Friday, April 10, 2009

Enuff Z Enuff

One of the benefits of a recession, many of my friends have been saying, is that it has a way of bringing you back down to earth: You can no longer afford any of the shiny crap that fills the windows in the high street, and the fact that you have a job at all when so many dont seems to make you content: Somehow the boomtime gripe that your job isn't meaningful and fulfilling begins to seem like a luxury problem. Plus, so the story goes, we begin to reforge our human relationships again, huddling around a candle with a good friend and a bottle of cheap wine when once we would have been yelling into each other's ears in an overpriced Dublin bar(n).

As cliched as the above might be, it seems to be a bit of a 'meme' that is doing the rounds these days. In the same way as veterans of The Blitz like to reminisce about what a wonderful atmosphere there was in wartime London, there seems to be a bit of a feeling in the air that we are all going to go back to 'the things that really matter' : A recent ad on T.V. showing girls pissing themselves over a pair of Manalo Blanhiks, then cutting to a family having a Sunday Walk on Dollymount Strand is pushing this idea, as is the return of a few pre-boomtime cultural artifacts - the return of the Cadbury's Caramel Bunny for one, and (possibly) the fact that I have heard The Special's 'Ghost Town' playing in at least 3 Dublin pubs recently.

Now, like all good truths, this idea is a cliche: "Oh we were poor but happy." "Can't buy me Love." "If you've got your health what else do you need." and so on. But I wonder if there may not be a deeper truth in here somewhere. I am reading a book at the moment called 'Enough', by an author called Will Samson. Its basic thesis is that, living, as us lucky Westerners do, in what is easily the most materially comfortable society that has ever existed anywhere, we are nonetheless unhappy: And that this may be connected in some way to the human brain, being designed at the animal level, to endure long periods of scarcity punctuated by brief moments of plenty. We are designed, he says, to cram our faces with whatever food is available now, the better to weather the weeks of famine that may follow. We have the same gerbil-like attitude to other things than food as well: Information, sex, alcohol and drugs are all pursued in the same blind, primal way.

The problem is, that being the clever little bunnies that we are, we have managed through our awesome powers of organisation, to create societies in which scarcity almost never rears its head, even for the poor: You want meat? You got it. Ice Cream? No Problemo. Sex? Type 'Hot latin pussy' into Google and you're away. The problem is that we are living in a body designed for scarcity, designed not only to grab what it can when it can, but also to accept it in whatever form its available in: Your animal brain doesn't necessarily care about the difference between gentle, intimate love-making with your wife of 10 years, and desultory one-handed website surfing. It doesnt distinguish between a day at the beach with some good friends and a nose full of Andean Happy Powder. The same mechanisms of reward are activated anyway. Except that with drugs, Ice-Cream, or Porno, all you have to do to activite the reward is pay the fee.

Thus, living in a society in which the pleasure tap is never turned off, we rarely have to practice abstinence of any kind, and our happiness receptors are burned out as a result: Remember the awesome paroxms of pleasure a new bike would have sent you through in 1986? Buying a bike now is a dull thud in comparison, a functional purchase like a new fridge. Remember the shiver of anticipation as you slid your fingernail under the shrink-wrap of that first Bon Jovi tape you bought with your pocket money in 1989? Does clicking on that yellow folder on your Terrabyte hard drive full of mp3s even come close?

Well, probably not. Firstly: It seems to be the case that happiness/satisfaction work best when they are restricted. I have had the sickening experience of being bored in front of the internet (as Im sure you have too): You think, here I am, sitting in front of almost all the information mankind has produced up to now, from articles to TV shows to music to games, to artworks, to history, and I am bored. And in contrast to this, when you go on holiday and mistakenly pack Remembrance of Things Past, or War and Peace in your backpack, find yourself in a hotel room at three in the morning with no T.V. and actually wind up reading the damn thing and enjoying it immensely. And you think: "Why dont I read this stuff all the time?", knowing damn well that Proust or Tolstoy hasn't a snowball's chance next to watching a guy take a football in the nuts on YouTube.

