On Pleasure

February 12 2006 / The Observer

Six years ago I published a novel called Unknown Pleasures. A close friend was confused by the title: isn’t pleasure, by its very definition, something that is known, he asked? The novel told the story of a young man whose father disappeared without explanation when he was a young boy in Dorset. The father is eventually declared legally dead, and the family emigrates to North America. Much later, in disturbed early adulthood, the young man returns to England, ostensibly to take up a job at a law firm in London, but really to try to find out what happened to his father all those years before. In truth, he is in search of more than his absent father: he is searching for the life that was taken from him, the person he might have been, if his father had not disappeared and the family remained in England. This other life and these other possibilities are the unknown pleasures of the title.

For most of us, I suspect, pleasure is equated with a heightening of self - and with release from mundane routine, through adventure, travel, sex, drugs or alcohol. I used to think this was so. But over recent weeks, I have found, again and again, that the most pleasurable moments of my days have been the most routine, days when I have been free from the white noise and hum of media London: the rivalries, the ambitions, the shredded reputations.

Last Thursday, for instance, I spent the whole day alone in my house - my wife was away. I worked on a long book review in the morning and then, after lunch in a local cafĂ©, I went for a walk across rain-saturated fields. I can’t remember what I was thinking about. It was nothing much. Later, listening to music and drinking a glass of good red wine, I began to prepare my supper. Nothing elaborate - chicken casserole, roast potatoes, broccoli. As I put the casserole into the oven, my task complete, I became conscious of myself for the first time in many hours and felt, not restless exactly, but aware that something valuable had been lost - a state if ease. I had lost that utter absorption in the inconsequentiality of the moment and in the nothingmuchness of an ordinary day.

And yet I had been content. My day had brought me genuine pleasure; it was the best of the year so far.

For me, then, pleasure is increasingly less about a heightening of self through intoxication, as I used to think, than a kind of release from self. Or, more accurately, a release from self-watchfulness: What do I want? What shall I do next?

That, at least, is how I feel today. Next week, I may feel differently, which is as it should be, because pleasure, in the end, is entirely circumstantial, and is best experienced when not strenuously sought or desired.