Op-Ed: Are we trading happiness for convenience?
When I have time away from the obligations that dog a life, I return to my hometown of Brunswick, Maine, to write. The quiet and the cold, the anonymity and those luminous prompts to childhood memory, suit my mood perfectly. I disconnect. I write. I keep to a meager routine.
One of the chief pleasures of these visits, over the years, has been hours spent at the local video store — Bart & Greg’s DVD Explosion! — housed in a charmless basement alcove below what passes, in town, for a mall. Bart & Greg’s became so important to my ritual that it was no mere disappointment, but a shock akin to a death in the family, when I arrived in December to learn that the store would close. The owner, Bart D’Alauro, had held on as long as he could. The titanic popularity of TV and streaming services had made his shop obsolete.
Bart was one of those old-school clerks whose connoisseurship licensed a pleasant snobbery and surliness. I once overheard a patron telling Bart that Bart just had to see “Brooklyn,” then playing in town. “It’s wonderful,” the man said, and Bart, drowning in the crosscurrents of honesty and civility, could only croak, “I can’t, I can’t …. ”
The DVDs at Bart & Greg’s had stickers on them testifying to the staff’s recommendations. Bart’s stickers said simply “Bart liked it,” the austerity of the encomium equal to the seriousness of the judgment. On less likely winners the sticker read “Bart thought it was surprisingly OK.” When I rented Maren Ade’s “Everyone Else,” Bart dryly remarked that it was the best Éric Rohmer film he had ever seen not by Éric Rohmer.
We have seen bookstores, video stores and beloved shops of all sorts shutter for decades. The disappearance of factory jobs and the small-town industries that hold communities together is likewise a long-acknowledged downside of globalization. What we get in return, we are told, are more, better and cheaper goods, and to some extent this is true. But the strength of this argument rests on the assumption that the chief aim of work is to permit the purchase of goods (forget those hours, the brunt of adult life, you spend on the job), and it also assumes that a good is a good, no matter how you come by it: a lawnmower purchased at Wal-Mart has the same utility as one purchased at a mom-and-pop hardware store, a movie streamed online the same pleasure as one selected from the video shop.
In my experience, however, the meaning of purchasing and consuming a thing has everything to do with how I came to it and the imaginative prefigurement of ownership. I have watched my experience of music change, for instance, as digitization has freed the song from the album, and the album from material existence, and as any song has become available at the touch of a button. What an improvement!, I would have thought, listening to hours of radio as a teenager, waiting for a favorite song to come on.
And yet, as the barriers to access have fallen away, I have not enjoyed music more, but less. The same song, it turns out, is not the same come by two different ways.
Trips to Bart & Greg’s were likewise more than a tedious prelude to watching a movie. They were three-dimensional, embodied explorations of Film, capital-F, since they were the experience of someone else’s curatorial expertise and delightful, if idiosyncratic, organizational whims. I made discoveries differently than I ever would have on a web browser, and I felt differently about the films I selected than I feel about those I stream online.
Economics, however, has little place for the joys and satisfactions that derive from effort and process: the utility of inutility.
We are taught to think the pleasure of a thing lives in the thing itself and not in us, and this is precisely what condemns us to so much pleasure bereft of happiness. The real meaning, joy and substance all reside in the experiential process that a thing initiates in us — in the possibility that this process will change us. People who enjoy cooking more than buying a ready-made meal, or hiking more than driving to the top of a mountain, know this intuitively. But so long as we fail, in general discourse, to distinguish between what we seem to want and what brings us happiness, we will find ourselves confused at the great dissatisfaction that attends our unprecedented spectrum of choice.
Nowhere is the distinction better illustrated than in television — exactly what seems to have driven Bart & Greg’s out of existence. We live in a golden age of TV, we are told. We are told this so often that it seems suspicious, as though children brought up on the notion that TV rots your brain had finally landed on a groupthink justification for doing exactly what TV always wanted them to do: sit slack-jawed for hours watching it. And we do. We simply have purged the shame.
The novelist Zia Haider Rahman recently called out authors’ complicity with television in writing their books with an eye toward adaptation; he posits that this agenda may explain some of the declining interest in literary fiction. Peter Suderman draws a parallel between the lack of imagination in movies — all those remakes, reboots and sequels — and the lack of imagination in politics. Both are right that we are in danger of becoming a culture afraid of and without imagination, a closed system of internal referents, strip-mining its past. At the same time it is also possible that we are salving the wounds of adult lives — overworked and underpaid thanks to all that creative destruction — with nostalgic exports from our childhoods and the soothing permission of letting ourselves do what we were once told was bad for us.
But, bad or good, we may be trading in our happiness for an overhyped convenience sold to us as our pleasure: all this ease and speed, these shiny, fast gratifications, low prices, home delivery.
We need pleasures that involve us, that do not merely pass through us, like barium, untouched. Films — good films — take patience and effort.
Why, when we measure our discontent, do we look only at our frustrations and never at our pleasures? For the truth is we need pleasures that involve us, that do not merely pass through us, like barium, untouched. Films — good films — take patience and effort. Entertainments, like TV, take none. We only register the difference, if at all, long after in our estimation of time well spent: as we continue to think about a film, while entire days of TV wash over us, never to be considered again.
Some will disagree, and I know the charge of elitism that our culture has taught us to levy against anyone who says the source of our apparent pleasure may be the source of our true unhappiness. I only ask: Can we see that some apparent inconvenience and even tedium may be part of a larger process in fact necessary to our pleasure?
We lack a sophisticated discourse of value to balance out the poverties of economic thought. Meanwhile, what we lose to the scythe of the market we may lose for good, because alongside it we lose the institutional knowledge that, for instance, makes film what it is, and we lose any place for those lives devoted to carrying a passion forward — all the Barts of the world.
On a parting note, Bart exhorts us: “Keep watching movies. That’s my final statement …. Don’t forget about movies; keep watching.” But — well, we won’t.
Greg Jackson is the author of “Prodigals,” a story collection for which he received the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” award. He has a novel forthcoming with FSG in 2019.
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