Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Grape Soda and Cheese Doodles: Israel, Boredom and the 'Desire for Desire'


Tolstoy describes the desire for desire as boredom.

The people of Israel - instigated by the mixed multitude who left Egypt with them - feel a 'desire for desire.' They want what they can't have - so they nostalgically long for the melons and onions and leeks which they had freely in Egypt.

But, as our sages say, the people of Israel had nothing free in Egypt. The Egyptians held back straw for their building; they certainly didn't dispense cucumbers and watermelons for nothing! Rather, such pleasures, as our sages say, were free - free of mitzvot. So the people of Israel thought: 'those were the days' - hence their nostalgic yearning for unadulterated pleasure, the pleasures without obligation, the pleasures of slavery. Tyrants, as John Milton wrote in one of his polemical works against King Charles I, gladly suffer license and luxury; it's free men they detest. So perhaps Pharoah willingly gave out fish and meat and other delicacies - to better keep the people of Israel in thrall. This is not unlike impoverished neighborhoods around the world - where there may be a shortage of money and work - but never a shortage of grape soda and cheese doodles.

This form of being in the world the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips likens to perversion - which he identifies as a certainty about what it takes to bring pleasure - such a person 'has no doubt about what will satisfy and fulfill him,' and he frantically searches for the pleasures he imagines. The desire for desire is thus rooted in the past and turns the present into its image, and, not surprisingly, projects a similar future. So that which promises the greatest excitement actually deadens us to the possibilities of the new. Masquerading as excitement, the 'desire for desire' provides the cover story for inaction and boredom - the pleasure of slavish repetition, rather than the genuine pleasures that make creative engagement possible. No accident that the 'desire for desire' leads to the craving of those fruits and vegetables - melons, onions and cucumbers - that are rooted to the ground. The manna that flowed forth from the heavens could be prepared in a multitude of ways, but the people preferred the rooted - and effortless - inertness of pursuing desires that led them back to their own physicality.

Mitzvot - which contains the word tzevet, to join - hold out the promise of something else, the possibility of joining with the divine. The excitement of desiring desire provides ersatz pleasures, but in its narcissism can never transform into love.

For love requires not only cultivating a feeling, but relationship - and back to Milton - service:

... freely we serve.
Because we freely love, as in our will
To love or not; in this we stand or fall...
Service and love come together. Though neither are possible when boredom leads to pursuing a nostalgic desire for a desire we may have once had - when we were still slaves.

1 comment:

Spinal Muscular Atrophy - Shira Fisher said...

I totally agree with this. Daven daven daven and then fulfill your desire. Forget about compassion and action together it's just easier to daven daven daven study study study and love hashem than it is to reach out and love people and do something for them. I have found that people would rather serve Hashem than serve people and where does that leave people? Nowhere!