Monday, October 20, 2014

On Entertainment

Amidst my morning routine yesterday I happened in a spare moment between tooth brushing and showering to spy the humble hamper tucked in its corner. Within, interspersed with the inane accouterments–socks, undershirts, and so forth–I saw neatly layered each day's dress shirt: Monday's blue pinstripe, Tuesday's red checks, the crisp white one from Wednesday that fits just so well. Like a core sample of ancient Arctic ice the hamper told the story of my week. So under the steamy cascade I thought what a curious record the hamper was. It's not quite so flattering as to say how many students I taught, but far so more than revealing how many times I tied my shoe or swore at errant drivers. The question remains: how do we measure our time?

Alas the reckoning is going to comprise much time spent on tasks which do not flatter our species. Namely, we must concede that we spend an abysmal quantity of time sleeping. If slumber truly is the half-brother of death, then the dormitive part of our existence has robbed us of a great deal. Adding to the reckoning the other corporal indignities of feeding and cleaning ourselves reveals no further cause for celebration, either. I don't suspect we would boast of the time we spend showering and eating.

It is not just the care of our bodies, though, which troubles us, but too we are absorbed by preparations for that care. We must work, for as Hesiod wrote, κρύψαντες γὰρ ἔχουσι θεοὶ βίον ἀνθρώποισιν, the gods hide from men the means of life. Either we acquire or trade to acquire the essentials, yet in either case this is mere sustenance. Keeping oneself healthy is certainly necessary, but it is not the making of a fulfilling life. Yet what does one acquire beyond essentials save what we call luxury? How commendable or significant is it to spend on what is by definition excess?

We can now see in these differences that the spending of our time is split into three groups: that which we do out of necessity, what we do for the sake of something else, and what we do for its own sake. It is this last category which interests me insofar as it is a small one for which little time remains. What should we do with what time we are at the liberty to use at our pleasure? One phenomena seems to take pride of place in the modern west: entertainment.

It's a rather ignoble word for an ignoble status, merely being held by something. Entertainment maintains our attention in some minimally agreeable way. It satiates, but does not satisfy. We used to have more precise words than entertainment, words which have the slightly negative wring they ought to. Take pastime. It's not offensive, but there is the ring of decadence to it which puts us off: who truly has so much time that he can simply pass on some of it? We all have a little to waste, I think, but not much. The point of the slight is that we ought not overindulge, lest too much time pass us by wasted on slight matters. Another useful term is diversion, best exemplified by the musical form of the divertimento, a light and pleasant piece. Diversions take you away from the cares of the world for a little while. They are but little respites and in this light there is a Stoic dimension to them: we only rest as much as we need to so that we might be more fully devoted to serious matters. Finally, we once used frivolous to concede that something was trifling but could be spared some time for the brief pleasure it would bring.

In place of these precise words we have fun, by which we usually mean anything which catches the fancy of an individual. The subjectivity implies legitimacy. Don't bother Jon, he's having fun on his unicycle. Who am I to judge John's fun? Too we must assent to the wisdom of recreation, by which people do not mean refreshment in the Stoic sense we mentioned above, but rather anything which one likes, preferably that which is fun.

Etherized under the surgeons of progress and commerce waits an old word, amusement. Not the frivolities of "amusement" parks, not bendy mirrors and clowns, but the powers of the Muses are our a-musement, our leave taking of the ordinary for the delight of art with the daughters of Zeus and Memory. We may run afoul of Pope's pun that poets are bemused, but better poked by a pun than stuck in the torpor of entertainment.

Our free time is not meant for trifles, refreshment, or consumption, but inspiration. In the creation of song and dance and poetry we can find the elevation, the elation of ourselves more satisfying than the satiation of earthly appetite. Our holidays are not for vacations to the Caribbean, but to Parnassus.

Moderation demands I make an enervating caveat, which is that there exists some time for entertainment. A slight amount for slight things, and perhaps ulterior purposes, on occasion. Likewise, one cannot dwell too long on great matters without a loss of perspective. We must strike a balance between the quotidian and the eternal, as I don't imagine anyone would want the record of his life to show only dissipating trifles or ponderous severity.

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