Pleasure


            I come, I said, to be useful and to entertain. What else can one do? Between the acts something must be done to occupy our minds or we become too aware of our great emptiness. It is true, we might converse with one another. But then we would learn again how little all of us have to say to each other. Love is not American. Neither is conversation, but that is not exactly what I mean.

            One ought to be amusing, but unfortunately I know very few witty sayings, entertaining stories. I find that my idea of the comical is not, as they say, objective. I have tried for some time to invent a god story for this occasion, but the best I could do is this new wrinkle, entitled "Turning the Tables": ABC says to DEF: "Who was that lady I saw you with last night? Some fun, hey, boy!" DEF, offended by the lightness with which his passion is regarded, replies, "That was no lady, that was your wife." A good story too, at least to me, is Stendal's remark on first eating ice cream: "What a pity it is not a sin!" Becoming more serious in order to approach nearer to my true subject, I recall the fact that Fichte drank champagne for the first time when his infant boy said "I" for the first time. Let me continue with two more quotations bearing on this Laocoon-like process and presentation which we are here to see. "I can hire half the working class to fight the other half." So said Jay Gould at about the same time that Engels, intimate friend of a member of the audience, was observing with the most perfect justice that the most appalling evil produced by class conflict was its corruption and degradation of the ruling class–barbarism, inexorable cynicism, contempt for all values on the part of those who enjoy the greatest benefits of society. Sophocles observes that man is the most admirable of beings. It is true. The most disgusting also, one ought to add. It is dialectical. The possibility of the one means the possibility of the other.

            Now take the world's champion of men, Coriolanus, whose life we passively suffer to step over our faces (as we sit here, in the prepared darkness). All things are tied together, though sometimes loosely. Hence, more and more facts are dragged on the stage, as this moving individual passes before the footlights. Who knows if there will, indeed, be sufficient room? No doubt that I am an intruder, but try to eject me. The sky cannot be excluded. It is the greatest natural object. The state cannot be omitted. It is the greatest artificial object. The individual requires our focused gaze. He is the greatest subject, natural and artificial. Then there is his mother, his wife, his child, all his fathers, all his children. What an enormous crowd it may become! And the audience is already so complex, so full of foreigners.

            Besides, these are questions of emphasis. "The individual is the only verifiable actuality, the individual, his experience from moment to moment." So said one in French about the same time as Lev Davidovich, better known as Trotzky, justly remarked that "The individual–is an abstraction!" He is right and yet you know and so do I as we sit here in this theatre–the essential stareotorium, one might say–we both know that we cannot regard the warm identity beneath our faces as being no more than an abstraction. Man is always in the world, yes! inconceivable apart from being surrounded by a greater whole than himself. And yet he is at the same time himself and in and by himself and by traveling here and there may separate himself from any particular interior in which he finds himself. There is a thought which will take a considerable amount of chewing and then yo will only have to spit it out again. As I said, all this bears upon what is taking place here. Also on Coriolanus the individual. Food, for example, improves the spirit, coffee consoles the soul. Most men, to quote again, lead lives of quiet desperation, the victims, all of them, of innumerable intentions. Hence the enormous spiritual and emotional quality of food and drink. There is also tobacco and alcohol, although wine too is not American.

            Why be desperate, even quietly? Thus one might ask. Because one end merely leads to another one, one activity to another in an inexhaustible endlessness which is exasperating, metaphysically speaking, although such speech is not the fashion. Do not, however, be disconsolate nor given over to unutterable despair. Consider the nature of pleasure. It is a maligned word, meaning merely the innocence and intrinsicality of being, each thing and each state taken as final and for itself. A cup of coffee destroys your sadness. To be born, we are told, is the greatest of all pains–all else a dilution and weakening which offends the masochist. Though this be but a gynecologist's truth, yet let us remember it. Pleasure is what it is as is the rose. It justifies itself. To have pleasure, to be pleased, to enjoy oneself, that is sufficient, and only the Philistine asks: What for? Although there is a question of the permanent, the intermittent, the conflicting, and the exclusive, but let us not discuss this now.

            Pleasure has a hundred thousand obvious forms, plentiful variety for the most fickle spirit. Pleasure of convalescence (how voluptuous weakness can be); pleasure of need (a dry crust of bread); pleasure of the first time and the last time; pleasure of mere looking (as the sunlight delights itself upon the tumbling fountain, as the small morning makes the metropolis unreal); pleasure of being a child (mixture of curiosity, wantonness, and the gradual stages); pleasure of having a child (O my son Absalom, graduating from high school!); pleasure of discovery and pleasure of memory, freshness and nostalgic sweetness, surprise and return. Pleasure of arising, the keenness of breakfast; pleasure of sleeping (there one is Caesar); the pleasure of the young, who are not yet tired; the pleasure of marriage–the mystery of being called Mrs. For the first time; the pleasure, do not deny it, of the funeral (that, after all, the conclusion should have a certain sublimity and repose); pleasure of the grandchild (a difficult pleasure, needing so much strength to last that long and so many refusals, year after year); the pleasure of ritual, the gloves drawn on precisely; the pleasure of spontaneity, kissed by the overjoyed, the wave's foaming white head, touched at the lips.

            Delight in the silver, delight in the rock, delight in the soft silk, delight in the stubble, delight in the thimble, delight in the mountain, happiness of the virgin, the satisfaction of custom, joy in denial (the firmness of the soldier, the rigor of the surgeon, the formal athlete, the painstaking scholar), and the sweetness of saying yes.

            Eating too is a fine thing, though it makes difficulties (do not laugh; economy and original sin may in fact be inseparable): and there is the pleasure at the conclusion of effort, the best of all delights, as the swimmer returned to the sunlight, his being flowing in the warmth responsive to the shocking chill of the waters (surrounded by them, he understood his body). Or the pleasure of the idle who, prone, full-length, made almost unknowingly a few exact perceptions, especially of those who hurry. And the satisfaction of the guilty (thus to have an identity not dissipated by their weakness); the delight of the famous, their self-regard coming from the outside; the joy of narration, thus to invent and, inventing, understand; the sweetness of the musician, from thunder and whisper tone's moving constellations; and also the pleasure of small pains, the sweetness of anger, as Homer observes; the delight of the game (from out of the scrimmage came the tall and plunging figure and ran to a touchdown!) The pleasure of the task, the pleasure of the opus (the span, the parts, the detail, the conclusion); the delight, dear as fresh water, of theory and knowing (O lucid mathematics!). To each age and each stage a special quality of satisfaction, enough for everyone, and enough for all time, no need to compete. States of being suffice. Let the handsome be familiar with the looking-glass, and let the ugly be gourmets (since so many cannot be beautiful, let eating be socially superior to portraits). Let this unwarranted sadness come to an end, sound and fury signify a multitude of enjoyments, the pleasure of pain, the pleasure indeed of pleasure. Pleasure believes in friends, pleasure creates communities, pleasure is the most selfish thin. And yet, I know, all this is nothing, nothing consoles one, and our problem and pain are still before us.

            Let us continue to gaze upon it. Let us, I say, make a few sharp clear definite observations before we die. Let us judge all things according to the measure of our hearts (otherwise we cannot live). Let us require of ourselves the strength and power to view our selves and the heart of man with disgust.


                                                                          –from Coriolanus and His Mother


Delmore Schwartz, Selected Poems: Summer Knowledge, New Directions Publishing, 1959.