Friday 22 February 2013

Welcome to the pleasure dome

George Orwell is best known for his fiction but his finest writing can be found in his essays and journalism. So it is good to hear BBC Radio 4 broadcasting a selection of these.

Yesterday, one of the essays broadcast was ‘Pleasure Spots’ (radio and text), written in 1946. It served as a useful reminder of why the fashionable political objective of ‘happiness’ is absurd:
Much of what goes by the name of pleasure is simply an effort to destroy consciousness. If one started by asking, what is man? what are his needs? how can he best express himself? one would discover that merely having the power to avoid work and live one's life from birth to death in electric light and to the tune of tinned music is not a reason for doing so. Man needs warmth, society, leisure, comfort and security: he also needs solitude, creative work and the sense of wonder. If he recognised this he could use the products of science and industrialism eclectically, applying always the same test: does this make me more human or less human? He would then learn that the highest happiness does not lie in relaxing, resting, playing poker, drinking and making love simultaneously. And the instinctive horror which all sensitive people feel at the progressive mechanisation of life would be seen not to be a mere sentimental archaism, but to be fully justified. For man only stays human by preserving large patches of simplicity in his life, while the tendency of many modern inventions – in particular the film, the radio and the aeroplane – is to weaken his consciousness, dull his curiosity, and, in general, drive him nearer to the animals.
Orwell’s chief fear was mechanisation but a more apt threat today would be the reductionist belief in economism, in which all social facts are reduced to economic dimensions; a stunted view of life in which human experience is reduced to a matter of buying and selling.

Still, the essential point remains the same. Happiness is a by-product of other things and paradoxically, the more we strive for it, the harder it is to attain.

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