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Happy Bloomsday!  The entirety of James Joyce’s great magnum opus Ulysses takes place on one day, June 16th, 1904.  Thus June 16th is forever celebrated as sacred to Joyce enthusiasts (and to those who esteem the English language and the Irish people).

If you have ever tried to write about Ulysses, you will recognize that it is problematic to grapple with the great tome since it touches deeply on most aspects of Western history, art, science, culture, law, and letters (to say nothing of the fundamental social and existential dilemmas which lie at the heart of both the novel and human endeavors).  As in life, these themes are tangled together in such a way that pulling at any thread disgorges a mass of seemingly disconnected narrative and philosophical threads which are actually a single thread…which is everything. Good luck writing a pithy blog post about THAT.

Fortunately there is a miniature odyssey within the greater book which we can concentrate on.  It is even appropriate to this year of desperate washing…and the tiny story does indeed echo the novel’s great theme of pleasure (and human beings’ secret lifetime pursuit thereof…even as they desperately and performatively pretend to be engaged in loftier pursuits).

In Chapter 5 (“Lotus Eaters”) The book’s hero Bloom is killing time before a funeral.  He reads an amorous letter from a secret correspondent, ducks into a church to listen to a bit of Catholic mass, and stops at the chemist’s to order some lotion for his wife.  While at the shop he spontaneously purchases a bar of lemon soap while he thinks about drugs, baths, and flesh.

The clunky bar of lemon soap goes with Bloom the rest of the day (and it is some day!).  He wraps it in a newspaper. He sits on it uncomfortably at the funeral.  He moves it from his hip pocket to his handkerchief pocket as he escapes the underworld the cemetery.  At lunch he fumbles through his pocket and comes across it and moves it to another pocket. Later, at the tavern, it becomes wet (from sweat or potables?) and he is concerned that he smells like lemons.  At sunset, after his…episode… on the beach Bloom worries about his failure to go back and collect his wife’s lotion and pay the four pence he owes for the soap.

At the novel’s climax in the “Circe” chapter, the soap exploits the crazed magical transmogrifications of the bordello to temporarily gain the power of speech. It ascends to the apex of heaven as the sun (complete with the freckled visage of the pharmacist):

BLOOM: I was just going back for that lotion whitewax, orangeflower water. Shop closes early on Thursday. But the first thing in the morning. (He pats divers pockets.) This moving kidney. Ah!

(He points to the south, then to the east. A cake of new clean lemon soap arises, diffusing light and perfume.)

THE SOAP:

We’re a capital couple are Bloom and I.
He brightens the earth. I polish the sky.

(The freckled face of Sweny, the druggist, appears in the disc of the soapsun.)

The soap even gets opened and used for handwashing in Bloom’s elegiac penultimate chapter which explains everything with diagrammatic clinical precision (indeed we learn that this is ” a partially consumed tablet of Barrington’s lemonflavoured soap, to which paper still adhered, (bought thirteen hours previously for fourpence and still unpaid for).” Molly even thinks about soap in her own chapter (as a young woman, she had her own trademark Albion milk and sulphur soap which Bloom had used to wash ink off his hands as a courting pretext.

That’s some journey for a little bar of soap! But why am I writing about this? Why did Joyce write about this?  As you can imagine critics have come up with various answers.

Marxist literary critics even assigned a central role to the bar of soap. In their telling, capitalist society fetishizes commodities in such a way that  take on a meaning greater than human life.  They might be on to something: if you look this soap up on the internet, you will find many opportunities to buy a bar for yourself long before you find essays like this one which discuss what the soap’s journey means.

Yet in obsessing about the cruel goad which we have made for ourselves with labor, the Marxists miss the beguiling carrot which draws us onwards.  The soap is a little pleasure.  It was purchased because of its delightful smell, and even though it is always in the way, Bloom keeps it with him, moving it from pocket to pocket and worrying about it.

Bloom’s perspectives about his little bar of soap are always changing.  He worries about how it makes others perceive him. He worries about paying for it.  It is uncomfortable at points…and yet

…the soap has a use value.  It dissolves in order to make you clean. It speaks to the sacred and transformative pleasure of bathing (which is as central a theme in The Odyssey as it is in Ulysses). More to the point, the soap represents an idea of private & luxurious pleasure (Bloom fantasizes about the perfect bath as he buys it at the chemist’s shop).  Ulysses privileges us with a glimpse into peoples’ secret hidden minds, and although we find lofty questions of being and non-being there, we also find lots of little private side quests for self-gratification and secret fantasies which can, for a moment shine like the sun in the firmament before being moved to another pocket, or forgotten, or occasioning very slight social anxiety.  The quest for the truth of people’s hearts is slippery and convoluted!

