Tag Archive: philosophy

The Pleasure Dome

There was a time when I believed that everything had meaning, and that that meaning was somehow objective, and that life consisted of being moved, literally and figuratively, from one meaning to another. Being divested of that belief was hard. It consisted of realizing that the meaning was only there because I saw and felt it. It would be just as easy to perceive no meaning to anything, and many people in the world—the ones whose lives consist of more suffering than comfort, more upheaval than stability, more hate than love—perceived it as just that: devoid of meaning, or of any meaning besides pain.

They were not wrong. I was wrong.

This was part of my experience that I describe as being in “the pleasure dome,” a time in which we juvenilely believe that there is anything intrinsic to life, to reality; that is, that life or reality have any intrinsic qualities: that they are good or pleasant or meaningful or valuable, that there is a “sense” or “intelligence” to either one (besides human intelligence), that they work out in a certain way because “nature does not act without reason,” as Aristotle teaches us, whether favorably because “nature has a plan,” or unfavorably because “that’s life.”

Some of us also hew to the misguided and self-serving (but also ultimately self- and world-depriving) belief that thoughts and feelings have value in any capacity beyond themselves (outside of the actions that result from them). The harsh, brutish, and uncaring world which actually exists in a material sense is somehow false because it is inferior to “real” reality, the reality of the internal or emotionalized, the idealized world of creativity, and artistry and “vision” are means by which to perceive and cultivate “real” reality and to leave “fake” reality behind.

It is not that internal life does not, in some significant sense, constitute a type of reality, importance, or urgency. It is more the patent falsehood that internality affects externality in any way on its own, without action as its mediator, or that it somehow outweighs it or constitutes reality in any sense because it is more pleasant, more agreeable, more manageable, more understandable.

Just the opposite: what is less pleasant, less agreeable, less manageable, less understandable, is in fact, what is real, and all of the opposites that we perceive in our minds are, at best, what should be real. Were we to act on them, were we to put them into reality in a material form, perhaps they would take root and persist in material reality as a material change, rather than letting them sprout, flower, and die in our minds, in miserly jealousy and fear that they would be denigrated and crushed under less sensitive feet.

And perhaps they would, but they might inspire someone else to speak their mind, to act on it, to do it, to live and exist in the material world, outside the quilted confines of the pleasure dome.

[rough translation: “truth is correspondence between blank slates and intellect”]

Just now I was reading Naomi Klein’s book, The Shock Doctrine, when a specific passage struck me: “It was as if the confusion from sensory deprivation partially erased their minds, and then the sensory stimuli rewrote their patterns.”

Called “psychic driving” and “depatterning” by its progenitors, such techniques used sensory deprivation, electroshock therapy, and repetitive recorded messages to completely obliterate a person’s sense of self and replace it with a new “self.” For the purpose of creating the perfect spy or of extracting information from prisoners, complete subjugation of the subject represented the height of human ambition to the anticommunist, CIA-backed forces that funded its development. The induced mental regression to an infantile level produced a veritable “blank slate,” or tabula rasa, creating the conditions by which the “patient” becomes totally accepting of whatever new “patterns” the “doctor” felt like imposing on her. This government-sanctioned operation came to be known as MKUltra.

It is odd to say, but the idea of having my “patterns rewritten” has a certain appeal to me. I don’t know if it is the idea of being non-responsible for myself that appeals to me on some primal level, but more than that, what mindfully appeals to me about it is the idea of having all of the “patterns” about myself that I don’t like removed and replaced with patterns that I DO like.

For instance, shyness. Who wants to shuffle through life with a burden of unfounded fear falling around his shoulders like a sweaty shawl in summertime? I’d like to have that pattern removed and replaced with outgoingness; not that I’d like to be an extrovert—in contrast to what I am now, which I do also value—but that I’d like to be “good with people,” and assertive.

