Thursday, June 23, 2011

Our Best Fiend: Lust

Love bears all, but lust bares it all.

On “Freshairre” with Terry Gross today, a neuro-scientist was on to talk about oxytocin and dopamine and addiction and pathways of pleasure. Now, I might normally consider a pathway of pleasure a cool autumnal arbor strewn with pine straw, with a light show of spots of sun poking their jagged thorns through the canopy, but his pathways of pleasure are all chemical. Nuero-scientists are thus Rosicrucians, seeking out a chemical wedding, a chemical bliss, a consummation of the elements in a fusion of ecstasy that is only mistaken for a feeling.

I would like to harsh this trip. It's what I do. It's also not my nature to trust the machine that does not account for the ghost. I'm with Koestler on that, however many mistakes he made in his technical argument. Therefore, I would begin by my usual critique of cause and effect. (I say “my,” but I copped it from Hume. He hasn't complained yet.) If you've read me for any length of time, you've encountered this criticism. Here it is, indented:

  • Chemicals in the brain may be the result of an emotional state or the cause of an emotional state. Their presence does not establish cause. Therefore, if you orphan a child and examine brain chemistry, it may show depression chemicals, but those chemicals didn't make the child sad. You did. If you prevent the expression of the chemicals, you may prevent the emotion, or you may delay it or push it into another health effect, as we cannot say that bad feelings or good feelings are non-functional.
Well, I want to do that, but I kind of can't. You see, I started to form the syllables in my mouth's mind, or my mind's mouth, and I got as far as “pleasure is.” Pleasure is... what? What is pleasure?

Define "pleasure" without a negation or synonym, and you'll be in for it. Happy? Isn't happy pleasure? The querulous and quarrelsome are going to be reaching for the comment field already, either to tell me that pleasure is simple or that Webster's says it's this or that damned thing. Stop it.

Imagine that you had to program a robot to feel pleasure. You could weight some actions more than others, but that would be preference. You could open up more resources upon the completion of a task, but that's reward. What would you do to create pleasure in a mechanical model? How would you construct an analog of it in a creature that otherwise has never had it?

Maybe I'm being a fool, but I feel moderately confident that this is not an easy task, and not just because it evades me. There are multiple concepts that seem atomic – things that are indivisible analytically, concepts that are nearly immune to Professor Kant's system. They're baseline. Time is one of them. We all have to know what it is before we discuss it, and the same is true of pleasure. Pain, to some degree, is like pleasure, but we have things like “damage” and “firing nerves” that we can lean on for it. “Life” is a wobbler that is somewhat atomic. John Locke would say that these are the ideas that are just plain there as innate ideas. (I'm not aware of any society lacking them. The small group without tense may or may not lack time. It made the news that someone found one small group at all that even appeared to lack one, and this scarcity makes my point rather well.)

So, if we don't know what pleasure is, how on earth can we say that this much or that much comes from this state of chemical eruption or that? Obviously, subjectivity is involved, since these are subjective states we're talking about, and therefore the scientific discussion is going to have to be, if you think about it, of itself.
  • A creature exhibits the signs of pleasure with oxytocin,
  • and then a human subject reports feelings of love and intimacy when exposed to it. If there are humans who do not respond to it, or who express a different chemical or in a different mixture, then they won't have been found, but the compound will have been named,
  • and, from then on, the discussion will be of the compound, not the phenomenon. The equivalence of the chemical and subjective state will be affirmed once and will hold everything together.

Pleasure in its own pursuit is the essence of lust. Lust defines pleasure as the object of desire rather than love. One of the odd things about male sexuality that women have noticed is that men are absolutely obsessed with the female orgasm. While some feminists have spoken confidently of men only caring because they can then claim to have conquered the woman, I do not know where their confidence comes from, unless it is associating with a bad crowd. Men themselves are at a loss to describe or explain it, but they desperately plead that they are doing it out of love. Gay men have the same obsession, it turns out, and the rather unlovely culmination of male sexual activity is a high point of their erotica.

I think, if there is any way of knowing why this is so, it would be more nearly found in pleasure than violence. Men want pleasure and want to observe pleasure, because their sexuality is visual. Pleasure is thus a feedback loop, as emotional pleasure is a feedback cycle otherwise for both cycles and love is a feedback circuit should be for both and is for women. Women will want to hear and know about a man's feelings to feed back into the emit/receive cycle of pleasure/love that works along a non-visual pathway, but men are going for their "pathways of pleasure" by objects being looked at, actions being seen: testimony is not sufficient.

On a more dull level, the pathway of pleasure is the salmon run of teenagers perpetually misunderstanding themselves and each other. “The girls are all stuck up, because they know how hot they are,” the boy told me. Girls are, of course, horribly insecure and think themselves ugly. “Guys always go out with girls who are such sluts. Don't they realize that she's going to cheat on him, too,” the girl asked me. The boy in question is like an animal with a festering disease at his last extremity. He is no more capable of rational thought than he is of growing the chest hair he lacks.

In one town I lived in, there was a massage parlor on main street. On the front door, it has pressed on letters from a stencil set that said, “Use Back Entrance Please.” If that weren't bad enough, the /e/ fell off of “Use.” When someone robbed the place, police were able to find the thieves thanks to the video surveillance the place used in its entry. Suddenly, a great many men in the next town were blanching and having long, serious talks with their partners and wives.

Such is lust. It is not rational, because it is not orderly. It has no purpose. It only has a goal, and the goal is rather ignoble.

Lust's downfall is love. Lust is a psychotic that cuts the heads off of paper dolls. It carefully preserves those 'pathways of pleasure,' but it doesn't have to tolerate fights or compromises or being ignored. Love bears harm, takes pain. Lust refuses to hear its partner's name, walks out in the morning, regrets the night before or forgets it and swears off martinits. Love holds all, encompasses and incorporates into itself, and it can never be described chemically.

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