Fun is just fun. The pursuit of happiness might be a right but fun is far too trivial. It’s just not a big ask. And being fun-loving may not be vice — not in itself — but is it any kind of virtue? Lorelei (Marilyn Monroe) in Howard Hawks Gentlemen Prefer Blondes advises Dorothy (Jane Russell): 'I want you to find happiness and stop having fun.' Is fun serious enough to deserve reflection?
Suffering is worthy of reflection. Not only does it make nonsense of fun, it makes nonsense of everything else. There is no quicker way to win an argument or earn a reputation for depth than by getting all of a sudden serious. But appealing to suffering to give you or your opinions some gravity is a desperate move. It uses those who suffered, or they may even be using themselves, as if they haven’t already suffered enough.
What makes happiness so serious, what makes even fun serious is that misery, terror and suffering are their absolute denial. Sniffing at fun for not being serious is used to mask a lack of being serious about human suffering. Those who suffer and have been abandoned utterly by happiness and fun, will be forgiven if they abandon courage, and with it, at best, stoicism, at worst morality. For they hope for the relief of sheer abandonment. Fun is pure sheer abandonment. To extol someone’s virtue merely for being serious or for making suffering the only benchmark of what matters is to play a false card. It is to renege on the virtues of good will and high spirits, even on the virtues — stoical or not — that serve us when suffering: courage, forbearance, and kindness. It is to descend to whinging. Robert Louis Stevenson said ‘there is no duty so much underrated as the duty of being happy’.
Philosophers, notorious for being burdened by their seriousness, could hardly take to happiness, let alone fun, as a foundation for moral judgement. Kant was explicit about this and combines his seriousness with a passion for the austerity of reason. Yet I can’t help appreciating his restrained reflections on reason and the moral imperatives and obligations that he took reason to generate. For all my admiration of an ethics of virtue rather than rules, there is something archaic about an ethics of virtue. No doubt we can scarcely hope to understand the virtues unless historically — not so much in the sense that one lives the good life as a kind of creation of a personal history but rather in the sense that whatever is a virtue depends on the times. Since this is so, we can scarcely understand modern virtues unless we understand the critical effect that Enlightenment disenchantment with and critique of the virtues has had. Without something of the universalism that modern ethics seeks, finds, declares or denies — what in Kant’s case was the product his grinding reason — living merely by ones virtues would be living under the nightmare of an archaic ethics. For even if we might find Kant’s rationality too divorced from experience and the moral emotions, and therefore somehow inhuman, reason has its own passion. It is a passion deeply implicated in the obligations felt by the virtue, for instance, of justice.
Being happy is a duty if and only if there is a virtue which is the capacity for happiness. Of less moment than happiness, fun has the virtue of being mere nonsense right from the start. If it pretended to be more it would lose whatever virtue it might have.
Only in fun’s absolute levity does its gravity lie. It can never become a weighty existential condition. If it did it would only offer a party in place of life. As an experience fun is no better than comfort, dispiriting in the absence of any relief from it. Likewise when fun only pretends to be just fun; it makes a show of its absolute levity with the result that it is anything but.
A generation ago now Cindy Lauper dressed up as Girlwoman and fought the mean spirit of parents downtrodden by superannuated cares like working poverty. She sang her song out of a fun mix of pleasure-feminism, generationalist pop sociology, and the hype of eternal youth, and in doing so marked the canonisation of the word as part of the enduring jargon of 80s zeitgeist. The moment it became jargon though it also became a marketing slogan. So ‘fun’ is not a pure and simple word; it’s not just ‘just fun’. It is more plastic than wood, more packaged now than gleaned or in bulk. Yet we still expect it to be just fun like it always was for those eternal parents who say they ‘used to make their own’. That is part of the lie about fun: its humble and timeless simplicity is used to conceal the latest fetish of consumption. But of course everything is a commodity now, or as they prefer to say, product.
Like happiness fun is not a sufficient condition for the good life, but for humans, if they don’t live the good life, happiness is not possible. I don’t mean happiness as when it is deliberately mistaken to mean pleasure. Everyone knows happiness and pleasure are quite different. I mean happiness in the sense it has when we speak of the question of how to live the good life. Aristotle’s word was eudaimonia, which in English we only hesitate to translate as happiness if we feel obliged, against our usual sensibilities, to misconstrue happiness as pleasure. If it were possible to have fun without living the good life, it would be an unhappy kind of fun. Like happiness, fun is different from pleasure, for there is little possibility of fun that is not somehow virtuous. A torturer can feel pleasure but not have fun.
Narrative art has fun in the funny ha-ha of comedy. Tradition has protected comedy against the charge of non-seriousness by nothing more serious than a mere formality: such is the evocation of suffering in the tradition of the memento mori. There is the wonderful ‘Fête de la Colinière’ scene in Jean Renoir’s La Règle du Jeu. After the players sing ‘En Revenant de la Revue’ and take their curtain calls, the ‘Danse Macabre’ starts up on the pianola. Under the distracted gaze of the now idle pianist the keys are played by invisible hands and Death begins his dance first on stage and then amongst audience, and then in the halls and grounds of the Château itself. La Règle du Jeu is a romantic comedy and therefore fun, but instead of the jealous gamekeeper’s bullets all missing, the last one, by a farcical misrecognition, kills the lovelorn hero. Either Renoir put fun into his tragic farce or death into his romantic comedy or both. Admirers of the film often seem compelled to praise the film as a scathing critique of French society on the eve of WWII. Complacent with gravity and hindsight, they can’t resist loading the film with the weight of the coming war. But this misses the film’s passions and its sufferings, the experience of the living, the emotional depth of the film, which are only there in the warmth and fun of the crazy, funny present. Lightness is all.
Happiness itself has not quite lost the levity that flees when things fall under the heavy hand of academic jargon, but if happiness studies get any more serious, happiness will take flight and have to take up refuge with fun. And then they will be hunted down together. Even to write these thoughts is to put fun at risk, like revealing its hideaway, or advertising it as a tourist attraction. Yet fun is happy-go-lucky. It might always dodge the jargon and come back even if under another term. When it doesn’t all hope will be gone.