Life’s Little Pleasures
In The Four Loves (1960), C.S. Lewis distinguishes between need-pleasures and pleasures of appreciation: “an example of the first would be a drink of water. This is a pleasure if you are thirsty and a great one if you are very thirsty.” Lewis viewed the pleasures of appreciation (like “the unsought and unexpected pleasures of smell... an unsolicited, super-added gift”) as purer, or at least better immunized to ethical corruption, than the pleasures of need, but it is the latter that has fueled the engine of the world and the movements of its denizens.
Its bilateral pressure upon us gives need-pleasure its power. Phantoms of disaster goad us from behind: fear that we will die of thirst, fear that emboldened drug gangs will burst through our windows at midnight, or that the sun will rise on a pile of heads in the town square, fear that death will extinguish our genes. In contrast to such prospects, the possibilities for respite we paint before ourselves gain an otherwise impossible appeal, like a rosy Instagram filter. We may flock around a crackling wood stove when we come in from a nippy October cider pressing, but our appreciation of warmth pales next to that of a hypothermic mountaineer awaiting rescue from a blizzard. Can the most patriotic and privileged native-born American treasure his own freedom, opportunity, and wealth as much a refugee of war, tyranny, or grinding poverty who sees a mirage of that abundance from across the water? To the extent that need drives and magnifies the expectation of pleasure, it magnifies the risks we are willing to run, the distance we are willing to go, and our ingenuity at finding our way forward. Someone in Commerce, Texas, however bored, would think twice about spending $50 on gas to drive 350 miles south to San Antonio for the pleasure of visiting the Toilet Seat Art Museum on Abiso Avenue. Someone from San Fernando, Mexico, caught in the crossfire between Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel would pay $10,000 to risk imprisonment, deportation, or death among strangers in the back of a sweltering truck to get 350 miles north to San Antonio. The pleasures of San Antonio are a matter of perspective.
From need comes pain, from pain imagination, and from imagination comes progress and even healing. In her 1980 novel Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson interrupts her narrative of an orphaned girl’s journey into the forest, accompanied by her eccentric aunt, with a lyrical fantasy:
“Imagine a Carthage sown with salt, and all the sowers gone, and the seeds lain however long in the earth, ’til there rose finally in vegetable profusion leaves and trees of rime and brine. What flowering would there be in such a garden? Light would force each salt calyx to open in prisms, and to fruit heavily with bright globes of water—peaches and grapes are little more than that, and where the world was salt there would be greater need of slaking. For need can bloom into all the compensation it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know anything so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing—the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, longing like an angel fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild strawberries.”
In this passage, the consummation of need-pleasure transcends mere relief to achieve the purity and grace ascribed by Lewis only to the pleasures of appreciation. (And as you read this at the onset of another long, cold Maine winter, let us take a moment to grieve the passing of the summer’s sun-warmed fresh-picked berries.)
We could even imagine that there is an element of need-pleasure driving the course of evolution and biodiversity. Nature would not go to the trouble of being so red in tooth and claw if it were not necessary for genetic immortality. Among many species of animal, obviously, conjoining the fear of snuffed genetics and the expectation of sexual pleasure has spurred fantastic ingenuity and great risk-taking in pursuit of reproduction on the level of both the individual and the species, ranging from bad pickup lines at the dive bar to the elaborate dance of the Bird of Paradise to the humpback whales that migrate thousands of miles to find their mates to elephant seal bulls fighting to the death to protect their harems. We could even loosen our skepticism a moment to imagine that same need and fear and joyous anticipation in plants. To shoulder their way to the next generation, to broaden their territory by another mile, seeds unfold their wings to float in the wind, lie patiently in the soil for years until kissed and woken by wildfire, unsheathe their hooked claws to latch onto a furry passerby, coax birds to disperse and feed them by draping themselves in a bright sugary cloak, or slyly indenture human beings into servitude as chauffeurs and nursemaids.
Scientific? No, but pleasurable!