Friday, October 21, 2016

Pleasure and "authentic" pessimism

The reason people matter is because they can feel pain and can suffer. Pain is the most poignant and universal sentient experience; it traps, surrounds, and subjugates the sufferer, rendering them unable to cope. It is the body's enslavement of itself, unleashed to its full potential. The mind becomes captive of its own body. Because of this, pain and suffering forces us into ethical disqualification. We are unable to act ethically when we are suffering - yet we can hardly be blamed for doing so. We must tend to our own wounds, perhaps the only rational self-interested action that is ethically justified.

Yet the apparent polar opposite, pleasure, is quite different. While pain is pressing, pleasure is intoxicating. While pain enforces self-interested action, pleasure teases it. Pain is a need, pleasure is a want. We want to feel pleasure, but if this want becomes to intense it becomes a need, and no longer do we pursue pleasure because we want it but because we need it and will suffer without it.

This means that we need to toss out the idea that life is a mixture of pleasures and pains, as if it's a bag of marbles, some good, some bad. Pleasure is reactive to pain. Although pleasure is not just the subtraction of pain (as deprivationalists erroneously believe), pleasure is nevertheless linked to pain. Pain is a structurally necessary component of life, one that pleasure contingently depends on. One cannot have truly good, pleasurable experiences without eliminating the bad; you must go through the desert before you get to the oasis. Sometimes the oasis justifies the desert, but it nevertheless is the case that the oasis cannot exist without the desert.

But the important aspect I want to focus on here is the captivating nature of pleasure. Pain makes us recognize and confront our existential condition. Pleasure distracts us from it. Just like alcohol and heroin, pleasure in general inebriates us and makes us ethically myopic. As Adorno said, pleasure is maintained by an ignorance of others' suffering. Indeed that seems to be why so many of us eat the flesh of other animals while conveniently ignoring that this is the flesh of a corpse, or how the millionaires and billionaires can hold great banquets and parties and have fun while ignoring the plight of the poor.

From this perspective, pleasure becomes quite suspicious. It is poetically ironic how reflection on this is similar to a hangover, the sober realization that one has wasted so much time and energy on something so shallow and harmful. It makes you want to not do it again ... yet somehow it manages to creep in and pretty sure you find yourself hung over again, wondering how the hell that happened.

Furthermore, the nature of pleasure (and happiness especially) makes it incompatible with a pessimistic thinker. It is not that pleasure refutes pessimism; rather, pleasure makes the pessimist forget why she is a pessimist to begin with. It was, after all, pain and suffering that prompts the pessimistic conclusion, and following the aforementioned Adorno quote, pleasure is maintained, in part, by a ignorance of the plight of others. Pleasure, being an intoxicant, ends up making the pessimist forget that she is a pessimist, because she can hardly feel genuine pleasure (and happiness) if she keeps in mind the reasons she is a pessimist.

In other words, to experience pleasure (and be happy) requires one to not believe in a pessimistic position for the duration of the experience. True, whole pleasure can only be experienced if it is as if pessimism was incorrect. How else could you have a good time, except by minimizing your interaction with reality? And if the pessimist has an accurate depiction of reality (I think she does), how else if she to experience truly pleasurable things if not by setting aside her belief temporarily? How can something be pleasurable if the person experiencing it thinks it ultimately isn't enough to justify her or others' existences as a whole?

This differs from the common, and ill-founded, complaint that pessimists are disingenuous for not committing suicide. It's plain to see that suicide is not generally a realistic, if not preferable, option. It is outside of our control, we can't override our instincts. This is just the tu quo que fallacy - the pessimist may hold that suicide is the best option, but may not actually be able to carry out this task.

Yet it seems that a pessimist who is experiencing true pleasure is indeed being disingenuous, because by experiencing pleasure, she must, for the time being, let go of her pessimistic convictions. She no longer holds the position for the duration of experience. In order to experience true pleasure, one must be in the mind-set that the joy experienced justifies existence, something the sober pessimist would reject. At least I would find it contradictory that a pessimist would say "I couldn't help myself!" - well, clearly you could, you just don't want to. Reality is harsh, and the pessimist should not skirt away from this by distracting herself with pleasures.

That is, after all, why Nietzsche made the distinction between the Dionysian and Apollonian, the happy drunk and the melancholic sober, and is why someone like Schopenhauer is considered a pessimist because he realized that the drunken acceptance of one's fate is transitory and contingent, something that cannot be realized when in such a drunken state. This is why Schopenhauer thought that the aesthetic could "calm the Will" - it does so by getting you to forget that you are a manifestation of the Will (according to Schopenhauer).

Again, the existence of true pleasure does not dent the pessimist's argument. The pessimist would be narrow-minded to not include these experiences. But what the pessimist ought to do, in order to be responsible and consistent, is to reject getting intoxicated, because becoming intoxicated causes someone to lose their convictions regarding the act and content of intoxication to begin with. You can't criticize the feebleness and transitory nature of pleasure if you are actually experiencing pleasure - such criticism must occur in a sober, usually hung over position.

