My middle son, a boarding school ninth-grader in Ontario, recently flew home for a long weekend. It was an almost-last-minute decision, and thus doubly pleasurable because hardly anticipated. When I reflect on those four days, the moment I recall with greatest pleasure is when the four of us were seated around the kitchen table putting together a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle of the state of Texas. When they were young, the boys and I spent hours – days, in the aggregate – assembling puzzles. I can flatter myself and attribute their gifts for patience and pattern recognition to those puzzle-making sessions, but in fact they were merely an excuse for togetherness and teamwork, the satisfaction of a project completed collaboratively – and competitively. Of course, we had to watch Laurel and Hardy’s 1933 puzzle-building epic, Me and My Pal. At the start of my son’s visit, could I have anticipated the fond memory something so mundane as making a jigsaw puzzle would give me? Of course not.
The passage quoted at the top is the first sentence of Dr. Johnson’s Idler essay #58, published May 26, 1759. The second is “Our brightest blazes of gladness are commonly kindled by unexpected sparks.” Vast, multi-billion-dollar industries are built on the assumption that pleasure can be packaged, planned for and purchased, like an insurance policy against dullness and care, and Johnson will have none of it: “Nothing is more hopeless than a scheme of merriment.” Pleasure – I like “gladness,” which handily rhymes with “sadness” – takes us by surprise. In the Rev. James V. Schall’s “On Merriment,” his gloss on Johnson’s essay at the University Bookman, the Jesuit writes:
“We must set out to do what causes joy, namely, what is right, what is true. We even pursue our vices for the good that is in them, distorted as it may be. Joy is a result, not a direct object, of right choice. It is true that we all prefer to be joyful rather than sad. But it is most likely that, if we set out to be joyful and not rightly to do the work at hand, we will end up sad.”
Who is grimmer than a Las Vegas-bound fun-seeker, face fixed in a hideous rictus of dedicated fun? I’m not knocking slot machines and cocktails. I just wonder about those who pursue such a formula “end up sad.” The notion that pleasure, and the even more elusive quality of happiness, are by-products or side effects of right living, of doing the next right thing, however fumblingly, seems counter-intuitive almost to madness. Johnson suggests we adopt an attitude of suspended anticipation. He says of his hypothetical traveler, “the best is always worse than he expected.” Schall describes as “truly remarkable” Johnson’s conclusion, a reformulation of a lifelong theme: “…it is necessary to hope, though hope should always be deluded; for hope itself is happiness, and its frustrations, however frequent, are less dreadful than its extinction.” It reminds me of a conversation reported by Boswell in the Life that amounts to the most concise condemnation I know of communism:
“His Lordship mentioned a charitable establishment in Wales, where people are maintained, and supplied with every thing, upon the condition of their contributing the weekly produce of their labour; and he said, they grow quite torpid for want of property. Johnson: `They have no object for hope. Their condition cannot be better. It is rowing without a port.’”