The Simple Pleasures
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Do You find these times amusing? I find them rather more sad, myself. I fear that my impression may be altogether personal. To see my contemporaries live, to hear them talk, I feel myself unhappily confirmed in the sentiment that they do not amuse themselves very much. It is not, however, the fault of not having tried, but it must be admitted that they have had but a mediocre success. Now, how does that happen?
Some accuse politics, or business ; others the social questions, or militarism. One has but an embarrassment of choice when one begins to tell the rosary of our great cares. Go then afterward and amuse yourself. There is too much pepper in our soup, for us to eat it with pleasure. We have our arms full of stuff of all sorts, any one of which would suffice to spoil our humor. From morning to night you will meet people in a hurry, worried and preoccupied. These have left all their good blood in the vicious conflicts of a morose political movement. Those men have lost heart from the vile proceedings, the jealousies they have met with in the world of literature and arts. Commercial oppositions also trouble many slumbers, programmes of too exacting studies and the careers too much encumbered spoil the life of the young men; the working class suffers the consequences of an industrial struggle without intermission. It becomes disagreeable to command because the prestige is gone; to teach, because respect has diminished; wherever one looks there are subjects for discontent. And yet, history represents certain troubled epochs which lacked in idyllic tranquillity as much as ours and the gravest events did not hinder from knowing gayety. It seems even that the gravity of the times, the insecurity of the morrow and the violence of the social commotion become the occasion of a new source of vitality. It is not rare to see soldiers sing between two battles, and I do not think I deceive my-self in saying that human joy has celebrated some of its grandest triumphs, in the hardest times, and in the midst of obstacles. But, to sleep peaceably before the battle or to sing in the whirlwind they had motives of internal order which we to-day perhaps have not got. Joy is not in objects, it is in us. And I persist in believing that the causes of our present discomfort, of that contagious bad humor which invades us, are in us at least as much as in external circumstances.
To amuse oneself with a free heart one must fed himself on a solid base; he must believe in life and possess it in himself. Many men, alas! even among the young ones, are today disgruntled with life, and I do not speak of the philosophers only. How can you expect them to amuse themselves when they have that hidden thought that it had perhaps been better, after Ill, that nothing had ever existed? We observe, aside from that, in the vital forces of these times, a disquieting depression which we must attribute to the abuse that man has made of his sensations. Too many excesses of all kinds have warped our senses and altered our faculty for being happy. Nature succumbs beneath the eccentricities with which they have afflicted her. Profoundly stricken in its very roots, the will to live, in spite of all persisting, seeks to satisfy itself by fictitious means. In the medical domain they have recourse to artificial respiration, to artificial alimentation and to galvanism. With the same aim, we see around the dying pleasure a multitude of beings hastening to awaken it and to reanimate it. The most ingenious means have been invented ; it will not be said that they have been niggardly in paying the expenses. Every-thing has been tried—the possible and the impossible. But in all those complicated alembics they have never succeeded in distilling one drop of real joy. We must not confound pleasure and instruments of pleasure. Would it be enough to provide oneself with a brush to be a painter, or to buy at great cost a Stradivarius to be a musician? Even if you had external objects of the most perfect kind, and the most ingenious, for your amusement, you would be no farther advanced. But, with a bit of charcoal, a great painter can trace a sketch that will be immortal. One must have the talent or genius to be a painter, and to amuse oneself one must have the faculty of being happy. Whosoever possesses that can amuse himself at small cost. This faculty is destroyed in man by scepticism, fictitious life, and the abuse of it, and it is gained only by confidence, moderation, normal habits of activity and thought.
One excellent proof of what I advance, and one very easy to gather, is found in the fact that everywhere that one meets a simple and healthy life, authentic pleasure is its accompaniment, like the perfume of natural flowers. This life may have been difficult, shackled, deprived of what we generally consider as the very conditions of pleasure, but one sees flourish there that rare and delicate plant—joy. It pierces between two paving stones, a crevice in a wall, or in a fissure in a rock. One asks oneself how or from whence it came. But it lives, while in the warm conservatories, with enriched soil, you cultivate it with its weight in gold only to see it wither and die in your hands.
Ask the actors of the theater what public amuses itself the most with comedy, and they will tell you the great mass of people. The reason is not difficult to understand. For that class, comedy is an exception. It is not saturated with it by having had too much of it. And it is, besides, a rest from its rude fatigues. The pleasure it finds in it has been honestly earned, and it knows the price of the little pennies earned by the sweat of the brow, and, moreover, it has not frequented the green-rooms, and has not been mingled with the intrigues of the artists ; it does not know any of the illusions, and believes in it all. By all these means it enjoys an unmixed pleasure. I see the blase skeptic from here, with his eyeglass shining, in that box, throwing a disdainful look at the laughing crowd: "Poor people, idiots, ignorant and clownish."
And yet it is they who are the really living beings, while he is an artificial being, a mannikin, incapable of feeling that fine and healthful intoxication of an hour of frank pleasure.
