III. Plaisirs/Pleasures

In terms of culture or ideology, pleasure (after classical antiquity) is very much a 19th century creation. Yes, the eighteenth century knew pleasure. But there’s still a guilty feeling about it. The countess or marquise who raved over the pleasure of ice cream comes to mind: “a pity that eating it isn’t a sin!” So we have the waltz, an 18th century German invention, but one that really begins to take off only in the early 19th century, the era of Byron. Here you have one of the most beautiful re-creations of what the waltz might’ve looked like in its prime, depicted by Luchino Visconti at the end of The Leopard as a last farewell to Sicilian aristocracy. It isn’t just the splendor of the palace or fancy dress (though having these doesn’t hurt), it’s above all the elegance of movement. We might well ask how long it’s been since we’ve seen elegance associated with pleasure. . . .

When I started to think about doing a talk on pleasure I couldn’t help wondering whether it made sense to discuss pleasure as having a history. As you’ve already no doubt noticed, the framework of these 6 talks is basically historical. With the rise of the sciences or the urban scene, that obviously makes sense. But whether pleasure can be talked about as having a history is still a question. After all, we still experience pleasure from many of the things that gave people pleasure in the nineteenth century. So we might wonder whether it’s legitimate to impose a historical framework here at all. Nonetheless, I’m going to try to talk about pleasure historically. What this will mean is presenting a sequence or succession of different forms of pleasure, and then asking what historical significance we might be able to find in the occurrence of any or all of these at a given historical moment or time. To explain why I give a split French/English title: one of the points I’ll be trying to make is that the modern ideology of pleasure is in many ways a French invention. When I first started to think about it, in fact, I soon came to realize that in a lot of mid-19th century British or American literature, pleasure appears only marginally. And certainly nobody seems very eager to talk about it. So it’s only because of authors like Baudelaire that we get anything like an aesthetics, or an ideology, of pleasure. Nonetheless, by the end of the nineteenth century it’s pretty clear that pleasure is very much in place as something to be talked about. All the same, we need to be careful not to confuse pleasure with aestheticism. Yes, there’s an aesthetics of pleasure, but that isn’t the same thing as aestheticism defined as a pursuit of beauty. You can have pleasure without beauty, even if the reverse isn’t quite true. And the fact that pleasure didn’t have to involve beauty made it a different kind of category, one that was somehow outside the realm of what we call values. And that in turn made it in some ways even more dangerous: because it was unplaceable, unclassifiable, pleasure could show up anywhere, unexpectedly, thereby posing a challenge to any and all systems of value. Hence too, we might say, the source of its appeal.

The first form of pleasure I want to talk about is gambling. Gambling is very much an 18th century form of pleasure. It starts with the aristocracy (especially in England), who have (1) lots of money and (2) nothing to do with their time. This is important: the real background to gambling in its 18th century context is boredom, or ennui. And this is why gambling particularly took off in England. In France, to earn your aristocratic distinction, to get people to respect you, you had to look clever in conversation. Hence all the salons where people—notably, both men and women—would try to practice or hone their wit. In Germany there were other forms of culture, like music-making (Frederick the Great was a pretty good flute-player). But in England, where the aristocracy had little to do other than politics or hunting, people got bored pretty easily. After all, you can’t hunt at night. And listening to long political speeches after dinner can be a real strain. So the famous gambling houses (or hells, as they were sometimes called) arose in London. And people would lose fabulous sums there. I remember reading about the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, who started off with an income of £60,000 a year (probably equivalent to $5,000,000 – $7,000,000). After a few years of gambling, they’d managed to reduce their income to just £10,000 a year. Keep in mind, too, that this is all interest or revenue from property —think how much they had to lose of the principal in order to have only that amount of interest income! So we might wonder why they did it. Byron—who didn’t start off as an aristocrat but only became one later, thereby making him, probably, much more insightful about the group and its ways—offers in his Detached Thoughts a pretty good answer:

I have a notion that Gamblers are as happy as most people—being always excited;—women—wine—fame—the table—even Ambition—sate now & then—but every turn of the card—& cast of the dice—keeps the Gambler alive—besides one can Game ten times longer than one can do anything else.— …. When Macco (or whatever they spell it) was introduced I gave up the whole thing—for I loved and missed the rattle and dash of the box & dice—and the glorious uncertainty not only of good luck or bad luck—but of any luck at all—as one sometimes had to throw often to decide at all.
(9: 23)

