On minimalism

I have only flipped through the book (although his Man who mistook his wife for a hat is wonderful and moving) but I have seen the film of Oliver Sacks' Awakenings. It is the story of Sacks' dealings with the aftermath of an encephalitis epidemic, which he treats, decades later, with L-dopa. The patients wake up, and live short intense and moving lives of discovery before relapsing, now permanently, into catatonia once more. The moral of the film at least is: make the most of the time you are given. 

Actually, the film is pretty sanitised: in reality, the "Leonard" character, far from conducting a graceful love affair, demanded to be sent to a prostitute, and spent a good deal of his waking time (furiously?) masturbating. 

Olds and Milner in the 1950s showed that rats, given the choice of eating or stimulating the pleasure centres in their brains, will simply do the latter until they drop dead of starvation or exhaustion (so it is said, anyway: I can't really find this in their famous 1954 paper). Rats normally hate electrical shocks, even mild ones, and will starve, rather than walk across an electric grid for food water or sex. But if the button to stimulate their pleasure centre is across the electric grid, they simply walk across it as if it were not there. And humans themselves have some notoriously addictive behaviours which are rather similar (e.g. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/scienceandte ... caine.html)

Indeed, in the famous work on the Dialectic of Enightenment by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, a discussion of the dark side of the Enlightenment, de Sade is championed as the logical end of the Enlightenment: he reduces everything, rationally, to the two concrete things in the world: his own power and his own pleasure. Enlightenment Man indeed. Perhaps it is no coincidence that 120 Days of Sodom and Kant's Critique of Practical Reason were published within a few months of each other. “Nature has radicated in our spirit only one commandment: that of enjoying; no matter how, no matter at whose expense”, as one of de Sade's characters says. And he is nothing if not systematic. Ah yes, he covers paedophilia, of course. With effort, and discipline. 

But (perhaps fortunately, although I pass no judgement right now) that is not the end of the matter. Because there are other aspects of life that do not revolve purely around the immediacy of power and pleasure. Nor are these made more meaningful by the knowledge of the limitations that death brings to everything. 

Those more reflective activities, such as the commitment in a long relationship of love, are closer to what I mean here. It is customary to complain about postmodernism: but the truth of the matter is that we are all in its grip now. This is why "serious" composers can no longer use Neapolitan relationships, as say, Mozart could to such moving effect; or why it is so difficult to say "I love you" without a twinge of irony. We seem to have used these artificial resources up long ago, just as we are using up natural resources now. When Beethoven wrote his noble and optimistic ”first” piano concerto, he was not yet under the gloomy pall of such cynicism: but now everything is. What then was fresh and joyous is now sentimental and derivative. Not even I appreciate the sentimental. 

Despite this modern malaise, humans do in fact sometimes manage to break free of these constraints: but this comes at a cost. To be in love is, after all, to open yourself up to the inevitability of the suffering and death of the other person; yet our commitments of love do not - cannot - take this into account. To love fully is simply to open yourself to the inevitability of ultimate loss. To allow the pleasure that nature can give - a pleasure that is not, like de Sade's, dependent on the exercise of power - is to resolutely refuse to give oneself up to the dystopian frozen moments of the late Romantics; where the knowledge of final loss tinges every joy with sadness. This is truly to live in a sort of reverse eschatology, where the knowledge of the end is brought endlessly into the here and now, so that after the flush of youth is gone, one literally sits and waits to die, as one already dead.
In short: to love someone or to listen to the dawn chorus in the spring, or even to drink too much at the wedding of a friend, is to live in endless vernal hope: they are not anxious pleasures driven by the knowledge of the coming of death. 
Insofar as we live hopefully, we show a certain, what, commitment, towards taking a happy view of life, despite everything. Or, to put it another way, we express some degree of happiness with our own strange being-in-the-world, the particular and unique circumstances that surround us in the here and now. We do not need to do this; but if we do, we are (at last it comes) expressing a certain aesthetic judgement towards our being. This is not an attitude of denial, but of waiting; not of delusion, but a clear eyed joy. This, I submit, is one of the bases of religious belief. And note that religious belief comes not evasively, as a way of evading the uncomfortable consequences of our own mortality, but positively, as a rational summing up of a particular type of joy. It is our own sense of being that allows such a taking of responsibility for ourselves, that allows us to align ourselves in such a way. It may be that one day that this responsibility will one day be taken away from us, with the final elucidation of the neurological basis for "consciousness". This may one day happen; but as I have said before, we will certainly be different creatures then. But this wish is just the reversed eschatology smuggled in once more; bronze weapons clanking ominously in the wooden horse. 

Out of this, incidentally, comes one of two distinct challenges to Nietzsche: it gives the lie to the idea that Christianity crushed the Dionysian joy from life. Insofar as it did, it was untrue to itself and its own gospels, full as they are of the images of the kingdom of heaven being a Jewish wedding where, after all the wine runs out, an endless supply of the best is revealed. I was in Rome a few weeks ago and down in the catacombs, underground where millions lie dead. These dank corridors should be the exemplars of Nietzsche’s critique: hidden from the light, deeply buried resentment. But they are not, as the frescos bear witness to. Both the beginning and end of the gospels are about joy: there is no hint of the grey breath of the killjoy galilean there.

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