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By Sam Magavern


The Montréal Review, July 2021


Henri Matisse, La danse (second version), oil on canvas, State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, Russia




Shortly after birth, a baby has experienced life’s most basic joys: eating, embracing, moving, playing, and sleeping. Eating offers us the most intense possible integration with our world: we consume it, take it into our selves, decompose it, and convert it to more energy and life. When we die, the world will do the same thing to us – it will eat us – but while we live we eat the world. We chew, taste, savor, and (hopefully) call it good. But eating has a destructive side. When I eat a carrot, I eliminate it, destroy it, and turn much of it to waste. We offset these negative consequences by growing more food, but, as an existential model for how to relate to the world, eating may be too domineering.

Eating is often considered the most primal pleasure, but we feel our mothers’ embraces before we first eat. A joyful embrace is contact with something I love – whether that be people, animals, trees, sunshine, a cool stone, or a favorite shirt. When I eat, I consume my object, incorporating what I find valuable and excreting the rest. When I embrace, I share time and space with a fellow subject. Instead of absorbing it, I overlap with it, so that neither one of us is destroyed or depleted; instead, both of us gain energy. One way to construe my relationship with the world is to say that I want to embrace and not just eat it. 

Babies love moving just for the sake of moving. The older we get, the more purposeful we become. We think of moving as a neutral means to an end – reaching our goals – and forget to enjoy it. Then we need something like sports, dance, or yoga to remind us how happy movement can be. Yoga offers a philosophical account of movement, beginning with the most primal movement of all: breathing. In yoga, living the “examined” life includes examining my body, disciplining it, and bringing it to a more harmonious relationship with the cosmos. Yoga also plays the traditional role of philosophy as preparation for death; it seeks not only to regulate the body and mind but also to free them from worldly attachments.  

Every night, we free ourselves from attachments and experience a “little death” by falling asleep. What we call sleep is at least four different experiences: falling asleep, dreaming, sleeping dreamlessly, and waking up. Falling asleep, like eating, is a mix of positive and negative pleasure. We experience the positive pleasure of a warm, comfortable bed, and the negative pleasure of a break from our labors and tiredness. Dreaming and waking up are much less reliable joys: they are sometimes quite unpleasant. Unconscious sleep is our most paradoxical “experience,” because we know it happens to us every night, and we enjoy its restorative effects, but we can’t experience it in the usual sense of thinking during it or remembering it afterward. We can’t find its texture. Our bodies seem to enjoy it without us. For the mind, it is just like death, except temporary. For the body, it is revitalizing. Sleep prepares us for death by showing us that the absence of consciousness is not a void, to be avoided at all costs; it is one event among many, bringing both good and bad things to fruition.  

If good sleep is joyful rest, then good play is joyful action. Play is the most complicated and cultural of our primary joys. We eat, move, sleep, and embrace because, at some level, we need to, but – at first blush – it seems that we play for joy alone. The wolf cubs frolic and tussle for the sheer joy of frolicking and tussling. But another way to think about play is as a preparation and practice for work. The wolf cubs frolic and tussle in order to learn how to hunt, fight, and establish social dominance.  

In William Shakespeare’s plays, John Falstaff embodies play for joy’s sake. He is keenly aware of the exigencies of the workaday world – fighting wars, serving the country, earning a living, following laws – but he tries to avoid them or convert them into occasions for mischief. Prince Hal, by contrast, is leaving play behind for his “real” life of politics and war. He banishes play from his kingdom of work, and his work is killing and conquering. Even his marriage serves his political ambitions. Hal embodies a certain notion of virtue; he brings his appetites under control and identifies himself with the law. But his virtue seems cold and lethal when contrasted to the boundless, earthy joy of Falstaff. In a way that seems distinctly modern, Hal remakes himself by dichotomizing play and duty.  

Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote refuses to acknowledge the modernity – the separation of play from virtue and work – that Hal embraces and Falstaff subverts. Quixote is as quaintly moral as Falstaff is amoral, as unworldly as Falstaff is worldly. Falstaff will defend play from work and, if necessary, from virtue. Quixote demands a world where play, work, and virtue are woven together in a beautiful tapestry. Because that world can only be found in books – romances – his quest remains quixotic.  

It falls to Sancho Panza to save us. Sancho Panza is as earthy as Falstaff, but with some of Hal’s practicality. He does not share Don Quixote’s illusions, and he occasionally gets injured when they clash with reality, but he not only tolerates them, he enjoys them. He deserves to become governor of a republic, and, when he does, he is doubtless a more peaceful leader than Hal. Falstaff and Hal’s friendship ends tragically – with Falstaff forsaken and dying. Sancho Panza and Don Quixote remain comic, because their love is successful. Sancho, with his gift of self-sacrifice, creates a world of play with Don Quixote that survives, however battered, its collisions and collusions with reality.  

