THERE'S nothing like a book title beginning with the words ``The Joy of ...'' to make the heart sink. When how-to writers grew tired of composing modest manuals devoted to how to maintain a vacuum cleaner or how to build a California redwood sun deck in six hours or less and promoted themselves to the subject of How to Have Fun, something Roman and decadent and very grim came into life. It's not just waiters. You can wake up in the middle of the night, dreaming that the whole world is shouting at you: ``Enjoy!''
The exciting business of just how to take one's pleasure has become as ominous as a visit to the dentist.
Here we are in the middle of the most hallelujah holidays of the year, and the New York Times, as an act of journalistic responsibility, feels obliged to offer a how-to-enjoy article under the headline, ``Fear of Entertaining.''
Ah, the terror of throwing a little wing-ding!
In fact, the ``experts'' interviewed by the Times cite not one but three fears:
1.``Fear of opening one's home to others.'' The world, it seems, is full of snobs who will look at what is ``ours'' and snicker. It's so ``very frightening'' to have one's home - the extension of oneself - ``not valued by others'' that ``some people are reluctant to return an invitation until they live in a $450,000 house.'' Which can make it a long time between canap'es. But what canap'es? Ah, that's a separate fear.
2.``Fear of selecting inappropriate food.'' With all the Great Chefs thrusting their gourmet cookbooks in your face, what to serve? Decisions, decisions. An adjacent article on the same page indicates that a consumer confronts 130 choices of bottled water alone. The ``experts'' recommend testing your menu at least three times before you try it on that nasty crowd of tyrants you call your guests. Three dry runs over the cordon bleu course! There goes your happy holiday.
3.``Fear of disaster.'' Now we're really getting down to it. Disaster is defined as ``something awful ... something over which you have no control.'' The ``experts'' live in a pretty precious universe. Their scenario of a disaster is to have a table laden with orchids, exotic hors d'oeuvres, and lighted candelabra tip over on an oriental rug. We have news for the ``experts.'' Some hosts and hostesses are fortunate to come up with a couple of brownish leaves of ivy, a dish of dry-roasted peanuts, and one hurricane candle on an assemble-it-yourself coffee table from the old how-to days. And don't worry about the rug. Anything that falls on the rug can only improve it after years of being drooled over by the dog.
What kind of world have we - or the yuppies - invented for ourselves that a party must take on the lavishness of a Broadway musical, with our friends functioning as critics?
Is this what all these years dominated by the ``pleasure principle'' have led to? No wonder Hugh Hefner looks so unhappy - so like a latter-day Jonathan Edwards. Can it be that puritanism and hedonism, carried to excess, are the same thing?
Zippy, the comic-strip character, has a line that can serve as the motto for the times: ``Are we having fun yet?''
If you ask it in the same way puritan preachers asked their question - ``Are we saved yet?'' - you get the same sense of anxiety and guilt.
And the same answer: no.
One of these years we'll have to go back beyond the ``experts'' with their how-to-enjoy pop psychology - all the way back to the original authorities on hallelujah. Then maybe we can figure out what a holiday - and a holy day - are supposed to be.
A Wednesday and Friday column