What has pleasure to do with pain? I had a long post on the phenomenon of horror that disappeared in a WordPress crash, but I feel compelled to get back to it, if not in quite the same way.
I have previously wrote on the limitations of pleasure here, but the matter is more profound.
David Goldman/Spengler pointed out that Al Qaeda had succeeded in horrifying us. Terror, he says, is always intended to horrify, that is to create a combination of fear, hopelessness, and despair, and horror is the weapon.
This is true as far as it goes, but it’s just a simple existential question. You are a fragile bag of meat, blood, bone and pus. You can easily be hurt or destroyed, or hurt in a way that makes you wish you had been destroyed. You will die someday, and you may be lucky and die quickly but probably it will take some time and be very unpleasant. No matter how much power you have this is true, and if you do have power, nothing you can do to another human can’t also be done to you.
Most people deal with this by ignoring it. This works pretty well and is usually a sign of mental health. But really most people live in a space where things aren’t so bad they can’t tolerate it- they aren’t seriously ill, they have their basic needs met- but things could be a whole lot better. Extreme stress is a rough place, where for me at least strange things happen. Most people have some experience of this, but few experience the other extreme.
The other extreme is where you have all the good things you could want, and more. All the material possessions, all the personal pleasures, and all the social approval. This is where the very top of the population, the 0.0001 per cent live.
Here’s the thing- from my partial, distant observance of this, I think it can be extremely unpleasant. The body becomes accustomed to the inputs it receives. Whatever it has been exposed to for some time seems normal and right. People in circumstances that would seem unbearable for even a few minutes to you or me, like being homeless in Chicago in the winter, or being in a third world prison, are lived with equanimity by countless people. It’s the deviations from this that people notice. So somebody gives the homeless guy a couple dollars and he’s very happy for awhile, or somebody steals his blanket and he’s very sad for awhile. But day to day, he’s not happy, but he’s not freaking out.
The trouble with having everything a person could possibly want is you get used to it. Things can’t get any better, but they can get worse. What was once wonderfully pleasurable has become routine, maybe boring, but to lose it, any of it, would be a calamity. Again- I think most people in this situation deal with it by ignoring it. But on some level they are aware of this, and it is very disconcerting to them.
Maybe I can best illustrate this with a story. I used to do some work for a financial company with offices all over the world. One of the principals was an English guy, from a middle class background, who became very rich. I got to talking with a lady in the office who sometimes acted as a flight attendant on his Gulfstream V. One time he was flying from London to his primary residence, in a Caribbean tax haven. He requested some red wine. She showed him three different kinds- all the best, I’m sure- but they did not have the kind he wanted. And, she told me, he was very disappointed.
He was living as well as a human being can live, and yet it still wasn’t enough for him. Wealth and plenty had ruined his ability to experience pleasure. So he was worse off than most of the human population. Unless you have terminal cancer with serious pain, there are things you can enjoy.
I think our elite lives in a state of frustration and disappointment that shades, from time to time, into actual horror. They are epicurean or hedonist, or shades between, but even with constant refinement find pleasure fleeting. They hold their position on supposed moral superiority, but are running out of ways to show how much more enlightened and tolerant they are. Tense and uncomfortable, they have to lash out, and we are the dog that gets kicked.