The Evolution of Pleasure (2)

Find Part 1 here

I am reminded of an anecdote I once heard: Harry visits a tropical island where he meets Jay, a local fisherman. Jay tells Harry how he spends his days: he wakes up early, goes fishing in his wooden canoe, comes back after two or three hours with his catch, which his wife cooks for lunch and dinner with the yams grown in the garden. And the rest of the day he relaxes in his hammock, makes love to his wife, and plays with his son. Harry says, Ok, but why don’t you get a few more boats, and hire a few more men to go fishing for you. You can give them a cut and sell the fish at market, and with the profits, you can buy more boats and hire more fishermen. Soon, you’ll be self-sufficient and apart from managing your employees for a few hours a day, and paying them once a week, you’ll be free to relax in your hammock, make love to your wife, and play with your son.

We often get to the same place, but spend a lot of effort on roundabout ways to get there. More work is done but mostly it is the work created to keep track of all the new work: accounting, shipping, tracking, checking, regulation, mapping. We invent meet, update, mediate, recap, delegate, and set things in motion. As companies and individuals, we hire people to tell us how to be efficient, giving them all our time so we fall behind on the things that need doing. Bureaucracy and administration absorb time and effort like thirsty sponges. We standardize, orchestrate, streamline and list, but what does it all bring us besides busyness? We end up with malls that look similar after months of reconstruction, and small sushi joints replacing other small sushi joints every six months. Maybe, we are addicted to the process, and not the result. We thrive on the business of busyness, rather than consequence.

This is the basis of our economy: the system we have adopted as a means to exist well enough on this planet and go about our days. And in perpetuating and perfecting this system, we have begun to exist in relation to the periphery of things, their outer shell, rather than their core. We have become so specific in our design, manufacture, marketing and purchasing of stereos, cameras, swimming goggles, luggage, tennis shoes, optics, (insert anything), that we deal mostly with the thin film surrounding the main event, rather than the actual thing itself. We have moved so far from the functionality of technologies like TVs or phones, focusing almost entirely on the accessories that come with them. They have become main event. When we buy a TV, for instance, it’s about width, flatness, HD, color resolution, and so forth. Three TV’s will play the same show, but the price jump is exponential based on tweaks in the accessories. It’s not whether, it’s how. A different way to get there. But you’re still getting there with a cheap, simple set. You can buy a decent tennis racquet for a reasonable price, but if you want a racquet that’s 10% better, you’ll probably pay 50% or even 100% more. Buy a plenty good DSLR camera or lens and the next model up will set you back triple the cost. Because everything – time, money, effort – is invested in the details now.

Our economy runs on getting things from 90% to 95% because that costs more than getting from 60 to 90. It runs on better things, not good things, and you’re never sure if the old system of valuation still makes sense, of what is ultimately necessary, and of when you are being tricked. Have we reached a limit? Even though everything is better, and more accessible, and easier, are we running on fumes?

OK, so I’ve enjoyed meandering down this tangential slope, but and I want to get back to my original, much simpler question now, even though this is all kind of related: how does our current ability to enjoy stuff compare to that of the past? With all our progress, technological and otherwise, can we beat the simple, timeless pleasures of a spring breeze, a swim in a summer lake, or warming beside a winter fireplace? Sure, we can fly further afield to chase particular geographic delights, but on a root level, do we enjoy things more?

I’d like to invite a couple of old, well-known witnesses, namely food and sex, to the stand now.

With all the advances in cooking, like molecular gastronomy, and fusion cuisine, does food in general taste better? Do we enjoy wine more now that we can readily drink Austrian and Argentinean varietals? Or are we again, just shifting the measurement of value to the busyness surrounding the core event of pleasure? Shifting our attention to the dining experience, the story of the winemaker, the branding?

So often, we recreate the past in the present, working hard to reclaim a sense of simplicity all our modern sensibilities have struggled to improve on. There is a return to local ingredients cooked simply to emphasize the natural flavors, to rustic settings, to young, drinkable wines. (Also in fashion, art and film, there is a return to the past, as always – the most pertinent recent example being the movie The Artist, which won the Oscar with a direct return to the silent, black and white era.) There is a circularity to our enjoyment, and perhaps, its limits are not dictated by era, but by how able any individual is, at any particular time, to be open to, and absorb pleasure.

Is sex better today than it was in the past? Do we have better orgasms now that porn is so accessible and we can watch it in high-definition? Or are we just trying to keep up with an instinctive sexual standard as life becomes more complicated, and we constantly have to navigate new social and psychological hurdles? We need shrinks to tell us how to get back to feeling ok about something as simple and inherent as sex. The longer we live, as a species and as individuals, the more rules we make up about how we do things, and when we are talking about stuff like sex and food, which have been core part of our lives since we developed consciousness, we have engineered a very curvy road to navigate.

I mean – do you think we get more out of eating and drinking and fucking than the ancient Romans or Greeks did? And don’t older traditions and experiences still fill us with the most joy: Thanksgiving turkey, outdoor barbecue, beer, fresh oysters, feasts? What about a first kiss, great sex, or falling in love?

But let’s get back to life beyond food and sex. Do you enjoy TV more nowadays? What about music, or a game of tennis? Is sleeping on a fancy mattress better than napping under a tree? What about intoxicants? As I mentioned there are thousands of brands of booze on the shelf nowadays, but do you really think the average consumer enjoys their drink more than the average guy in 1963?  Or even 1925? Same for drugs. Go designer all you want, but the indigenous peoples of South America and Africa and everywhere else were taking hallucinogens hundreds if not thousands of years ago. Do people in 3D theatres really enjoy a movie more than people did in the 30’s, when crowds ate chicken and talked throughout the show? And do people get more from watching sports in high-definition on massive TVs than people did, listening to the radio in the 20s?

