In defense of pleasure

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As a sorta foodie, I was struck by something in Paul Liberatore's story the other day about Michael Pollan, author of "In Defense of Food" and "The Omnivore's Dilemma," who spoke here recently.

I've had the pleasure of hearing Mr. Pollan speak, and although he has many great things to say, one thing resonates with me very strongly — his view that eating is all about community and, especially, pleasure:

"I think we've always been screwed up about food here," he said. "I don't think we've ever had a healthy food culture. We have a sense that food is poison, that it's treacherous. We have a lot of trouble treating food as a pleasurable experience."

Actually, I think we have lots of trouble with lots of things that are pleasurable.

Take, for instance, my discussion awhile back on masturbation. Masturbation is all about pleasure — self-pleasure, precisely — and maybe that's why it gets everyone in a tizzy (and not the pleasurable kind, either). Maybe it's easier to accept pleasure if we give it to others rather than to ourselves. To indulge ourselves somehow seems selfish.

Same thing with sex in general. Sex is a very pleasurable experience, yet people often judge those who enjoy sex for the sheer pleasure of it, and not because they're "in love" or procreating or in a committed relationship or married. And even those having sex often judge themselves, or feel guilty in allowing themselves to have sex just for, well, sex. Just because it feels good.

And increasingly we are losing the ability to find serendipitous delights and joys, or so I discovered when I stumbled upon psychologist Barry Schwartz's discussion on why having so many choices is bad for us. Our quest for perfection in just about everything, including ourselves, end up making us unhappy and leaves us fewer opportunities to be pleasantly surprised.

OK, but why?

In Walter Kerr's book, "The Decline of Pleasure" (written in the '60s but relevant today), he writes that we tend to believe that everything we do must serve some useful purpose, that our art must have a "message" (Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times' take on Norman Rockwell explores that beautifully); when it doesn't, we feel guilty or that it doesn't mean much.

To change that, to allow ourselves to feel pleasure, he suggests that we have purposeless fun. And he says we shouldn't expect anything from pleasure but a "memory of delight, an increase of well-being so deep and so central that it cannot even be located, let alone measured and codified for future use."

And that makes pleasure worlds apart from hedonism, which puts "pleasure or happiness is the sole or chief good in life," according to Merriam-Webster's online dictionary: Pleasure, the same dictionary says, is a state of gratification, sensual gratification, a source of delight or joy, and — what Kerr would agree with — a frivolous amusement.

And sharing that amusement, or so Barbara Ehrenreich says. She wonders if the "epidemic of depression" and the apparent decline in our ability to experience pleasure began with the rise of self over community in "Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy."

Google "guilt-free pleasure" and you'll get 70,000-plus results — many food- or sex-related. As for "guilty pleasure," Google has more than 4.5 million results — many from people admitting to liking a band like Rush or a movie like "The Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" or, like Sam Stall, Lou Harry and Julia Spalding admit in their book "The Encyclopedia of Guilty Pleasures: 1,001 Things You Hate to Love," the "guilty" joys of loving Richard Simmons, Hamburger Helper and outlet malls.

But why does guilt often find its way into the conversation about pleasure?

Psychologist Carol Gilligan, author of "The Birth of Pleasure," wonders why our culture sees the worst in pleasure, just as it sees love as almost always leading to loss.

What comes next for relationships between men and women? If we don't turn back from the changes initiated by the liberation movements of the mid-twentieth century, what comes next is the birth of pleasure. This is where the future lies. But it is important to say that by pleasure I don't mean titillation or hedonism as it's commonly understood; I mean our capacity for delight, for joy.

A beautiful exploration of what happens when our desire to name the pleasure we experience (and to express it to others) is thwarted and perverted is included in an essay by Jamaican-born poet Michelle Cliff in the book, "The Land of Look Behind."

In "Obsolete Geography," Cliff associates her discovery, at age 12, of pleasure — the juicy sweetness of mangoes, the caress of water, the stirring of longing within her own developing body — with watching someone cut a pig's throat: "as her cries cease, mine begin."

"If I were to say what I was feeling and thinking, no one would want to be with me, my voice would be too loud," seventeen-year-old Iris says, half to me and half to herself. And then looking straight at me, she adds with an edge of defiance, "But you have to have relationships." "Yes," I agree. We had been listening to the honest, outspoken voices of younger girls. "But if you are not saying what you are feeling and thinking, then where are you in these relationships?" It is my question for girls and women; it is my question for myself. Iris sees the paradox in what she is saying: she has given up relationship in order to have relationships, muting her voice and concealing herself so that "she" could be with other people. Her pleasure in these relationships is compromised by her awareness of having sacrificed herself, or pleasure takes on a different meaning, referring to bodily sensations that have become divorced from or a stand-in for the pleasure of being a soul in a body living in connection with others."

Wow — I so believe that we should experience the "pleasure of being a soul in a body living in connection with others."

Do you think we have fewer opportunities for pleasure?

Do you think we deny ourselves opportunities for pleasure?

If so, why?

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