Friday, July 05, 2019

It's All Rotten: A Seminar on Pleasure

[Jan Davidsz. de Heem, Still Life with Ham, Lobster and Fruit, c. 1653]

It’s all rotten. I feel it in the air and in the people frightened and starving huddled in a crowd. But I believe that in the depths of rottenness there exists—green sparkling redeeming and promised-land—in the depths of the dark rottenness there shines clear and captivating the Great Emerald. The Great Pleasure. But why this desire and hunger for pleasure? Because pleasure is the height of the truthfulness of a being. It’s the only struggle against death.
– Clarice Lispector, A Breath of Life

We eat food . . . to build up our body, and we engage in this process (of eating and body building) quite willingly and with great pleasure. Nor do we shed tears over that portion of the food which we throw out in the form of excrement, nark. Do we cry at all over the destruction of the food which we have brought about? Not a bit. Why, we never give it a thought, the very idea never occurs to us. Then why on earth should we shed tears and weep and wail when the body, which is merely food for the soul, is cast off at death?
– Meher Baba, Tiffin Lectures

But whether we choose life for the sake of pleasure or pleasure for the sake of life is a question we may dismiss for the present.
– Aristotle, Ethics

Pleasure (from *pl(e)hk- ‘to agree, be pleasant’) concerns what pleases, is agreeable, that which you like. Defined by Aristotle as “an unimpeded activity [energeia] of a natural state” (Ethics) and by Plato as the process [genesis] of restoring or returning to one’s “natural state” or “own true nature” (Philebus), pleasure is not any specific thing, just as “there is no one thing that is always pleasant, because our nature is not simple . . . inasmuch we are perishable creatures” (Aristotle, Ethics). Rather pleasure, ambivalently indistinguishable from the nature and feeling of being—”And what is natural is pleasant; and all pursue their natural pleasure” (Aristotle, History of Animals)—is a complex, manifold unity that bears a special connection to desire, the body, similitude, and decay. This complexity is reflected in the word like (from *lik- ‘body, form; like, same’), source of the adverbial ending -ly (whereas the Romanic languages express manner of action in reference to mind, -mente), which in Old English also signifies a corpse (līċ). Like likes like. Pleasure is something you naturally desire, something felt in a body (gross, subtle, and/or mental), something resembling something else, and something that passes away . . . that was great. This full likeness of pleasure seems as inescapable as oneself, as inevitable as death: “since everything like and akin to oneself is pleasant, and since every man is himself more like an akin to himself than anyone else is, it follows that all of us must be more or less fond of ourselves” (Aristotle, Ethics). So full—too full—and yet totally empty: “If you dive deep in the realm of thoughts and think seriously for just a few minutes, you will realise the emptiness of desires. Think of what you have enjoyed all these years and what you have suffered. All that you have enjoyed through life is today nil. All that you have suffered through life is also nothing in the present” (Meher Baba, Discourses).

What can we conspirators of pleasure (“the people frightened and starving huddled in a crowd”) possibly hope to find by diving deep into pleasure’s question, this so very ancient, decaying, and decadent question? What Great Emerald may be found there other than the Great Emptiness? Or is that the Great Pleasure? And what of our strange delight in the very question of pleasure, like a hunger feeding bittersweetly on itself, feeling and knowing full well that it will find nothing, or next to nothing, little else than whatever taste or saber (from *sep- ‘to taste, perceive’) which the wisdom and/or stupidity of the question’s own convoluted process might produce?

A well-known interchange between a wise slave and his philosopher master is instructive: “After dinner, his stomach troubling him, he retired to the privy. Aesop stood by with a jug of water, and Xanthus summoned him: ‘Aesop, can you tell me why, when we retire to defecate, it is often customary for us to look at our own excrement?’ Aesop replied: ‘According to the ancients, a sage spent so much time defecating for pleasure that he lost his wits. Since then people have been afraid of losing their wits and often look at their excrement. But do not worry, master, for you have no wits’” (Life of Aesop).