Unfortunately, the unaffected artlessness is disappearing even from the popular places. We see the people of the cities, and those of the country places later, break away from the good old traditions. The mind, perverted by alcohol, the passion for play, and unhealthy literature, contracts, little by little, unhealthy tastes. The fictitious life forces its way into these centers formerly simple, and at once it is like the phylloxera which destroys the vines. The robust tree, the joy of the rustic, feels its sap cease to flow and its leaves dye themselves with yellow. Compare one of those out-door fetes of the good old style with one of the village festivals, so-called, modernized. On the one hand, in the respected frame of secular customs solid countrymen sang their songs of the country, danced the country dances, in their peasant's attire, drank their native drinks, and seemed to completely enjoy themselves. They amused themselves like the blacksmith at his forge, as the cascade falls, as the colts bound in the meadow. It is contagious, and wins your heart. In spite of oneself one says: "Bravo! children; that is just right." We would ask to be of the party.
On the other hand, I see villagers disguised in "citizens"; peasants rendered ugly by the dressmakers, and as a principal ornament of the festival a gathering of degenerates, who bawl concert-hall songs ; and, some-times, holding the place of honor, a few strolling actors of the tenth class come for the occasion, to smooth off the rougher points of these rurals, and to permit them to taste of refined pleasures. For drinks, liquors based on alcohol made from potatoes, or absinthe. There is no originality or picturesqueness in all of it. Of gay abandon, perhaps, and vulgarity, but not that abandonment which brings innocent pleasure.
This question of pleasure is a capital one. The most sedate persons neglect it in general as a futility, the utilitarians as a costly superfluity. Those whom we designate men of pleasure lay waste so delicate a domain, like wild hogs in a garden. They do not seem to understand in the least degree the immense human interest which is attached to joy. It is a sacred flame which must be nourished, and which throws a dazzling light over life. He who determines to entertain it accomplishes a work as profitable to humanity as he who builds bridges, pierces tunnels, or cultivates the ground. To conduct oneself in such a way, that one maintains in himself, in the midst of his labors and the troubles of life, the faculty of being happy and that he may, like a sort of salutary contagion, propagate happiness among his fellow-beings, is to do a work of solidarity in the noblest signification of the term. To give a little pleasure, to smooth the careworn brow, throw a little light on dark paths, what a divine reality in the plan of this poor humanity. But, it is only by a great simplicity of heart that one can succeed in filling it.
We are not simple enough to be happy and to make others so. We lack kindness and self-forgetfulness. We spread joy as we spread consolation, by such processes as give but negative results. To console some-one what do we do? We insist upon denying his sufferings, to dispute them, and in persuading him that he is mistaken in believing himself unfortunate. At bottom, our language translated in truthful words, would be reduced to this:
"You suffer, friend? That is strange; you must be mistaken, for I do not feel anything."
The only human means of solace to a suffering being is to partake of it in one's heart. What must an unhappy man feel consoled after this fashion.
To divert our neighbor, and cause him to pass an agreeable moment, we take it to ourselves in the same way. We invite him to admire our wit, to laugh at our jokes, to frequent our house, to sit at our table, and everywhere glorify our desire to show off. Some-times also we, with a protecting liberality, offer him the alms of an amusement of our own choosing. At least let us not invite him to amuse himself with us, as we invite one to a game of cards, with the inward intention of exploiting it to our own profit.
Do you think that the greatest pleasure for others is to admire us, to recognize our superiority, or to serve us as an instrument? Is there in this world an annoyance comparable to that of feeling that we have been exploited, protected or enrolled in a claque? To give pleasure to others, and to have it oneself, we must begin by setting aside the I which is so hateful, and to hold it enchained during all these diversions. There is no greater killjoy than that. Be good fellows, amiable, benevolent, hide our medals, our decorations, our titles, and put ourselves at the disposal of others with all our hearts.
Let us live sometimes to make others smile, even if for but an hour, forgetting all things else. The sacrifice is but apparent; for no one amuses himself better than those who know how to give themselves simply to procure a little happiness and forgetfulness for those around them.
When shall we be simple enough men not to cause to be put forward to the first ranks in our reunions, all those things that rasp on our nerves in every-day life? Can we not forget for one hour our pretensions, our divisions, our classifications, our persons ; in short, to become children again, and laugh again with that hearty laughter which does so much good and makes men better?
I feel obliged here to make a remark of a particular kind, and to offer to my wellintentioned readers the occasions to harness themselves to a magnificent work. My object is to recommend to their attention several categories of people too much neglected from the point of view of pleasure.
