Civil Pleasures

In the self-satisfied and arbitrary manner of people who think too much about things (formerly known as ‘philosophers’), I’ve decided that our pleasures and pains fall under three headings: the private, the competitive, and the civil. By way of preliminaries, I’d like to dispose of the first two.

Private pleasures (and pains) are difficult, if not impossible, to talk about, even with close friends. For twenty or thirty years now, the old taboos on talking about ‘sex and plumbing’ (a lovely phrase) have been lifted, and we’ve all had plenty of opportunity to discuss what’s underneath. Perhaps nothing less than hours of gratuitous cinematic groping and torrents of confessional smut could have stopped the creeping politeness that, by the 50s, had made it impossible to touch on matters that the less prudish Victorians could refer to. By 1960, sex had literally been reduced to a joke – a movie starring Dean Martin, say, and a half-dozen pneumatic blondes.

So we let the blondes, and whoever else wanted to, take off their clothes. We exchanged Dean Martin for Eddie Murphy, learned words we hadn’t even known were dirty, and we got the Starr report as a prize. Even the Starr report is preferable to censorship, of course; I’m as convinced as the ACLU is that the law has no business meddling with consensual carnality. (Actually, the law was instrumental in dismantling the old social strictures.) Let the red light districts flourish! But let’s be honest: there’s nothing enlightening in reading about orgasms, and nothing enlightened in the motives behind such reading. There’s only one word that justly describes curiosity about how, er, the other guys do it, and that’s ‘adolescent.’

Joan Crawford, it seems, was one of the most sexually aggressive women in Hollywood history. But you don’t have to learn that from racy biographies. All you have to do is watch her blow cigarette smoke at John Garfield in Humoresque.

The competitive pleasures spring from games of one kind or another - inevitably, perhaps essentially, against a background of war - and are so ubiquitous that an entire school of political science has been built on the idea that humans are always playing games. Buy a share of stock, play a rubber of bridge, finagle a loan out of an uncle, rush your research through committee before your colleagues can, or scheme for the corner office, and you put yourself in the way of competitive pleasure. There is the diffused pleasure of playing, and the pointed one of winning. I don’t believe that arguments about the importance of winning will ever be resolved, because while some people genuinely enjoy playing a game regardless of the outcome, plenty of others think it's a waste of time not to play to win.

People talk a great deal about the competitive pleasures, but does anybody really listen?  When two guys fall into a friendly dispute about a tournament, but even this is more like to be competitive than conversational. The pleasure of actually playing a game well is as ineffable as the pleasure of making love, and of course there is very little to say about so binary a matter as winning.

Exactly why business should operate so much like sports is unclear to me. Necessarily so? See the Business & Sports Page for more.

As to the civil pleasures, I won’t say much about them here, as I intend to write about nothing else for some time to come. They’re the ones that it’s useful to talk about, and the talk itself is one of them. In the aggregate, they weave, out of countless exchanges among artists and audiences, talkers and listeners (who talk in turn), the web of meaning that we call ‘culture.’ This network is not the ornamental byproduct of private wealth and leisure that self-styled tough-minded types take them to be. Less frequently than love, but more frequently, I think, than games, civil pleasures change people’s lives, inside and out, and the web not only changes its pattern accordingly but become stronger.

Why civil not social? Partly because so many of the pleasures involved are only to be had in cities, at least with any frequency. But mostly because of the diplomacy that I think talking about them deserves. The diversity of city life requires the same foresight, tact, and preparation for the unexpected. And, finally, because the word ‘civil’ connotes both a respect for the individual and a sense of the interactive that are not implicit in ‘social.’

In 1922, a French periodical asked its readers to imagine how people would take the news that the earth was about to be destroyed. Marcel Proust submitted a characteristic answer: he thought that the news would make life intensely beautiful. At last, one would have no reason not to do all the things one had always wanted to do, and damn the consequences. We would appreciate any day more if we knew that it was to be our last.

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may. Yet somebody has to plant the roses, tend and prune and worm them, but nobody’s going to worry about gardening if an asteroid’s really on the way. Proust suggests that if we were sure that the end was near, we’d finally visit the Louvre (for example), or go to India, or declare a secret love. Perhaps. But the wonders of neither the Louvre nor India were created under the threat of imminent annihilation; nor in the face of such menace would anyone have developed the transportation necessary to reach them. As for love, it could be little more, in a transitory world, than uninflected appetite.

Almost everything of value rests on someone’s patient acquisition of skill. The loss of earthly future – not so much one’s own as that of humanity altogether – strips life of the luster that for most people makes hard work worthwhile. The fading of classical antiquity into what are rightly called the Dark Ages – roughly, the three hundred years centered on Charlemagne’s coronation in 800 – was driven first by Christian eschatology, which reduced the mortal world to an antechamber of the afterlife (and a vale of tears to boot), and then by invading marauders. The prospect of extinction had a dulling, not a heightening, effect on consciousness. People stopped bothering to keep records – which is why the period will almost certainly remain ‘Dark’ forever. In our own time, the risk of nuclear war inspired the tinny and disposable artifacts of the 50’s and 60’s.

Of course, crisis is always exciting, and the idea that World War I erupted because Europeans couldn’t stand more than a century of peace has a wide currency. Nevertheless, in the absence of a compelling and immediate danger, there’s no point in counting on The End, or even in planning for it. I believe that people like us are going to be around for quite a while, and that we’ve got a lot to learn from one another. These pages are simply reports of things I’ve been learning. (March 2000)

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