Another pattern I could do without might be anticipating conflict. Why go about, day after day, with the fear that someone or something will attempt to do me harm, physical or emotional or both; will be merciless and scornful of the strong person that I have become; will have no reverence for the words that “hurt my feelings” but would say such things intentionally before aiming blows at my body with greater, more visceral zeal? And I will be forced to defend myself, which I believe I could do, but I know I might fail. This puts me in a defensive posture for so many hours of the day and makes me socially anxious, and I feel that the moment I relax, something bad will happen to endanger me or someone I love.

Obviously there are certain ways that I am “my own worst enemy.” I’d like to have these patterns removed and replaced with their opposites. That’d be nice.

Not long ago I took part in an improv class at my local adult school. There was one game we played in which the instructor, Lulu French, had everyone pretend to be an animal that he or she identifies with. I chose the Wolf, specifically the Lone Wolf, because I identify with him: wandering on a quest unknown to others, with nothing to prove to anyone, teeth and fangs ready to defend or attack and unafraid to do both, keen senses of smell and vision providing acute situational awareness, and not to be fucked with or intimidated. Basically:

After we improv students had pretended to be wolves or elephants or tigers or dogs, Lulu said, “Okay, now I want you all to become the OPPOSITE of that animal.” And what did I become? A sheep, shy and frightened, following others with no route of my own, no self-sufficiency or sense of pride, with no gripes about occupying the lowest state possible because no alternative had ever presented itself to me, just trying to survive, nothing more.

I realized something off-putting later. I identified with the sheep more than with the wolf. While I admire the wolf, the sheep felt closer to who I am. It revealed to me that ideals and self-image are one thing, but the reality can so often be very much removed from ideals and images.

How does this relate to the Klein quote above? What if I could accomplish complete correspondence between my self-image, or what I would like to be, with what I am? What if I could have all character flaws and self-reproaches purged from my being, leaving behind someone comparatively superhuman?

Perfect discipline, perfect initiative, perfect follow-through, perfect vision, perfect confidence, perfect certainty. (Of course, by “perfect,” I don’t mean literally beyond any point of improvement. I only mean perfect by comparison, if that makes any sense.) So what is 0% accomplished today is 100% more accomplished tomorrow, what is longed for and wanted and needed is as good as in my hands, simply because I have decided that I want it. Godlike power, insofar as humans are concerned.

But what does THIS particular longing lead to? Only another limiting realization, based in part on the revelations in Klein’s book: that those who would possess the ability to make these changes through scientific means are bound by nefarious motivations. Anyone who could wield such power, as the MKUltra doctors did, to minutely manifest a new personality from an old one cannot be seen as capable of being benevolent, because those who would seek such power on a grand scale would do it for ignoble and destructive purposes, as in MKUltra. When granted state power, no enterprise is safe while the patterns of profit and world hegemony remain etched in the minds of government “benefactors.”

This is largely what makes such Frankensteinian experiments unethical, not some abstract idea that “playing God” is, of itself, immoral. What is medicine? What is stem-cell research? What is responsible GMO food production that feeds the starving and food-insecure? These are methods of “playing God” that are ethically sound. But like the large-scale capitalist control of GMOs leading to widespread injustice, any similar scale of control over mental “depatterning” would (and did) lead to the exact same abuses of power.

What would my ideal version of myself be like? An open and unflinching critic of everything, who says how he feels when he feels it and doesn’t care what people think, who puts his ideals into their fullest practice and does what he puts his mind to, who has the sharpest possible memory in terms of reading and remembering because it is unencumbered by anxiety and mundane distractions, is able to handle anything and anyone including the federal government or white supremacists, is both ready to fight and ready to make peace.

The greatest insight revealed to me by Klein’s line is a particularly existential one: as a single human being who wants to change the world for good—beyond lowering the price of a latte—only I can make myself in that self-image, through action, conviction, and willpower. Technological shortcuts will not help me. And I must find a pack of similar wolves to work with, who will reinforce me and whom I can reinforce, for the Lone Wolf can kill one hunter at a time, but a pack of wolves can take over the entire forest.

Forces that would have us be less than the fullest and most fearless version of our subversive selves are mass, and we must quest against them in our own time, with our will our only weapon.