Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Of intimacy, sneezing and heaven

My daughter and I took a walk the other night, and our conversation turned to questions such as whether I’d rather lose my hands or my nose in an accident. And to this: if forced to make a choice, whether I’d prefer to shave one side of my head or whether I'd choose to dye my hair hot pink and keep it that way for a year.

The conversational showstopper turned on the question of whether I’d rather be the man who killed Abraham Lincoln or the man who shot Martin Luther King, Jr. I refused to answer the question and said instead that the question could be posed in a far more interesting and less offensive way. I encouraged Lydia to consider this question as an alternative: Whose assassination shaped history more? She concurred that this was indeed less objectionable, but it also eliminated her interest in the question.

This is payback on a cosmic and multigenerational scale. I am now paying for all the questions I once posed to my mother.

At some point in the conversation the question came to what made an action good or right—i.e. ethical. I immediately seized the opportunity with gusto to break into lecture mode, and I took her on a brief and delightful journey of ethical thought from Plato through Aristotle and St. Augustine up through to Kant. I should qualify that statement. I personally considered it a brief and delightful journey. Lydia may not have characterized it that way at all. Out of mercy, I decided to stop before I reached the utilitarians, who linked good behavior with maximizing happiness for a group of people. And happiness they defined as pleasure.

Utilitarianism is a ludicrous approach to ethics from the vantage points of both snobs and Christians, though for entirely different reasons. But for both groups, the idea of grounding ethics in pleasure is crass and simplistic. But these critics are wrong at least in this respect--pleasure is not simple, and it need not be crass. Pleasure, as many utilitarians immediately pointed out, can take a variety of forms, and bodily pleasures are by no means the sole or even most powerful or satisfying of our pleasures. Indeed, some utilitarians quickly confess that attempting to maximize happiness by maximizing bodily pleasures is a recipe for surefire disaster, though, as Woody Allen might suggest, perhaps at least it's worth the old college try.

The more I began to think of the varieties of pleasure, the more I was struck by how so many “ordinary” bodily sensations, even of the wholly G-rated variety, can be ecstatically pleasurable.

A few examples.

--Taking off one’s work shoes at the end of the day.

--A warm shower on a cold winter morning.

--A plunge into a cool pool on a hot summer day.

--Crawling into bed at the end of a long day, especially when the sheets are fresh and crisp and clean. Oh, sweet bliss.

--Stretching after a long spell of driving in the car--the kind of stretch that elicits involuntary moans.

-- Vigorously washing one's hands when they are grimy and gritty.

-- Cleaning one's ears with a q-tip. This pleasure is shockingly and embarrassingly knee-knockingly intense, as well as, apparently, the single worst thing one can do to the human body if we are to accept the word of doctors.

--Scrubbing one's face with a warm washcloth.

--Scratching a bad itch. I hesitate to note this pleasure because there’s something unseemly about the thought (for reasons I don't understand and can’t articulate), but the truth is the truth. If the itch is intense enough, relieving the itch can unleash a pleasure unmatched by *anything,* if you get my drift. And you know it’s true.

Admit it.

There are plenty of other physical pleasures as well. Obviously. Eating for one. Exercise for another. My point isn’t to be exhaustive in noting every pleasure but to merely hint at the variety of pleasures open to the body. Bodies are good. I'm glad I have one.

I doubt each these pleasures can be reduced to a single encompassing primary pleasure. Some pleasures may belong to the same family, but surely there are a variety of distinct pleasures. Pleasure is complicated.

Noting this led me to reflect upon how even a “single” pleasure can, in fact, be compound and remarkably complex. For consideration: Shift now from the G-rated pleasures to the pleasures associated with that activity I once read described as “the mutual exchange of tender affections.”

Which, I must say, is probably the most singularly misleading, moralizing, and shockingly boring definition of the activity I’ve ever read. It seems to me that if this definition lines up with your own experience of this activity, y’all just might be doing something wrong. Maybe missing a step or two. Just a thought.

But I digress.

Back to the complications of this pleasure.

It’s a commonplace that Ravel’s Bolero was intended to be a kind of musical analogue to the act.

Okay fine. I can see it up to a point. The most obvious corollary is the laughably unsubtle crescendo, but as I’ll suggest in a moment even this element is not quite right. But in addition to the crescendo, Bolero draws out a blend of musical delicacy, swells and swoons, circular exploration, as well as rhythmic drive---and surely these facets are also fittingly and effectively suggestive.

But the conclusion to the piece somehow seems to me off the mark. The music swells and surges at the end with the introduction of cymbals and trombones (I think), and then it tumbles into a sudden end, a collapse.

