and superior to those around him. His chapter on “Walking,” for example, contains a long and critical analysis of walking in America and why so many Americans don’t go in for just “walking, pure and simple.” Here he criticizes American gyms (“people who go to gyms are defined, for the most part, significantly by class and income bracket”). He labels many American cities, because of their highways and traffic, as being basically ill-suited to walking. He writes that “strolling used to be an American custom, but hasn’t been for a long time. It still remains a powerful one in most European countries, especially the Mediterranean....”

Here Spiegelman is mistaken. Americans do not usually stroll, it is true, not in the European fashion of paseo at any rate, but then who has ever thought of Americans going out for a stroll? Europeans developed this custom over several centuries, centuries in which Americans were building their own nation. Americans have never acquired the habit of “strolling” — not because, as Spiegelman seems to contend, of the super-highways cutting our cities or because our cities are unattractive, but because we lack a European sense of “leisure.” Few Americans do go out for an aimless stroll; we are a task-driven people, and if we go out for a walk, it is to get exercise or to arrive at a destination.

Despite this caveat, there is much to admire in Seven Pleasures. If nothing else, it serves, in this time of factions and political wars, as a reminder that life offers up many pleasures. Recently I sent this book to a beloved friend who has experienced, and continues to experience, much unhappiness in her own life, in the hopes of offering inspiration shorn of the sugary prose of bestsellers and self-help books. Seven Pleasures is a book which should lead all of us, happy or unhappy, to consider seeking our own routes to happiness.

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