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Pleasure: the impossible moment of delight

By Philip Hensher

One day in the early years of the century, Siegmund Freud observed his 18-month-old grandson playing a game of his own invention with a cotton reel. The child tossed it away from him, saying “Oo-oo-oo”. Freud, after some thought, concluded that he was saying “fort”, or “away”. He then drew it back towards him, and said, with great satisfaction, “da”, or “there”. (It consistently amuses small children – try it with your nearest toddler).

Freud based a large part of the analysis of Beyond The Pleasure Principle (1920) on this charming vignette. You don’t need to weigh it down with the Freudian apparatus of mother-love. Pleasure, for humans, is inevitably weighed down with anticipation, loss and memory; it is as acutely present when the loved object is still to arrive or when it has been heedlessly tossed away, as when it is in our hands.

An interesting book, just published in America, challenges this idea by examining some extreme incidents of humans in search of pleasure. The notorious and bizarre 2003 case of the German cannibal, Armin Meiwes, offers a challenge to any theory of pleasure. Meiwes explicitly advertised online for a partner in joy whom he was proposing to kill and then eat. A gentleman called Bernd Brandes responded. They met: Meiwes cut off Brandes’s penis, fried it and ate it with Brandes’s consent while he was still living. After Brandes bled to death, Meiwes seems to have cooked and eaten some 44 pounds of his flesh over the course of several weeks.

What was the source of pleasure for either eater or eaten? Paul Bloom addresses this surely extraordinary and unique case in his book How Pleasure Works. (Or perhaps not so unique – amazingly, Meiwes had hundreds of responses to his cannibalistic lonely-hearts advert). Bloom argues that what leads a person like Meiwes, or indeed, anyone who fetishistically pays thousands, or even millions, of pounds for unique objects with a unique connection to a historic personage, is something called “essentialism”.

The reason people will pay an enormous sum at auction for, say, a wooden spoon once owned by Elizabeth David, and the reason why someone wants to eat someone else, or indeed, wants to be killed and eaten, is to get through to the essence of things: to reach a situation in which all inessentials are stripped away, and the self and the object exist in a state of the most perfect pleasure. The successful bidder and the pervert are alone with the property of a genius, or perhaps a fried human penis, in his own kitchen, and are perfectly satisfied.

Well, perhaps. Another recent survey days has examined the well-trodden ground of the relationship between pleasure and money. Many studies have examined this, from any number of starting points, often concluding, in the oldest of old saws, that money can’t buy you happiness, or, in more sophisticated terms, that happiness and pleasure often resides not in riches in absolute terms, but in being richer than the people who happen to live to your left and your right in Acacia Avenue. Other studies have claimed that comparisons with the wealth of others leads to a “set-up for disappointment”, and that a good attitude is all that matters.

This most recent study inquired into the wellbeing 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 savourless and without pleasure was not invented simply to keep the poor happy with their lot.

Both Bloom’s book and the 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? Bloom, 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 Japanese netsuke. 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, netsuke 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 fulfilment 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.

The hairband and gewgaw emporium Claire’s Accessories has a thoughtful, rather philosophical slogan to tempt its young customers. It sells itself under the strapline “where getting ready is half the fun”. That is honest and truthful. Probably a party of 14-year-old girls in their party best is nowhere near as successful an enterprise of pleasure as exactly the same girls, putting on and trying out, and discussing their hopes for the party in advance; not as successful, either, as talking it over the next day. The party itself, from the beginning of time, has consisted of a lot of standing around and gawping and giggling, and someone crying in the lavatory.

So any notion of fulfilled pleasure which insists on the essences of things is doomed to failure. For Herr Meiwes, the German cannibal, and Herr Brandes, his unfortunate victim, the peculiar pleasure must have resided in the thinking about the act in advance, and, for Herr Meiwes, at least, thinking about it subsequently. For Freud’s grandson, engaged in the fort-da game, the fun was in the process of loss and recapture, and not about holding the thing at all.

The same thing, surely, applies to theories of pleasure. Mr Bloom and the researchers of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology were clearly happiest when undertaking their research, during which time they were looking forward to coming to a conclusion; and now that they can sit back and start to say “Yes, when I concluded my theory of pleasure and satisfaction…”

Even for philosophers of pleasure, another ancient and well-handled cliché about travel and life is true: getting there really is half the pleasure.

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