Sancho and his rucio (1904) by Jaime Pahissa Laporta (1846-1928)

Falstaff and Don Quixote have a child-like ability to imagine new forms of play and bend reality into joyful forms. In our society, adult play tends to be limited to set times and activities, many of which bear a surprisingly close resemblance to work. “Playing” a slot machine at a casino is like doing assembly-line work or data entry – trying to make money through a repetitive, solitary activity in a highly artificial environment. Contrast that sterile “play” to two children playing with little plastic animals in their living room. The carpet is a savannah; the sofa is a mountain. The children inhabit the personae of the animals, speaking and acting for them. Their game has no rules, no set beginning or end, and no point except joy.  

The older we get, the more our play gets channeled into competitive sports, where the object is to “beat” the other team and boast that “we killed them.” Too many coaches drill their teams like army sergeants or factory bosses, as if play meant training soldiers and workers. Sometimes, however, playing a sport is pure joy. On a frozen lake in Minneapolis, hockey players gather every afternoon, weather permitting, for a pick-up game. Anyone can play. You don’t have to “make the team;” just wait your turn. There are no coaches, captains, referees, or penalties, but the rules get followed. There is no hitting, and no one keeps score. The players are divided into two teams, but the teams are constantly changing. There is no audience or authority to impress, no objective except to play well and find delight in a beautiful place.  

Travel, too, can be reclaimed. On a canoe trip, the destination is more or less irrelevant; it is the journey that I enjoy. The trip yields no result but itself. Camping in the woods, I experience nature as a source of wonder and beauty, not just a set of substances to use. A tent is very different from even the simplest cabin. Four walls and a roof inevitably enclose me in a human cosmos, but a tent is too thin and flimsy a membrane to take me out of nature. In a tent I can still see the stars, smell the grasses, hear the birds and frogs, and feel the breeze on my face. I am in a world that I can’t control. I can read only a few fragments of the endless hieroglyphics of the stars, trees, and animals.  

Joyful play often flourishes in the precincts of art and love.  “The Guitarist Tunes Up,” a poem by Frances Cornford, merges these two realms:  

                With what attentive courtesy he bent 
                Over his instrument;  
                Not as a lordly conqueror who could 
                Command both wire and wood 
                But as a man with a loved woman might, 
                Inquiring with delight 
                What slight essential things she had to say 
                Before they started, he and she, to play. 

The poem rolls beauty, love, and joy into one ball: one planet on the table. It seems slight at first, but each word is rich and essential. “Bent,” for example, rhymes not only with “instrument,” but also with the “tent” in “attentive” as if to say that part of paying attention is bending, which means to re-shape one’s self into a less perfect line. The instrument itself, the guitar, is made out of bent wood; in bending over it, the player rhymes himself with its bent. To bend is to submit to another, and yet my “bent” is my autonomous, eccentric path. The poem, in pursuing its path, breaks its line after “bent” and before “over,” as if the poem itself were bending over, in its courtesy, to make a bow or a curtsey.  

The rhyme of “say” and “play” tells us that talk is a form of play and that play is a form of talk, a conversation. The talk precedes the play and is “slight,” and yet, at the same time, it is “essential” and done with “delight.” The slightness of the talk is a pretense: a play. Part of talk’s delight is to play at being a mere prelude when in fact it belongs with the main act. Why does the poet interpolate “he and she” in the last line? There is no ambiguity in the word “they” that needs to be cleared up. One reason may be that play delights in repetition, in exceeding the requirements of mere sense. But the phrase “he and she” also emphasizes that, in becoming a “they,” he and she have not lost their individuality. Before he acts, he will inquire what she has to say – not assume that he already knows. They are participating as equals, not as lord and servant or even as lord and lady. He will pay court to her; she will pay court to him. To pay attention to someone is never free of cost, but it can be done in a free exchange.

Love leads to beautiful play, and art requires loving play. Making music does not just mean making the instrument respond. The musician must listen to the instrument and respond, himself. He must enter into conversation with it, not lordly domination. In the song “If I Had my Way,” the Reverend Blind Gary Davis, before he solos, asks his guitar to speak to him, and as it does, he shouts and yelps to show that it is surprising and delighting him with what it has to say. The poet cannot make her words; they predate her. She has to listen to the slight and essential things they have to say if she wants to play with them. She can’t just “use” words; she has to love them – to inquire of them with delight. 

