Thursday, August 21, 2008

Innocent pleasures? 

With apologies over matters of style to Mr Dickens, whose tale of Great Expectations is my present companion at those times when neither salaried labours nor domestic duties have prior call upon my attention, and whose manner with words – at once particular and precise whilst yet maintaining a certain emotional detachment from the circumstances he describes – I find most agreeable, reflecting as it does my own persuasion in such matters. So much so that I may continue in this vein upon these pages to enlarge upon such matters as vex me, interest me or otherwise make their presence felt upon my consciousness.

It happens that I have recently been considering the purchase of one or other of two items. It matters not for the purposes of the debate which follows what these items might be; suffice it to say that both are quite expensive relative to my normal outlay (if such there be) on goods intended purely for my own benefit; both are luxury items in that neither could in any way be said to be accoutrements absolutely necessary in order to maintain a satisfactory way of living; both are items which I imagine have the capacity, through my use of them, to provide me with much pleasure. However, being financially constrained I have to choose between them, at least for the time being, and so I entered on a debate with myself as to which might be the bringer of greater enjoyment.

To begin with, the debate was abstract, since spending money on myself is such a rare occurrence as to have the feel of a work of fiction, not of potential fact. Nevertheless, it came to me one evening as I sat and considered the choice that I might indeed possess or one other of these items. The possibility became very real, not at all the distant product of an imagination many stages removed from practicality but rather a sober matter merely of taking plastic card in hand and with my fingers tapping a few letters and numbers on the keyboard not four feet from me. It could all be over in as few minutes as five; not three days more and either object could already be held with those same fingers, existing no longer merely as an image upon the cathode ray tube before me, or lingering on the phosphor of my waking dreams, but tangible, solid, robustly embodied in the present, ready to open the door to pleasures long hoped for.

Yet even as the prospect of such pleasures drew closer, even as I strove to make the choice actual instead of hypothetical, I saw their being pass through my grasp as might a ghost; the goods might indeed transform from fiction to fact, but alas the pleasures would be unable to achieve that transition, and would remain a prospect no more real than the transient dots of the picture on the phosphor of the screen, forever anticipated, forever out of reach.

For what pleasure can there be if that pleasure comes about through satisfaction of the cravings of one’s desires?

One must surely first have a desire for something before one can find pleasure in that thing. One could certainly not find pleasure in something undesirable, so does it not follow that in order to be the source of pleasure the thing must first be desirable? Yet desire by its very nature has a flaw. Does not desire lie at the root of no less than four of the so-called seven deadly sins? Do not lust, gluttony, greed and envy all begin with desire? That being so, if pleasure is so closely entwined with desire as to be inseparable from it, and if allowing desire across the threshold is to pave the way for its evil relations to follow, how can any kind of pleasures ever be said to be merely ‘simple’? Rather, do not all deserve, at least to a degree, the tag of ‘guilty’, being so associated with selfishness?

The debate may even be transposed (to reverse a common saying) from the ridiculous to the sublime. I was many years within the Christian faith before I became aware of a deep contradiction contained within the arguments by which people might be urged to ‘join up’, as it were; a contradiction whose opposing premises I have yet wholly to reconcile. Whether one chooses to take such a faith upon oneself in order avoid the stick of hell-fire and damnation, or whether one’s choice is motivated by the carrot of eternal salvation, is it not the case that gain for the self can be the only driving force behind either manner of reasoning? Yet is not selfish gain also anathema to the tenets of Christianity? To be a Christian solely on such terms would be in fact un-Christian; would it not therefore be a noble display of Christian selflessness to forego the personal gain of salvation?

Of course, there is a flaw in this form of argument, for the duality of the pulpit-thumping entreatment to seek heaven or avoid hell is akin to the salesman’s ploy of asking: “Would sir like to buy the green one or the blue?” Either response results in a sale; other options, of which there are any number (not to buy, to buy a competitor’s product, to buy tomorrow, to buy a red one) are cunningly pushed into the background lest they be seen and acted upon.

So, if one’s reason for adopting Christianity may be other than to avoid hell or to enter heaven (one such alternative – and to my mind better - reason being independent of the appearance on one’s horizon at some future time of either of these mythical places, namely to adopt a better way of living in the decidedly un-mythical present), then the apparent paradox – that of requiring a selfish act deriving from un-Christian motivation in order to become a Christian – is shown to be false.

Is there also a way to negate the paradox that pleasure, once almost grasped, must inevitably prove elusive owing to the inherently selfish nature of pleasure?

Perhaps there is a parallel with altruistic behaviour. Does is matter whether one is altruistic for the sake of the beneficiary of the act, or for the glow of pleasure one receives from knowing one has been responsible for the benefit? Either way, the benefit has occurred. Pleasure for the initiator of the action is the by-product, not the end product.

No; there is a better way out of this dilemma. There is a degree of truth to be found in the notion that the trap lies in the connection of pleasure with the fulfilment of desire, but that is not the whole truth. Like the salesman’s ploy, that simple equation belies a greater truth. The best pleasures, those that are truly simple and innocent, are those that arrive unexpected, uninvited, unanticipated. Birdsong in the morning; a smile from a stranger; a glorious sunset; a poem never before read – such as these cannot disappoint because there is no preconception by which they might be judged; lacking the taint of desire, they can never be selfish.

"...pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us"

Lines from Ash Wednesday, by T S Eliot

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