I still have vivid memories of talking about pleasure to my mother, who was well into her eighties and lived in Florida--so our conversation was unfortunately long distance. Otherwise, I'd have proved my point--that pleasure is moral--by walking across the room and folding her in a long hug. If I waited 8 seconds, there would have been the requisite dopamine hit that lifts our spirits.
Instead, I found myself yammering on about Lord of the Rings. My challenge was both unusual and usual. My mother married in the forties and perfected domestic existence--pleasure for everyone else--in the fifties. The fifties were a terrible time to be a wife and mother, as evidenced by the record number of prescriptions for Valium. Yet we still regard it as the golden age of the family. When I was pregnant, I read Adrienne Rich's remarkable memoir and study of motherhood, Of Woman Born, and suddenly saw that golden age differently. It was the time of intricate jellied salads that required patience of the housewife: each layer had to gel before the next layer was added. If it was made in a Tupperware mold, then it would probably have a Christmas tree or a flower in the top that needed to be filled with dream cheese or mayonnaise at the last minute. The process said the housewife's time wasn't really worth anything that nurtured anyone, least of all her. It was a sop to her boredom, a diversion from her lack of autonomy.
I also remember the weekend my mother made Chicken Tarragon, a favourite dish of Jacqueline Kennedy's. It took an entire Sunday: the poaching of the chicken breast in tarragon-infused stock, the reduction of the stock, the making of the intricate and delicate white sauce. I had never tasted tarragon before, and the meal was indeed scrumptious, but along with her pride at successfully cooking a dish made by Jacqueline Kennedy there was a good dose of exhaustion.
And here's a memory that occasionally startles me, one with its roots in Ladies Home Journal or Women's Day; one from the monthly column titled "Can this marriage be saved?" I am standing in the front hallway, near the lovely oak door that graced what we would now call a character home. I have no idea what I said or did that prompted my mother to announce that her first duty was to see that her husband was happy. His happiness came before that of her children. This was her clear duty, because if her husband wasn't happy, then the family simply couldn't thrive.
Here is the source of my unsuccessful attempt to explain Lord of the Rings. In our weekly conversation across the lines between Regina and Port Charlotte Florida, it is clear that my mother's spirits are flagging, that she is exhausted from continual self-sacrifice--as would have been any woman who still made jellied salads. I am trying to convince her that taking care of herself by giving herself some simple pleasure--a cup of Constant Comment tea, an ice cream cone, a walk to the nearby park where she could simply sit and be herself, without my father's relentless, bored demands, while she watched the richly entertaining natural world--is moral. Everything in her socialization had balked at that idea. You can probably imagine the cycle that arose from her belief that everyone else's happiness mattered, and have probably even seen it: self-sacrifice, self-sacrifice, and again self-sacrifice until the martyr explodes in anger.
So I was trying to bring the weight of Tolkien to bear in the hopes of staving off the explosion. It was a silly, futile undertaking. How could she take characters called Hobbits with names like Frodo, Sam Gam Gee and Pippin seriously? How could she even imagine them? But it has always seemed to me that, despite its mega-heroic quest, Lord of the Rings is about the ethics of pleasure. If your greatest pleasure is a lovely meal, good Longbottom Leaf, and the companionship of the people you love, then you are of the race who can figure out how to return the Ring, which bestows almost unlimited power on the possessor, to Mount Doom. The hobbits' life goals are intrinsic, not extrinsic. They're not looking for power; they'd just like some decent pipe weed and time to chat with their friends.
At the end of last week, having finished (re)reading (in some cases) all Woolf's letters and diaries with the pleasure of my morning coffee and my now healthy cat, I decided to turn my morning reading to poetry. The first book I pulled off my shelf was Dante's Divine Comedy, which I hadn't read since my undergraduate years. Every morning, under Twig's heavy warmth, with a large mug of Highlander Grogg coffee, I read two or three cantos. After each canto, I read the wonderful notes, and then re-read the canto. It is glorious: Dante knew so much that is subtle and penetrating about human nature, yet manages to convey this (so John Ciardi, the translator, assures me) in the everyday language of mediaeval Italy. Ciardi, in turn, seems to draw his own poetic power from that simplicity, so that the astounding moments of a beautifully-turned metaphor stand out like candles in Hell. Here is my favourite from this morning, set in the second circle of hell where the winds drive those who have let their carnal desires betray reason:
As the winds of wintering starlings bear them on
in their great wheeling flights, just so the blast
wherries these evil souls through time foregone.
Here, there, up, down, they whirl and, whirling, strain
with never a hope of hope to comfort them,
not of release, but even of less pain.
As cranes go over sounding their harsh cry
leaving the long streak of their flight in air,
so come these spirits, wailing as they fly.
There is so much pleasure here, in the tension between the beauty and freedom of the bird images and the lack of freedom of those whose carnal desires are now wherrying (what a great verb!) them through the darkened air. And then that phrase, "never a hope of hope"! Hope is tenuous at best, but not being allowed to hope that you can hope, places one of the most important human undertakings at unimaginable distance. But my pleasure in Dante's lines is hardly the pleasure sought by those who live in the second and third circles of hell. Their pleasures not only betrayed reason, but betrayed husbands and wives. Gluttony focuses on desire at the expense of all else--well-being, friendship, duty as a citizen. These are not the immoderate pleasures I was suggesting my mother might benefit from.
That cup of tea or home-made shortbread, the ten minutes spent watching the intricate dance of the birds at your feeder, a long hug, finding the words that almost capture what you mean--these are the pleasures with which we can feed ourselves. Walking the dog or meeting a friend for coffee. Standing in your garden in a still, sunny day. They require us, unlike the gluttons or those who give themselves to immoderate and unfaithful carnal passions, to be in this moment, not the next one and the next after that. Unlike the winds in the second circle of Hell, they stop time briefly. They remind us how nurturing our everyday experiences can be if we will only pay attention, and they value experience over accomplishment or ownership. I find such pleasures oddly hopeful. How can ten minutes spent watching sparrows and purple finches give us such a calm energy to face the world, to write another paragraph or listen to a lover's plaint, a calm energy, even, to be generous?
In writing of the simple pleasures of kitchen or garden, I am avoiding the more complicated pleasures of buying an expensive pair of shoes, a new car, or a fur coat. The pleasures' simplicity is also part of their hopefulness: at that moment, giving a small gift to ourselves, we are autonomous, unlike people who need expensive pleasures and need to have those pleasures seen and validated by others.
What we saw about ten days ago in Paris was an attack on the pleasures of going to a concert, spending an evening in a cafe with friends, or watching a soccer game. Of course, this attack was presented in part as one founded in religious righteousness: such pleasures are thought by some to be immoral. And perhaps Paris was chosen in part because Parisians know how to do pleasure. But it was also an attack on autonomy. Like the subjects in Dante's hell, terrorists lack autonomy; they are driven not by the winds of the second circle, but by an ideology that has been shaped with the motive of getting them to do their masters' angry, judgmental will. But that fresh baguette or cup of thick espresso is a hopeful defiance, a way of grounding yourself and nurturing yourself in a simple moment that celebrates the freedom you are creating with a simple gesture.