Here the point seems to be that any outcome that can cause one to wait in suspense is better than no outcome at all. So Byron can talk in Don Juan about the pleasures of winning and losing. And paradoxically, losing might be even more fun than winning, since it might yield an even bigger thrill (the thrill of going into debt, of having to borrow money somewhere, of everything connected with trouble and uncertainty). Once again, we need to see all this against a background of boredom or ennui. If you’ve got a lot of money, winning some more isn’t likely to produce any big thrill (especially if you can’t even think of ways to spend it anyway). But losing money—if that might mean getting into trouble with creditors, having to conceal a debt from a wife or husband, could produce a much bigger frisson. Presumably that’s also why Byron prefers dice to Macao, a somewhat drawn out card game. What he wants to feel, clearly, is uncertainty. With dice (hopefully) there’s no skill involved—it’s pure chance. No mind games, no trying to figure out what anybody else is thinking. Clearly, too, gambling doesn’t involve anything like moral values. In terms of moral value, it’s presumably better to win than to lose your money (unless it’s going to some charity rather than the bank or the croupier). But the possibility of a complete separation between the excitement of gambling (which, as we’ve seen, could even be increased by losing) and moral values meant that pleasure had become a kind of free radical, capable of attaching to anything and as a result much more exciting. . . .

While gambling is the favorite late 18th century pastime, the waltz might well figure as the dominant early 19th century passion. People couldn’t get enough of it, everybody wanted to do it. Even Byron (hindered by his clubfoot) asked about his prospective wife: “does Annabella waltz?” At this point in time, we might well wonder how it ever got to be so fashionable. Nowadays, nobody knows how to waltz unless they’ve taken classes in what’s called ballroom dancing, and typically the people who do that are of an older generation. Well, unfortunately I didn’t learn when I was young, nor have I felt sufficiently attracted in more recent years to take ballroom dancing classes. As a result I came to grief on a particular occasion some years ago. Having unwisely agreed to be best man at the wedding of a friend, I found myself being asked to waltz by the bridesmaid. Her feeling seemed to be that we “ought to try to set a good example.” Alas, we did exactly the opposite: we couldn’t seem to get our steps in sync at all, and blundered around in a horribly awkward fashion on the dance floor (as it turns out, she didn’t know how to waltz either). Nonetheless, I found this experience unexpectedly useful years later when I was doing research on Byron and the world of the English aristocracy (memorialized in the later cantos of Don Juan) during his time. What I realized from my awkward dance episode was that the waltz (which looks so easy when you see it in the older movies) depends not only on a knowledge of the appropriate steps but on the partners being perfectly in sync. And since people don’t always dance with people they’ve partnered before, this means learning—or adjusting—very quickly. In other words, it’s all about how well, or how quickly, you’re able to get into a rhythm with other people. That’s why someone like Fabrizio, the Prince of Salina, is congratulated by Angelica Sedara on being an excellent dancer—it suggests he gets the hang of how to be with her very quickly, and even manages the timing and coordination of moves so as to make her dancing with him an exhilarating exercise. In other words, it’s on some level an exercise in getting to know other people, in what we might call intersubjectivity. That’s why Byron asks about his prospective wife if she knows how to waltz. What he really wants to know is: is she good with other people? I also realized some other things from my unfortunate dance episode as well. I’m from that 1960s generation whose form of dance meant you never touched the other person. So when I was asked to dance by the bridesmaid, I experienced an unexpected sensation from having her hand in mine and my hand around her waist. I suspect all those early 19th century people probably felt likewise when the waltz initially burst onto the scene. If you look at a film like Abel Gance’s Austerlitz you’ll notice Napoleon and his court going through the steps of what appears to be a kind of minuet. Significantly, partners barely touch each other, and most of the moves they undertake are performed separately, rather than together (they seem to come together only at the beginning and end of each dance). So it must have been quite a thrill when partners could hold each other as they do in the waltz. This, then, was part of the pleasure: at a time of minimal physical contact between people of opposite sexes, the waltz no doubt had a subtly erotic quality. Even much later in the century, Mme Arnoux in Flaubert’s L’Education sentimentale comes to a startling realization when Frédéric Moreau kisses her on her exposed wrist rather than her gloved hand on meeting her by chance at a ball. “Il m’aime, il m’aime,” she says to herself. Finally, one other aspect of the waltz seems worth pointing out. If you watch the Prince and Angelica in The Leopard or, more recently, Count Almásy and Katharine Clifton in The English Patient, you’ll see that people have a lot of time to talk while they’re waltzing. And that’s important anytime when circumstances don’t make for easy one-to-one access between men and women. Because what it makes possible is the pleasure of intimacy. Intimacy, specifically, between two people who otherwise might not have the chance to get to know each other. Taken together, then, what all these aspects of the waltz point to is a discovery of pleasure from intersubjectivity. So if gambling (late 18th century pleasure) is in many ways a solipsistic activity, what the waltz ushered in was a new era in which individual awareness or consciousness becomes interwoven with that of others. If pleasure depends on crossing some abyss of uncertainty or unknowability, getting to know others—and even getting into intimacy with others—might well yield pleasure from a sense of crossing what might well seem the ultimate boundary of unknowability.

