Sunday, May 14, 2006

Delight and Pleasure [II, 17]

Ancient Greek thinkers wrestled with the idea of pleasure. They recognized this range of experience as a major aspect of human existence, but tended to feel uneasy about it. Somewhat improbably, Plato concluded that the highest form of pleasure was the austere contemplative life of the philosopher. This finding illustrates the point that opinions about the “inherently” pleasurable tend to be subjective. What is an undeniable pleasure for one person, strikes someone else as indifferent or downright repellent. In later Greek thought Epicurus wholly accepted the value of pleasure. This doctrine is known as hedonism. See J.C.B. Gosling and C.C.W. Taylor, The Greeks on Pleasure (1983).

Allegedly, Puritans detest all sorts of pleasures, repressing them in the interest of godliness. This does not seem to be entirely true, as the first settlers of New England enjoyed eating, dancing, and celebrations of various sorts, reserving their opposition to those forms of pleasure regarded as sinful. Sigmund Freud influentially proposed that human life plays out the conflict of two primordial forces. The first is the Pleasure Principle, which causes us to seek gratification. The second is the Reality Principle, which serves as a check on the first.

Gay people, especially gay men, do seem to be more concerned with the pursuit of pleasure than straights. This has to do in part with the fact that, generally unburdened with the responsibilities of taking care of children, they have more discretionary income. Much of this “extra” money is spent on travel and entertainment. While some humanitarians may prefer travel to trouble spots of the world where they can do good, most gays travel to resorts, especially in friendly third-world countries (where their sexual tourism provides a valued infusion of cash), as well as to venerable cultural capitals, such as London and Paris. The world of entertainment—theater, ballet, musicals, and films—is almost wholly given over to providing pleasurable experiences. To be sure, a performance of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” is not what we would normally consider a light-hearted romp, but then again such plays do not usually figure as the blockbusters of Broadway and the London stage. In fact gays seem drawn to the lighter side of entertainment, as seen in musicals, popular movies, and (in former times at least) drag shows.

As they tend to be highly fashion-conscious, gays pay much attention to such matters as dress and décor. For abundant examples of these preoccupations, see the hit television series “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” Because of their sometimes-extravagant tastes, and desire to be seen as embracing them, the lifestyle of gay men sometimes figures as a form of exhibitionism.

As Stephen O. Murray has noted “in the beginning was the bar.” In earlier decades this institution was virtually the only venue were gays could be themselves, freed from the prying eyes of censorious straights. By definition bars provided alcohol, sought after for its pleasurable effects. Drugs could also be found there. In addition to the canned music of the jukebox or the disco mixer, there were also entertainers—-pianists, singers, gogo boys, and drag performers.

In recent times high levels of alcohol consumption have been associated with the gay lifestyle. Moderate consumption of fine wines, together with gourmet dining, is scarcely to be censured, except by killjoys. However, consumption of excessive amounts of liquor, often of poor quality, marks one as an alcoholic. It may be that this behavior reflects a form of self-medication. However this may be, for the ordinary alcoholic the unfortunate consequences soon come to take the upper hand over the pleasant ones. Still, there persists some of the idea found at the beginning of one's alcoholic career that the activity is pleasant, providing a motivation for continuing the behavior. Similar logic applies to taking hard drugs, the incidence of which is thought to be considerably higher than among the general population

Apart from drinking, gay men have traditionally gone to bars to find sexual partners. The two reasons are symbiotic, as drinking reduces inhibitions, making it easier to approach a potential partner. While this quest could be frustrating—and often was—its goal was to “score,” to obtain a partner for an evening of private enjoyment. This brings us to the most controversial aspect of gay-male life, the purported obsession with sex. It is a truism that one cannot have sex on a regular basis for more than a few hours of the day, and often not that even much. Still, thinking about it seems to occupy much gay time, and the thinking, full of anticipations of gratification, is itself pleasurable.

Some gay men have thousands of sexual partners over the course of their lives. Others have only scores or fewer. All the same, the average is clearly higher than for straights. Much of this sex is anonymous; and the individual partner may be designated simply as a number. All this seeming indulgence serves to summon the label of promiscuity.

In modern French the verb jouir, to enjoy, also means “to come.” The French gay writer Roland Barthes wittily played on this connection in his idea of literary jouissance, the joy of writing and reading.

During the 1960s American society shifted from its earlier emphasis on conformity and the work ethic to a new orientation on personal expressiveness and enjoyment. The sexual revolution was at the heart of this development. As Hugh Hefner and his Playboy enterprises show, this had a major straight component. Yet in some ways gays were rightly seen as the "shock troops" of the sexual revolution. Homosexual men were more likely to move beyond vanilla sex to the paraphilias, including S/M (whose rituals included bondage, flagellation, and abusive language), fisting, and exchange of bodily fluids. While these excursions tended to repel straights (though not universally), in the aggregate they clearly represent an effort to advance the boundaries of the realm of pleasure.

For all these reasons many (including a few gays themselves) deplore the homosexual lifestyle as hedonistic self-indulgence. Sometimes the condemnation seems to mask a secret fear that many would switch to it if they dared. As an old joke has it: “Do you suffer from homosexuality?” Answer: “No, I rather enjoy it.”

The examples just noted stem mainly from contemporary life. Yet there is an earlier background. Early modern Europe gave birth to the libertines, a group of generally well-healed men who were devoted to hedonism. Like dandyism, libertine enjoyments were originally primarily heterosexual. Yet as straights, motivated by religion and the quest for success in the work place, relinquished the libertine lifestyle, homosexuals increased their devotion to it.

As noted above, one of the key components of the present-day concept of gay is light-hearted enjoyment, especially if it is on public display, perhaps as a reproach to dour and censorious onlookers. Before, in the nineteenth century, “gay” connoted prostitution and easy sexual behavior. A life of prostitution is not on the whole a happy one, or so it seems. But whores and hustlers do exist to provide enjoyment for their clients.

The term predilection is sometimes applied to the homosexual orientation, and etymologically the term encapsulates the idea of delight. It also trenches on the idea of a lifestyle, a particular set of individual and cultural traits, involving in this instance pursuit of pleasure.

A transitory but perhaps revealing phenomenon was the emergence in San Francisco in the 1980s of a religious parody group, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence.
Apart from its parodic element, this group’s name and its antics seem to embrace the idea that homosexuality is at base a search for unending pleasure. That this is not the whole story is seen in the careers of many striving gays, from Michelangelo to Alan Turing, who forsook any frivolous enjoyments in the interest of their all-consuming life work. Still the pleasure component seems inseparable from the homosexual experience.


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