“The existence of pleasure is the first mystery. The existence of pain has prompted far more philosophical speculation. Pleasure and pain need to be considered together, they are inseparable. Yet the space filled by each is perhaps different.
Pleasure, defined as a sense of gratification, is essential for nature’s workings. Otherwise there would be no impulse to satisfy the needs which ensure the body’s and the species’ survival. And survival—for reasons we do not know—is inwritten, inscribed as nature’s only goal. Gratification, or its anticipation, acts as a goad. Pain or the fear of pain acts as a warning. Both are essential. The difference between them, considered as opposites, is that pleasure has a constant tendency to exceed its functional purpose, to not know its place.
Cats display more pleasure when licking one another than when eating. (There is, it is true, in all animals, except ruminants, an urgency in eating which displaces pleasure: the pleasure comes as plenitude after the act of eating.) Horses running wild in a field appear to experience more pleasure than when quenching their thirst. The gratification, necessary in order to provoke impulses towards the satisfaction of certain essential needs, produces, even in animals, a capacity for a generalized experience of pleasure. Gratuitous pleasure.
Perhaps this capacity is linked to the fact that all young animals need to play in order to learn. Between play and gratuitous pleasure there is a face in common. Playing implies a distinction between the real and the playful. The world is doubled by play. There is the involuntary world of necessity and the voluntary world of play. In the second world pleasure no longer serves a purpose but becomes gratuitous.
For us too, the world is doubled by play, but the degree of invention mounts so that play becomes imagination. Imagination doubles and intensifies both pain and pleasure: anxiety and fantasy are born. Nevertheless the same elementary distinction remains. Pain, however much it overflows its source, always has a cause, a center, a locus; whereas pleasure does not necessarily have one.
Human happiness is rare. There are no happy periods, only happy moments. But happiness is precisely a generalized pleasure. And the state of happiness can be defined by an equation whereby, at that moment, the gift of one’s well-being equals the gift of the existent. Without a surplus of pleasure over and above functional gratification, such well-being could not exist. Aesthetic experience is the purest expression of this equation.
Traditionally this equation was read as the sign of the existence of a benevolent God or, at least, of a God sometimes capable of benevolence. The arbitrariness of happiness was interpreted as a divine intention. And from this arose the problem of suffering and pain. If pleasure was a gift, if happiness was intended, why should there be pain? The answers are hard.
It has never been easy to relieve pain. The productive recourses have usually been lacking—food, adequate medicines, clothing, shelter. But it has never been difficult to locate the causes of pain: hunger, illness, cold, deprivation… . It has always been, in principle, simpler to relieve pain than to give pleasure or make happy. An area of pain is more easily located.
With one enormous exception—the emotional pain of loss, the pain that has broken a heart. Such pain fills the space of an entire life. It may have begun with a single event but the event has produced a surplus of pain. The sufferer becomes inconsolable. Yet, what is this pain, if it is not the recognition that what was once given as pleasure or happiness has been irrevocably taken away?
The gift of pleasure is the first mystery.”
— John Berger, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos