Pleasure - Danger or Distinction?

July 7, 2013
Posted by Jay Livingston

This 1960s poster (“L’Art de Boire” by Martin) in a neighborhood French restaurant reminded me again of the different ways of thinking about pleasure. 

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

In puritanical cultures, pleasure is a temptation to be resisted. In both the religious version, where pleasure leads to sin, and the secular version, pleasure is dangerous because it means excess and a loss of control. What is sin, after all, but too much of a good thing? The puritan approach to pleasure assumes that even one taste can crack the rigid structure of control.  If you don’t have total control, you have total lack of control. 

The hard-boiled detective story provides a classic example.  Any sex in these stories is always dangerous, usually with temptress trying to seduce the private eye away from his pursuit of justice, or worse, luring him into the hands of the bad guys, who beat him up, threaten him, or try to kill him.  Alcohol too sabotages the hero’s self-control, and he often winds up drinking too much since he’s drinking for all the wrong reasons. 

American comedies, too, may revolve around a similar theme of pleasure as an occasion for guilt and repentance (my earlier post on guilty pleasures in Judd Apatow films is here).  These films are not too far from the lite beer commercials, where pretty girls and alcohol, like the temptations of Circe, turn men into oafish creatures of swine-like mentality.*  The main difference from the noir take on this is that the audience is supposed to view this loss of control with good-natured affection.

The French, as illustrated in the poster, have a different message about pleasure. It is to be sought, not avoided. But it is not something you get just by letting your guard down or jettisoning your inhibitions. You must learn pleasure. You don’t just drink. You mindfully follow a sequence of steps – sniff the cork, note the color, inhale the aroma, taste the wine – each designed to maximize pleasure from the senses. Drinking is not an abandonment to desire, it is an art. The goal is not satiation but, as the last frame of the poster says, appreciation.

Of course, that idea of pleasure goes against the egalitarian American grain, for it implies that some pleasures are of a higher order than others, requiring greater sophistication, discernment, and distinction. 

The 1987 movie “Babette’s Feast,” set in a Danish coastal town in the 1870s,  is entirely about the contrast of these two views of pleasure. Babette, fleeing the bloody aftermath of the Paris Commune, arrives in town and finds work as a housekeeper for two elderly sisters who are members of an austere Christian sect.

The dinner of the title is the film’s climax – a sensuous multi-course meal of the finest French dishes and wines that Babette prepares for the dour sisters and others.

Hesitantly and with suspicion, they eat and drink and finally come to experience what they had been so leery of and had deliberately lived without. Nor, as the sherry and champagne and burgundy and brandy are drunk, do they fall into drunkenness or debauchery, just pleasure. 

The entire film is available on YouTube.  It’s worth watching.

* In a TV show of some years ago, perhaps on “My So-Called Life,” a high school class is discussing the Circe episode in The Odyssey.  “Turning men into pigs,” says one girl dismissively, “Some magic.”

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