When I listen to a guitarist tune up, it is usually in a bar. Bars, besides being noxious breeding grounds for disease, alcoholism, and cheap sex, are also sanctuaries for beauty, love and joy. Like churches, bars congregate people in insulated, distinctive environments. Like churches, they use dim lighting, libations, music, and group experience to mark themselves off from the workday world. The church attempted to banish the blues as devil’s music, but the Reverend Blind Gary Davis sang gospel and blues with equal fervor. Popular music is more satisfying in nightclubs than in concert halls. The bar’s apparent liabilities – alcohol that dims my mind, people that stand too close, and amplification that makes the bass resonate in my chest – pull me out of my routine and into a mysterious, bodily communion with the music, the band, and the other members of the audience. 

We seek pleasure not just from eating, moving, sleeping, embracing, and playing, but also, very directly, from drugs: alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, and all the other substances that offer pleasurable feelings and altered states of consciousness. So far as I know, every society on earth has used drugs. Unfortunately, our nation has innumerable, irrational, and conflicting taboos and messages about drugs. We punish them too severely and yet use them too uncontrollably, unable to integrate them with the rest of our pleasures and customs. We fail to judge drugs individually in terms of their costs and benefits; we lump all illegal drugs together. 

We may have reached a fairly rational consensus on alcohol – not demonizing the substance itself (that demon rum!), but recognizing that misuse and addiction are serious problems. Illegal drugs, however, are simply taboo, although everyone knows that they can be pleasurable, and, in some cases, like marijuana, not particularly dangerous. The taboo has some devastating consequences. While official culture penalizes their use with absurd harshness, unofficial culture bombards us with irresponsible messages about their wondrous pleasures. Young people end up experimenting with them in secret, and thus face increased risks of dangerous behaviors and addictions. The taboo also helps create a double standard in which the rich get away with using drugs while the poor get imprisoned.  

Why do we have so much trouble moderating our joys? To moderate a discussion is not to censor it. The moderator guides and balances it to make it as meaningful as possible. She is like a band leader. The band leader limits the players’ autonomy not to curtail the beauty they make but to maximize the beauty they make together. To moderate my pleasures is to find the most enjoyable amount of them for the long term. Drinking too much doesn’t make me feel happy; it makes me feel sick, whereas one tumbler of whiskey yields real pleasure.

Unfortunately, though, we need to moderate our joys not just to enhance them but also because they sometimes compete with other values, such as truth and goodness. Joy itself provides some help in this effort, because if I seek joy too strenuously it often turns to ashes in my mouth. Joy prefers surprising me to being assiduously hunted down and captured. One way to moderate joy is to treat it not as a destination but as the blackberries that happen to grow on the paths I make toward other values. The berries that I don’t look for are the sweetest. 

But sometimes I need to choose between eating berries and doing something more helpful. How much time can I spend on my happiness before I become selfish? One honorable way to evade this issue is to cultivate goodness, so that nothing provides greater joy than helping other people. But even for the most saintly, conflicts arise, and we do not always side with virtue. We love Falstaff even though he lies, cheats, and steals. We thrill to Antony and Cleopatra’s doomed, destructive passion.

The truth is, we love joy more than duty – especially when it is shared with others. Antony and Cleopatra provide each other with passion and poetry. Falstaff drinks and capers with a merry band. His actions are selfish, and yet they give other people generous helpings of happiness, too. We also give more weight to joy when it is linked to other values. When I buy a record I do so mainly for pleasure, but I am also supporting beauty – doing something more “valuable” than eating a candy bar. Also, some pleasures are more innocent than others. In weighing my right to a pleasure, I have to think about how much harm it does. Taking a walk in the woods and driving a snowmobile through the woods are both selfish pleasures, but walking doesn’t pollute the environment.  

In the United States today, our culture is mostly entertainment: TV, movies, music, sports events, amusement parks, and magazines. Every year, more of our economy is devoted to producing pleasure. You might think that we should be the happiest people in the history of the planet. Yet we remain plagued with poverty, incarceration, chemical dependency, violence, and other forms of misery. Our pursuit of happiness sometimes seems to be just that: a pursuit, a frenzied adrenaline-filled, violent chase after an elusive target. If it doesn’t elude us, we kill it. As Bruce Springsteen says, we are “banging them pleasure machines,” but it doesn’t seem to make us happy.  

I have alluded to some of the reasons that our pursuit often fails. Our puritanism depicts too many sources of joy as profane, illicit, or meaningless. By failing to integrate them into our cosmos and link them to other values, we make them isolated, guilt-ridden pleasures that lead to feelings of emptiness. Our puritanism overlaps with our consumerism, which also casts joy as an isolated product rather than as a light that can radiate out of any experience. If you try to create a microcosm that is nothing but fun – a fun-house – you risk creating a place that is about nothing, with no organic links to nature and culture. Finally, and paradoxically, even as our gigantic economy colonizes more time and space in the name of fun, it also, with its militarized, corporate ethos, colonizes more fun as training for war and work. 

