A prosperous, roly-poly Greek with a name that sounds like an Aztec root vegetable once proclaimed that if you have a brain, A cannot be both A and not A. Some twenty-one centuries later, a bookworm-poor, reed-thin, dark-cloaked Dane who for most of his life had been unhappy in love replied that if you’re in love, A can be anything.
Aristotle’s proposition was good for building railroads, winning wars, designing machine guns, inventing computers, spreading marmalade on toast, and organizing municipal rubbish collection—in short, for civilization generally. Kierkegaard’s rebuttal was only good for the soul and maybe for haute couture, too.
At times it may look as if science has finally bridged the chasm between the two positions. Our somber-suited physicists speak of subatomic particles’ irrational behavior while our crazy-haired artists are calculating enough not to fly commercial. Bankers turn green, flower children file their tax returns on time, and bloodthirsty tyrants call for democratic elections in places we never knew existed.
At other times it seems that instead of the gods that the Age of Reason promised we would become, we now resemble the Dark Ages’ idea of the Antipodeans: walking on our heads, Tweeting strangers, and reading our fortunes from cardboard Starbucks cups. Juliet Googles Romeo. They txt, check out Ibiza, and live together like a pair of silicone peas in an iPod. He spends his nights watching porn and she does her own Botox. What other thereafter is there for such wretched heirs to the Age of Reason in a concrete world where A cannot be both A and not A?
Our notion of pleasure is wholly contingent on this dilemma. Should hedonists adopt the Aristotelian view of the global playpen—demanding ever-sweeter sugar, ever-louder music, ever-more Facebook friends, ever-longer orgasms, and ever-thicker lines of ever-purer cocaine, as well as more personal space, quality time, and peace on Earth in which to enjoy them—or should we go for the Kierkegaard option instead?
That would mean eating none but the darkest, bitterest chocolate; subjecting ourselves to the agonies of genuine feeling, which not only ruins the skin but carries the risk of a messy suicide and even a double murder; listening to music whose harmonies are complex and emotionally disturbing, ideally on an old gramophone in a velvet-suffocated room with only a narrow breach in the curtains’ faded brocade to admit sunlight; writing love letters on tear-stained, robin-blue Aerogram paper, scorching the mouth with bootleg absinthe, and leaving healthy wives for Moroccan nightclub dancers who turn out to be men; losing money at the tables not as the rich do (idly and painlessly), but like the desperate gambler who loses his one good shirt of cambric linen and goes home to homelessness in silent remorse and freezing rain; and yes, squeezing boldly, like Alizarine Yellow from a fat acrylic tube, into gowns of brilliantly dyed spider’s web and fine Flanders moonbeam, shameless in the décolletage yet straitlaced in the consequences, reflecting in men’s eyes, flirting with one’s own delectable shadow, thrilled to breathe, and dying to love.
It would mean all that and a wagonload of experiences besides, but the sweet tooth of instant gratification, of boringly earned or serendipitously inherited creature comforts, of thoughtless Ibiza nights and lazy mornings on Panarea, is merely an X-ray of life to excite common dental hygienists. Constraint, discomfort, anxiety, even frustration and fear: These are the modern hedonist’s playthings. Bittersweet jouissance is more pleasurable than sweet plaisir. Ecstasy is more intoxicating than the pill that bears its name.
Where the Aristotelian’s pursuit of the active life has always made him something of a sadist—building empires, projecting reason’s power to Earth’s four corners, demanding submission from bodies both temporal and heavenly—the modern Kierkegaardian hedonist is highly contemplative and a bit of a masochist. Any woman whose pulse quickens as she uses her lover’s credit card to pay for the cutest of the season’s diabolical snares that is at least a size too small; any mermaid who swaps her natural form for the eroticized torment of a fairytale princess; any angel who senses her wings being singed in the flames of the unattainably human; any of these real, flesh-and-blood modern hedonists knows what, in our Antipodean hell of topsy-turvy rationality, being a bit of a masochist really means.
The modern hedonist has what psychiatrists call an active fantasy life, and in this his playground resembles Parisian catwalks. Not for him the drudge’s plainness, the accountant’s practicality, or the empire-builder’s providence. He dwells in impossibility, revels in discomfort, and would rather be plunged into iridescent penury than attain a dull eminence. If he could be bothered to design a coat of arms, it would depict the green helleborine Jocelyn Brooke immortalized in The Orchid Trilogy; fun for the botanist yet cleistogamous and self-loving, too. How shortsighted of Mademoiselle Coco to have chosen the saccharine-sweet camellia!
Bittersweet is more fun. Such is the modern hedonist’s mantra, and as he follows his hero Kierkegaard into the deepest vortices of life’s emotional currents, what pleasure he finds is heightened by the imagination’s sorrows. In the rational, practical, predictable world he reluctantly inhabits, he is a drama queen with real diamonds in her crown.
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