Visconti, The Leopard: 221:13-221:26, 240:17-240:47, 242:34-242:44. Link will open youTube in a new tab.

What you’re looking at here is a photo of a restaurant, in Paris. At one point, it was one of the 3 or 4 most celebrated eating places in the French capital. Its fame goes back to the nineteenth century. So Proust, who refers to a number of the restaurants that were fashionable around the turn of the century, has a mention of Lapérouse in his Recherche. Sadly, it fell into neglect some decades ago. Recently, however, thanks to a much-needed facelift, it’s now restored to the way it looked in the days of its former glory. It’s of interest to us here because of the role it played in the emergence of a new pleasure, one that was very much a 19th century Paris discovery: gastronomy. What people suddenly realized was that culinary pleasure was about a lot more than just food. In fact, food was just the beginning. That’s why restaurants came into play. Because in restaurants, even more than in your own home, you could control all the factors that played a role in arriving at what we call culinary pleasure. And as we look at this interior shot of Lapérouse, we can actually see quite a few of these on display. Note, first, our location: one or two stories above street level, just high enough to get a little distance from the street noise, but still close enough to be able to take in the bright human scene with all its bustle and activity, which can be pleasant when you’re just an onlooker. Next, the lighting: plenty of daylight, but not too bright, just enough to gently caress the impeccable white table linen, its folds softly falling. And, so that we don’t have dark corners, a bit of interior lighting, but always warm, yet restrained. Next, the spacing of the tables, at an adequate distance from each other. And finally, the table itself with just the right number of accessories. Clearly, then, before we even get to the food, a lot of other matters come into play.

But while the early 19th century Paris restaurant scene no doubt helped to heighten awareness of cuisine, gastronomy as a comprehensive analysis of all the factors involved in culinary pleasure might be said to have come about through the appearance of a single book: Brillat-Savarin, Physiologie du Goût (1826). In this 2-volume work, Brillat-Savarin exhaustively studies all the things you need to think about: number of guests, setting, kinds of dishes and the sequence in which they’re to be served, wine/food pairings, what to do for the end of the meal, even the hour at which guests should arrive and leave—in other words, all the conditions necessary for the ultimate “plaisir de la table.” His recipe for success:

no more than 12, well-lighted/sufficiently warm room, limited no. of dishes, wine of best quality, food most substantial ⇒ lightest, wine most lampant (oily, fiery) ⇒ most perfumed, coffee boiling hot, liqueurs esp. selected by host, dinner as end of day, no one leaves before 11 pm but all by midnight.
(I, 343-45)

What’s significant here is the interplay of all the different factors. Food has to be matched with the right wine, of course, but just as important—maybe even more so—is the sequence, moving from heavier to lighter. In subtle ways the mindset of the diners also seems to matter: so you want enough people to make for a lively conversation but not a crowd, and you want them to be comfortable, at their ease (warm, well-lighted room). A sense of time matters as well: so dinner at the end of the day because you don’t want anybody worrying about having to go anywhere else, but not protracted to such a late hour as to cause fatigue.

In a sense, we might think of gastronomy (in the terms defined by Brillat-Savarin) as the beginning of modern pleasure: unlike gambling, it’s not a simple pleasure, and unlike even the waltz, it reaches out beyond another person to a much larger sphere. So just as most of our experiences involve more than a relationship to just one other person, this kind of pleasure, you might say, reaches us where we live and are. But it does that in other ways as well. Brillat-Savarin knows culinary pleasure isn’t just about the sensory or the physical, that it’s in fact much more affected by our mindset or our mood. In other words, he’s very much aware of how even what’s supposedly purely physical can depend much more than we realize on our subjective state. So gastronomy tries to shape all those factors affecting subjectivity, not restricting itself to food alone. Because he tries to take all these factors into account, Brillat-Savarin, despite his 18th century taste, is in many ways forward-looking.

Not surprisingly, then, perhaps the best illustration I can think of for gastronomy as Brillat-Savarin envisioned it comes not from his own time but from a novel published three-quarters of a century later. Here I’m thinking of Henry James, The Ambassadors, and specifically of the scene where Strether has lunch with Mme de Vionnet:

It was on this pleasant basis of costly disorder, consequently, that they eventually seated themselves, on either side of a small table, at a window adjusted to the busy quay and the shining barge-burdened Seine; where, for an hour, in the matter of letting himself go, of diving deep, Strether was to feel he had touched bottom. He was to feel many things on this occasion, and one of the first of them was that he had travelled far since that evening in London… when his dinner with Maria Gostrey… had struck him as requiring so many explanations. He had at that time gathered them in, the explanations—he had stored them up; but it was at present as if he had either soared above or sunk below them…. How could he wish it to be lucid for others, for any one, that he, for the hour, saw reasons enough in the mere way the bright clean ordered water-side life came in at the open window? —the mere way Madame de Vionnet, opposite him over their intensely white table-linen, their omelette aux tomates, their bottle of straw-coloured Chablis, thanked him for everything almost with the smile of a child, while her grey eyes moved in and out of their talk, back to the quarter of the warm spring air, in which early summer had already begun to throb, and then back again to his face and their human questions.
(II: 13-14)

