November 24, 2006

Pleasure & Its Discontents

"Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy." --Benjamin Franklin
(Solid apologetic, proto-evangelium, both or neither?)
I recall it like it was yesterday. I was a young child when a favorite uncle, normally preoccupied, showed an especial interest in me one night. Nothing untoward (it's a shame you even have to say that), but merely a warmth and interest heretofore absent. I was pleased but then crushed when Aunt Louise told me to pay no nevermind: Fred’s effusiveness was due to his being drunk. I’d thought Fred had discovered in me some grand untapped potential when he was only artificially stimulated. (Though it is interesting that the “true” Fred was taken to be the preoccupied one; when drunks are mean (ala Mel Gibson) they are said to be revealing their “true” selves, but when they are nice they are revealing a fake self. Let’s hope Michael Richards was drinking before his recent escapade if only because the I-was-drinking excuse is a terrible thing to waste and without the obligatory “I’m checking into rehab” all apologies sound hollow.)

After that incident with Uncle Fred & Aunt Louise I wanted no part of “artificial friendliness” or artificial anything. I was among the last of my classmates to discover alcohol and was brought around only reluctantly – of course– by the insistence of friends. (Do all virtues and vices originate from the examples of peers?) My disgust for drugs of any kind led to a note written as a seventh-grader to the singer John Denver asking, like the ingenue to Shoeless Joe, to say it ain’t so about rumors that “Rocky Mountain High” referred to something other than the beauty of the mountains.

What I ultimately took from Aunt Louise’s comment was one should not receive credit for a kindness artificially derived. Authenticity uber alles. But how much of kindness is derived from “fake” sources as simple as a good meal? One family member is called “Napoleon” when he’s grumpy from going too long between meals - an explicit recognition that he’s not being himself when he’s hungry. Other pleasures that might change behavior depend on the individual but might include a good book or sex or a shopping trip or a long run. “Runner’s high” seemed a way around the distrust of artificial feelings at the time. Endorphins are natural and I reasoned that modern sedentariness is what is actually unnatural since we’ve evolved with a need for much physical activity.

But ultimately it seemed a Jesuitical difference, being high on alcohol versus endorphins. Indeed the line between artificially-induced warmth and naturally-induced warmth began to seem artificial and it led to a hermeneutic of suspicion regarding pleasure in general. Puritanically, only warmth untainted by pleasure beforehand seemed authentic. I thought that one ought be high on God, not on anything "earthly", nevermind that the earth came from God. And wasn’t that why the saints wore hairshirts and fasted so much? Was it not to remove the artificial props of earthly pleasures so that their love could be authentic? Yet Aquinas said that man cannot live without pleasure. Archbishop Fulton Sheen said that pleasure is not the purpose of life. Not contradictory, but Fulton Sheen’s statement could be misinterpreted as meaning that pleasure is irrelevant. What if we could find pleasure in service? But even service is a slippery concept. We might piously think that a single act of charity is worth more than any poem ever written but one could visit a lonely person and lessen their sadness once, while a poet like Dante has given pleasure to millions, both lonely and not, many times.

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