Sunday, January 15, 2012

Pleasure Principles

“What will fill the vacuum formerly occupied by religion?”

The most thoughtful, as well as the most memorable wedding gift my spouse and I received in 1993, the year of my first (and only) marriage, was neither the most expensive, nor an object. Rather it was a “Brunch” - that uniquely American invention deplored by Anthony Bourdain in Kitchen Confidential as a reliable though odious route for restaurants to recycle anything and everything left over in their refrigerator and pantry. I learned other useful pointers from Boudrain, (who since parlayed that success into a TV Celebrity status that sufficiently provides for his habits), such as never eat restaurant fish on a Monday, and if you're a foodie and looking for best execution, avoid Fri and Sat evenings like the plague., etc. But I digress. This 'Brunch' was a simple but special affair in that it included the company of [the late] acclaimed author, Chaim Potok, and his lovely wife Adena.

Who is Chaim Potok, you might ask? I'd read several of his novels, independently, following on the heels of those  by Nobelists Saul Bellow and Isaac Bashevis Singer, though before I'd been introduced to works of Philip Roth. All their voices rang true. All chewed upon the clash of the traditional with the modern. All seemingly lamented the loss(es) of what was, even when (reluctantly) accepting the victory of modernity's “progress”. And they all struck some chord within me, each ruminating in their own perspectives and style upon issues still-raw-and-contentious (in my own family), growing up as I did on the generational cusp, and witnessing my parents wrestling with theirs over the same.

I think Potok stands out as his breadth of thought was more encompassing. He was first a Rabbi, then a writer, also a theological academic and philosopher (PhD Penn, Philosophy) as well as a graphic artist, and playwrite, though the arts were his first love and a source of conflict with his own (traditional) parents. His  timeline reflected this same struggle: from indoctrination and orthodox study sliding towards the increasingly secular graphical artist and thinker. He may not have been the superior novelist of the genre shared by the four eminent writers, but he probably was the most eclectic and adept thinker. His experiences were varied: an army Chaplain, a rabbi, a teacher, an editor, writer, an artist). Bellow's and Roth's characters and dialogue might have been more realistic, Potok stretched the boundaries of thought further than the others. Like the great Jewish minds (unlike those of current-day Likud), Potok ruminated thoroughly and saw things not categorically, but nuanced – context within context within context.

Beyond these spartan observations, there is little I can add. We drank coffee, and chatted about our experiences, and about faith. I made no effort to hide my lack thereof, though I couched it in the agnosticism of the empiricist versus certitude of the militant aetheist, which was more useful for friendly discussion than Dawkin's axe-wielding approach. More coffee and cakes, and the conversation drifted from the first to third person, and modernity's impacts upon religion. I noted that religion was useful historically as a means control. Fear of God, his wrath (for the Jews) or Hell (for Christians) were powerful tools. And whether a tool for purposes of control, or more recently as panaceas for the spirit, there is in modernity, I suggested, a gaping hole in the psyche and in one's preoccupation that was previously occupied by religion. “What”, I continued, did he “think might or will replace it???!!?”

He pulled on his whiskers for a long time, looked upwards towards the heavens, and then stared deep into the depths of his half-filled cup before meeting my eyes and saying more categorically than he had about anything to that moment ......”Hedonism”. “Hedonism will fill the void...”, and for the first time, I saw resignation on the face of this otherwise thoughtful optimist. It is the same resignation floor traders must have felt as transactions went "upstairs", or that which strikes value-oriented reversion traders horse-whipped by seemingly less-than-explicable momentum, or an allocator feels when assessing the new normal of what used to be the risk-free rate. It is a distinct feeling that the sense one previously made of the world has been palpably altered, leaving it a less-hospitable place as a result.

Conversation rebounded from the after-effects of this pronouncement, for it was clear he knew that however depressing the prognostication, there was nothing he could do. He could analyse this wave, indeed, he could explain it. But he knew it will be as it inevitably will be. Efforts to change the direction of such a tide would be futile. I understood he was not whining. Nor was he living in the past. As was the case with his literature, he sought first and foremost to understand what was going on around him, and make sense of it, rather than tell us how it should be.

