Andrea Del Sarto's Treadmill...

One of my favourite lines of Robert Browning’s has always been the often-quoted Andrea Del Sarto’s rhetorical question: ‘Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?’

The poem itself (view here) an unbelievable insight into an artistic temperament that is so spot on that it feels a little cliched now (though that should also stand to remind us that some cliches probably begin with a brilliant moment of understanding).

The speaker in the poem, Andrea Del Sarto, is an embittered Florentine painter, working at the height of the Renaissance. His now-glorified contemporaries, Michelangelo, Rafael and Leonardo Da Vinci have an ephemeral spark of genius that he just doesn’t feel he has, and his paintings, though technically just as impressive, feel ‘silver-grey, placid and perfect’ in comparison. In guitar-speak, he is Steve Vai but wants to be David Gilmour: he has all of the skill, but not enough soul.

He’s reduced to painting commission pieces for patrons he doesn’t respect and sending out his long suffering wife (who he blames for dragging him home from Paris on the verge of his big break) to charm them into excusing his gambling debts.

We see Andrea Del Sarto all the time - he’s Russell Brand in Get Him to the Greek, he’s Dustin Hoffman in The Meyerowitz Stories, he’s any version of the Bradley Cooper character in A Star is Born (pre-Gaga-intervention).

What he epitomises for me is the idea of the hedonic treadmill - a term coined by Philip Brickman and Donald T Campbell - which characterises the human tendency to emotionally adapt to positive changes in life so quickly that they soon become basic expectations, rather than the lofty dreams and goals they once were.

We work hard to establish a gym routine, a better diet, get a promotion, buy a new car, self-release an EP - whatever. Working hard feels great and we brim with purpose and unrealised potential. Then, we get what we want. And, after enjoying it for all of forty-five seconds, we begin to feel empty, lost and in need of a new challenge to give our lives some meaning again.

Or, worse: we injure ourselves and can’t go to the gym or our new car gets a scrape because somebody has accidentally parked in the spot at work that's technically now meant to be reserved (though we don't want to be awkward about it). Suddenly, we hate ourselves again for not having something that we spent most of our lives in a happily motivated state of not having.

We’ve fallen off the hedonic treadmill, and falling off a treadmill can be embarrassing. I did it once, in a gym in the Rocky Mountains, in front of a girl’s volleyball team.

What I love about Robert Browning’s question - ‘Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?’’ - is its context. Google-search the quote and you’ll see it that it’s become another thoughtless soundbite for motivational life-coaches. "Aim high. Keep aiming high. Heaven, or something."

Del Sarto shouts it desperately at his wife because grasping in the dark at something better than what he already has feels to him like the only thing he can do to stay alive in the twilight of a career that has constantly disappointed him, despite its apparent success, because (ironically) he can never be satisfied with anything he achieves. It’s a rhetorical question that motivates and tortures him in equal measure.

The hedonic treadmill, the insatiable need never to be satisfied, is the hamster wheel at the heart of the human condition. It drives us forward whilst aways making us a little miserable.

I suppose the alternative would be to sit, cross-legged and Buddha-like, on the floor of the human gym - in the stretching area with that relaxing music - happy in the recognition that desire is nothing but the genesis of all suffering. But if our species had adopted that approach a 250,000 years ago in the Rift Valley, I doubt we’d have ever harnessed fire, discovered agriculture or split the atom.

So, I released my EP last week as you know: something I’ve been working towards for a fairly long time and, predictably, I now feel a little empty inside.

But that’s life. Or what’s a heaven for?

Rob Jones & The Restless Dream

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