Beyond these cultural factors, there are some biological and existential factors that limit how much joy we can have and how successfully we can turn pleasure into happiness. One huge factor is temperament, or disposition. Due to our genes and a set of environmental factors and accidents that shape our character, we have happy or gloomy temperaments that are hard to change no matter what happens to us. Another factor is luck, because so many things that make us happy or sad lie largely outside our control – the health of our loved ones, for example. A third factor is our equilibrium: the way that new situations and circumstances in our lives soon come to seem normal. Winning the lottery might make us happy for a while, but soon our newfound wealth becomes simply “the way it is.”  

Many pleasures are like chewing gum. After I’ve experienced them for a while, they lose their distinctive flavor. The power of events fades and leaves me back at the “set point” of my disposition. If I am prone to worry, then removing one set of worries leads inevitably to the arrival of a new set. Pursuing happiness is somewhat pointless, because what makes me happy tends to be not what I plan, but what surprises me, what turns out better than expected. 

If it is hard to make myself happy, it is also hard to make someone else happy. Being unselfish, attentive, polite, and compassionate will certainly tend to make others happier, but, if someone else is truly miserable, I have no reliable way to make him feel better. Too many of the factors controlling his mood, including his basic temperament, lie outside my control. Even the degree to which I love him, which is crucial to how happy I can make him, is not exactly up to me. In some ways, it is easier to make people I don’t know happier. A comedian who makes people laugh, a musician playing beautiful music, and a doctor who heals can be more reliable – if less bountiful – in bringing happiness than friends, family, and lovers.  

It is hard to make people happy, but it is easy to devastate them: a single cruel word will do. The first duty we have toward others is not to make them happy but to avoid hurting them. Similarly, as a society our first duty is to avoid hurting others, and our second is to relieve their suffering. We can make sure everyone has access to the components of a good life, but we can’t “make” them happy. Maximizing a society’s joy, as utilitarians try to do, is practically very difficult; that is why even a fairly hedonistic person like me thinks that we should aim for lives and societies filled with goodness, truth, beauty, wonder, meaning, joy, freedom, justice, equality, and love instead of single-mindedly pursuing happiness. 

Yes, if joy is not the be-all or end-all, it remains a vital mode of existence, one that traditional philosophy has often slighted. In art, the comic has always been valued highly, from Aristophanes to Richard Pryor. In paganism, many gods are comical. But in monotheism and western philosophy, somber sobriety has been the rule. When you have many gods, it is easy to let some be grotesque and foolish. When you have only one God, it is hard to joke about him. An omniscient deity doesn’t get caught in many amusing scrapes. Yahweh never laughs, and he doesn’t appreciate it when the aged Sarah laughs at his plan to get her pregnant. The philosophers, in their delusive quest for a God’s eye-view of the universe, have not made many good jokes. Even Nietzsche, who wrote the Gay Science, is mostly just scary when he takes a stab at humor. 

The true, the good, and the beautiful are not always serious. Comedy is our most profound reaction to the gratuitous fact that there is something instead of nothing: that bananas and noses and dust mites and kangaroos are present in our cosmos. The marriage that takes place at the end of a classic comedy is not just a covenant between the main characters; it is their, and our, covenant with life: we agree to generate more life, and life agrees to generate more of us. Neither promise is fully rational or explicable. They happen, by happenstance, and make us happy. Comedy, like love, calls us to the things of this world.  

Still, comedy is not just a cheerleader for life. Often, comedy viciously attacks the life we are leading: the distance between our actions and our professed values. And comedy does not limit its aggression to worthy targets such as vice and hypocrisy; it also includes a primal joy at the misfortunes of others. Comedy reveals the dark secret that one of the ways we experience the joy of being alive is by witnessing death. We can’t pass through our own deaths and come out on the other side; we can only pass through the deaths of others. In comedy we rejoice at the death of evil characters, whereas in tragedy we mourn the great who have fallen. But one reason we can bear tragedy is that, as the audience, we secretly experience the comic joy of noting that the tragedy is befalling others, not us. 

Philosophy, if it is to instruct and console us, must answer the question, “how can we live?” in both of its senses: what path should we take through life, and what makes life preferable to death. To answer this dual question, philosophy must give a persuasive account of values, so that we want to follow them and think they make life truly valuable. How could an adequate philosophy eschew comedy: the mode of thinking that embodies life over death, love over hate, joy over sorrow, and wonder over sterility? How could anyone trust a philosopher who has never visited, much less felt at home in, Sancho Panza’s republic? 


Sam Magavern is a writer and public interest lawyer, currently teaching at the University at Buffalo Law School.  He is the author of Primo Levi's Universe. He has written in a wide variety of genres – poetry, fiction, film, scholarly essays, and comic books – and published in many of the leading literary magazines, including Poetry, The Antioch Review, and The Paris Review.


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