Pleasure & the Pessimist: Suggestions from the Experts on How to Deal

David Rakoff’s third collection of personal essays, Half Empty, opens with such dry wit, “We were so happy. It was miserable,” that I couldn’t put it down until I was staring at the blank pages at its back. Opening on the turn of the 21st Century, Rakoff takes a skeptic inquiry toward freewheeling optimism and decadence, a position he and psychologist Julie Norem like to call “defensive pessimism”, and I, sidesplitting.

So aggressive is Rakoff’s sense of humor that he takes Jonathan Larson’s bacchanal bohemia of Rent to task over its whimsy that a true artist wouldn’t pay rent. His line of thinking is wicked, wary of indulgence, and critical of pleasure to the point of neurosis. I wouldn’t have it any other way. There is clarity to his writing that is at once effortlessly hilarious and painfully true. The world, essentially, is funny because there is so much to fear, so much to hide from, so much to ridicule.

As opposed to recently passed essayist Barbara Holland, whose entire career, it seems, was the spearhead for the contingent in favor of dying indulgences, simple pleasures like gravy and using people. But Holland is not a free spirit the way you might think. She is most certainly a curmudgeon. Take, for instance, her perspective in 2000’s Endangered Pleasures on sharing coffee with friends (good, fresh coffee, not instant), “Pleasures shared are pleasures heightened—not to mention the happiness of showing others that ours are more refined than theirs.”

She is not one to rant at length, but made a name for herself by standing up for driving beltless, for bingo night, for pampering, and for disasters. Holland’s world is ours for the taking, a veritable cornucopia of pleasure just waiting to be had. It’s funny though, had their paths crossed, I think David and Barbara would have been friends. I don’t think they are all that different. Much like Rakoff on Larson, Holland rebuts the famed Virginia Woolf logic that a woman must only have “a room of one’s own,” stating, “No, Ms. Woolf. A job.”

Rakoff’s defensive pessimism hones in on details; contingency planning boasts nothing less. Holland praises the details, the small things, the “casual, private fun” endangered by the moralists, the alarmists, the nutritionists, existentialists, and so on. No, theirs are not divergent perspectives, but convergent. After all, it becomes quite clear that pleasure at another person’s expense is the most universal pleasure we have.-Dave