Saturday, January 11, 2014

What is Bliss?

Ordinary—or, let us say, conventional—emotions occasion what Kierkegaard scholars* sometimes call "the suffering of inwardness". They indicate a "subject" of feeling, usually, i.e., "conventionally", situated inside the body, but in any case contained within the apparatus of feeling. We say that we are in pain or in love. But there are moments that can be said to be "saturated" with feeling, moments in which we are what Andrew and I have been describing as "overwhelmed" by emotion. (Wordsworth described these moments as those in which we experience a "spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion" and he proposed to have the poet recollect these moments "in tranquility", producing a poem.) Here the suffering breaks the bounds of our inwardness.

In the case of pain, we actually have a conventional idiom to capture this. We sometimes say, not "I am in pain" but "It hurts". Under extreme distress, as in torture, we are told, the pain becomes impersonal, i.e., the personality is dissolved. But this also happens in the case of intense pleasure. It is a testament to the strength of our Christian conventions about love that we don't recognize the morality of the moment when we pass from saying "I am in love (with you)" to saying simply, and, very precisely, ecstatically, "It loves (us)." But this impersonal love is, of course, the true nature of the thing. It is bliss.

* * *

In my exchange with Andrew, I suggested that a poem might have a similar effect on our emotions as a drug like MDMA (ecstasy), at least as it it used in therapy. It is here sometimes used deal with the trauma of terminal illness, the loss of loved ones, or extreme experiences like rape and torture. It allows the sufferer to take a dispassionate "observing" stance toward the emotion, rather than letting the overwhelming feelings associated with the trauma dominate. This, in turn, allows the counseling to proceed through territory that would otherwise not be possible and speeds the recovery of the patient. The emotion is still there (and that's essential to the therapy) but it is somehow "suspended" in the mind or heart for contemplation.

I don't want to deny therapy to the mentally ill, but in ordinary life I'm not a big fan of psychology and psychiatry as public functions. These sciences (and intermittently dark arts) have largely replaced poetry in the management of emotion in our culture, framing the way we understand ourselves even in perfectly ordinary situations and relationships, where we should be feeling perfectly ordinary kinds of pleasure and pain, with, as we mature, greater and greater refinement. The social sciences, however, probably have a greater influence than the literary tradition on what we see on TV these days and what happens in our schools, which become sites merely for the presentation of illustrative examples of general conceptions of social living and human being. One day, perhaps, there will be no need for poetry at all because everyone will simply have a ready supply of the perfect pill … call it Bliss.

This was something Irving Layton worried about in the 1960s, where he somewhat presciently suggested that:

The society of the future will have no more need for living, creative art than for religion. To the comfortable air-conditioned suburbanite of tomorrow the intuitions of the one will appear as ludicrously pitiable and archaic as those of the other. Indeed, they will be as incomprehensible to him as the vanished ecstasies of bull-worshipping. Such a society — its outlines are already visible to anyone who is not afraid to take a good look — will be run by a tolerant élite composed of scientists, well-heeled technicians, and efficient commissars, buttressed by serviceable cadres of social workers and psychiatrists. As the tragic drama unfolds,these groups must play the assassins of whatever is passionate and unpredictable in human experience — that is, of art. (Engagements, p. 93)

As this discussion proceeds, I'm actually getting a little more hopeful than I've been for a long time. The difference between a pill and a poem is the poem's specificity. The pill "prepares a free relationship" to any emotion (which is why it is a good for a partying as it is for therapy) whereas a poem is the notation of a specific set of emotions. This, I would think, makes literary pleasure a "finer" thing than drug-induced ecstasis. And this might perhaps be why there will always be a function for literature, no matter how good the drugs get. Of course, we might get entirely beyond the need for fine feeling—because, ahem, we're just always, you know, feelin' fine. But I doubt it.

"The doctors are working day and night," sings Leonard Cohen, "but they'll never, ever find a cure for love." My hope lies in the continued existence of highly specific forms of bliss, the fine-grained, richly textured ecstasies of literary pleasure.

*I should apologize to Kierkegaard scholars, who will be puzzled, I now realize, at my attribution here. What they mean (and Kierkegaard meant) by "the suffering of inwardness" and the very ordinary kind of suffering that I'm talking about here are, I think, completely different things. I remembered the phrase from the spine of a PhD dissertation in the Søren Kierkegaard library at the University of Copenhagen where I used to read in the late 1990s. Writing this post, I liked the sound of it and thought I knew what it meant. A bit of reading has given me reason to doubt that I do.

1 comment:

Andrew Shields said...

Leonard Cohen is so good at giving us a nice way to wrap up a train of thought: :-)

There ain't no cure for poetry, perhaps, or at least for what poetry remedies (poetry as a stand-in for art and aesthetic pleasure in general here).