How to improve heaven
Today’s article is by Andy Martin, Lecturer in the Department of French at Cambridge University. His latest book is The Boxer and The Goal Keeper: Sartre versus Camus
I was once having a chat with a Great Writer. I was an ardent admirer of his work, so I was probably a little awe-struck (now I would probably tone down the awe, but I was in a phase of youthful enthusiasm). Naturally, I raved on about one of his earlier works. He was not just modest (in fact he wasn’t really a modest guy at all), he had genuine doubts about everything he had done. He wasn’t really sure that all those novels deserved the accolades. He thought they could have been better. “And what about your women characters,” I said. “It’s funny how you have two basic types: one is sensational, beautiful, funny; and the other is a monster, cruel, evil.” “It’s the same woman,” he said, “only after I’ve married her.”
Strangely enough, I think this conversation is quite instructive as regards the OECD Better Life Index. Specifically the mystery of the “French Paradox”: how does it come about that a nation which on the face of it appears to be pulling all (or nearly all) the right stops nevertheless complains about feeling significantly sub-optimal? The fact that the OECD HQ is in Paris is not irrelevant (it is now officially on my Index of Paris-based organisations publishing Indexes).
The Great Writer above had a habit (you will have guessed) of acquiring and then dumping wives. This is not a pretext for discussing the liaisons dangereuses of any number of well-known French men and women. Rather, the Great Writer argued that his personal vicissitudes were largely down to the zeitgeist he had lived through, with its utopian over-emphasis on Lennon/Oko peace and love, which no real relationship could ever quite live up to.
He reckoned it was a cultural problem; I want to argue it’s cognitive. There is clearly a link between creativity and melancholia. I don’t want to list here all the poets and artists who have ended up jumping off the bridge (John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, my old friend Nick etc). Self-destruction is only an extreme manifestation of self-deconstruction. Which can clearly be collective as well as individual (perhaps all emotions are really en masse and the notion of a purely personal experience makes no more sense than a private language).
In measuring well-being, the OECD rightly takes account of such external indicators as environment, education, employment, health, and so on. On a less quantitative and yet still empirical level, I want to draw attention to only two phenomena that give a sense of what the OECD is up against, especially in France: toe-sucking and déjà-vu.
The neuro-cognitive logic of foot-fetishism has to do with the brain carrying around a map of the body. But the map of course is not of the same structure as the body: in this rather more compact electro-chemical synaptic form, the feet are stored somewhere in the vicinity of the genitals, so that there is a “neural crossover” from one to the other. Hence a sexualized impression of toes. V. S. Ramachandran derives the whole phenomenon of the “phantom (yet amputated) limb” from this same mix-up, the inability of the brain to overcome its own archetypes.
Do you ever go into a house you know you have never been to before and yet have an eerie sense that it is all very familiar? Maybe you used to live here in a previous life. But more probably, you are experiencing something we generally don’t notice, which is that our information-processing is 2-phase. Haven’t I been here before? Ah yes, of course—just a few nanoseconds ago—when I (my brain) was making an initial reconnaissance and processing the sense data in a relatively unstructured spontaneous way. And now I am re-configuring my preliminary picture and, very briefly, slipping between images, interweaving the present and the recent past (in this sense Plato was right to argue that all knowledge is recollection).
It is this first-phase, a “primal”—preliminary, provisional, but enchanted—state of consciousness (before the more analytic, disenchanted phase kicks in) that I think Albert Camus is invoking when he speaks of flashbacks to a lost paradise and feeling himself at one with trees and seas and silence. It also explains why paradise is always a lost paradise. Happiness is the phantom limb of human consciousness.
Jean-Paul Sartre had a memorable phrase for it (one that I suspect will never catch on quite as much as “Hell is other people”, even though they must be closely related): “a binary praxis of antagonistic reciprocity.” The brain, like all decent computers, is binary. The difference is that it is more neurotic. We have to keep going back and obsessively checking the data against some previous formulation. In other words, we are inescapably indexical in our behavior (thus the OECD is only doing on a grander scale what we are doing all the time anyway: OECD contains OCD). But some (eg the French) are more indexical than others.
Out of the inevitable disjunction between before and after, the raw and the cooked, the savage and the symbolic, fly up creativity, philosophy, art, but also aching nostalgia and anxiety. Will anything ever “bring salvation back” (as Michael Jackson poignantly wondered)? A faster internet? I doubt it.
Freud blamed our being miserable on (among other things) the Christian concept of heaven. The trouble with heaven is it is fundamentally boring (like Dante’s Paradiso – the Inferno is way more fun). Nothing ever really happens in heaven. I defy even Hugh Hefner not to get tired of his non-stop playmates around the eternal pool. We need a new concept of bliss that is not naively single-phase. As Roland Barthes argued, the concept of jouissance should include pain as well as pleasure; perhaps he could have added that it has to be indexical (why else would the Kama Sutra index so many variations on well-being?).
I am reminded of something my son said to me recently, as we were passing beneath a leafy tree on a sunny day: “Why do we like dappled light so much?” And he had an answer: “It’s because the shadow dramatizes the light. We want light but not too much of it. The same with shade – we don’t want total darkness either.” Even heaven would need an Index on Light.