Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Inessential pleasure

From an interest in behavior modification and positive reinforcement naturally follows an interest in the origins and workings of pleasure, so I had really been looking forward to reading a new book by the Yale psychologist Paul Bloom, How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like. I mention his fancy pedigree because it serves to demonstrate his central thesis: through evolutionary advantage or accident, we ascribe value to things and derive pleasure from them according to the invisible essences with which we imagine they are endowed by their histories or identities. (Bloom seems to favor but never commits to an accidental account, wherein this "essentialism" is inessential to our survival, the kind of non-structural element in our genetic blueprint that Stephen Jay Gould would have called a spandrel.)

Bloom writes persuasively of art forgery and celebrity auctions, noting how many millions more a Picasso will fetch than a "Picasso," no matter how beautifully the fake may be executed, and observing that the value of a shirt worn by Elvis will plunge if it is washed. I must concede his point when I note the wild discrepancy between the sloppiness of his broader argument and its respectful (in some quarters glowing) reception. It seems clear evidence of the power of the Yale essence to short-circuit critical judgment.

I don't like to be harsh, but Bloom promises so much more than he delivers. His subtitle is especially misleading, when the book's scientific morsels are so few and so poorly digested. My disappointment became outright exasperation when I came to his discussion of fiction and the pleasures of virtual pain. Even as he takes on a subject that urgently requires subtlety and a fine blade, his wits are blunted for a stage fight. In the absence of any concrete evidence, he argues that the pleasure we take from fiction arises primarily (essentially) from our awareness of its artifice, our appreciation of the fact that it was constructed (for our pleasure) by some guiding intelligence.

This logic is maddeningly circular and falls to pieces as soon as one considers the ubiquity of crummy fictions. If a play or novel or film fails to please me, I am pained to think of the effort involved in creating it. Furthermore, if I am swept up in a story, nothing is more likely to spoil the fun than a gratuitous flourish of virtuosity, one that clips the guy wires suspending my disbelief. (Bloom acknowledges this danger but almost immediately dismisses it.) Yes, the critic and the expert have their own modes of enjoyment, and these may be richer than anything the unschooled can know, but surely they are incidental to the main current of pleasure in fiction, and not the other way around.

Thus Bloom dodges the question-- he speaks of creative virtuosity without asking what it is. How does William Shakespeare, or Jane Austen, or Buster Keaton delight an audience? By what means do they make us their instruments and play upon our frets so masterfully?

Here's a typical feint. In his chapter titled "Safety and Pain," Bloom examines "the classic guy-slips-on-a-banana-peel scenario." He writes, "This can be funny, particularly if you haven't seen it a thousand times and if the actor is skilled at conveying his surprise. But the same situation is not typically funny in real life. I spent much of my life in Montreal and I've seen many people tumble on ice on city streets. Onlookers wince or they reach to help, or they turn away, but they typically don't laugh. This is funny in fiction, not in real life." He notes the relevance of an actor's skill, but that doesn't dent his conviction that the humor here derives from the dislocation of slapstick from reality. He doesn't consider the possibility that they just don't know how to fall funny in Montreal.

I'd offer two counterexamples, one from each side of the fictional divide. More than twenty years ago (yikes), I was walking across my college campus on the first day back from summer break. The sound of my name drew my attention down the street to my right: my good friend Sven was gliding toward me on his skateboard. "Sven!" I exclaimed with a smile, then walked directly into an enormous, hollow lamppost. It resounded beautifully as a gong and left me flat on my back. I looked up to find Sven caught between horror and hilarity, unable to stop laughing even as he asked me if I was alright. I had to laugh too. The timing, the surprise, the social embarrassment, the weird beauty of the music we made together, the lamppost and I-- all these things contributed to the joke. But it owed nothing to fiction, as my aching head attested.

On the virtuosically constructed side, there's a "classic guy-slips-on-a-banana-peel scenario" in Buster Keaton's movie Sherlock Holmes, Jr. that I will never tire of watching, because it marries grace so delightfully with mishap. I did not stop laughing after I learned that Keaton literally broke his neck performing the stunt, though my pleasure in it became complicated by wonder and a sympathetic wince.

In short, the "essentialism" that Bloom describes seems an interesting epiphenomenon, but an unpersuasive candidate for the source of our deepest pleasures.

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