Here we see, in effect, so many of the factors touched on by Brillat-Savarin: the people, the food, the time, the mood. In fact, the restaurant where Strether and Madame de Vionnet find themselves might very well be Lapérouse. And that would help us to fill in so much more of the picture. James says only “a wonderful, a delightful house of entertainment on the left bank — a place of pilgrimage for the knowing, they were both aware, the knowing who came, for its great renown, the homage of restless days, from the other end of the town.” Of the famous Paris restaurants at the turn of the century (the Café Anglais, Lapérouse, the Tour d’Argent, maybe the Ritz) only 2 are located on the quays of the Left Bank, and of these only Lapérouse is at a level allowing one to take in fully the waterside activity of the “shining barge-burdened Seine.” In any case, what we have here is the interplay of many different factors: color (the intensely white table linen, the straw-colored wine), the vivid, sensual appeal of the scenery (the Seine, the warm spring air), flavor (the omelette aux tomates), and finally, of course, the human intimacy. Gastronomy, then, isn’t just about food. Ultimately, it’s about our receptivity to the entire dining scene, our capacity to take in and appreciate all the aspects of it, all the complexity out of which it’s composed. In that respect, you might say, it shows itself as a distinctly modern pleasure, by the way it forces us to take pleasure specifically in its complexity.

The final form of pleasure I want to talk about is also a Paris invention, as suggested by its French name: flânerie. Literally, it means strolling. But the larger overtone is one of wandering, specifically through a city. More than anyone else, the French poet Charles Baudelaire was probably the one responsible for coming up with this particular pastime. Baudelaire cast himself in his poems as a flâneur because he liked the hint of apparent aimlessness about it, which he wanted to oppose to the always purposeful activity of the bourgeoisie. As Baudelaire saw it, aimlessness itself conveyed pleasure because it meant a release from the constant pushy, go-getter mentality. This release from such drivenness, in turn, was what allowed someone to be fully immersed in the feeling of leisure. But leisure, for Baudelaire, isn’t quite the same as idleness in the sense of inactivity. Rather, it’s a kind of creative aimlessness that’s only apparently aimless. On some deeper level, in other words, there’s a kind of formative impulse behind all the apparent aimlessness, the flânerie that looks like aimless wandering which is really a gathering of impressions for some as-yet-undisclosed use in the future. So Baudelaire can say “J’ai grandi par le loisir” (I’ve grown through leisure). In fact, then, flânerie is really a form of creative play. And once again, perhaps one of the best places to see this is in James’s Ambassadors. After the tension of his meeting with Mrs. Newsome’s other “ambassadors,” rising to a climax in his ugly confrontation with Sarah Pocock, Strether can at last feel the release of a temporary escape from Paris into the countryside, the leisure of no longer being on duty and finally just having his time to himself:

He observed in respect to his train almost no condition save that it should stop a few times after getting out of the banlieue; he threw himself on the general amiability of the day for the hint of where to alight…. It made its sign, the suggestion —weather, air, light, colour and his mood all favouring—at the end of some eighty minutes; the train pulled up just at the right spot, and he found himself getting out as securely as if to keep an appointment…. the poplars and willows, the reeds and river…. fell into a composition, full of felicity…. Moreover he was freely walking about in it. He did this last, for an hour, to his heart’s content…. It was a wonder, no doubt, that the taste of idleness for him shouldn’t need more time to sweeten; but it had in fact taken the few previous days; it had been sweetening in truth ever since the retreat of the Pococks. He walked and walked as if to show himself how little he had now to do; he had nothing to do but turn off to some hillside where he might stretch himself and hear the poplars rustle, and whence—in the course of an afternoon so spent… —he should sufficiently command the scene to be able to pick out just the right little rustic inn for an experiment in respect to dinner.
(II, 246-47)

Notice here how, even as he’s just apparently wandering, Strether’s in fact shaping his course, forming a whole scenario in his mind. So what looks like pure flânerie is in fact actually a preliminary, a prelude to art. In this respect, we might say, flânerie, like so much else in Baudelaire, looks forward to Modernism. The apparently aimless wandering that’s really a gathering of impressions is also the organizing of these into an ordered whole: “these fragments I have shored against my ruins” (Eliot, The Waste Land) becoming the movement of a modern poesis.