Thursday, September 17, 2015

Pleasure’s Poisoned Baits

Nature, we can agree, is an enormous bait and switch operation: the angler fish his lure, the rose her flower, not to mention all the blandishments evolved to lighten fools the way to busty Beth. These gaudy shows and cheap thrills were never meant to profit the fish, the bee, or the bachelor. From the point of view of nature, human purposes are just a means to an end, though, speaking properly, nature doesn’t actually have any goals of her own—to call a basin of attraction a goal is the merest facon de parler. The sexual aspects of the system are explained more fully in one of the earliest known TED lectures.

Here’s the amusing application: when the traditional Catholics insisted that reproduction was the only licit motive for intercourse and strictly forbade any sexual activity that did not have at least the potentiality to produce a child, they were acting as agents for nature. Spinoza’s expression, Deus sive nature, sounds rather atheistic to us as it did to many people in the 17th Century; but medieval thinkers often used nature as a synonym for God. It wasn’t unorthodox, and it wasn’t just theory. Practicing Catholics of the old school had enormous families, which certainly met the approval of a God dedicated to goosing inclusive fitness, at least if he (she?) were betting on r selection. Of course the Catholics also insisted on a celibate priesthood; but beyond how many nephews the average Pope had and the fact, famously noted by Rabelais, that even the shadow of the monastery chapel can knock up your daughter, the net effect of the system was maximum fecundity. The faith duplicates or mimics nature in another way as well. It seeks to control the behavior of the individuals by the promise of eventual gratification. The believer is supposed to look beyond the temporary if inevitably disappointing rewards of the flesh—the one sticky night of pleasure Baudelaire wrote about—to an eternal reward, which is another way of saying one that never actually occurs. The prospect of the permanent orgasm of beatitude in a vague elsewhere substitutes for even the fleeting gratifications of earthly life. In this respect, the religious version of the swindle is an improvement on the various contrivances natural selection came up with. It’s cheaper.

A Catholic will certainly object that there’s more to it than that, and they will be quite correct. I’m simply teasing out one strand in a tangled mass of ideas, practices, and feelings. The mystics always claimed to experience eternity in the here and now, and the moralists always valued virginity above marriage. There’s a permanent tension in the tradition between the urge to slut shame Mother Nature and the insistence that creation, whatever its imperfections in the fallen era, is nevertheless good. Gnostic and Manichean hatred of the flesh is heretical, and the stake awaited the votaries of any sect that drew the obvious conclusion that reproduction should be prevented. They were pulling down Cathar castles in Languedoc long before they were bombing abortion clinics in Oklahoma. And the Catholics I know still tell me that their church really is dedicated to making people feel guilty.

The history of Christian asceticism witnesses a related ambiguity. What is supposed to be a renunciation of pleasure and an acceptance of suffering in religious devotion constantly threatens to become just a different and, indeed, superior kind of pleasure.  Not for nothing are whips found both in Jesuit seminaries and the specialty room at high price brothels. There is a genealogical continuity between manuals of spiritual mortification and the oeuvre of the Divine Marquis. The masochist, as Giles Deleuze pointed out in Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty, exploits conventional morality’s permanent vulnerability to subversion. If sexual pleasure merits punishment, one can pay for one’s pleasure in advance by sexualizing punishment. I’ve suffered already. Now you owe me. 

For the record, I think the masochists are on to something, not that you need to go in for complicated rituals in order to enjoy yourself; but that living a fully human life requires a certain form of jiu jitsu, obliges us to use nature and its religious proxies against itself.  I think of the ego—myself—as a kind of parasite that exploits the raw material of the natural drives to create motives for itself and the other parasites it choses to love. That sounds odd, but it’s really just a fourth version of the categorical imperative. It understands the kingdom of ends referred to in the third version of the imperative to be a sphere of anti-nature or rather, since nature isn’t really a God whatever Spinoza suggested, an eddy in the thermodynamic system of the world, a temporary and local reversal of flow in the entropic rush. It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature and not possible to thwart the 2nd Law but you can insist “Not here. Not now.” Let us let oblivion take care of itself. It’s good at that.

I wouldn’t have put things in this fashion when I was young, but even when I was a child I wondered at the point of it all if we’re all just destined to pumping out offspring and raising the GNP. Are we all, to borrow a bit from an old Mad Magazine article, vending machine vending vending machines or is there some time when we take a profit? Levi-Strauss ended his memoir Tristes Tropiques with a similar thought with a reference to the futility of mankind’s hive like labors. The anthropologist has been damned as a European Buddhist for such asides, but I figure that a meaningful exchange of glances with a cat is as good as we’re going to get.  


LFC said...

I'd have to read this post a second time to absorb it properly. But a short note re the Cathars: my impression is they did not hate the flesh. The Cathar 'perfects' were celibate, but the mass of followers weren't, iirc. (I may have misread your reference in its context, in which case, sorry.)

LFC said...

On re-reading that passage, I guess you're making a slightly different point, which is that the Cathars didn't highly value reproduction/procreation or see it as some kind of moral duty a la orthodox Catholicism -- which point seems right.