ISN'T THIS FUN?, Simon and Schuster 2016
Fun is not individualistic but social. The free individual rejects the old divinely ordained embedding in family, social structure and nature, and relishes liberty, but misses the warmth of the connections, the certainty of the fixed role and the reassurance of the rituals. Fun compensates for this loss with a new sense of belonging and new sanctioned routines – in other words an alternative set of group rituals.
Fun is a set of group rituals designed to provide a range of experiences that banish boredom and give pleasure, through the comfort of belonging and sometimes the euphoria of transcendence, and that restore the delight of re-enchantment and sometimes the reassurance of authenticity, as well as the insouciance of play and sometimes the defiance of humour and transgression.
Ritual is more effective than precept and prescription because it replaces the cerebral with the physical, concentrating solely on symbols and ceremony, and operating subconsciously, below the level of language, awareness, explanation and choice. Just as convention is rarely recognised by its practitioners as convention, ritual is rarely understood to be ritual. It rejects definition and justification. It is just what is necessary. It is what is done.
This suggestion of inevitability makes ritual a potent resource for the powerful, and to the powerless it can offer the consolations of a community of the faithful without the need to practise values. The stronger the emphasis on a religion’s rituals, the weaker the emphasis on its teachings.
Ritual is also effective at alleviating anxiety. It is an adult version of the repetition that reassures and comforts children, but with a sacralising of the routine, so that habit’s changelessness is enhanced by the sense of a connection to some greater changelessness, which does not have to be specified. By assigning a special time and space (or by temporarily sacralising familiar space), and by using special objects and actions, ritual suspends everyday life and establishes an atmosphere of mystical significance, which authenticates and ratifies, without recourse to argument. Ritual provides a sense of community to dispel the fear of isolation, a sense of participation to dispel the fear of powerlessness, a sense of permanence and continuity to dispel the fear of change and mortality, and a sense of sacred purpose to dispel the fear that life is arbitrary, random and meaningless.
It seems that rhythm and synchrony are fundamental to life. To have a poor sense of rhythm is as grievous a loss as having a poor sense of taste or smell, and I would never wish to trade my poor taste and smell for rhythm deficiency, even though God has softened this blow by making the arrhythmic unaware of their lack, so that one of the most painful aspects of wedding ritual is the sight of the dance floor. Indeed, rhythm-deficient men may have difficulty in finding a partner.
Why do so many want to dress up nowadays? My hypothesis is that dressing up manages to reconcile, if only briefly, several strong and often contradictory contemporary urges. Because fancy dress is usually for social occasions, it combines the need to stand out as an individual with the need to be accepted by, and belong to, a group. And since the costume is a personal choice but immediately recognisable as a familiar character, type or thing, it combines the desire to express a unique personal identity with the opposite desire to abandon this exhausting task for the ease of a ready-made identity as a Venetian noble, a zombie, a pirate, a chicken, or, possibly most reassuring, a banana. It also offers a form of childish play to those who are no longer children, a way to reject convention without giving offence, and above all a way to become an actor without having to act. Dressing up is an unconscious acknowledgement that life is essentially role play, a series of parts and performances rather than the discovery and expression of a true self, and that learning to play parts is a crucial skill.
Few will admit to enjoying gossip but in fact most enjoy it – and gossip is the secret, unacknowledged glue that holds groups together.
Like many concepts and relations, friendship is often assumed to be a constant, unchanged throughout the ages and throughout individual lives – whereas it is likely to have changed continuously throughout both. It seems incontestable that it has become steadily more important, facilitated by greater affluence, freedom and mobility and easier means of communication, and simultaneously more differentiated from, and more diffused into, other relationships. Not only are you more likely to seek, value and nurture peer friends, but many previously unlikely contenders, including your dad, your boss and the author you are reading, may now desperately want to be your buddy. And the nature of friendship has also changed steadily, becoming less instrumental and more emotional, with friends chosen more for personal appeal than usefulness.
