imagesYesterday’s Globe and Mail has a short interview with Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips by Elizabeth Renzetti which I would rate as an M for Moderately Interesting. The V for Very Interesting goes to Ms. Renzetti’s recollection of her grandmother who said, when offered some cake, “I can admire without coveting”. It reminds me of Immanuel Kant’s theory of aesthetics, his Critique of Judgement, where he says that an aesthetic judgement is taking either delight in, or aversion to, something in a completely disinterested way – don’t want to have it, don’t even care whether it actually exists or not. It seems to me that if you are unable to do this, it will be difficult to be happy. What follows is a short excerpt from my 1999 essay, “The Descent of Geometry”:

I have been cursed with a desire for knowledge and at first that might seem better than other more unpleasant or illicit desires. Aristotle would certainly agree – he says that knowledge is our highest good. I don’t deny that some objects of desire are better than others, immoral ones in particular, and in fact, I agree with Aristotle that knowledge is the best thing to want. To me, this seems quite satisfactory and reasonable because that is the very curse I just mentioned.

It’s just that all desire itself is the same in that it is never entirely satisfied. If I fulfill a desire, I will only achieve a measure of sorrow and disappointment because things are never as good or abundant as our desire needs them to be. There is always something a bit shabby about real things when they are forced into a comparison with our ideas and there are never enough of those shabby things to cover the shortfall. Real things, unlike ideas, are often victimized by chewing gum needing a place to go, paint worn off at the corners, an aroma not as nice as we expected, or they simply might not do the things we didn’t even know we wanted them to do until we obtained them.

The cause of our desire is only partially found in the object desired, the greater part being our often erroneous understanding of our own needs. This is the root of our disappointment. And this makes perfect sense of course, when we consider the facts that we are not fully acquainted with an object until we have it in our possession, and besides that, not all of our expectations are possible. When the desired object becomes ours, there remains this odd uncomfortable feeling that there must have been a mistake somewhere.

It can be very frustrating that the desire was perhaps better than its fulfillment and that once it has been fulfilled, it cannot be re-desired (it’s definitely disheartening that we can only desire what we don’t have). But on the other hand, if I do not fulfill a desire, the frustration can be just as bothersome – this because we do not yet have that peculiar disappointed feeling that would help us see that the fulfillment of a desire is no big deal anyway. It is better to take pleasure in the process of desire rather than wait for its inevitable conclusion. This truth is revealed in Oscar Wilde’s praise of tobacco as a good thing because it is never satisfying.

The Book of Ecclesiastes gives similar advice: All is vanity therefore we should eat, drink and take pleasure in our toil. My desire for knowledge is sometimes distressing to me. There is so much to know and I will never know enough. I console myself with the fact that Wittgenstein never read Aristotle and if such a cultured man never found time for a writer of Aristotle’s importance, then I can stop worrying about all the marvelous things I have been unable to get to.

I happen to know though, that Wittgenstein missed a good read in Aristotle. Aristotle seems to be a nice man, a wonderful thinker who seems so real even in his translated words – the realness mostly coming from his heartwarming stubbornness to try to solve every problem by reason alone – observation and feelings being barely relevant. I can almost feel Aristotle’s breath as we both hunch over the same thought. It’s a pleasure to know him, and perhaps this is how I do take pleasure in my toil. I understand that my desire is for something that can never be concluded, and why would you ever want to conclude a friendship anyway? I think an unfulfillable desire is by far the best kind of desire to have – no sorrow or disappointment, and like foreplay, just a sweet yearning with inklings of a beautiful future.

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