So what is the pessimist to do?

The authentic pessimist, the one that isn't just pessimistic when they don't get what they want, is one who integrates her belief to every aspect of her life, as any authentic person of any substantial belief would do. The authentic pessimist does not sit on the fence or ride the seesaw, sometimes pessimistic, sometimes not. They don't have sober, hangover realizations, because they don't get drunk in the first place.

But like any sort of intoxicant, pleasure can be "consumed" responsibly. You don't have to get drunk to drink alcohol, and you don't have to forget your principles to feel pleasure. The authentic pessimist limits her experience of lofty pleasures to a minimum, constrained by necessity. She should never let her guard down, or allow herself to fully relax and allow the fantasy of a good world comfort her. Comfort should be earned, not administered. The clearest sign that something is wrong (apart from pain, of course), is when the pessimist realizes that she is not slightly anxious or sensitive to reality, which should be a sign that it is time to move on.

The best way of maintaining this almost-Stoic perspective is to continually keep suicide as a possibility, not out of morbid depression but of a way of "anchoring" one to reality. Everyday should the pessimist tell herself that she has the power and perhaps responsibility to see herself out of life. She thus leads a melancholic life of reflection, never depressed nor drunk, and always active. The only reprieve the pessimist has is when she lays her head down to sleep. It is a constant and productive vigilance, a life of meaning and responsibility, which can be enjoyed but only by dipping ones' toe in the water. In other words, the pessimist does fun and exciting things because they're something to do.

This idealist, authentic pessimist may not be possible to achieve, at least not immediately (habits). Perhaps that's just another argument for pessimism - we can identify the cycle of drunken-ness and sobriety and yet never fully escape. Realistically, it seems that everyone psychologically needs illusions. The ideal pessimist may not, in fact, be attainable in the long-term. We are all pleasure-holics. The cycle of ignorance and irresponsibility will continue.

So perhaps the practical authentic pessimist is one who works hard, and ensures that when they inevitably get drunk, they don't fuck up anything major. They make sure their dives into pleasure are limited and safe; although they are dependent on pleasure as much as anyone else is, they can at least be responsible and safe. Nothing extravagant, excessive or manipulating, just the bare minimum required to maintain a steady equilibrium.

The best the practical pessimist can do is to attempt to align their own desires with their ethical responsibilities. Make it so that helping others makes you feel good. Make it so that your pleasure does not significantly harm others. Another option is to have "background pleasure", like music, a comfortable room, or a hot shower, that do not affect others significantly and allow you to enjoy them without being immersed in them. On the opposite spectrum would be the risk-takers, those who enjoy putting themselves in the line of fire in order to fulfill some ethical responsibility. There seems to be no better way of reinforcing pessimistic ideals than by facing a threat head-on. In any case, the practical pessimist would gain more pleasure from the fulfillment of their own ideals than by an administration from some external stimuli. Another option would be to get in the habit of fact-checking (in the same way those who try lucid dreaming do during waking hours), or perhaps getting a small tattoo in a convenient location as a reminder.

Maybe I am asking too much of pessimists like myself. In fact maybe the sobriety during the hang-over is necessary to keep a fresh and strong perspective, i.e. we pursue pleasure when we lose sight of our principles, and a drunken episode of pleasure is necessary to "bounce back". Indeed it does seem to be the case, phenomenologically speaking, that I don't feel nearly as burdened by the existential and ethical nature of our condition when I'm in a LAN party with friends, or when I'm studying for a midterm (not "pleasurable" but certainly a distraction from our condition). Maybe it's just enough to recognize our see-saw nature and not try to pretend like we can control it. Or maybe we should try to relish the irony of it all, so long as we make sure we don't significantly harm anyone else. But ultimately I do think we should only pursue pleasure when we need it, not when we want it. Let the pigs have pleasure, we're better than that. Pleasure should only be administered when one has either earned it or requires a reprieve from life (like a therapy).

In any case it does bother me immensely how contradictory we tend to be - in my case, I have a tendency to become complacent and affirmative when not focusing on our condition. I fundamentally have major issues with life in general, and yet still (require?) seek satisfaction in it. Tempering our expectations may work to help us feel satisfaction - but as soon as we feel satisfied we forget our own origins, like all the pain in the past (and the future too!) and how we had to temper our expectations to begin with. It's a vicious cycle.

1 comment:

  1. Great post. I think we all are subject to the illusion. The illusion infers that you forget the bad about other people's lives, or just the inherent pain to life. I think pessimists should chase pleasures because not doing so would just bring more harm to them.

    At the same time, they should recognize the assymetry of pleasure and pain and henceforth not bring more children to the world.