There is a cautionary tale in the development of the sea squirt, a tiny creature that looks like a spongy worm but has a primitive brain that enables it to seek nutrients and avoid predators. Or, rather, the young squirt has a brain. Once it reaches adulthood the mature squirt attaches itself to a rock, boat hull or piling, takes enough nutrient from the surrounding sea, no longer needs to monitor its environment and make decisions, and begins to eat its own brain, since this is now redundant. It may help to recall this creature if tempted to watch golf on TV.
Freedom, the ultimate relief, is also a new kind of burden, the ultimate blessing is also a curse, the ultimate positive is also a negative. Freedom is nothing, an absence, an emptiness. And while the possibility of infinite and endless choice is exciting, the constant need to make specific decisions and choices is exhausting. Boredom is partly a fatigue of the spirit overwhelmed by the relentless personal responsibility of freedom.
The free life demands constant choice and is haunted by the possibility of bad choices in the past, present and future. The path of freedom leads to the prison of dread.
A formidable foe, anxiety is worse than boredom because it is even more nebulous and difficult to assign to any cause, even more unsettling in its effects, even harder to dispel and even more likely to become chronic. Boredom is a lack of desire to act but anxiety is a lack of ability to act. Boredom may sink into a restful lethargy but anxiety is a corrosive dread that permits no respite. And while anxiety often includes worry and doubt, it is greater and much more debilitating than these. Worry and doubt have specific objects and limited durations, but anxiety is a constant dread that something is about to go terribly wrong, or something atrocious is about to happen, though it is not clear what, when, where or how.
I think of anxiety as a general form of the experience of the guest in someone’s house who is starving and shivering despite being well-fed and warm. Lack of control over food and heating creates irrational sensations of hunger and cold. Similarly, the awareness of not being at home in the world produces irrational feelings of deprivation, exposure and fear, and these are likely to intensify with the growing vulnerability of age.
Youth is bored and age is anxious.
The authenticity imperative is another consequence of freedom. If everyone is completely and inescapably defined by social position then many may feel angry and resentful but no one can feel inauthentic. But with the availability of choice comes the need to choose an authentic life.
There is a craving for authentic products, authentic entertainment, authentic experiences, authentic places and authentic food and drink. Hence farmer’s markets, sourced meat, organic vegetables, artisan bread, craft beer, biodynamic wine, home-baked cakes, hand-made chocolates and Indian/Thai/Mexican ‘street’ food that is prepared, purchased and consumed in restaurants with authentic untreated brick walls, bare bulbs, dangling wires, exposed girders, vents and piping, and wooden benches, another return to the pre-modern, before the chair replaced the bench. Often the beloved and I, hopelessly individualistic, have arrived at new restaurants to cry out in despair, ‘Oh fuck, it’s communal tables and benches’.
Craft and the craftsman, once dismissed as economically obsolete in the age of cheap mass production, are increasingly prized as authentic. Anything described as handcrafted is desirable, and especially if the crafting hands are one’s own. So craft lessons are a new form of group fun, and craft festivals are a booming subset of the booming festival scene. The Goodlife Experience teaches campfire butchery and axe throwing, The Wilderness Festival revives ‘the ancient crafts of our wild forefathers’, such as basket weaving, The Shambala Festival has a blacksmithing workshop, The Green Scythe Fair promotes scything as a European mindfulness alternative to Tai Chi, and Spoonfest is entirely dedicated to the carving of wooden spoons, with carvers coming from as far away as Australia, Israel and the USA and a group of 200 meeting to carve spoons together.
Play is irrational, superfluous, disinterested, wanton, a temporary escape from the instrumentalism insisting that all activity serve a purpose. It is a way of avoiding the own goal of always pursuing one’s own goals, an assertion that heaven is doing something just for the hell of it.
Play has meaning but no function, which makes it the opposite of most activity and a useful counterbalance. Anything that encourages activity as its own reward is surely welcome.
