Thursday, May 27, 2010

Pleasure Principle

Penny had been offered two great jobs, both of which will help her finally realize her life-long dream. One job is in the island of Raritaria, which had strict laws against drinking, drugs, extra-marital/pre-marital sex, crude entertainment, junk and fast-foods. The island permitted only "higher" pleasures - such as art, classical music, gourmet food, literature and theatre. Rawitaria, on the other hand was the exact opposite - it offered nothing in the means of intellectual or "refined" pleasure, but pandered to hedonists. It had excellent restaurants with greasy, lip-smacking food, Cabernet circuits, fancy bars, discos, and liberal concessions on sex and drugs. Penny was in a quandary - she didn't know which island to choose. She enjoyed both forms of pleasures every now and then, but she was pushed by the normative attitudes of society to prefer the "higher" pleasures to the "lower" ones. She wasn't sure if Beethoven was indeed a better choice than Britney Spears. (Original Source: Utilitarianism, John Stuart Mill (1863))

What gives us a greater source of happiness and satisfaction - the "lower" or the "higher" pleasures? It seems to just boil down to individual tastes and preferences, that naming one "low" and the other "high" seems unfair and pompous. So how would you name them? In your mind, is one "better" than the other? Can we objectively choose one island over the other? Utilitarianism is the moral philosophy that tries to establish the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Would one kind of pleasure cause more happiness than the other, to the greatest number of people?

This might seem like a trivial question, but I think it goes beyond just a matter of taste. In the present generation, it is sad that our recreational lives revolve around how to kill time, with as little thinking as possible. In one of the HGTV shows, a designer snobbishly critiqued a newly designed living room - "Although the design of the space is nice, there is one serious flaw - the living room does not have a TV to define it." I was as irritated as the owner - since when did a TV become a necessity to "define" a living room? What happened to good conversations or just the quiet enjoyment of the magnificent views of the ocean (which the house had). Why let our minds be numbed by the inane blaring of a TV? Such pleasures, according to me, are not necessarily "low". They are merely excessively sensory-centric, and are quite temporary in satisfying us.

Unfortunately, anything that comes with the tag of "refined-taste" is regarded as ostentatious and pretentious, way above the lay man. But appreciation of art, literature, and good music, despite requiring sensory perception, transcend the senses and appease the intellect. In effect, they offer some positive growth to our thinking in the long-run. They infuse a wholesome culture to lead our lives. If the intellect can be stimulated, there is a higher chance of a long-lasting, "permanent" satisfaction. I'm reiterating the words of great scriptures, such as the Bhagavad Gita. However, such tastes are associated with the elite and a higher social status. Therefore, the world bursts with ignorant, fastidious people, who cannot appreciate or understand any refinement, but blindly follow their herd for approval. Such charades, in superficial ways of dressing and behaving are loathsome.

While I enjoy literature, music and art, every once in a while I don't mind dumping myself on the couch, munching potato chips and staring at the TV. As a matter of fact, sometimes I need to get away from all the thinking and analysis of ragas and neravals, and just blare peppy pop songs to combat the monotony of a long drive. Sometimes mozzarella sticks are comfort food, not sushi. But then, only sometimes. But if I had to choose, which one is more important to me that I will not be able to live without?

I'm not exactly a party animal. In the long run, I can compromise on not eating cheese and potatoes fried in unhealthy ways. I can live comfortably without TV, drugs or drinks. But I will miss music of the kind that just lets me tap my feet. With music, I find no barriers, no necessity for classifications and boundaries. I can never ever concentrate on lyrics, I can only follow the melody and the rhythm, that once upon a time, even Britney Spears injected some inspiration into me. But that's probably how most people consider this whole topic...probably the distinctions between the two forms of pleasures are quite trivial by themselves. However, I can't imagine giving away literature and art to listen to Britney Spears and eat fun food every day. But that's just the way I am wired.

However, just because I picked the "classy" island, it doesn't mean I like going to fancy restaurants that insist on prim dress codes, or having stiff parties to discuss Shakespeare. I like to curl up on the couch and nod to sleep as I listen to Mozart, walk with my friends to a coffee place and discuss books, take a slow walk to enjoy Nature, engage in meaningful conversations over a jigsaw puzzle, attend plays and musicals in a plain sweater, and appreciate art from a road-side vendor for its personality and creativity. Refinement is the lens through which we see simple pleasures of life - without any pomp or snoot. In the end, it's about refining the time that we spend in the company of those who matter, not killing time by drowning ourselves in mind-numbing pursuits.


SecondSight said...

I think you nailed the difference in your last line- mind-numbing vs. refining/ stimulating. The creative pleasure a chef achieves in mingling flavors to satisfy the palate, or a gourmand feels when eating that creation, may be just as great as the sensory pleasures of admiring a Da vinci or Van Gogh to the art connoisseur. Television and home decor may be equally stimulating to others.. I think the 'goal' of balancing pleasures is to have the right mix of comfort vs. stimulation. And again, the proportions depend on the individual :)

Suvasini.... said...

Hi Neeraja,

It was nice to hear from you... Ya, i have been reading your posts for a while and find them thought provoking. I quite like the questions you pose and the book reviews that keep coming ! Just finished the twentieth wife after your review and really liked it. Looking forward to getting my hands onto the feast of roses for now.. :)

Yes, Indeed, it is nice to come across like minded people in a world where numbing the mind is sometimes a favorite past time...

Looking forward to many more posts from you...


Suvasini.... said...

As for this post, i think second sight summed it up beautifully when she said the goal should be to have the right mix of comfort vs stimulation, depending entirely on the individual. The only thing i wonder is, if these tastes are acquired or if we are all gifted differently to be able to appreciate different things... Sometimes, there are only gray areas and middle paths...

Neeraja said...

SecondSight - I agree. Even the term "comfort" takes on a new definition with different people and their personalities.

Suvasini - Nice to hear from you as well :). Thanks again for following my ramblings. Please feel free to share your views...different views help me learn and grow :)

Some tastes are definitely innate, but many boil down to the same old nature vs. nurture debate. When tastes stem out of peer pressure or due to a lack of awareness of oneself and needs, there is always room for expanding one's horizons for one's own betterment.