Sunday, October 21, 2012

On Entertainment, Learning, and Sex

I just read Michael Chabon’s well known essay in defense of genre fiction, “Trickster in a Suit of Lights: Thoughts on the Modern Short Story.” Aside from his refreshing discussion of genres that have fallen into disrepute, the most interesting aspect of the essay is its assertion of the value of entertainment, defined in a broader sense that we need to reclaim: “we have learned to mistrust and despise our human aptitude for being entertained, and in that sense we get the entertainment we deserve” – a debased, mass produced and very predictable, formulaic, and soporific diversion.

Whatever you may think of Chabon and his attempt to play like the Trickster he extols with different genres, the point he makes about entertainment per se is worth consideration. Literature – as with any art, and in a sense, science too – is a form of entertainment, in the fullest sense of the word. And as Chabon points out, the word is rooted in the idea of intertwining things, like a reader and a writer, or a host and a guest, in pleasurable acts. The Victorians invoked a ready formula: literature both entertains and edifies, and the Arnoldian apostles of High Seriousness tended to emphasize the latter while merely tolerating the former. This led to a bifurcation of the two, and mass manufacture further exacerbated the gap, so on the one hand we have “pop culture” and on the other “literary culture.” It was a bad move. As Chabon argues, the problem lies in our accepting this debased notion of entertainment.

I am a hedonist, a devotee of Epicurus. I believe in the virtues of what the Romans called “otium” or the life of leisure. It is very healthy. As Vonnegut once wrote, “we are here on this earth to fart around.” It’s not a waste of time. Pleasure is edifying. Pleasure is magnifying. Aristotle saw this very clearly, which is why he felt it was important to analyze mimesis, since “representation” is a pleasurable act through which we master our world. That is why we go to the movies or to a play even though the hero is going to tear out his eyes. We crave the twin pleasures of revelation and kathartic release.

And herein lies the problem with formal education and the onus placed on so called higher learning. If educators would recognize the simple fact that education is good TO us rather than good FOR us, then they would stop dosing our children with it as though it were remedial and start doling it out like coke or junk because learning is such good dope. It’s not a medicine that needs sugar to help it go down; it’s that oh so sweet opiate that keeps you coming back for more. Because learning is addictive. Once the habit of learning is instilled, it never leaves you. It’s a monkey on your back. The drive to learn is every bit as exigent as the sex drive. In fact, I would argue that what drives sex is curiosity, which after all is the drive behind learning. Which is why, by nature, we are all polygamists. What is more exciting than the act of getting to know a new lover? What is flirtation but a form of interrogation? Why is seduction so powerful if not for the gradual discovery of the fleshly delights of a new body? We are all Magellans seeing adventure and navigating new worlds, mapping new geographies. We are explorers by nature, so we are compelled to seek out new partners just as we seek out new ideas. Pornographers know something that our educators (and by extension our pastors and priests and politicians and all the rest of the moralizers) seem to have forgotten: that even the most banal and repetitive pleasures renew themselves and thus exercise an irresistible allure through inciting curiosity, which is to say, the desire to learn.