Secondly, it seems to be the case that we would do well to restrict our access to 'fake' forms of pleasure. Fake pleasure it seems to me, is that in which no effort is required to get it beyond, say, spending some money, and it exists within a pleasure universe of it's own: Take for example a computer game: A software company simply creates a universe with certain rules in it, and certain conditions that need to be satisfied for rewards to be given, and you play it and get pleasure in those limited terms: To anyone outside the created universe, your actions seem nonsensical: Why would one bother spending hours developing useless skills and solving challenges that dont need to be solved?

This type of limited liability pleasure universe is available in lots of other forms too: A set of criteria for satisfaction is created, and our reward centres are flooded with dopamine when we fulfill them: It costs millions in advertising and marketing to create a big empty Manolo Blanhik shaped hole in a young woman's heart, and her reward is that her pleasure centres will light up like a christmas tree when she finally gets her grateful mitts on them. There is of course, it hardly need be said, no essential need being fulfilled here: A need has simply been created and promptly filled: Like a worker in the last days of Soviet Russia whose job is to dig holes and then fill them in again.

And there are many other things that work in precisely the same way: Consumer products, pornography, drugs legal and illegal and the ultimate one: Cigarettes, which surely must be the work of a diabolical genuis from a Bond movie - a chemical which does nothing for you but remove the desire for itself.

So what of all this Puritan ranting? Is there a point here? Well, yes, of a sort, and probably a very profound one, though I fear it will probably sound trite, or like something your mother would tell you: It seems that there is something to what our religions have been trying to teach us all along: As the Oracle at Delphi famously proclaims in it's version of Deep Thought's '42': "Nothing Too Much" is the supreme wisdom.

Understandably, most of us don't listen to a blind bit of what the Church has to teach us any more, and understandably so: How could you take any advice for the most complicated and confusing part of life (human relationships) from a man who has never experienced one? Not to mention that any advice he will give you is taken from a book written by people so primitive they had never heard of bacteria, Australia, or the theory of Evolution.

Understandably we have turned our backs on the Bible as a compass, and rightly so: There is probably more useful guidance in a Self-Help book written by a creepy Californian in a chunky sweater, and less that is apocryphal, meaningless or downright barbaric. This aside, it does seem that if their were any common spiritual guidance to be gleaned from the mulch of the big religions it would concur with the Architects of Delphi.

Happiness, we might say, lies in Nothing Too Much. Buddhism consists of little more than repeated exhortation to get us to realise this basic point, if we discard the usual religious guff that was tacked on after old Guatama kicked up the daisies. The Abrahamics also attempt to get us to head in the same direction, though tend to muck it up by being rather like an ill-equipped teenage mother disciplining her scruffy brats in Tesco's Car Park: Instead of a calm, enlightened explanation of the potential dangers of overindulging, it tends to clap its followers over the head and shout "Dont fuck anybody ye vicious little bastard or Ill fuckin' bate ye roight?". No wonder, then, that now that they've moved out and gotten a place of their own, they have tended to disregard everything their poor harried teenage mom had to tell them.

And as a result, to go all Samuel Huntington on you for a moment, our world has become split into two camps: The 'Developed' World, which has been on a huge binge since Elvis invented fun in 1955, and the Eastern World , which is full of millions of young men so desperate for a good cleansing knee-trembler, that there is seemingly no shortage of them willing to strap explosives to their bodies to finally get their hands on some action in the hereafter.

This state of affairs seem to have been brought about by the simple-minded way we used to deal with the problem of enoughness: When the various bearded Patriarchs who dreamed up the Bible/Koran and Torah were having their brainstorming meetings, they must have realised that the problem of Enoughness was pretty central to the whole thing: Not least because for most of their target market, a decent meal and a day off would have constituted extravagant luxury.

Secondly, most of that target market were illiterate and would not have been capable of the sort of complicated abstract reasoning that goes on in the smoke-filled-rooms of men trying to start a world religion. So they crushed up these big, complicated, multi-course ideas into easily digestible pill form: Murder Bad, Stealing Bad, Adultery Bad, and definitely no coveting of your neighbour's wife or her ass. As simple as a Coca-Cola slogan. Easy to understand and will play well in the sticks.

Well, as Industry and progress and the inevitable March of History did their little thing on us lucky Westerners we emerged from the Second World War with a few lessons learnt. Lets stop going to war with each other cause it's largely a pain in the ass, and devote ourselves to getting nice and rich and comfortable and change our economy into one based on satisfying our every desire. And should we need to have any wars, lets try and confine them to the hot and sticky places we get our resources from. (Locals there don't call troublesome high-priced lawyers when you carpet-bomb them.)