One attraction of the play view is that it encourages a positive attitude to meaninglessness, which tends to be feared as bleak and malevolent but can also be interpreted as vibrant and joyful. The cosmos may have no one in control, no idea of why it exists, or where it is going, or how, but it seems to be having a good time in spite of this ignorance. The Great Chain of being is more like a circle dance. So meaninglessness can become the new meaning and much that was terrifying can now be exhilarating.
Play suits contemporary culture because it is freedom in its purest form, and is possibly the only true freedom, in that it escapes not just domination by others but the self-imposed tyranny of the project. Also, play counters boredom with a reason to act in spite of the knowledge that action is pointless. In fact the pointlessness becomes the point. And play alleviates the anxiety for achievement and status by reminding that the process is more satisfying than the goal, the anxiety about authenticity by reminding that it has all become too complex and self–conscious for anything to be truly authentic, the anxiety about time by dispelling awareness of time, and the anxiety about finding one’s true self by the knowledge that there may be no such self to find.
Children, the world is the play of the Gods. So distract the project, flummox the algorithm, shame the rules. Let us play.
Pinning a decoration on a rebel creates a loyal officer of the Crown. As Flaubert put it, with remarkable prescience, 'Inside every revolutionary stands a policeman.'
Once the public was fascinated by crimes of passion, committed blindly in the heat of the moment, but now popular culture loves the calculating, cold-blooded murderer, usually handsome, fiendishly clever and endlessly resourceful, who kills repeatedly for pleasure and feels no remorse. There is a secret admiration for the cool sovereign who is not bound by the physical limitations of brain, body and circumstance, or the ethical limitations of morality and compassion. Such a monster must of course be caught – but by a maverick police officer who also disobeys and breaks rules.
Those who prescribe and enforce like to give the impression that the taboos are so obvious, absolute and eternal that they do not even need to be stated, much less justified. Exposure makes taboos explicit and open to question.
Cosmic laughter appears to be laughing at nothing because it is laughing at everything. This laughter can be the most intense, not just facial or shoulder-shaking but a paroxysm that seizes the entire body, squeezing tears out of its eyes like juice from a lemon. It is a peak experience, the kind of sublime possession many seek, though few mention this form of it.
Being physically above, looking down, encourages the sense of being also mentally above, looking down. This concept of a ‘view’ as something valuable is another modern development, a relishing of modern self-conscious detachment, a higher spectating, like watching a performance from a royal box. The pleasure is not so much in the actual sights as in the looking down on them from a privileged, secure height. Gazing down on the toilers below gives a unique feeling of freedom, superiority, invulnerability and power.
It may be that individualism, one of the defining forces of the modern era, is finally running out of steam, as exhausted, depleted and angry individuals become aware of the demands and costs of pursuing personal autonomy … Individualism, which seemed to be the terminus of western civilisation, may turn out to have been a temporary over-reaction to constraint, and we may be entering a post-individualist, or at least only partly individualist, age.
It seems as though the pleasure of belonging to a group can be more important than the actual group activity. Fun is more an excuse to form a group than the group is an excuse to have fun.
Dancing is fundamental, universal and eternal. According to many cosmologists, the universe is doing the hokey-cokey, as galaxies rush away from each other, pause, and then rush back to reunite in an delirious crash, which starts it all off again. At the other end of the scale, atoms certainly do the conga, linking head to tail and then forming a ring. Without these congas there would be no order, no diversity, no complexity, no life.
We laugh at what is simultaneously wrong and right – and this is why comedy is the deepest expression of the human predicament, the existential incongruity of being both wrong and right in the world. What could be more wrong than an animal that has become aware of itself and feels as though it is an immortal soul while knowing that it is really just a rapidly deteriorating body? On the other hand, what could be more right than an animal with the consciousness to celebrate the miracle of being alive? At once absurd and sublime, the only human response is to laugh.
Comedy is based on insecurity, the feeling of being under threat, which explains why it is expressed in the apparently opposite forms of aggression and submission. This ambivalence goes all the way back to pre-human primate behaviour. Laughter is thought to have developed from the barking sounds used by primates in aggressive response to a threat, and the smile from the silent bared-teeth display used to express appeasing submission to a threat. So comedians, notoriously insecure, respond with aggression or ingratiation, and attempt to unsettle, disturb, jolt and be feared, or to settle, soothe, reassure and be loved (the English comedian Alan Davies has divided his professional colleagues into self-harmers and golfers).
