Friday, December 23, 2005

Pleasure and Interest, Redux

Lots of charming afterthoughts and clarifications chez Bob these days, on the who'd-have-thought-it-vexing topic of pleasure and disinterest. (Even more this morning, it seems, with still more of those nifty pictures. Hey Bob, how do you get them to stay in the middle of a post? Mine always come out at the top.) Sadly, the question of pleasure seems to be dropping out of the discussion, in favor of topics like "materialism" and "selfhood" and "the Origins of the Enlightenment," which mostly make my wee eyes glaze. Let me see if I can drag the matter of pleasure back into the spotlight.

As you may recall, Bob illustrated his apothegm "Modernity is Disinterest" with a passage from Coleridge. In it, John Milton made the case, against a fellow Puritan, that one might savor the pleasures of a Papist cathedral despite the social and theological errors it houses and embodies. I know this debate first hand, come to think of it, from my college days, when I spent a summer in France and Spain. Every cathedral I visited provoked it, right in my own split-self breast, and I felt it particularly keenly during my visit to the oddly named "Sinagoga de Santa MarĂ­a la Blanca." (The name suggests some of the nasty history to be remembered during your visit.) Jacqueline Osherow's wonderful long poem in terza rima, "Views of La Legenda della Vera Croce," takes up just this topic as well, starting in a passage where she learns the proper Italian name for the picture called, in English, "The Torture of Judas":

I thought I heard the torture of the Jew
And was so stunned I played the thing again

(My Italian was, after all, fairly new
And the woman on the tape spoke very quickly
But she did say the torture of the Jew--

In Italian it's ebreo--quite matter-of-factly)
The torture of the Jew who wouldn't reveal
The locatin of the true cross
--I got it exactly--

Put in a lot of coins to catch each syllable
(I also heard the English, which said Judas),
All the while not looking at the rope, the well;

Instead, I chose a saintly woman's dress,
And angel's finger pointing to a dream,
A single riveting, incongruous face--

What was I supposed to do? They were sublime.
The Inquisition wasn't exactly news
And, while I did keep my eyes off that one frame,

I wasn't about to give up on those frescoes.
In fact, I saw them again, a short while after
And again soon after--in those heady days,

Trains cost almost nothing and a drifter
Could easily cover quite a bit of Italy,
Though I tended to stay in Tuscany. The light was softer,

And--probably not coincidentally--
It had a higher density than any other place
Of things that could dazzle inexhaustibly.

And I was insatiable, avaricious
For what--even asleep--a person can't see
From a slim back bedroom in a semidetatched house

Like every other house in its vicinity
On a site whose inhabitants had been wiped out
To make room for spillover, like my family,

From the very continent I would have dreamed about
If I'd had even an inkling of the mastery
Of what its subtlest inhabitants had wrought

When they weren't doing away with people like me....

"Modernity is Disinterest" means, in cases like this, something slightly different from a Kantian "disinterested aesthetic response": it means a willingness to admit and indulge in sensory pleasure in the face of ideology, of history, even of compassion. To give, if not the Devil, at least the limbic system its due.

So--does the word "disinterest" now start to wobble? Sensory pleasure is hardly "disinterested"; rather, it speaks the "interests" of our bodies, whether by this I mean a hard-wired, evolutionary predisposition to like sweets and fats and symmetry and certain ratios and proportions, or merely our unconscious or preconscious responses to convention and childhood training. At this level, pleasure means unfreedom, plays me for a sucker, even as it liberates me from whatever mind-forged manacles I have decided or been told to wear.)

OK: enough for now. Time to practice my harmony line on "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," even if I refuse to admit that "we" were in fact in "Satan's power," let alone "gone astray."

Comfort & Joy, y'all--

1 comment:

Archambeau said...

Just click on the little "image" icon in the "edit post" feature of your update screen, and you're in business. You can choose image size and position of the left-center-right axis. As for the vertical axis, you just have to cut and past the html tag into the appropriate place in your message.

Hope this helps!