Posted by: captainfalcon | September 10, 2011

Delight: A Primer

In my ideal world people would value delight more highly than they currently do.  Delight is the mild frisson that arises from successful participation in a pleasant and entirely nonthreatening activity. Paradigmatic examples of delightful activity (for most people) include exchanging genuine compliments, and tickling a child. I find that when I have been particularly successful at promoting delight – usually the activity needs to be more sophisticated than tickling a child; perhaps a rarefied exchange of compliments would do the trick, though I’ve never tried it – I experience an afterglow of contentment that abides for several days.

The pursuit of delight – or at least the activities that constitute it – is too easily dismissed as frivolous. It is definitionally frivolous if the contrast of a frivolous activity is an activity that involves conduct falling under pushing your comfort zone or taking it to the limit or some similar unjustly glorified bromides. On the other hand, if “frivolous” means easy or devoid of serious meaning then the pursuit of delight doesn’t fall under it.

Consider first whether promoting delight is easy. To see that it isn’t, attend to wit. Wit is an example of an something that can be delightful: pleasant and nonthreatening. But, as Nietzsche somewhere observed, wit can also be deployed offensively to best an opponent. This is not delightful. Instead, to be a delightful wit requires not only that you be quippy, but also that you craft your quips in such a way that your audience is capable of joining in. This requires a nuanced exercise of empathy, both to gauge the appropriate subject of wit (some people respond happily to a good ribbing, others prefer disembodied puns), and to figure out the level of sophistication at which your audience can enjoyably participate, or, put less judgmentally, the subset of rhetorical moves they can respond to. (For example, Douglas Hofstadter could probably pwn me with his wit – that’s basically what he does to everybody in Gödel, Escher, Bach – or we could pleasantly banter about some of his more general themes.) The bottom line, however, is that it’s hard work to be a delightful wit.

Is it worth it? Another way in which promoting delight might be frivolous is if it is devoid of serious meaning. If this is the case then, ironically, the fact that it’s not always easy to do militates against cultivating a talent for it (why – a question for MM! – spend your time doing things that are pointless and hard?).

There is certainly a tendency, probably a reasonable one, to regard delightful pursuits as lacking profundity in that they do not give an insight into the way the world works (compare our assessments of PG Wodehouse and Dostoevsky).

But something can be meaningful qua insightful or meaningful qua valuable to somebody. And delightful activities can be extremely valuable. A subset of them are valuable in that they engineer the world to guarantee to people genuine success. To return to the default example: wit, if well-crafted to produce delight, elicits genuine effort from the banterers, but also more or less guarantees that those efforts meet with success. All delightful activities, however, are valuable in the sense that they express compassion (which people typically enjoy). Built into delight is the notion that it is nonthreatening. Being nonthreatening toward somebody signals that you accept him. This is nice, particularly when it isn’t heavy-handed (which delightfulness is not).

To close, it is quite clear that delight isn’t the only passion (much less goal) worth promoting. Other, headier ones are also quite nice. (Awe, for instance, which is why I don’t advocate burning Gödel, Escher, Bach. Likewise the sense of triumph that comes from figuring something out.) But many carry with them greater intrinsic risks than delight does. Thus, because the rewards of delight are considerable – I have claimed, underestimated both in kind and degree – these risks are not worth running as often as people think.

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