Corrections to the blogosphere, the consensus, and the world

Thursday, February 26, 2004

Happiness & the Propelling Pencil

Following on the observations about happiness, I happened on what Michael Frayn had said about it in the sixties -
New Man Coming
One's personality is a remarkably stable structure; and the most stable element in it is one's steadfast conviction that it is just on the point of being entirely transformed.
Transformed, needless to say, not by any efforts of one's own, but by magic objects and events outside oneself. One's dissatisfactions and limitations will be suddenly and wonderfully sloughed off, one comes to believe, when one has acquired a striped suit, or a red car; when one has got married; when one has written a book, or found God, or learnt Italian; when one has reached the age of 10; when one has moved house; when summer comes.
It is strange that so much of one's action is motivated by such patent witchcraft. But in a society where unhappiness is regarded rather like fleas, as an unappealing state people ought to be ashamed of getting into, I suppose it is congenial to see oneself as a naturally happy soul hindered from achieving perfect contentment only by external causes. All these extraordinary superstitions are ways of concealing from oneself the painful fact that most of one's discontents are the inevitable by-products of one's own nature.
I rely a bit on almost all these superstitions, but most particularly on those that involve straightforward covetousness. If I had a certain material object, I have repeatedly felt, my whole life would be entirely changed. From its small corner the totem would radiate such a powerful field of rightness and delight that everything else would come to glow in sympathy.
The first thing I can remember coveting as a child was a propelling pencil that wrote in five colours, after I had seen the teacher correcting exercise books with one. Other little boys might have conceived a passion for the teacher, but I fell in love with the propelling pencil. It was beautiful, and I desired it. The provocative glimpses of the coloured leads through the slots in the side inflamed my senses. I longed to touch the exquisite texture of the nickel-plating.
My parents were driven to say they would buy me one— but, torment of hopes raised only to be the more savagely hurled down, there was none in the shops! I raged about the house like a tiny junkie deprived of his fix, while they ransacked London, and after days of great misery for all of us, ran one to earth in far-off Peckham Rye. But so supremely unimportant did it become as soon as I possessed it that I cannot even remember what happened to it.
It sometimes seems to me that the whole story of my life could be adequately told in the catalogue of my love affairs. There was the affair with the ten-and-sixpenny plastic crystal set (purchased—never worked); the affair with the miniature starting-pistol (owned by a friend—fiercely desired through long centuries of time—swapped for about half my possessions —instantly devalued, and allowed to fall to pieces before it could fire the five blank cartridges which my friend's father was keeping locked up to celebrate the end of the war with); the affair with the second-hand sports car (£180—"Take you anywhere, that car," said the salesman, "Take you to Land's End and back,") snatched away at the last moment by a providential failure to raise the money.
One learns, of course. I don't think I shall ever fall in love with another propelling pencil, or another plastic crystal set. But the inoculation is against the particular ju-jus I've tried, not against ju-jus in general. It doesn't in any way deter me from my present mania, for example, which is coveting a swivel chair. If I had a swivel chair, upholstered in worn leather, I know I should be a new man.
I can see myself very clearly with the swivel chair. I am a calm man, a responsible man, a happy man, a man who can work for eight hours at a stretch without being interrupted by fatigue, boredom, bad temper or incompetence, a man who can take well-earned relaxation with his smiling wife and laughing child in some gay but uplifting leisure pursuit. 1 am a man who keeps an exquisitely selected early June day permanently outside his window. I am a man who does not get telephone calls from people who think they are phoning the South Eastern Gas Board.
1 am a man who is swinging gently from side to side in his worn leather swivel chair as he decides whether to spend the sunlit working day ahead on finishing his play about the ultimate essence of man, or starting the essay in which the ultimate nature of the universe is set forth in 500 exact and simple words.
Manufacturers of swivel chairs, join me in happy contemplation of the picture! Sooner or later I shall have the swivel chair, and you will have the money for it. How would you ever sell me a swivel chair I do not need if I did not believe 1 was buying a complete new personality ? How would any five-colour propelling pencils ever be sold if other people did not share my disorder? How would the evangelists and the travel agents survive ?
And just as surely as I know the man in the swivel chair will be a new and perfect man, so I know he will be the same inadequate one, not only depressed by the weather, interrupted by the telephone, unable to find a pen that works, and confused about exactly what he is supposed to be doing, but also driven to final exasperation because the swivel on the blasted chair is broken.
I know it only too well. Perhaps it's just as well for all concerned that I don't actually believe it.

Reasonably well expressed, but interesting particularly because as far as I can see that swivel chair actually worked for Frayn.
A pity those pieces are out of print. Surely the one on Wittgenstein and fog must be posted somewhere?
Apparently not. I shall do it myself.

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