Pleasure is in our perception, not in objective entity, says insightful American psychologist
As a critic, that question is central to my life every single day. And, inevitably, I realise that the answer is never straightforward. My judgement and perceptions are the products of complex interrelationships that involve the thing in itself as well as history and personal experience and mood.
Putting these thoughts into clear prose is not easy, so I take my figurative hat off to an American academic.
Paul Bloom, a Psychology professor at Yale University, argues that our perception of someone or something is influenced by feelings as much as by objective measures. Put so simply, it comes across as the most banal of observations. But, in greater detail, Bloom's work appears to be one of those projects that manages to clearly articulate something that many people instinctively know to be true, but would not be able to articulate without prompting.
The book, How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like (W.W. Norton) is also remarkably inclusive -- allowing us to cast our sexual desires as well as shopping habits in a new light. (Details about the book are available if you click on the image.)
In a current review, scientifically-minded Seed magazine looks at the link between pleasure and understanding. The Globe and Mail has an article that focuses on the sexual implications of Bloom's arguments.
The subject of music doesn't come up as a specific focus, but there is something to be said here, too. As Robin Henig wrote in a New York Times review last Sunday,
Then there are the (sometimes) more G-rated pleasures of the imagination: the joys of fiction, movies, television, daydreaming. “Surely we would be better off pursuing more adaptive activities — eating and drinking and fornicating, establishing relationships, building shelter and teaching our children,” Bloom writes. But when we retreat into an imagined world, it’s almost like experiencing the pleasure for real. Bloom calls it “Reality Lite — a useful substitute when the real pleasure is inaccessible, too risky or too much work.”
Bloom’s ideas go against the traditional view of pleasure as purely sensory: that is, that we get pleasure from food because of how it tastes, from music because of how it sounds, from art because of how it looks. The sensory explanation is only partially true, he writes. “Pleasure is affected by deeper factors, including what the person thinks about the true essence of what he or she is getting pleasure from.” When we pay good money for tape measures that famous people have touched, or treasure our children’s clumsy kindergarten art, it is because we believe that something about the person’s essence exists in the object itself.
If I begin to think about my favourite pieces of music, I realise that the circumstances when I first heard or played or sang it are part of the package. Was I in love? Was I depressed? Was I scared stupid?
What I know of the composer and performer also enters the equation. For example, I can't separate my appreciation of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7 without thinking of its history and how many chairs in the orchestra were empty on the night of its premiere -- because the musicians had died from starvation or illness or shelling during the siege of that city.
To further illustrate this, I tried to find a commentary on one of the best-known works in the classical canon, and came up with this 25-minute section of a lecture by pianist Andras Schiff on Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata. I can't listen to the first movement without thinking of E.F. Benson's Miss Mapp and Lucia novels -- so much so that I haven't played it for years.
Schiff tries to take an objective course with a clearly and thoughtfully argued attempt at demistyfication (there YouTube clip is audio only) -- "it's like taking a painting with a lot of dust and dirt on it and having it restored," Schiff says at one point.
Does a lecture such as this one add or detract from the pleasure we experience in the listening?