Action is the basis of what we enjoy, not being acted upon. Sweets give a small amount of pleasure; all we have to do is let them melt in the mouth, and many people would like to taste happiness in the same way, but they are quite mistaken. We receive little pleasure from music if we limit ourselves to listening and if we don’t sing at all; this led an astute man to say that he enjoyed music through the throat, not the ears. Even the pleasure that comes from beautiful drawings is passive and doesn’t engage us much, if we don’t ourselves doodle or are not collectors; it’s not just a matter of making judgements but the seeking and overcoming of obstacles. People go to the theatre and are bored more than they care to admit; we must invent, or at the very least play, which is still inventing. We can all remember those society comedies where the actors have all the fun. I recall the happy weeks when all my thoughts were of my puppet theatre; but it has to be said that I carved the moneylender, the soldier, the young heroine and the old woman from roots with my knife; others dressed them; I knew nothing of the audience; criticism was left to them; a meagre pleasure but still a pleasure for the small amount of invention involved. Card-players are being continuously inventive as they alter the mechanical course of events. Don’t ask someone who doesn’t know how to play if he enjoys the game. Politics isn’t boring as soon as one understands it; but it is a game that has to be learnt. The same with everything; we have to learn to be happy.
It’s said that happiness always escapes us. This is true of received happiness, because there is no received happiness. But the happiness we make for ourselves doesn’t disappoint. It is to learn, and we are always learning. The more we know, the more we are capable of learning. Hence the pleasure of studying Latin, which never ends, but rather increases as we progress. The pleasure of being a musician is the same. And Aristotle said this surprising thing, that the true musician is one who enjoys music, and the true politician one who enjoys politics. “Pleasures”, he said, “are signs of powers.” The perfection of this remark makes it resonate beyond its context; and if we want to understand this astonishing genius, so often and so vainly renounced, this is where to look. The sign of real progress in any activity is the pleasure we learn to take in it. From which we can see that work is the only thing that is truly delicious and satisfying. I mean free work, both the result of and the source of power. Once more: not being subjected to things, but acting upon them.
Take a builder constructing a small house for himself in his free time. Look at him selecting every stone. This pleasure can be found in every trade, for the worker invents and learns all the time. But, besides the fact that mechanical perfection produces boredom, there is also a deep confusion when a worker has no involvement in his work, and is always beginning again, without owning what he makes, without using it to learn more. On the contrary a series of tasks, each leading to the next, is what makes the happiness of a peasant, I mean one who is free and his own master. Yet everyone grumbles about happiness which costs so much trouble, always because of this disastrous notion of a received happiness that can be tasted. For it is difficulty that is good, as Diogenes the Cynic would say; but the mind doesn’t like to put up with this contradiction. We have to overcome it and, once more, take pleasure in reflecting on this very difficulty.
September 15, 1924
English translation copyright © Michel Petheram