The Decline of Pleasure

I had meant to write a book review of a book I read last month: The Decline of Pleasure, by Walter Kerr. It’s a solid sort of book, about how, as a society, we’ve left the civilized pleasures no room in which to have importance or meaning, leaving us with extra time in which we feel we ought to be enjoying ourselves, but go about it in such a prosaic fashion that we hardly find our amusements amusing, even if we find them addictive; and how this is a great impoverishment for us as human beings. He brings contemplation into the discussion, and does not go nearly far enough with it — because after describing the absolute attention some people have devoted to contemplation, he goes on to stress, fairly frequently, how he is not even asking for anything so great as Divinity to contemplate, but only nature and the beauty and order that it is natural for man to contemplate. Which I find problematic for reasons I’m not industrious enough to expand upon now.

But this does tie in somewhat with my question about writing, and choosing things to write about when nothing is very urgent. Last Friday I attended a lecture at St John’s about Faust; the talker was enjoyable, but very rambling — his main concern seemed to be somehow related. It was somehow about experiencing the numinous and the creative energies of Nature after the Copernican revolution, and how there’s something that can’t be accessed through study and science, but through poetry (I haven’t read most of Faust, and won’t be able to recount the bulk of his meaning; there’s also the point that in the second act Faust deals with the tragedy of his involvement with Gretchen by becoming a great modern man, building dikes and owning everything around him).

Somehow I want to say that — I don’t know about we; some of us, anyway — are good, steady solvers of puzzles and explainers of problems, and like to keep a neat stock of problems to pull out, should we find an opportunity to pick at them and expose their operation. Sometimes this is really good and necessary — as when we have to choose a course of action, or advise on some sort of action, or learn how the right way to live is. At other times, it’s not, but we havne’t much experience in other modes of thought and articulation (and art), which are rational, but do not rest upon “critical thinking skills.”

But getting back to Kerr (and not so very far from Faust), there’s a certain class of people who become burdened by their “critical thinking skills,” and their attempts to constantly order their thoughts, perceptions, work, home, and so on, in a way that is not directly about how much work they have to get done, or what around them actually requires their constant supervision, but is much more about a conviction drawn from a culture which supports a philosophy in which the only value a thing or activity has lies in what it can be traded for (in an infinite progression).

Obviously, Kerr is one of those people (or why would he be writing a book on his vague dissatisfaction with modernity, rather than about something he loves and wants to share with people?), and he expects his readers to be as well. I have no idea how extensive this group is, and doubt Kerr’s implication that it extends to just about everyone in modern Europe and America.

My own experience (and I am, to an extent, one of the moderns Kerr is writing to), writing and experience are far enough apart that the loveliest things experienced directly make for very poor writing (or usually don’t translate into writing at all; I don’t even particularly want them to), so that not only do I not particularly want to write about walking about enthusing about the loveliness of the grass, but I don’t enjoy reading about it either, with a few exceptions, usually by novelists. Also involved in this is an issue of venue: I’m not reading blogs online in order to be struck by the beauty and stillness of things. If I were going for that, I would be out taking a walk.


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