you can’t catch happy — can’t flee sad
you’ll only find a passing fad
instead, reframe and remeasure
what is pain and what is pleasure
that’s where freedom lies
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Paul Bloom’s book is about why we take pleasure in peculiar actions, proclivities, and objects. These are the pleasures that aren’t readily or directly explained by our evolutionary hardwiring. Evolution has programmed us to experience pleasure with sex and eating to encourage procreation and nourishment. In other words, those who experienced pleasure with sex had sex more often, and passed on their genes more successfully. Those who had a healthy appetite, ate more, became stronger, survived, and passed on their genes.
However, just because the pleasure of sex is readily understood through biology, doesn’t give us insight into the panoply of activities that people find pleasurable in a sexual way that have no value for procreation whatsoever. Bloom uses the example of masochism, but there are all sorts of kinky fetishes out there that one might also consider. It’s the peculiar pleasures that Bloom tries to explain. This is not to suggest that Bloom’s book is entirely about food or sex. He addresses each of those subjects with a chapter of its own, but they aren’t the sum total of the book. Both he and I, no doubt, rely heavily on food and sex because they are such fundamental pleasures and ones whose domains have blossomed far beyond the dictates of biology.
So what does the book address besides food and sex? It examines why people collect things that were once owned by famous people? Bloom sites a study showing that Joshua Bell anonymously playing violin in the subway in street clothes can barely garner a collective $32 in an afternoon, even having been passed by people who will pay $200 each to hear him later that evening as he wears a tuxedo in a concert hall, though playing the same songs on the same $3.5million violin. Why do we sit around watching television and movies? If any of these pleasures seem self-evident, I would encourage you to ask yourself why they should be? It’s by no means clear that we should value something more highly because of who previously owned it, and it’s certainly not clear why we should get value by watching others play act lives that seem more interesting than our own.
The theory that Bloom presents is called essentialism. It’s the idea that each of these things that give us pleasure represents the essence of something or someone in our minds. So a person who pay’s 500 times the going rate for a used guitar solely based on the fact (x-factor) that it once belonged to John Lennon is, according to Bloom, imagining that there’s some sort of essence of Lennon that rubbed off onto the guitar. Yes, the guy buying the guitar could be buying it entirely based on economic considerations, but the only reason there’s an economic benefit (economic rents in economist terminology) to be made is that there are people out there (many of them) who desire to possess a famous artist’s instrument even though it costs them far more than an equivalent guitar not owned by a famous person. Things become even clearer when one looks at an item like JFK’s tape measure—i.e. a mundane item that is not tied to the man’s fame. (Said tape measure sold for an absurd amount.)
Bloom discusses art forgeries to elaborate this concept of “essence” versus the intrinsic value (i.e. the beauty of the art.) There are many cases of paintings being sold for millions because they were believed to be painted by a certain “artistic genius” and then they become trash when it’s discovered that they were painted by a nobody—a nobody who’s genius was clearly sufficient to convince all the experts that he was some other genius for a while, mind you. If what we cared about was the beauty of the painting, its value would have nothing to do with its origins. In this example, it might seem to be all about rarity (a dead artist paints no more, and, thus, has a limited stock of paintings), but there is reason to believe that’s not the whole story.
We can see the value of these essences ubiquitously. There have been a number of blind taste test experiments that show that oenophiles (wine lovers/experts) can’t tell nearly as much about a wine’s delicate intricacies when they don’t have its label on hand. Famously, there was the CEO of Perrier who couldn’t pick his own company’s water out of a blind line up of waters, though insisting it was a superior product. (It took him five tries out of seven waters.) Even after that event there were people willing to spend twice as much for Perrier because it gave them some pleasure that was completely delinked from its taste or nutritional characteristics.
Bloom’s thesis is interesting, and he presents a lot of fascinating examples in this book. What the book doesn’t really explain is how come certain essences act heavily on some people and not at all on others. It also seems like a theory that begs for another level of explanation. Why should such essences exist, i.e. what is their root cause? The latter may prove difficult given the degree to which individuals vary in their peculiar pleasures from one to the next.
I found this book to be intriguing, and would recommend if for people with interests in the oddities of human behavior.