Skip to content

Pleasure and Balderdash

“Of all the various poisons which modern civilization brews quietly up within its own bowels, few are more deadly than that curious and appalling thing that is technically known as ‘pleasure’.

‘Pleasure’—what nightmare visions the word evokes! Like every man of sense and good feeling, I abominate work. But I would rather put in eight hours a day at a Government office than be condemned to lead a life of ‘pleasure’. The horrors of modern ‘pleasure’ arise from the fact that every kind of organized distraction tends to become progressively more and more imbecile.”

“There was a time when people indulged themselves with distractions requiring effort. In the seventeenth century, for example, royal personages and their courtiers took a real delight in listening to erudite sermons and academical disputes on points of theology or metaphysics. Part of the entertainment offered to the Prince Palatine, on the occasion of his marriage with James I’s daughter, was a syllogistic argumentation, on I forget what philosophical theme, between the amiable Lord Keeper Williams and a troop of minor Cambridge logicians. Imagine the feelings of a contemporary prince, if a loyal University were to offer him a similar entertainment!

Royal personages were not the only people who enjoyed intelligent pleasures. In Elizabethan times every lady and gentleman of ordinary culture could be relied upon, at demand, to take his or her part in a madrigal or a motet. Those who know the enormous complexity and subtlety of sixteenth-century music will realize what this means. To indulge in their favourite pastime our ancestors had to exert their minds to an uncommon degree.

Even the uneducated vulgar delighted in pleasures requiring the exercise of a certain intelligence, individuality and personal initiative. They listened, for example, to Othello, King Lear, and Hamlet—apparently with enjoyment and comprehension. They sang and made much music.

And far away, in the remote country, the peasants, year by year, went through the traditional rites—the dances of spring and summer, the winter mummings, the ceremonies of harvest home—appropriate to each successive season. Their pleasures were intelligent and alive, and it was they who, by their own efforts, entertained themselves.”

“We have changed all that. In place of the old pleasures demanding intelligence and personal initiative, we have vast organizations that provide us with ready-made distractions—distractions which demand from pleasure-seekers no personal participation and no intellectual effort of any sort. To the interminable democracies of the world a million cinemas bring the same stale balderdash.

There have always been fourth-rate writers and dramatists; but in the past their works quickly died without getting beyond the boundaries of the city or the country where they appeared.

Today, the inventions of the scenario-writer go out from Los Angeles across the whole world. Countless audiences soak passively in the tepid bath of nonsense. No mental effort is demanded of them, no participation; they need only sit and keep their eyes open.”

— Aldous Huxley, 1923

Posted in Notes.

Tagged with , , , .