So we did that, and the spoiled brats raised on Howdy-Doody and The Lone Ranger hit their 20s and demanded their spiritual Desires be as well-catered for as their material ones. This became known as the 1960s and was largely confined to America and the parts of Europe rich enough to think that money isn't important. Once the dust settled on this storming of the ramparts of consciousness, we began to realise that there was actually very little connection between wanting to end the war in Vietnam and demanding a Zipless Fuck. So we gradually took Bob Dylan off the Turntable and replaced him with Disco, stopped rolling joints and rolled up 100 dollar bills instead.

This then led to an Era of unabashed selfishness and greed which we liked to kid ourselves ended with the release of the first De La Soul album. But largely, from that period on, we had entered the second phase of becoming a truly Godless, consumerist society. Not only had we lost faith in all the old stuff: God, Country, Authority and all the other so-called "Grand Narratives" that Cultural Studies professors like to wank on about - but after Thatcher and Reagan and their broadsides on "Society" we lost faith in higher ideas almost entirely. So what did we do? Well for the most part, we went shopping. Buying and selling useless shit to each other to keep the economy ticking over.

We began to discover that the best way to do this was to sell shit that didnt actually exist. So we invented the internet and had a big bubble based on the buying and selling of shares in companies that didn't actually do anything. Once this tanked, some genius realised that the same model would work with houses, which we could all sell to each other for ever, as long as we all simultaneously believed the price was going up.

Which brings us up to the present day: We've discarded the hairy old Faith Of Our Fathers for the most part, and wound up behaving much as the cassocked old buzzards said we would - largely by reversing the negative on each one of the Ten Commandments. So is it time for us all to go all John Waters, pour the Whiskey down the sink and start re-assessing our Christian Heritage?

Well, no, in the opinion of this author. It isn't. Christian teaching on most matters of morality is actually astoundingly simplistic, what the Bible has to say on most of these issues is firmly pitched at the illiterate Bronze Age peasant. That plenty of clever people came along later within that tradition and said a few worthwhile things on the subject is a testament to human progress, not to the depth and subtlety of the Christian religion or The Bible. That we binged in the ways that we did, is largely the result of the Christian religion failing to teach us the real intracies of morality and opting instead for "Because I say so and I'm your Mother. Now Go To Your Room."

It is quite possible to develop a philosophy of enoughness, or to lead a life free of spiritual pollution without ever needing any help from Leviticus, Moses or Saint Augustine. At the risk of sounding like a Patchouli scented Asia-Groupie, the basis of the Buddhist tradition is closer to that, and can easily offer guidance, without asking you to swallow any crap about virgin births or Great Floods. The Four Noble Truths say it in the clearest way: Unhappiness is everywhere, because we always want what we haven't got (unless we are Sinead O Connor) , so the best way to become happy is not to get what you want, but to learn how not to want it so much.

Easier said than done, you might say and you'd be right. We live in a society that is literally designed to make sure we are constantly walking around with some sort of a hole in us that needs filling: Happy contented people are useless to the economy: We'd much rather have a pathetically needy and insecure woman spending her days frantically hunting around Liffey Valley for stuff she doesn't need than a happy self-confident woman who spends her Saturdays hiking in the woods. The second type doesnt need to spend much money to make her content and that's no good for a consumption based society.

So whaddya do? Well the first thing not to do, is not to allow this to make us run screaming back to the Bronze Age: The spectacle of a man like John Waters giving up the booze and going back to God is like watching a friend have a nervous breakdown and wind up sucking his thumb in fetal position on the bathroom floor. Going back to the fearful childish way we used to deal with things is no way to deal with our unhappiness at the modern consumerist Smorgasboard we now live in. To do so is rather as if having grown up and suffered all the petty disappointments of adulthood we say "Sod this for a game of soldiers, I'm off to play with Tonka trucks in the back garden. "

Well there are better ways to deal with it. Practicing Enoughness is one of them and maybe Mr Waters has a point about pouring the booze down the sink, and the same for a few of our other illusory pleasures. Now lets see if we can achieve that without having to bury our heads in the sandpit. Well the Four Noble Truths might be as good a place as any to start.

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