One of my stray theses about happiness is that the discourse of happiness suffers from a variant of the pathetic fallacy, as Ruskin called the attempt to instill a mood into a landscape, or to project human feelings, in general, on the inanimate. The variant of this is to project happiness upon fortunate circumstances, as though the circumstances themselves were happy. Since, of course, happiness derives from the experience of those circumstances, we are dealing with a sort of mass hallucination, a doubling of the hedonic focus. Or perhaps I should say a hedonic neurosis. And from this we get an unending and dreary succession of complaints on the same theme: I'm not happy!
To explain what I mean, let me quote history’s eternal dirty old man, Voltaire. Voltaire, as is well known, found the abstract constructions of the doctors of the church ultimately laughable. But he was also wary of the abstract constructions of the materialists, the more radical group of philosophes that came after him. He distrusted their confident assertions about matter. Matter was a shit or a fuck, it was a ball or a pen, it was a building or a street, and when it was organic matter, it worked in a way we don’t understand and did things we didn’t comprehend. He is an old crab, and only old crabs really have the smile of reason on their pusses. In a rather confusing text, a gloss on Diderot’s entry on the passions in the Encyclopedie, Voltaire imagines himself interrogating, first, a doctor of the church.
Tell me this, doctor (I don’t mean medical doctor, who has done something, spent a long time examining the sinosities of the brain, who has researched whether the nerves have a circulating fluid, who has dug in vain in the womb in order to see how a thinking being forms, and who knows everything that can be known of our machine, alas, I mean a doctor in theology). I conjure you in the name of that reason which makes you tremble. Tell me why, having seen your servant make a movement from the left to the right and from the right to the left of the gluteus muscle, that, on the spot your imagination lights up; two erector muscles, coming off of the iskion, give a perpendicular movement to your phallus – its cavernous body fills with blood – you introduce your balanus intra vaginum of your governess, and your balanus tickles suum clitorida giving her, like you, a one or two second pleasure, and from which is born a thinking being, all corrupt with original sin? What is the relation, if you please, between this action and the movement of the gluteus muscle of your gouvernante [sic – maid]? You can read Thomas Aquinus and Scotus and Bonaventure, you will never find anything explaining that incomprehensible mechanism by which the eternal architect directed your ideas, your desires your actions, and had born a little bastard of a priest predestined to damnation for all eternity.
So far, so good. In fact, this connects to Diderot’s entry – which I am planning to use in my essay, so I will be translating it soon for you good and lucky people. Then Voltaire takes on an even odder human behavior.
“The next morning, after having taken your chocolate, your memory retraces the image of the pleasure you tasted yesterday, and you begin anew. Do you believe, my great automaton, that it is that memory that you have in common with animals? Do you know what nerve fibers recall your ideas, and paint in your brain all the voluptuous pleasures of yesterday by a prolonged sentiment which has slept with you and re-awakened with you? The doctor replies according to Thomas Aquinas that all of this is a product of his vegetative soul, his sensitive soul, and his intellectual soul, all through of which compose one soul, which being non-extended evidently acts on the whole extended body.
I spot his embarrassed air, as he stutters out words of the meanings of which he hasn’t the slightest idea. And I say, at last: doctor, if you agree in spite of yourself that you don’t know what a soul is, and that you have spoken your whole life long without understanding it; why don’t you break down an confess it like an honest man? why not conclude that it is necessary to comclude with the physical premonition of doctor Boursier, and in certain spots in Malebranche, and chiefly in that wise Locke, so superior to Malebranche? why don’t you conclude, I say, that your soul is a faculty that God gave you, without telling you the secret of it, as he has given you so many others? learn that many reasoners claim that, properly speaking, there is only the unknown power of the divine Demiurge and his unknown laws which all operate in us? And, to speak frankly, we don’t know what it is all about.”
From which Voltaire concludes, at the end of the essay:
“Poor marionettes of the eternal demiurge, who know neither why nor how an invisible hand makes your parts move, and then throws us in to the mass of others in the box! Let us repeat here, more than ever, with Aristotle: everything is an occult quality.”
There is something about this comic nihilism that reminds me of another grand old dirty old man, Bertrand Russell, who gave up philosophy, for the most part, in the forties, telling people that he’d gone back to Berkeley – and then delighting in dousing enthusiasms in his History of Philosophy. These crabs and their smiles of reason. I wonder if this is where I’m headed?
However, to return to my point. Even the basic sexual elements, that which will give us pleasure, turns out to be a much more unpredictable experience, constructed from internal mysteries, than we like to admit. Does a beautiful ass move you? A voice? Hair? Hairlessness? We go out in the world, we make experiments, or... more often, we don't. We find a place to settle and we cling to it, because there is a great cost to making experiments. Voltaire, who is making a somewhat different point than my point about the hedonic fallacy, is pointing to the root of it, nevertheless.