It is all rotten. And yet one prefers over and over not to accept pleasure’s emptiness, as the very idea and feeling of pleasure never ceases overflowing with a kind of despairing faith in the ultimate pleasurableness of everything. What to do then but affirm and negate pleasure at once, to go on believing in its infinity and disbelieving in the fullness of one’s grasp of it, to let our ignorance of pleasure—the pretense that we are even capable of it—decay ever further into whatever it will mean to love pleasure as it should it loved, to give ourselves over to pleasure without reserve all the while reserving pleasure for itself? As Meher Baba says, “Really speaking, everywhere in the entire universe is bliss. It is all bliss, bliss and bliss! But poor, ignorant mankind cannot enjoy it, as man does not know how to enjoy it.” Accordingly, this seminar will focus on the relationship between pleasure and decay, not to indulge in lamenting pleasure’s impermanence but in order to decompose the question of pleasure into a vaster rottenness still, the universal decomposition of an infinite still life wherein the endless love lurking in the life’s love of pleasure, like the most beautiful emerald of all, may spontaneously appear:

Baba’s mood changed and he then asked those present, “Have you ever examined what I defecate?” Some replied, “Yes,” and some said, “No.” But none could give a description which satisfied Baba. So he himself explained: “You have no idea what my feces contain. In the beginning of creation, I defecated, and all the suns, moons, stars and universes came out. They are all my excrement! But just imagine! When this dirty thing is so beautiful, how can you ever imagine my real splendor? You will lose your senses if you ever see even a glimpse of it.”

For each reading, the intellectual and interpretive strategy to be followed is to decompose the concept of pleasure away from its bounded determinations, above all its distinction from and opposition to pain. Who says something is not pleasurable? Who says something has the power to ruin your delight?  “Jesus and his disciples passed by a dog’s carcass. The disciples said, ‘How foul is his stench!’ Jesus said, ‘How white are his teeth!’” (Tanbīh al-khawāṭir). 

Proceeding chronologically, along the path of our decline—“The West: sweet-smelling rot, a perfumed corpse” (E. M. Cioran, The Trouble With Being Born)—we will read from an array of works in a spontaneous, messy attempt that might allow for some new forms to emerge, something other than the anticipated orders of pleasure, for as a sage once said, “Anything you look forward to will destroy you, as it already has.”

According to Plotinus, the teeming, seemingly spontaneous “products of putrefaction are to be traced to the Soul’s inability to bring some other thing to being” (Enneads). Rot is not privation or loss but the surplus flow or leakage of the One beyond number into forms whose vital unity has evaporated or passed away. Likewise, our essential task will be not to teach pleasure, figure it out, or tell its history, but to twist like a bookworm at every turn within one’s inability to grasp it, to eat texts of our ignorance of pleasure, digest them, and see what becomes.

What is that? A green ray?—“It is necessary to love—to love everything; even what is most revolting. Love is the cruelest, most difficult of all. Herein, however, lies the Mystery: that which is most revolting is more likely to melt into love than that which is only half revolting” (Ladislav Klima).

Day 1: Naturaleza Muerta

Plato, Philebus – Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, books 7 and 10 – Epicurus, Leading Doctrines –  Epictetus, Enchiridion – Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, book 2 – Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, book 1

Day 2: Jardines de la Delicia

Aelred of Rievaulx, Spiritual Friendship, book 1 – Jean de Meun, Romance of the Rose, part 1 – Hadewijch, “The Garden of Perfect Virtues” – Dante, Purgatorio, cantos 17-31 – Chaucer, Former Age

Day 3: Rosas Desgarradas  

Leopardi, Zibaldone, 165-91 – D’Annunzio, Pleasure, chapter 1 – Huysmans, Saint Lydwine of Schiedam – Meher Baba, “The Problem of Sex,” “The Conditions of Happiness,” “God as Infinite Love,” Discourses – Bataille, “On the Ambiguity of Pleasure and Play” – Weil, Gravity and Grace – Levinas, Totality and Infinity, II-A – Lispector, Agua Viva

... who kisses the joy as it flies ...