In 2012, it seems ironic, that mired in debt with unemployment rife, that our Grasshopper-like spirits' gaze is, as Potok forecast nearly two decades ago, firmly fixed (and growing) upon hedonism. Not spiritualism or New Age-ism, but full, unbridled "Whatever!" I see it manifested in demagogues pandering "7-Minute Abs" solutions, to problems of marathon proportions. I see it in my eldest's seeming addiction to fatuous social networking, or under the spell of inane traditional media at the cost of reading or doing. I see it in the increasingly stylized beach or ski holidays. I see it in the untempered expectations still being conjured and polished by companies and their Madison Ave agents. I see it in the politicians' promises to restore what Americans' believe is owed to them.   

But is this not natural? Should hedonism be a pejorative?  To the extent it plays a part in fueling expectations and pursuit of a lifestyle for the individual that is unsustainable for the group, then yes. To the extent that it prevents sober or pragmatic evaluation  of what needs or might  be done to pursue even weak-form sustainability, then yes. To the extent it discounts the longer run policy pursuits, for the short-run, then indeed, yes. To the extent it encourages anti-social behaviour to finance parochial hedonism, then yes.  To the extent it fuels near-unprecendented greed at the expense charity yielding a coarser way of life for the benefit of parochial pleasure and the privilege of the yet unborn, then yes, it is a pejorative, and we should lament its expansion in filling the vacuum.

Unlike the Apocalyptors and Tin-Foil Hat Brigade, I do not believe 2012 will be the year of the Return of Barter or Oblivion For Mankind, and while it may even surprise to the upside given the hugely bearish expectations of the market and anti-European shills, I do think it will be an interesting year for observing what happens when hedonistic rubber meets the austere reality of the road ahead of us [all].


Anonymous said...
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Longhunter said...

As always, great observations on your part. This post in particular rendered me psychologically speechless, alternately grasping at new thoughts, and reminding myself to breathe. I'll be thinking this one through for the better part of the day. Mr. Potok would be proud. Many thanks.

Furtive Surf said...

Excellent post. As a lucky 20-something who grew up with a relative abundance of wealth, but with a certain paucity of belief, I feel this void acutely. Perhaps the only high values that my peers and I know how to worship are money and status and obviously there is never enough of either to go around.

I think that as you say, this feeling is not entirely new (my parents are the better postmodern poster children, but they had the fall of the Berlin Wall to keep them busy). I think that is why Roth et al ultimately admire the believers. For instance, one of my best friends in high school was a fundie and I thought him a bit crazy, but I also thought, “hey, you can’t argue with what works”

Analytical types who read this blog will probably hate his unempirical pseudo-Hegelian ramblings, but for some reasons, I strongly relate to Zizek on stuff like this. Here are his related thoughts (no answers unfortunately)

Jan Moren said...

Not so sure. Your examples of hedonism are at least as manifest in fairly religious USA as in far less religious societies.

If hedonism is the result, then less religious societies (like Sweden, say, and perhaps Japan) should also be far more hedonistic than religious but otherwise comparable societies such as USA or Italy. At a quick glance I don't see that.

Anonymous said...

Amazing post. I was stunned silly reading it.

Hedonism takes a lot of forms. I would describe the massive wealth spent by the U.S. on defense as hedonistic, for example. Countrywide also behaved hedonistic in issuing garbage mortgages and reselling them to wall street, while the people involved apparently remained utterly ignorant of an internal breakdown in risk assessment.

Social media is simply the replacement for the instinctive need for the long house, which was replaced by the commons, which was replaced by the corner pub. Boys used to spend their days hunting, now they hunt with pixels. It's what they are programmed to enjoy doing.

I don't think people have changed. I think our institutions have changed by being big enough to exert their will across boundaries. They have become more hedonistic. And they've been declared people in the U.S., to boot.

Chris Jaynes said...

Hedonism is a human problem, not a religious problem. I don't think a lack of religion begets hedonism.

I like Alain de Botton's vision of Atheism 2.0.

I hope something like this will step in to fill the societal gaps left over as the popularity and impact of religion begins to fade.

I know that in my life, and in the lives of those closest to me, much of what Mr Botton says is already true, but only by accident. Those of us who care need to take his words to heart, and be more deliberate about how we handle problems of social support, 'spiritual' encouragement, and morality.