Of course, there is no clear answer, but I venture to say that in each era, people have reached maximum enjoyment with the tools at their disposal. Not knowing there was anything better, they were fully invested in what was available. People would be frustrated today, with yesterday’s technology, sure, but that doesn’t mean they have it better. Of course there are obvious examples in which this is untrue, like medicine, but plenty else has respectively done the exact same thing in a different time: get the human experience to a particular, often high level.

I’ll tell you, I’ve loved every stereo I’ve ever had, mostly cause it afforded me… MUSIC! I loved the small crappy ones and the bigger ones. I loved my walkman, and now I love my iPod. The world evolves and pushes, and there’s no need to fight it, but do try to remember sometimes that it’s relative and probably good enough. A sunrise, sandwich, or game of cards: they’re still as good as they always were. Stuff will still cook in regular pots, shoes will still protect your feet without gel insoles, and shirts will cover your body.

And so, my own tangential journey comes to an end. I started with Sebald, and traveled through time to discuss pleasure and aesthetics with the business of busyness in mind, asking open-ended questions about our species, the way we enjoy things, and how globalization affects this.

In many ways, Sebald’s book is a commentary on globalization, a modern-day catchword, but obviously, a force that has always shaped our nomadic species. We can describe the book too as one of its products. I bought this copy of The Rings of Saturn in Vancouver, and read it mainly in Spain and Hong Kong (still not finished). It was originally written in German, translated into English and published in England after being printed in the USA. This one object, hence, is a perfect physical example of the trends outlined so poetically in its pages.

Anyway, read the book, it’s well worth it, and feel free to share your opinion below on any of this by adding a comment.

By E.M. Vireo

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About EM Vireo
flooding the world with fiction

8 Responses to The Evolution of Pleasure (2)

  1. KK says:

    The opening anecdote says it all. In my opinion, every adult from the “first world” should visit any third world country at least once in few years to be reminded about the reality of life, what really matters and what’s just an illusion. Good work EM!

  2. Ryan says:

    A sunrise is a sunrise is a sunrise. But progress and technology have made our lives better in so many ways.

    You ask if sex is better now than in Roman times? Hell yes!!! I tell you why: Not because the act is any different, but because if the amount of people now that get to enjoy sex. It sounds like you are asking that question from the standpoint of someone who had access to good sex. What about sex slaves? Did they enjoy it? I don’t think so. Nowadays the vast majority of people can experience the act willingly as apposed to it being forced upon them. Especially women. If you think 100 years ago, women were just supposed to lie there and “think of England”. Sex now is more focused on both (or more) parties enjoying it equally.

    What about bird watching? You might say “well I would have enjoyed it just as much 100 years ago as I do now” and that is essentially true. but you are forgetting one very important aspect: 100 years ago you would have unlikely had as much time to bird watch as you do now.

    Technology in it’s purest form has giving us more time to do the things that we want to do. On average – and I am talking globally (not just the top 10%) we have more time to enjoy ourselves.

    My dad, when he was a boy, would have to save up his entire week’s allowance to go and watch a movie. He probably enjoyed it as much as I enjoy a 3D movie now, but it cost him a lot more.

    What about the simple act of going for a drive. There is nothing more enjoyable that shooting the breeze. But had I lived 80 years ago, it would not have been possible to own a car with which to shoot the breeze if I was in the same income bracket (relative). That was an activity reserved for the rich.

    I have the luxury of being able to say “I hate oysters from Japan” whereas the King of England wouldn’t have been able to say that 100 years ago and would never have had the opportunity to even eat an oyster from Japan.

    TV?? No, it’s not better, but there is a hell of a lot more choice which means that a greater proportion of people can find something they enjoy.

    What about the phone? I can make a call to South Africa almost for free with no lag. I remember when my parents used to get calls from the US and we couldn’t talk for long because of the cost and the lag was terrible. Technology has made the experience more enjoyable.

    In a nutshell: Technology hasn’t necessarily made experiences better, but it has made experiences accessible to a far broader range of people. And if you think globally, then ‘yes’ technology has made life better for us as human beings.

    • EM Vireo says:

      yes, as i mentioned, more accessible, but maybe not better in pure experience. good points though, for sure. We are defined most by our contradictions, and this is only emphasized by progress.

  3. Pi says:

    that is elluder as I understand him

  4. I’m one who believes that we have become addicted to “stuff” and its tangential attributes, such as the size of TV we must have. There is an addiction to all things new, when the old stuff will suffice. There is a “lemmings-to-the-sea” crowd mentality about all things new. People rush, unthinking, to acquire, acquire, acquire.

    Decades ago, I got sick of consumerism – the acquisition of new things to replace old and perfectly serviceable stuff. What good are more clothes when you have stuff in the closet that you’ve forgotten about? What’s the point of getting more? I still wear the clothes I bought five years ago, and they all fit in one closet in a house built in 1928.

    Does having the latest stuff make life better? I don’t think so. Case in point; in my last house, I had the kitchen redone, with good reason – the bottoms were falling out of cabinets which weren’t worth repairing. But I redid it with granite countertops, custom cabinets etc. While I did this for resale, knowing I wasn’t going to keep the house, I realized that my life was not improved because I’d gone the high-end route. I redid my current kitchen with laminate and kept the decades-old cabinets because they were in one piece. I have no regrets.

    I think there is a rush to *do* something before *thinking* about whether or not the doing is necessary.

    Good post.

  5. Pi says:

    The essence of pleasure is unchanged; what has changed is the variety of ways of experiencing it.

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