We think that a broom can only sweep, a watering-pot water the plants, a coffee-mill grind the coffee, and in the same way we think a nurse is made only to care for the ailing, a professor to instruct, a priest to preach, bury, confess; a sentinel to mount guard. And they decide that these, being delivered to the most serious occupations, are vowed to their functions as is the ox to his labor. Diversions are incompatible with this kind of activity. Pushing this manner of seeing further forward, they believe themselves authorized to think that the infirm, afflicted, ruined persons conquered by life, and all those who have a heavy burden to bear, are in the shadow, like the northern slopes of the mountains, and that it is necessary that it should be so. From this they conclude generally enough, that these sedate men need no pleasure, and that it would be unbecoming to offer it to them. As to those who are afflicted, it would be a lack of delicacy to break the thread of their sad thoughts. It seems thus to be admitted that certain persons are condemned to remain austere forever, that we must meet them with an austere mien, and speak only of austere things to them. And so they must leave smiles outside the door when they go to see the sick, the unhappy ones, and adopt a somber face, a lamentable air and choose heartbreaking subjects of conversation. Thus they bring darkness to those who are in black, shadow to those who are in the shade. They contribute to the isolation of the isolated, monotony to mournful lives. They enmure certain existences as in a dungeon because they grow grass around their desert asylums; they speak low when they approach them as though approaching a tomb. Who can guess the extent of this infernal work of cruelty accomplished thus daily in the world? It should not be thus.
When you see the men or women consecrated to severe tasks, or the painful office of visiting human miseries and binding wounds, remember that these beings are made like you, that they have the same needs, and that there are hours when they require pleasure and forgetfulness. You will not win them away from their mission by making them laugh sometimes—they who see so many tears and pains. On the contrary, you will give them new strength to better continue in their labors.
And when you know families in distress, or individuals in affliction, do not surround them like those with the plague, with a sanitary cordon, which you will cross only after taking precaution which recalls to them their unhappy lot. On the contrary, after having shown all your sympathy, and all your respect for their suffering, comfort them, aid them to live, bring them a perfume from outside; something, in short, to show them that their misery has not excluded them from the world.
Offer your sympathy, also, to all who have absorbing occupations, and who are, so to speak, riveted to their places. The world is filled with sacrificed beings, who have never any rest or pleasure, and to whom the most modest respite does them an immense good. And it would he so easy to secure this minimum of alleviation for them if one only thought of it. But the broom is made to sweep with, and it seems that it cannot feel fatigue. We must get rid of that culpable blindness which hinders us from seeing the lassitude of those who are always in the breach. Lift up the sentinels lost in their duty; procure an hour for Sisyphus to breathe in. Take, for a moment, the place of the mother of a family whom the cares of the home and children enslave ; sacrifice a little of our sleep to those who watch long hours by the bedsides of the sick. Young girl, whom perhaps walking abroad does not always amuse, take the cook's apron and give her the "key to the fields." Thus you will make others happy and be so yourself.
We walk forever by the side of beings loaded with burdens that we could take upon ourselves, even if only a little while. But this short respite would suffice to cure the evils, revive the joy almost stifled in many hearts, and open a large career to good will among men. How much better we should understand each other if we only knew how to put ourselves with a single heart into each other's places, and how much more pleasure we should find in living.
I have said too much elsewhere of the organization of pleasure among the young to return to it here in detail. But I am anxious to say in substance that which we cannot repeat often enough : If you wish that youth be moral, do not neglect its pleasures, and do not abandon the care of procuring them to hazard. You will, perhaps, reply that youth does not like to have its amusements governed by rule, and that in these days youth is spoiled and amuses itself but too much. I will answer you, first, that we can suggest ideas, indicate directions, create occasions for pleasure without making any rules. In the next place I wish to ask you to observe that you are mistaken in imagining that young people amuse themselves too much. Apart from those fictitious, enervating and disuniting pleasures which blast the life instead of making it blossom and become radiant, there remains today but little. Abuse, that enemy of legitimate use, has so well smutted the earth that it becomes difficult to touch anything which it has not soiled. From there come the forbidding prudences and prohibitions without number. One could scarcely budge if one would avoid contact with those unwholesome pleasures.
In the youth of today, particularly among those who respect themselves, the lack of pleasure occasions them profound suffering. We are not weaned without some inconvenience from this generous wine. It is impossible to prolong this state of things without deepening the shadow over the heads of our young generations. We must come to their aid. Our children are the heirs of a world that is not gay. We give them the legacy of great cares, embarrassing questions, and a life loaded with shackles and complications. Let us at least make an effort to light the morning of their days. Let us organize pleasure, create shelters, and open our hearts and our homes. Put the family into your game. Let gayety cease to he an imported commodity. Reunite our sons whom our morose inward manners drive into the streets, and our girls who grow weary of solitude. Let us multiply family gatherings, receptions and family excursions, lift good humor among us to the heights of an institution. Let the school take its part. Let the masters and scholars, or students, meet oftener and amuse themselves together. That would advance serious work. There is nothing like having a good laugh with one's professor; and reciprocally, to understand a student or scholar well, he must have been seen else-where than on the benches or the examination chair.
And who will furnish the money? What a question ! That is indeed the central error. Pleasure and money—they take those for the two wings of the same bird. Alas ! the illusion is coarse. Pleasure, like all really precious things in this world, cannot be bought or sold. To amuse oneself one must pay with himself ; that is the essential. You are not forbidden to open your purse if you can do it, and if you find it useful. But, I assure you, it is not indispensable. Pleasure and simplicity are two old acquaintances. Receive simply, reunite yourselves simply. Having worked hard first, be as amiable, as loyal as possible to your companions, and speak no evil of the absent; success will be certain.