 

Tomb of the Leopards (ca. 450 BC)

Tomb of the Leopards (ca. 450 BC)

The Etruscans might be my favorite painters of the ancient Mediterranean world: their frescoes are filled with animals, feasting, music, fruit tress, dancing, and magic. Every gesture and brushstroke of their ancient paintings still conveys unique vivacity and joie de vivre. Even the scenes of death and violence have a sensuous and winsome beauty. When one looks at their tomb paintings from more than two millennia ago, the air seems to fill with the strange music of shepherd’s pipes and long-gone lyres. Perfumes fill the tombs and the classic world comes to life. In the days before Rome rose to power, the unknown artists of Etruria laid out an epic banquet and anyone who loves splendor, pleasure, and loveliness may still sit down at their feast.

Tomb of the Leopards in Tarquinia, (ca. 480-470 BCE)

Tomb of the Leopards in Tarquinia, (ca. 480-470 BCE)

The dancing musicians at the top of the post and the mixed company of men reclining at a great funeral banquet are from the tomb of the leopards in Tarquinia (which is found in the great Necropolis of Monterozzi). The guests dine al fresco among flowering vines and fruiting trees. They wear wreaths and drink deep in memory of their friend. At the right corner, one of the diners holds up an egg—the timeless symbol of resurrection and regeneration.

Three headed serpent from "the Tomb of the Infernal Chariot" (Necropolis of Pianacce)

Three headed serpent from “the Tomb of the Infernal Chariot” (Necropolis of Pianacce)

Here is a chthonic serpent monster from the Tomb of the Infernal Chariot. Look at how much personality the stylized snake heads have as they contemplate the dark god driving a chariot through the underworld (which is on the opposite wall). The purple color, red crests, and un-snakelike beards are all inventions of the artist.  For all of its and technical beauty, Greek art—even during the Hellenistic period has a kind of stiff formalism. Art historians are fond of attributing western art to the Greeks, yet I think that Giotto, Titian, and the masters of the Italian Renaissance may owe a greater debt to the Romans, who in turn took their painting and their concept of beauty and pleasure from the Etruscans. We are still sitting at their feast.

In recent years, bioethicists and neurological surgeons have been troubled by accounts of a controversial surgery being widely performed in China.  The procedure in question consists of surgically destroying the pleasure center of the brain in order to prevent opium addicts and alcoholics from relapsing into their addictions.  As you might imagine, destroying the physiological structure responsible for one of the most fundamental human motivations does frequently solve addiction problems.  Unfortunately, the surgery also tends to do away with longing, joy, and basic motivation to do anything.  The Chinese authors of the papers put a more positive spin on these results and described the post-operative subjects as “mildness oriented” (i.e. compliant).

3D Brain image (Nucleus Accumbens in red)

3D Brain image (Nucleus Accumbens in red)

This surgical procedure is technically known as “ablation of the nucleus accumbens” and involves cutting open a subject’s skull and using heat to destroy small portions of the brain (which are recursively located in both hemispheres of the brain). Time Magazine (in this useful article) describes the two nucleus accumbens as regions of the brain “saturated with neurons containing dopamine and endogenous opioids, which are involved in pleasure and desire related both to drugs and to ordinary experiences like eating, love and sex.” This procedure is performed while subjects (one shies away from saying “patients”) are awake and conscious in order to minimize damage to other regions of the brain responsible for speech, memory, and movement.

Painting by Mariko Vaughan (acrylic on canvas)

Painting by Mariko Vaughan (acrylic on canvas)

The western medical/scientific community is trying to figure out how to approach this procedure.  General consensus seems to be that the procedure is “horribly misguided” (apparently a medical euphemism for “a crime against humanity”), however a number of American and European doctors recommend publishing the results of these experimental surgeries in order to further understanding of the human brain–while not actually recommending the procedure.  While the surgery does result in a recovery-rate from addition a few percentage points higher than counseling or other non-surgical therapies, it also frequently results in loss of memory, radical personality change, and other emotional problems (not to mention occasional serious problems such as death or coma which are an inherent danger of brain surgery).

