Easter is the season of rebirth and renewal. It is hard to renew ourselves, not because we are weak and tempted only, but because our pleasure-seeking culture pours scorn on all the old ways of sacrifice, and conceives fulfilment as fun. ‘Have fun’ has replaced ‘Fare well’ as the good wish of parting, and everything on which our happiness depends has been veiled by a mask of instant pleasure.
You don’t have to be a philosopher or a theologian to recognise that pleasure and happiness are not the same. There are wicked pleasures, destructive pleasures, addictive pleasures, despicable pleasures: but there is no such thing as wicked, destructive, addictive or despicable happiness. The happy person is in possession of the chief human good; happiness makes no inroads into our freedom; it brings love for others and joy to all who encounter it. It is as far from pleasure as health is from intoxication. Hence Aristotle’s definition of happiness, as ‘an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue’.
Pleasures are of many kinds; but those most dangerous to us come from consumption. When you consume a thing you also destroy it. For a brief moment you are pleased to hold the thing in your hands, but your pleasure spells its doom. Down goes the hamburger or the glass of wine and in its place there comes the stale feeling of satiety — or, if you have reached the stage of addiction, the slavish craving for more. People have always recognised that to exalt the pleasures of consumption into the goal of human life is to deprive human life of its goal. Yet the great mistake continues. And there are other pleasures too which, while they do not consume their cause, involve a momentary reward the aftermath of which is either staleness or addiction. The screen in every hotel bedroom tempts the guest to these easy pleasures — easy to feel, hard to escape. And all around us in our society we see the price that people pay for their addictions: a sense that no pleasure is forbidden, but all pleasure is stale.
Out of this feeling there comes the celebrity culture. The illusion arises that someone, somewhere, must be having real fun, not just the illusory fun that fizzles out as soon as it is lit. And we turn our eyes to those places where this real fun seems to be most evident — places where fame, wealth, good looks and sexual excitement abound. And we are filled with envy. Here is the meaning of life, and it is they, not I, who possess it. Hence people in the grip of ‘celebrititis’ begin to hate the people who obsess them. They look for the proof that the celebrity is, after all, the broken, wretched, unloved creature that they wish him to be. And that way they come to experience another kind of pleasure: the pleasure in another’s willed misfortune, which the Germans called schadenfreude and which is about as unsatisfying a pleasure as any we know. St Augustine reminds us that envy and malice have a sword: but it reaches its target only if it first passes through the body of the one who wields it. It didn’t need the Leveson inquiry to remind us of this; but we still need to draw the correct lesson from that tedious event, which is not that we should censor the press, but that we should censor ourselves. The root cause of nasty journalism is the desire to read it.
Wherever we find the cult of celebrity, therefore, we find deep unhappiness. ‘Fun’ has become the highest good, but fun is always out of reach, available only in that other and unattainable world where the stars are dancing. Meanwhile envy and resentment colour the world below, and there is no relief save the pleasures of consumption.
If you want proof that our world is like that, then you should look at modern art — the thousand by-products of Duchamp’s famous urinal that have ended up in Tate Modern, and which are proof of the celebrity status of the people who produce them. Here are the monuments to a world from which beauty has been banished, and in which sensation rules in its stead. This is not art but packaging: loud supermarket colours, shocking themes and gross images like the deformed and spat-upon humanoid dolls of the Chapman brothers — all telling the same story that there is no meaning in the world, but only fun, and fun is a bore. Here is the proof that there is no such thing as real fun; that fun is an illusion in all its forms.
For all those who share my scepticism towards the life of consumption and the cult of celebrity, and who turn away from fun, I recommend a visit to Tate Modern. It is a sobering reminder of the things that the gallery does not contain, such as happiness, beauty and the sacred, the things that we celebrate, or ought to celebrate, at this time of spiritual renewal. Those are things that we value, but which we cannot consume. And because we cannot consume them they offer us consolation and a lasting refuge.
Consider beauty — the beauty of flowers and landscapes, of birds and horses, of the things we see, touch and smell as we walk in the countryside. We are entirely at one with these things. We have no desire to consume or destroy them. We look on them with gratitude, and they reflect our emotions back at us, seeming to bless us as we bless them. This is an elementary experience which we find hard to put into words. But we know that it is not fun, that it does not depend on fame or wealth or self-indulgent pleasure. It involves reconnecting to our core humanity, finding ourselves at peace in the world and at home here.
Beauty has many forms, of course, and natural beauty is only one of them. There is the beauty of art and architecture, of music and the human form. But in all its varieties beauty has a remarkable quality, which is that it offers consolation without consumption: your enjoyment does not destroy the beautiful object but simply amplifies its power. The enjoyment of beauty is never addictive, however intensely it affects us. And when we come back for more it is not out of craving or need, but rather as a homecoming to ourselves, and in order to understand what we are.
The beautiful and the sacred are connected in our feelings, and both are essential to the pursuit of happiness. I think it is no accident that, in a life of consumerist pleasure and trumpeted ‘fun’, the habit arises of desecrating the human form and the life that inhabits it. The cult of celebrity is a substitute for religious faith, and also an inversion of it. It offers desecration in the place of sanctity, envy in the place of reverence, and fun in the place of bliss. But it satisfies no one. The odd thing is that the avenue to happiness lies open before us and yet so many people do not take it.