Friday, August 06, 2010


The impermanence of pleasure

"This most recent study inquired into the well being of 136,000 people worldwide and compared it to levels of income. It found, overall, that feelings of security and general satisfaction did increase with financial status. Money, however, could not lift its possessors to the next level, and was unable to provide enjoyment or pleasure on its own. The survey, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, examined large numbers of people from almost every culture on earth, and found much the same thing. The stereotype of the rich man who finds life savorless and without pleasure was not invented simply to keep the poor happy with their lot.

Opinions and this enormous survey, however, concentrate on status and on the moment of possession. Are we satisfied and filled with pleasure when we have what we came for? Some, looking at suburban cannibals and eager consumers, would say “yes”; the survey tends to say “not necessarily”. There is a significant question to be asked about enjoyment, which we ask ourselves all the time when embarked on an enterprise of pleasure. It’s rare that we can actually pin down the specific site of pleasure; the specific moment where what William Blake called “the lineaments of gratified desire” are at their clearest.

Take the teenager determined to buy an iPad, a woman setting out to get a new handbag, a prosperous businessman who wants to add to his collection of sports watches. The setting out with the happy intention of spending; the entering of the shop; the examination of the wares; the long decision; the handing over of the money; the moment when the ownership of handbag, watch or tablet is transferred; the gloating at home; the moment when the object is displayed to others. All these steps form a process in enjoyment, but almost all of them are redolent with anticipation or with retrospective glee. The moment where bliss is at its peak, as with other pleasures of the human animal, is over in a flash, and hardly exists at all. Everything else is foreplay and memory.

Composers have always known this simple, basic truth: pleasure is half anticipation and half blissful recollection, and hardly at all about the fulfillment of the promise. The great musical statements of ecstasy, such as Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde or Schubert’s first Suleika song, are literally all half crescendo and half languid recall. We look forward to pleasure; we look back on it. The moment of pleasure itself is over in a flash, and often rather questionable. The sulking child’s question, guaranteed to destroy any outing, “Are we having fun yet?” is an irrational one; because we are always looking forward to having fun, always knowing that we have had fun."

No comments:

Post a Comment