Well...maybe. But to be candid, I want more. The ending to Bolero makes me want to ask, "Is that it? Is that all there is?"

In contrast to the music, the finale of the act itself is not so simple; it is multifaceted. Nor is the crescendo of that which leads to the finale simply gradual and steady rise. The lengthy prelude to the conclusion of the act--in other words, that part which constitutes the vast majority of the act's development--somehow simultaneously pleases while pointing beyond itself. It’s a purposeful and directional pleasure. It is not the pleasure of, say, eating chocolate. When one eats chocolate, each bite is perfectly sufficient and does not point beyond itself to a greater pleasure. (I mean, how could it? It's chocolate.) One may want to eat more of the stuff (and one does), but that’s because one wants to repeat the pleasure of the first bite. Indeed, every additional bite of chocolate is likely to bring marginally diminished pleasure as we become full. In this sense, the pleasures of chocolate and the pleasure associated with the subject of our discussion are diametrically opposed in form.

(The answer to which of which of these pleasures is ultimately more satisfying, however, is best keep to yourself.)

Every couple who has had to put their bizness on hold due to an outside interruption (say, due to the sound of a child vomiting in the hall bathroom) knows that the suddenly halted experience is less like putting down a bowl of chocolate ice cream and is more akin to the experience of watching a riveting movie when the power goes out. A good movie points ahead to its ongoing continuation, and it has a logical terminus. To have it interrupted is unsatisfying.

This suggests why Bolero doesn’t quite get it right. The act isn’t just a process of more and more, gradually increasing. The experience of the act is one of simultaneous satisfaction and of promise—a uniquely complicated sensation that, as experienced, entails satisfaction together with dissatisfaction--or, at the minimum, of increasingly felt need. The ongoing pleasure is rewarding but the promise is not of just more of the same but of something quite different.

In other words, intimacy is not like a scale of single notes that concludes with the pitch an octave higher than the first note. It’s more like a scale of single notes that concludes with a chord. The conclusion isn’t merely an amplification of the prelude. While it is tightly connected to what precedes it, it introduces a new and fittingly culminating element.

After having reflected upon this, and in wonderment of the near-miraculous complexity of it all, I brought my thoughts to my wife’s attention. Consider it, I said. Think of an activity that is simultaneously pleasurable and yet leads to greater need and which terminates in something seamlessly linked but altogether different to all the activity that preceded it. An act that entails careful attentiveness to the now while also virtually imploring for its own conclusion.

How utterly unique this is in the human experience, I exclaimed, and what an appropriate metaphor for mystical union with god. In the Christian view and in the view of many religions, this present life directs persons to an ineffable something beyond our lives that yet remains mysteriously connected with this life—say, a continuation of one’s personality and identity.

Which is why, perhaps, mystics such as St. Teresa often described their mystical experiences in explicitly erotic terms. The mystical union was an ecstatic one. See here (not my photo):

Now in response to my observations, my wife said with distressing rapidity the following.

“What about sneezes?”

“I’m sorry?”

"Well, a sneeze is like that. You first get an itchy feeling that tells you something big is going to happen. That’s anticipatory. Then the sneeze itself is different from the itchy pre-sneeze feeling. And then you're all done. That seems the same to me.”

Umm…..yes, well, you’re right. But…ok.

I’ll spare you an account of the downward spiral of self-doubt I experienced on account of my wife’s very easy-breezy and casual (and, please trust me, absolutely 100% unwarranted) association between the mundane act of sneezing and the incomparable ecstasy of “the mutual exchange of tender affections.”

I can say at least this much. The afterlife will be either the eternal ecstasy of intimacy or an eternity of anticipating a sneeze.

Maybe both.


Andy D. said...

Actually, sneezing is a very civilized counter to your argument. More so than what occurred to me to counter you with, the act of having a bowel movement. Or as writers have described, "...." No, I won't go there.

No no but seriously, very interesting post!! Love the discussion, and I especially love the insightful description of daughter #1 and her questions, who, let's face it, is more and more apparently a minime. Of you. A miniyou.

As to an overall reaction, "I'll have what she's having!"


Steven Taylor said...

I haven't finished reading yet, but this line: "If the itch is intense enough, relieving the itch can unleash a pleasure unmatched by *anything,* if you get my drift. And you know it’s true" screams for the retort: then perhaps you aren't doing it right.

shinigami-sidhe said...

Lovely post! And I have reasons why making with the sweet and tender loud and tipsy exchange thing is better than and different from sneezes and bowel movements.

