|Edgar Degas: Frau bei der Toilette (The Yorck Project)|
Who does not like pleasure? We may have different ways of seeing, appreciating and relishing pleasure, but we all enjoy it whenever it crosses our path. Pleasure may range from reading books, watching movies, or doing some gardening to engaging in sports, going dancing, to winning battles in everyday life. Pleasure can also effortlessly embrace seeming contradictions such as sexual fulfillment and abstinence. Yes, even religion brims over with sensuality when it comes to fighting against the manifestation of passion and its identification with the divine.
Generally, types of pleasure have been polarized into two broad categories, the pleasures of the flesh and the ones of the spirit. There is nonetheless a great overlap within the divisions. We can look at them not so much as two separate groups, but at differences in degrees and intensity. We may start with the pleasures that satisfy the senses only and then proceed to those that are meant for the mind or spirit. These types of pleasure have been identified, labelled and inspired by ideas of the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard.
Sensual (Aesthetic) Pleasure
I have avoided the term “carnal” here, but this type of pleasure has gotten the most attention of all. We can say that sports and dancing give us the physical high of well-being; it can also be the particular enjoyment of a delicious meal. Yet at its most extreme form, it is often tied to the dripping sensuality of sexual anticipation and gratification.
This has been a thorn in the side of many a religious devout. Sexuality is an expression of liberty and physical enjoyment; it has been regarded as a suspect force to be reckoned with since it has the power to overturn established morals. In that sense, in its uncontrolled form, sexuality is utterly revolutionary.
There are crimes of passion, for instance. By satiating ourselves with pleasure, we may blind ourselves to reality, forget or perhaps not even need anything else. Although some may look for God in times of contentment and ecstasy as an expression of gratitude, most will choose to do so in times of pain and distress. On the other hand, unbridled sexuality can uproot lives, can destroy family units and create chaos, not to mention, a state of anarchy.
In fact, for society to function we need to channel our sexual energy. If we fail to do so, nothing can be achieved since people will be distracted all the time. It is said that we of the male species think about sex almost all of the time, but it would be quite another thing to actually engage in sexual activity every five minutes. It would be so physically and emotionally draining that we would not be able to do anything else in life.
And again it would go counter to various human emotions where we would, in fact, lose out on some of the deeper intimate and magical moments of romantic relationships. The trick lies in self-control, while temptation and the forbidden only add to and do not subtract from the aspects of pleasure.
Lasting (Ethical) Pleasure
A higher dimension of pleasure, according to Kierkegaard, would be the ethical realm. In this case, we differentiate pleasure. It can denote a variety of things. It may be that we decide not to have a particularly delicious-looking meal due to health concerns. We are resisting, avoiding or substituting a “lower” pleasure for a higher good, our health and well-being. What good would be that meal if it were to signify our own demise.
In a similar vein, we may decide to “limit” ourselves to a single sexual partner at a time. This is because we prefer to foster more durable and lasting emotions of companionship through the demonstration of loyalty and fidelity. Relationships are similar to construction; we are building a future together, brick by brick. For many, the pleasures of stability may be more rewarding than the unpredictable freedom of sensual gratification.
Others may, of course, see it as a course of moral must. They would refrain from what is deemed as illicit behaviour in their community and stick to married life like glue. These are probably some of the unhappier types, but they seek comfort in their religion and ultimately derive pleasure from acting well in the eyes of their congregation and God.
Everlasting (Religious) Pleasure
The final and ultimate stage of pleasure can be called bliss and is of a mystical nature. This is the highest form of pleasure one can imagine and beats the climax of the best sex in your life, or so we are told. It is considered a nirvana of sorts, the fulfilment and ultimate goal of any existence.
The first stage is often fleeting and progressive; after the gratification, we desire more. It is the scratch that relieves the temporary itch. The second stage is more lasting because it takes into account a process and underscores the premise that everything that we work and spend time and effort on becomes dearer to the heart. Yet the final stage is the most elusive.
For most religions, it is connected to abundance that takes place in what is called the afterlife. It is all the rewards that one denied oneself within one's lifetime, the unused credit or air-miles for the other world. It is delicious decadent chocolate cake on a daily basis without the need for checking cholesterol or fat levels. It is sex without any type of worry or concern about STDs or fits of jealousy. It is the amalgamation of all possible pleasures combined stretched out in infinity. It is pure spirit within the best of possible worlds. And it is only for an elect few.
Most of us will fall in the first two categories. It may be because of lack of interest and foresight. We tend to want things on the spur of the moment, and whenever we manage to hold out, we need to assure and ensure ourselves that it is worth the wait and effort. We lack foresight and persistence, often even faith, on this endless track to eternal bliss.
Ideally, I think that we need to pass through all the stages. We need to experience sensual pleasure to be able to appreciate the joys of having a family. We need to have a child in order to see and feel the presence of God, more so than in any sermon or church. We need to see the futility of our existence and the ephemeral quality of all our pleasures, even of our whole life, to reach the ultimate stage. And then, and only then, will we fully appreciate the bliss that life has prepared us for and brought us over the span of a lifetime.