Spiegelman explores ordinary happiness in Main Hall Forum

Melody Moberg

Willard Spiegelman, Duwain E. Hughes Jr. Distinguished Professor of English at Southern Methodist University, visited campus Thursday April 29 to read from his 2009 book “Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness” as part of the Main Hall Forum series.
Spiegelman not only filled every seat in Main Hall 201 for his 4:30 reading, with additional audience members standing in the back of the room and perched on the stairs, but also gave a lunchtime lecture on the poetry of Amy Clampitt in the Hurvis Room of the Warch Campus Center and spoke to Assistant Professor of English David McGlynn’s Creative Writing: Non-Fiction afternoon class.
Spiegelman’s teaching and scholarship focuses on English Romantic poetry and American poetry of the 20th and 21st centuries. He edits the Southwest Review, the oldest U.S. literary journal, and frequently contributes to the Wall Street Journal.
In addition, Spiegelman received his Ph.D. from Harvard, has written eight books on scholarship, over 60 articles ranging in subject from John Keats to ballroom dancing and was even featured in a 2008 New York Times Magazine academic fashion spread for his scholarly bow-tie, vest, elbow-patched jacket and neutral-toned style.
Although the Main Hall Forum interfered, as Spiegelman pointed out, with both the nap hour and the cocktail hour, it was lively nonetheless, no doubt due to Spiegelman’s humor, expressive reading style and the content of his book.
Spiegelman read excerpts from three chapters and peppered his talk with anecdotes about the writing process, the publishing process and frequent questions he gets about the book.
In “Seven Pleasures” Spiegelman explores seven activities he particularly enjoys – reading, walking, looking, dancing, listening, swimming and writing. In the meandering, quotidian style of each essay, Spiegelman uncovers why he enjoys these activities, how he enjoys them and how they are viewed in a broader cultural context.
Because he is an academic through and through, these activities are often tied to poets, authors, literary concepts and other academics. For example, Spiegelman spends a significant portion of his essay “Dancing” describing the importance of formal dancing in Jane Austen novels.
Spiegelman began his reading – appropriately – at the beginning, opening with his first essay and introduction, “Being.” Here, Spiegelman explores the purpose behind the book and the fundamental tension he sees with the twin pillars of the American happiness industry, religion and psychopharmacology on one end, and the culture of intellectual contempt for sanguinity on the other: a culture reveling in suffering and melancholy.
In contrast, Spiegelman realizes and celebrates his cheerful disposition and “secular pleasures” using an encounter with an evangelical airline seatmate to frame his mindset. Asked, “What’s the most horrible thing that ever happened to you?” Spiegelman’s only answer could be, “Nothing horrible has ever happened to me.”
This is not to say that the pleasures he explores are easy, do not require work, or do not occasionally generate suffering – his essay “Writing” comes to mind. Rather, they are complex pleasures; pleasures that generally produce a greater sense of happiness than despair, and which lead, through effort, to greater balance – “Dancing” – strength -“Swimming” – peace of mind – “Walking” – or awareness – “Listening.”
Additionally, aside from dancing, all of these pleasures are solitary. Spiegelman believes there is “too little solitude” or “quiet in our lives,” and, for this reason, solitary pleasures and moments require particular attention and celebration.
Spiegelman also read from his “Swimming” and “Listening” chapters – the first to appease fellow swimmer and “competitive jock” McGlynn. He closed the forum with a question and answer session, in which he was invited to explain an earlier assertion that “dancers are better than other people.”
Why? Because their individual sense of identity loosens, and they must attend to the needs of another person. Aside from taking up dancing, one thing to take away from Spiegelman’s reading is simple appreciation of those things that make us happy.