- Willard Spiegelman’s essay on swimming as it appeared in The American Scholar
- His essay on walking as it appears on In Character
- Wall Street Journal review by Wes Davis
- Review by New York cultural journalist/blogger Matthew Gurewitsch
- Dallas Morning News review by Chris Tucker
- James Wolcott’s tout in Vanity Fair
Where do we find true pleasure? Can everyday activities like swimming or reading bring us joy? Willard Spiegelman, Hughes Professor of English at Southern Methodist University and editor of the Southwest Review, joined us for the Art & Seek segment to discuss his new collection, Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness.
Although the book is getting shelved in the “self-help” sections — and more power to that label if it means Seven Pleasures will sell better than the usual essay collection — Spiegelman’s book is actually a set of reflections on quotidian activities: reading, walking, looking, dancing, listening, swimming and writing. His pieces are classic essays in the humanist tradition that goes back to Montaigne. They’re part personal memoir, part guide, part explanation, part appreciation, part conveyor of insight, whether it be practical, moral, political or philosophical. The essays are all very much in Spiegelman’s own voice, elegantly phrased yet seemingly casual, bemused yet thoughtful. And, of course, literate and learned but not in an off-putting manner. Think of it as a likable donnishness. It’s that voice, that ruminative process of thinking that is one of the book’s enjoyments. It succeeds so well in leading a reader along.
In his introduction, Spiegelman explains that he comes from cheerful stock. His outlook on life, as most of ours have, has been shaped by his genes. As he says in our televised conversation posted above, he could do without these activities, these pleasures, and still be cheerful. This is one of the rare places in Seven Pleasures that I parted company with the likable don. I think for many of us our pleasures are salvations. They’re redemptive, rehabilitative. They can make our miserable lives tolerable. For a time, they take us out of ourselves, which is the original meaning of the Greek, ekstasis — to transport, displace, put into a trance. The brief forgetfulness caused by the seductions of art, by the concentration required to complete a task well — it can be a source of pleasure. As the harried director says in the stage comedy, Noises Off! (written by the philosopher and journalist, Michael Frayn): “I come to the theater to be taken out of myself. And preferably not put back in.”
As he goes on, Spiegelman occasionally does become transported. A little, anyway, he’s a thoroughly rational and grounded individual, but one of his pleasures, after all, is writing, writing what we’re reading, so inevitably his own pleasure comes through. The simple act of looking, he declares, can be life saving. “Swimming keeps me happy,” it lifts him into “a higher spiritual realm.” And as he points out in his essay on writing (although the point pops up elsewhere), when done well, when done with a relaxed awareness, these activities can be meditative. They become akin to a secular version of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola (a contemporary of Montaigne, interestingly enough).
OK, so even I think that last claim got a little carried away. Let’s just call these enjoyable essays ‘Zen-like, gem-like contemplations of the everyday.’ They can lead you to a degree of self-awareness.
Whether that makes you happy is up to you and your bad self.