Stand-up comedy is a group ritual, a tense interplay that is risky both for members of the audience, who may be singled out for ridicule, and the comedian, who may not get laughs and die, or be heckled and obliged to turn the tables by outwitting the heckler (failing in this is also death).
Theorising about comedy is always dubious, contentious and incomplete, because it is in the very nature of comedy to reject tidy categorisation and exegesis. It is that which refuses to be contained or explained. It is also the form of communication most subject to personal taste. What makes a Mount Etna of one face will turn another into Mount Rushmore.
The problem with domination is that it always suspects the dominated of secret deviance, and since constraint and surveillance can rarely be total, suspicion grows and can easily develop into paranoid fear. This encourages an even more extreme domination, which only increases the suspicion and fear. If the dominance is cultural rather than merely personal, the result is a general suspicion of the dominated, and, in the case of male sexual domination of women, a general belief that women are cunning, deceitful and sexually voracious.
Elsewhere is mysterious, enchanted, alluring, and we are irresistibly drawn to it. The problem is that as soon as we arrive it is no longer elsewhere.
As in the early rituals, the holiday is based on a desire for transcendence and transformation, and this has been given added urgency by the modern hunger for authenticity and re-enchantment. The easiest form of transcendence is travel, the easiest form of re-enchantment is an exciting new place, the easiest form of transformation is to shed the constraints of routine, and the easiest way to acquire authenticity is buying native souvenirs.
The beauty of the pilgrimage is that it pretends to be about the destination but is really about the journey. The pilgrim is always on the way.
Luxury is the hedonism of age as partying is the hedonism of youth.
The aim of spiritual fun is re-enchantment, to enjoy, via group ritual, unity, community, belonging, transcendence and awe. And spiritual fun shares with secular spirituality in general the religious sense of a hidden power, something beyond, something more, though nothing sufficiently specific to impose any obligation other than wonder. This is a spiritual greed that is partly replacing the worldly version. The material more no longer works so we demand an immaterial more.
Most fun rejects individualism and seeks belonging in a group. It is not so much that there are groups in order to enjoy fun as that there is fun in order to enjoy groups.
So much fun is a rediscovery of early beliefs and practices. The rise of the festival is a return to the earliest form of celebration (as is the trend to active participation rather than passive spectating); raving is a return to the trance dance of archaic ritual; secular spirituality is a return to early enchantment and oneness; group sex and sexual fluidity are a return to early openness; holidays are a return to pilgrimage (and now often are pilgrimages); carnivalesque protest is a return to the transgression of inversion rituals; the reverence for DJs and comedians is a return to the appeal of the shaman and trickster; the popularity of play and games is a return to the spirit of mythology and pre-socratic philosophy, and the emergence of urban tribes is a return to the egalitarianism of the hunter gatherers.
The only way to regain authenticity would be to annihilate it, to return to a time before the concept existed and became an issue, which is not possible. The very existence of the term means that the thing itself is no longer attainable. There is no way back to the primal, unconscious embedding in oneness. There is only the way forward into self-conscious detachment and fragmentation. There are only the forms and degrees of inauthenticity. So, as meaninglessness can become the new meaning, the thoroughly inauthentic can be the new authenticity.
Irony is the adult form of the play philosophy of the child, a refusal of seriousness that is wholly serious – or, rather, a replacement of traditional seriousness with a new form. It is a way of making self-conscious detachment no longer alienating but a pleasure, even a delight. Irony is an effervescent, an aerator of life, imbuing it with bubble and sparkle, making detachment into a buoyancy and self-consciousness into a burnish.
There is something oddly fulfilling in looking on as people, mysterious, unknowable and seething with deep forces and passions, go about their urgent but inscrutable business. It is the urban equivalent of watching the sea.