After making with the sweet and tender loud and tipsy exchange thing there's a moment of quiet relaxation and contentment and consideration of the sweet and tender etc. Even if you are planning to do it again a couple more times, you still get those moments. After you sneeze or have a bowel movement you just move on with your life and forget about it. You definitely don't spend time thinking about and considering the feelings of sneezing in detail and with great pleasure unless you are 3 and must relate every bodily function you experience in unnecessary detail to unfortunate adults who are guilt-tripped into watching them.

Mike Bailey said...

Andy--1. Yes, the sneeze is comparatively civilized; 2. Thanks for the props. 3. Lydia may be a minime in some ways, but she seems far more "got it together" than I ever was; 3. I like your overall reaction--very nice.

Steven Taylor--Touche. Which is French for "yo mama!"

S-S: Quite right. All of it.

timekeeper said...

I have nothing to add. No way. Nope. Just wanted to prove that I am still lurking around, although I may not always comment.

(My catchwhatever from the computer is "quiker" which seems appropriate for a discussion of this nature)

Andy D. said...

TK -- well at least we know you're still there! Silent, watching, there...


Andy D. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andy D. said...


I don't think the blog here has devoted much time, lately, to "your fight against vegetable tyrrany." Maybe take it in that direction?


PS -- Go Chiefs!!

Anonymous said...

I haven't had the pleasure of reading this all the way through, but I would like to add that I've stood within inches of St. Teresa's parted lips and she is NOT sneezing and she is NOT praying. Just trust me. Ecstasy does not = taking off your shoes at the end of the day in this sculpture.

Christy S said...

"simultaneous satisfaction"

Seriously, simultaneous??? I thought it much more common that about the moment one partner is thinking that a sneeze might be coming on, the other partner had already thrown away the kleenex.

Mike Bailey said...

I fear your comment unintentionally reveals more than is warranted by my statement. The simultaneity to which I was referring involves the blended (i.e. simultaneous) experience of pleasure and promise felt WITHIN an individual, not between individuals. Simultaneity between persons in this respect may or may not be unusual, so I’ll have to take your word for it. If you’re correct, that’s a real shame.

Christy S said...

Oh... don't take my word for it. Check out D.H. Lawrence or just about every issue of Cosmo/Glamour magazine. Heck, ask your female friends (but not your wife to avoid bias/kindness). Maybe this is just news to men born in the 1960s/70s??

Mike Bailey said...

Oh, here's just the trick. You should send out a campus-wide email to find out. The survey should read in this way:

"Dear students, faculty, and staff, please answer the following survey question:


A) Yep. Always or almost always.

B)Sometimes. We aim for it but can’t always expect it.

C)Rarely. The stars have to align just right.

D)Nope, he’s a sprinter and she’s a marathon runner.

E)Nope, she’s a sprinter and he’s a marathon runner.

F)Nope, one of us can't locate the finish line.

Yes, I think this would be a grand idea for YOU to execute.

shinigami-sidhe said...

Dear professor, you are leaving out the possibility of people who don't consider what you have phrased as the finish line any particular reason to stop and therefore it's not necessarily a matter of grave concern.

Christy S-I think the data you might get from a campus wide email would be slightly skewed, as a significant percentage of the students when I was there were misinformed and repressed. So you should send this email to multiple colleges.

timekeeper said...

Hilarious idea for a campus wide e-mail. And what a way to say good-bye to Berry. As my catchpha says, "Holiesto! What a crazy hysteria Dr. S started when she sent out that campus wide email! Who is getting her office?"

Mike Bailey said...

S-S: I actually DID consider that, but i figured Christy would ask me which planet I'm living on and refer me to a host of other newstand magazines.

Timekeeper. Christy has a pretty sweet office. I don't think it's better than mine, but it's pretty sweet. More importantly, you could have weighed in on the poll, and though that would have been personally way more revealing than you would have wanted (since, oh, this entire post was way more revealing than you would have preferred) but it would have at least set Christy straight. Then again, she'd probably accuse me of writing in under your pseudonym.

Christy S said...

So I conducted your poll... although obviously NOT through campus email and here are the results:


Yep. Always or almost always.
2 (8.7%)

Sometimes. We aim for it but can’t always expect it.
6 (26.1%)

Rarely. The stars have to align just right.
12 (52.2%)

Nope, he’s a sprinter and she’s a marathon runner.
1 (4.3%)

Nope, she’s a sprinter and he’s a marathon runner.
1 (4.3%)

Nope, one of us can't locate the finish line.
1 (4.3%)

Mike Bailey said...

I'm impressed you conducted this poll, Christy. And beyond that I should say nothing. Note that I deleted what I think was a pretty safe comment, but I think in this matter maybe I should just concede to you and move on.