Monday, January 11, 2016

`The Dictatorship of Libertinism'

Seventy years ago today, George Orwell published an essay, “Pleasure Spots,” in the Tribune.  The title sounds more anatomically salacious than Orwell probably intended. He was not a notably salacious man, even a bit of a prude, and many readers today would doubtless judge the sentiments he expresses unacceptably bourgeois and pleasure-denying. As always, Orwell is most interested in the humanity of human beings, our ever-vulnerable essence as thinking, feeling creatures:                

“Man needs warmth, society, leisure, comfort and security: he also needs solitude, creative work and the sense of wonder. If he recognised this he could use the products of science and industrialism eclectically, applying always the same test: does this make me more human or less human? He would then learn that the highest happiness does not lie in relaxing, resting, playing poker, drinking and making love simultaneously. And the instinctive horror which all sensitive people feel at the progressive mechanisation of life would be seen not to be a mere sentimental archaism, but to be fully justified.” 

Orwell’s scorn is reserved for happiness defined as the satisfaction of physical desires, man reduced to the crudest of stimuli and responses. Stated as an equation, pleasure = happiness. If we don’t get our way, we are unhappy. Orwell is writing in 1946. That year was a turning point in the creation of Las Vegas, the epitome of what Orwell calls “the pleasure resort of the future.” That year, Bugsy Siegel opened the Flamingo Hotel, and a year later Siegel was murdered. Orwell writes: 

“For man only stays human by preserving large patches of simplicity in his life, while the tendency of many modern inventions -- in particular the film, the radio and the aeroplane -- is to weaken his consciousness, dull his curiosity, and, in general, drive him nearer to the animals.” 

Orwell’s most gifted descendent writing today is Theodore Dalrymple. He too is bemused by the stampede after happiness and the resulting dehumanization of the species. Last week, Dalrymple wrote about the death of a rock musician I had never heard of before, Lemmy Kilmister. Not surprisingly, he sounds like a thoroughly unpleasant person. Not unlike some of the Roman emperors, he seems to have turned hedonism into tedium. Dalrymple writes:
The overall result of careers such as Mr. Kilmister’s is to encourage a culture or subculture, almost unique in my experience, lacking all beauty, value, virtue, charm, or refinement. Its apotheosis would be the dictatorship of libertinism in which personal whim would play the part of the supposed word of God in the Islamic State.”

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