20 June 2013

Poetry and Push-Pin

W. Somerset Maugham, "Reflections on a Certain Book," in The Vagrant Mood (Port Washington: Kennikat Press, 1969), pp. 158-192 (at pp. 190-191):
Jeremy Bentham startled the world many years ago by stating in effect that if the amount of pleasure obtained from each be equal there is nothing to choose between poetry and push-pin. [...] The indignant retort to Bentham's statement was that spiritual pleasures are obviously higher than physical pleasures. But who say so? Those who prefer spiritual pleasures. They are in a miserable minority, as they acknowledge when they declare that the gift of aesthetic appreciation is a very rare one. The vast majority of men are, as we know, are both by necessity and choice preoccupied with material considerations. Their pleasures are material. They look askance at those who spend their lives in the pursuit of art. That is why they have attached a depreciatory sense to the word aesthete, which means merely one who has a special appreciation of beauty. How are we going to show that they are wrong? How are we going to show that there is something to choose between poetry and push-pin? I surmise that Bentham chose push-pin for it's pleasant alliteration with poetry. Let us speak of lawn tennis. It is a popular game which many of us can play with pleasure. It needs skill and judgement, a good eye and a cool head. If I get the same amount of pleasure out of playing it as you get from looking at Titian's Entombment of Christ in the Louvre, by listening to Beethoven's Eroica, or by reading Eliot's Ash Wednesday, how are you going to prove your pleasure is better and more refined than mine? Only, I should say, by manifesting that this gift you have of aesthetic appreciation has a moral effect on your character.