It has been just over three years since I moved back home. It was, I have come to realize recently, a colossal mistake — an evasion, a cowering, an attempt to put a stop on the forward march of time.
Yet, for the surfeit of things I have to regret, it is something small and emblematic about this most recent of my many errors that sticks out in my mind. Over the last few years, I have often, in a sudden rush of optimism, told myself that on either this or the next morning I will, instead of my usual cup of tea, start the day with the perfect cup of coffee: freshly brewed, with freshly ground beans, perhaps with a slice or two of a freshly-bought, buttered baguette. And each time I have come up to this possibility, I have turned away from this most utterly mundane of things, instead making my normal cup of tea. As the opportunity presents itself, there is a voice that whispers at the back of my mind: no, it’s too indulgent; you don’t deserve it yet.
I am, just to be clear, talking about having a fucking cup of coffee.
What makes some people feel entitled to pleasure — and others so prone to self-denial? Why is that some people don’t give a second thought to that most ordinary, human of impulses — right now, I am going to do what I want to do — while others march on to their deaths, heads cowed and hearts empty?
As I’ve been rolling over that question for the past couple of months, here is what I have realized. Most of my adult life has been the product of a series of “no’s.” I have, over and over again, said no: to love, to sex, to work, to friends, to money, to challenge, to fear, to risk, to reward.
Perhaps it isn’t surprising, then, that for me, pleasure has always been intimately tied to guilt. It is as if in my mind pleasure has a price, and the only way to earn enough currency to acquire it is through work, effort, and self-abnegation. No work, no suffering, or no achievement, and pleasure seems undeserved, unwarranted, even unfair. What, I often feel, in those dark, dense knots of my subconscious, have I done to merit this reward?
In the abstract, pleasure is about saying yes. It is an expression of an affirmative yearning, not the filling in of a lack, but a kind of positivity with no corollary in an inverse negation. Pleasure is Deleuzian: a force of outwardness and wanting that erupts from itself.
Or at least, that’s what I think in theory. In reality, pleasure to me is in fact part of a delicate balance of binary relations set upon a crisscrossed network of orthogonal axes: of work and play; of effort and reward; of indulgence and denial; of guilt and entitlement. Pleasure is not a thing for itself, but the opposite pole of a series of responsibilities. It is a not only a thing to be earned, but a thing to be indulged in if and only when enough labour has been expended, and enjoyment sufficiently deferred.
When one has spent a lifetime saying no, year after year spent in fear, pleasure begins to seem like a thing for other people, for those who’ve earned it, and those who thus deserve it. A couple of summers ago, as we were making plans for a Friday night, a friend said to me, defiantly, “I’ve worked hard all week and now I want to enjoy myself.” It was a sense of entitlement to pleasure borne of effort — the energy of work now transmogrified into justification for enjoyment. It was utterly foreign to me.
One could say a number of things at this point, though in particular, it seems worth commenting on how certain types of guilt and neuroses are fed by the structures and strictures of capitalism — that wage labour under a general rubric of the Protestant work ethic produce reward and pleasure as transactional. There is, of course, also the post-Marxist turn to this critique: that when pleasure — and, of course, the consumption of representations of others’ and one’s own pleasure through social media — becomes the core of the consumer economy, things will inevitably get more messy. It is less a question of “come and play, come and play, forget about the movement” than consumption becoming the movement itself.
But for all the possible structural theorizing, what seems more important is to challenge the notion of pleasure and negation as an oppositional pairing. To say that enjoyment is fair for those who have put in the effort is to miss part of the equation: that pleasure is not simply a reward for denial, but is itself a productive irruption made of an outward movement — that it is energy made from energy, a byproduct of an omnivorous and insatiable tumbling forward. It is, to put it more plainly, an answer in the affirmative to the call “will you?” It is a yes to the demand “say yes.”
The trouble with pleasure is that it is not a reward at all, but an outcome of itself — pleasure as performative instantiation of pleasure. It is, to now arrive at the ultimately self-help vocabulary I have been deliberately avoiding, a thing to be done, not a thing to be experienced. The question then is this: from where does the courage to say yes arise, when bravery, too, can only ever emerge from the act of bravery itself?