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Tapis Roulant Hédonique
May 19, 2011 - 9:15pm



So many men, so many horny greedy self-saboteurs.

This week has featured Strauss-Kahn and the Sperminator, but spectacular flame-out among America's and Europe's richest, most attractive, most powerful men has many fathers - so many that some commentators have gone back to atavistic explanations, as if civilization never happened, and our governors, senators, and presidents need to be reperceived as primordial slime.

Between that baseline approach and its opposite -- these men are too highly evolved; the relentless civilizational demands upon them make their need for instinctual outlets correspondingly intense -- lies a motley of boudoir philosophies, ideas as promiscuous as their objects of contemplation.

But let's consider one of the more promising explanatory lines.

The dynamics of power [writes Jonah Lehrer] can profoundly influence how we think. When we climb the ladder of status, our inner arguments get warped and our natural sympathy for others is vanquished. Instead of fretting about the effects of our actions, we just go ahead and act. We deserve what we want. And how dare they resist. Don’t they know who we are?

We deserve what we want. And we want a lot. Wanting a lot was the early catalyst for our now-problematic, anti-humanizing success. We dreamed bigger than other people; those dreams satisfied, we drove further, for more dreams and more satisfaction. We're talking Gatsby's green light here. The satisfaction of money for Bernard Madoff, who says his scheme happened because once he felt the power of his own wealth he couldn't stop himself; the satisfaction of libertinage for Tiger Woods...

We want more and more because, according to the hedonic treadmill theory, "as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, [yet this increase of money and desires] results in no permanent gain in happiness." You keep thinking it will make you happier; you keep thinking Why the hell else did I scheme and strain to get rich and powerful and attractive if not for an increase in personal happiness? So meanwhile where's the personal happiness? I'm the same miserable jerk I was before all of this started.

I'll have to keep jumping chambermaids...


Woody Allen (a veteran of twisted longings) and the British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips talk a lot of sense on this issue. They agree that human beings seem to be two horrid things at once: We're constituted to be restless, constantly dissatisfied with where we are, constantly imagining a somehow attainable bower of bliss; and we're constituted to be self-destructive in regard to the happiness that does come our way. As Phillips says in an interview:

There are parts of ourselves – that don’t want to live, that hate our children, that want ourselves to fail. Freud is saying there is something strange about humans: they are recalcitrant to what is supposed to be their project.

You might understand the ultimately absolutely cretinous risk-taking of DSK in this regard: After awhile, it's not so much hedonic treading as it is this weird wanting-to-fail, a kind of revenge - exacted upon ourselves and others - against the failure of the infuriatingly recurrent hedonic scheme itself.

Woody Allen dissects this vengeful disillusionment with our hedonic drives:

You become disillusioned when you think it through, and even if you don't relinquish the fantasy, you become a little depressed because it can't be affected. You're living here, trapped in the reality of the moment. For movies it's great! In movies, you can create the past as you want to see it. But I do think that's the sad note in my [latest] movie, that everybody doesn't want to be where they are. Everybody imagines there's something better, because you can imagine something better but there isn't anything better. That's the problem.

... In the end, [as] in [my earlier film,] Stardust Memories, we all get flushed. The beautiful ones, the accomplished ones, the Einsteins, the Shakespeares, the homeless guys in the street with the wine bottles, all end up in the same grave. So, I have a very dim view of things, but I think about them, and I do feel that I've come to the conclusion that the artist can not justify life or come up with a cogent reason as to why life is meaningful, but the artist can provide you with a cold glass of water on a hot day.

Phillips, talking about the therapeutic limitations of psychoanalysis, puts the same sad idea like this:

"It's like [Beckett's play] Endgame: 'We're on Earth. There's no cure for that.'" ...[A]nalysis can show there is no cure for childhood, but may help one deal with that seemingly unbearable truth. "There may be useful reconsiderations and redescriptions, but you really did have those parents, you really did make of it what you made of it, you really did have those siblings, really did grow up in that economic climate. These are all hard difficult facts. Redescribed, they can be modified, things can evolve. But it isn't magic."

We recognize the same harsh wisdom in Phillip Larkin's poem, Continuing to Live:

And once you have walked the length of your mind, what
You command is clear as a lading-list.
Anything else must not, for you, be thought
To exist.
And what's the profit? Only that, in time,
We half-identify the blind impress
All our behavings bear...

Cold comfort to that fool, Strauss-Kahn, I know: But this is the best Beckettian outcome on offer: Self-knowledge regarding the very specific contingencies of his prison-house.

Theodore Roethke, whose birthday this weekend will be celebrated in his hometown of Saginaw, summed up a lot of this in the following ditty:

The Reckoning


All profits disappear: the gain
Of ease, the hoarded, secret sum;
And now grim digits of old pain
Return to litter up our home.

We hunt the cause of ruin, add,
Subtract, and put ourselves in pawn;
For all our scratching on the pad,
We cannot trace the error down.

What we are seeking is a fare
One way, a chance to be secure:
The lack that keeps us what we are,
The penny that usurps the poor.


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