Extract: Michael Chabon’s essay on pleasure

My favourite author being clever.

From the LA Times archives, 2008 – The pleasure principle

“The original sense of the word “entertainment” is a lovely one of mutual support through intertwining, like a pair of trees grown together, interwoven, each sustaining and bearing up the other. It suggests a kind of midair transfer of strength, contact across a void, like the tangling of cable and steel between two lonely bridgeheads. I can’t think of a better approximation of the relation between reader and writer. Derived senses of fruitful exchange, of reciprocal sustenance, of welcome offered, of grasp and interrelationship, of a slender span of bilateral attention along which things are given and received, still animate the word in its verb form: we entertain visitors, guests, ideas, prospects, theories, doubts and grudges.

At some point, inevitably, as generations of hosts entertained generations of guests with banquets and feasts and displays of artifice, the idea of pleasure seeped into the pores of the word. And along with pleasure (just as inevitably, I suppose) came disapproval, a sense of hollowness and hang-over, the saturnine doubtfulness that attaches to delight and artifice and show: to pleasure, that ambiguous gift. It’s partly the doubtfulness of pleasure that taints the name of entertainment. Pleasure is unreliable and transient. Pleasure is Lucy with the football. Pleasure is easily synthesized, mass-produced, individually wrapped. Its benefits do not endure, and so we come to mistrust them, or our taste for them.

The other taint is that of passivity. At some point in its history, the idea of entertainment lost its sense of mutuality, of exchange. One either entertains or is entertained, is the actor or the fan. As with all one-way relationships, grave imbalances accrue. The entertainer balloons with a dangerous need for approval, validation, love and box-office; while the one entertained sinks into a passive spectatorship, vacantly munching great big salty handfuls right from the foil bag. We can’t take pleasure in a work of art, not in good conscience, without accepting the implicit intention of the artist to please us. But somewhere along the course of the past century or so, as the great machinery of pleasure came online, turning out products that, however pleasurable, suffer increasingly from the ills of mass manufacture — spurious innovation, inferior materials, alienated labor and an excess of market research — that intention came to seem suspect, unworthy and somehow cold and hungry at its core, like the eyes of a brilliant comedian. Lunch counters, muffler shops, dinner theaters, they aim to please; but writers? No self-respecting literary genius, even an occasional maker of avowed entertainments like Graham Greene, would ever describe him or herself as primarily an “entertainer.” An entertainer is a man in a sequined dinner jacket, singing “She’s a Lady” to a hall filled with women rubber-banding their underpants up onto the stage.

Yet entertainment — as I define it, pleasure and all — remains the only sure means we have of bridging, or at least of feeling as if we have bridged, the gulf of consciousness that separates each of us from everybody else. The best response to those who would cheapen and exploit it is not to disparage or repudiate but to reclaim entertainment as a job fit for artists and for audiences, a two-way exchange of attention, experience and the universal hunger for connection.”

This essay is excerpted from “Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands” by Michael Chabon (McSweeney’s: 222 pp., $24). Copyright 2008 by Michael Chabon. Published by arrangement with McSweeney’s Books.

Read the original where I found it in internetland.

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