Tuesday, 21 November 2006

Johnson said

Johnson said ‘No man is a hypocrite in his pleasures.’ This may be the most wrongheaded thing Johnson ever said. I used to think it was, perhaps, half-wrongheaded: that a man might find hypocritical pleasure in Wagner in public, for the benefit of those he hoped to impress, and thereby for his own benefit, though he would still go home to his solitary domicile and his Easy Listening CDs. In other words I used to think that taste is, in large part defined by the movement from ego to Other and that it therefore necessarily encompasses both. But things are, I think, more complex than that.

It occurs to me now that in fact we can only gauge what our pleasures are by apprehending other peoples’ pleasures. The pleasure of others, for the various ways we construe that term ‘pleasure’, determines and shapes our pleasure. We sexually desire those who shape our sexual desire. We admire the art that is admirable by the standards of others (‘I don’t know much about art, but I know what others like …’). There aren’t any other standards for us to apply. In the sense that we all own enjoyments that are not actually ours, we are nothing but hypocrites in our pleasures.

Johnson also said ‘he who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man’ Thus the drunk, the crack-addict, the lecher and the sadist are all hoping for solace in their beastly life-projects. But these passtimes are quite alien to beasts (a lecherous beast? A drunk beast? A sadistic beast?). To say this is not to assert any animal-lib moral superiority of beasts over people; quite the reverse. It’s not that beasts are incapable of selfish self-indulgence: patently, they are – there’s nothing so gluttonous as a pampered dog. Rather it is to say that to live as a beast is to inhabit their moment-to-moment immersion in mortality, and that’s precisely where the pain of being a man inheres. Beasts do not need to rid themselves of the pain of being beasts because that’s not the shape of beastly consciousness; but men who method-act beastiality can never do other than throw into horrible relief their own self-conscious humanity. If you live moment by moment then death is only ever a moment away. It's that moment-ness that narcotics and fantasy are there to obscure.

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