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A while ago I read a science fiction novel set in the far future.  People who were anxious or miserable could volunteer for Radical Anxiety Termination—a procedure which fully eliminated depression, fear, and suffering, albeit at the cost of all personal volition.  The Radical Anxiety Termination participants immediately became slaves who were sold and traded for whatever uses their masters desired.  The novel was predictably troubling. It does not seem like the Chinese medical establishment has yet perfected Radical Anxiety Termination but they are on the dark road to such an outcome and they need to leave that twisted path immediately.  Just as lobotomies performed in Europe and the United States during the early 20th century proved to be a therapeutic dead end (and a terrible, terrible mistake) so too this surgery is a collective degradation to emotionally ill victims and a fundamental attack on human dignity.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  So reads the thunderous second sentence of the Declaration of Independence–probably the finest thing Thomas Jefferson ever wrote.  It is a cornerstone not just of the American spirit but of worldwide humanist thought.  It is one of the most influential sentences ever written in English.  National political discourse rightly concentrates on the first and second inalienable rights: life and liberty (for powerful interests conspire against both in every era).  The popular imagination however seizes on the last part of the sentence: “the pursuit of happiness” is fundamental to our lives, yet even the phrasing betrays a certain elusory and unattainable quality to the concept.  “Pursuit” suggests that felicity, contentment, and joy are will-of-the-wisps which can be chased but never caught.  This is a sobering way of looking at happiness, but it is an important concept to explore–for the well-known roads to happiness are indeed dangerously illusory.  Pleasure is a physiological goad pushing us toward survival and reproduction (and, in a world of boundless plenty, the pursuit of pleasure has become dangerously untethered from the dictates it was originally meant to serve).  Accomplishment is a tread-mill which never yields the desired results—a mountain with no top.  Possessions do not satisfy. Relationships are as fragile as soap bubbles.  So what is happiness anyway?  Is there a meaningful way to succinctly address a subject which has tormented the rich, wise, and powerful as much as the poor, the ignorant, and the oppressed.  Can we summarize a quest which has baffled sybarites, monks, philosophers, kings, and saints?

A rudimentary approach to happiness is to equate happiness with physical pleasure. Such a voluptuary outlook is, after all, based on fundamental biological demands.  We crave sweets and rich savory foods for a reason.  When we were hunter-gatherers (which, from an evolutionary perspective, was only a short time ago) we needed such things to survive famines and shortages.  Our eyes lustfully seek out beautiful human forms because of a billion year old imperative from our genes. Gambling too was a path to success.  The chief who took his clan on a dangerous trip across an unknown channel might be killed, but he might also find an untouched land filled with resources.  We all descend from such risk-takers.  Even our troubles with intoxicants and sundry addictive substances have evolutionary underpinnings. We need an internal carrot and stick to help us diagnose what is good for us and what is not.  Certain chemicals happen to touch the reward and pleasure parts of our brain (or block pain comprehension) in ways that short-circuit this diagnostic.

The Hunter Gatherer (Todd Schorr, 1998, acrylic on canvas)

The basic drives that create resilient, successful hunter gatherers can be disastrous in a world filled with superabundant processed food, internet porn, online gambling, and high-tension drugs.  Our genotype is at odds with the world we have created.  Physical pleasure does not lead to happiness. In an agricultural and industrialized world it makes us fat, unhealthy, addicted, and jaded.

So we must walk a more intense road and pursue the disciplined calculating path of ambition.  In the contemporary world this hinges on trade. Imagine a person who is the perfect epitome of free-market capitalism.  Such an individual realizes that literally everything is a trade.  Even romantic relationships are a market of sorts–where one wants to “buy low and sell high” thus maximizing a limited set of appealing characteristics in exchange for the most desirable mate.  In fact economists call people who obsessively seek the best option in every circumstance “maximizers.”   They seek the best toothpaste, cars, investments, careers, and spouses.  A moment of reflection will demonstrate that Madison Avenue, Wall Street, and Hollywood are all industries which are set up to create maximizers.  The idea that we must have the best of all choices is an underpinning of our culture.  What a shame that social scientists have discovered that maximizers are chronically unhappy when compared with people who care less about making the perfect choice in every circumstance.  The perfect car gets a dinged fender (or another richer banker buys a fancier model).  The perfect investment shoots up and falls apart.  The perfect relationship comes apart as both parties change.

Thanks to a multitude of choice we are stuck with a bizarre false consciousness that the perfect choice will make us happy. This thought-provoking essay explores the emotional traps inherent in a society with too much choice (it will appeal to fellow New Yorkers for making the Big Apple seem like the ultimate ambiguous trade).

Pleasure, ambition, and material goods all fail as sources of happiness (indeed they fail in a way which hints darkly as the insufficiency of romantic love). We turn toward more abstract virtues—devotion, altruism, curiosity.  Here, at last we find people who seem happy—who are not caught on a cruel tread-mill where gaining a cherished objective causes them to become disillusioned with that objective.  What is the commonality between the otherworldly promises of religion, the struggles of philanthropy, and the burning quest for knowledge?

The Buddhist Road to Nirvana

The devout are directed to live a certain way by sources which they believe to be of supernatural or spiritual origin.  The Anabaptist, the Sufi, the Buddhist monk, all strive for perfection of a sort which will be rewarded beyond death. Heaven and Nirvana give meaning to their everyday trials and tribulations (even if the next world might just be another illusion).  It vexes me to acknowledge that happiness can be discovered in such a system, and yet I have met faithful people who have convinced me that such is the case.  Additionally (unless you worship a capricious deity of death), the religious viewpoint, although apt to concentrate overmuch on imaginary/unknowable goals also inclines toward helping others.

People dedicated to helping others, sometimes feel underappreciated or abused, however, in surveys they report feeling more content with life than the hard-charging (well-recompensed) masters of international finance.  The world always suffers from poverty and disease and misery.  Environmental devastation is widespread. Yet even in the face of such setbacks, the altruists continue forward.  They busy themselves by making something worthwhile or helping others.  Like Vishnu, their purpose is to try to preserve the world from destruction. These are all powerful and noble motivations.  Struggling to better the world is a struggle with no end, but it is a hero’s quest and bears its own rewards.

Finally there are those who find happiness battling ignorance. Curiosity–the virtue of the scientist and the philosopher–causes humankind to continuously play with fire and put our fingers in the light sockets of the universe.  Struggling for provable answers to questions about nature is the foremost quest of life.   The long quest for comprehension of the world sometimes yields stunning insights into the universe but more often it leads to more tortuous questions.  It is unknown whether science has any ultimate answers, but if so they are in the distant future and more questions continue to mount up.

Sir Frederick William Herschel Discovering Infrared Electromagnetic Radiation

Each of these routes to happiness shares a common trait: anticipation.  Zealots imagine the pleasures and consummate perfection of the next world.  The do-gooder toils for the future betterment of humankind and finds pleasure in a child’s smile or a rescued species of butterfly.  The physicist, mathematician, and natural scientist posit hypotheses which may take lifetimes to unravel—and which may indeed be proven spectacularly wrong.  However anticipating a future outcome and working towards it—even if it never comes—maybe especially if it never comes–seems to incline people toward fulfillment.

The question of what happiness is and how to find it thus boils down to anticipation. Find something worth living for and fight for it, even though the way is lost and the light is occluded!  The phrasing of the Declaration of Independence was not a crafty way for Thomas Jefferson to hint that we were never meant to actually capture felicity, it was an instructional hint as to how to find meaning and happiness in life. Keep up the pursuit! The search itself is the answer.  Consummation is just another illusion.

Heidelberg Castle and the Hortus Palatinus

Frederick V, the elector Palatinate and briefly crowned King of Bohemia was not a very successful ruler…but that is not the only thing that there is to life.  Frederick had a happy marriage and he was an ardent lover of gardens. When he spent a winter in England romancing Elizabeth Stuart (the daughter of King James I of the United Kingdom), Frederick was himself courted by several visionary gardeners and engineers.  In 1614, Frederick commissioned one of these men, Salomon de Caus, a Huguenot hydraulic engineer and architect, to design an epic garden around Heidelberg Castle as a present for his new bride. The garden which de Caus designed, the Hortus Palatinus, or Garden of the Palatinate, was accounted to be the finest Baroque garden in Germany.  Some awe-struck contemporaries went farther and called the garden the eighth wonder of the world.

Elizabeth Stuart (Nicholas Hilliard, ca. 1610)

Since the ground around Heidelberg castle was steep, the builders had to cut and level great terraces for the Hortus Palatinus.  Once they had carved a huge “L” shape around the castle, no expense was spared in furnishing the gardens.  Exotic plants were collected from around Europe and the world (including tropical plants such as a full grove of orange trees).  Gorgeous flowers and fully grown ornamental trees were planted amidst sumptuous statues, grottos, fountains, and follies.  Great knotted parterre mazes led the wandering visitor through the sprawling grounds where costly novelties abounded. There was a huge water organ built according to the design of an ancient Roman text, clockwork cuckoos and nightingales which sang musical pieces, and an animated statue of Memnon, a Trojan warrior who was the son of the goddess of the Dawn. Among some circles it was whispered that de Caus was a mystical Rosicrucian and he had coded secret magical wisdom within the repeating octagonal motifs of the garden.

Historic view of Heidelberg, Germany and the Hortus Palatinus

By 1619, the Hortus Palatinus, was the foremost Renaissance garden of northern Europe, and it was still not finished.  To quote Gardens of the Gods, Myth Magic and Meaning,“Heidelberg was the scene of a brief idyll of enlightenment, culture, learning, and toleration.” The young king Frederick and his pretty English bride would romantically dally in the garden he had created for her. Then everything went wrong.  Frederick V went to war with Ferdinand II and lost badly, a conflict which began the Thirty Years war.  The garden was never finished.  Instead it was destroyed by Catholic artillery who then used it as a base for destroying the city.  By the time that Frederick’s son was restored to lordship of the Lower Palatinate, the region was in ruins.  The garden was never rebuilt—it remains a picturesque ruin to this day.

The Hortus Palatinus Today

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