Rest is a radical act. Cooking is a revolutionary act. Joy is an act of resistance. Savoring a pleasant moment is a radical act. Excellence is an act of resistance, but so is procrastination. Being thankful is — you guessed it — a radical act. Reading is a radical act. Ted Lasso is not, itself, a radical act, but it does provide “radical optimism,” which is almost as good. These are descriptions culled from a variety of sources, from Apartment Therapy to the New York Times. The verdict is in: the most radical thing you can do is probably the thing you were going to do already.
Thus it was with a skeptical eye that I read the headline of Rebecca Solnit’s recent interview at the New Yorker. “Rebecca Solnit on the Politics of Pleasure.” Here we go. The interview is really about promoting Solnit’s new book, Orwell’s Roses, which takes as its point of departure (not to shock you) that George Orwell once grew roses. “Somehow,” Solnit comments about her choice of subject, “caring about anti-racism or human rights or climate change means you can’t enjoy yourself or spend time on things that are not furthering the revolution.” The politics of pleasure, gestured at by the headline, have to do with celebrating a sensuality that is meant to be forbidden. One example is 1984, which is, to Solnit, about its hero Winston Smith “reclaiming all the things he’s not supposed to have and see and be and enjoy.… It’s not just about the need to destroy or resist Big Brother, but to do it in these very indirect ways, by being who they don’t want you to be.” Toward the end of the interview, she rephrases her takeaway: “There’s a way that people think of politics as always eating your spinach, when often it’s eating cream puffs and champagne.” Hence a book about Orwell (dour, impeccably political) and roses (beautiful, luxurious). Checkmate, ascetics — all four of you.
I’m not making any claims here about Solnit’s book, which I haven’t read, and probably won’t, but I presume for the sake of argument that in fact the book is free of anything I’m going to complain about here, and that what I’m talking about is the product of a looser, less thoughtful format. What interests me is Solnit’s pose in the interview: first, that you’re judged as unserious if you spend time on non-political projects; second, that those non-political projects are in some sense political after all. The pressure to deny sensuality here seems to come from political allies more than a nebulous “Big Brother”: it’s the spinach-eating no-fun-having people who want to scold you for doing something nice like growing roses. So we can add growing flowers to our list of revolutionary activities.
I would like to suggest a corrective here: these stances are dumb. They’re also probably harmful. But mostly, they’re dumb.
As a fan of both cream puffs and champagne (though perhaps not together) I would rather not have them reframed as Doing The Work. If I’m indulging in these pleasures, I’m not doing any work! I am enjoying myself. There are, of course, political aspects to these delicious products: where and how they are made, what resources they require, who can access them and who can’t. (Similarly, Solnit mentions the farms in Colombia in which many of the roses available to purchase are grown — undoubtedly political.)
But beauty and pleasure are justification enough, almost all of the time. It’s really fine for something to be nothing but beautiful. My dog is an exquisite animal and caring for him gives me joy every day, but neither I nor anybody else derive any political benefit from so doing. That’s fine. It’s enough that I’m alive, and he’s alive, and that we make each other happy. If somebody came along with a calculator and explained to me how I could donate whatever I spend on him in time and money to a worthier cause, the response wouldn’t be to describe my dog ownership as a political action. Instead I would laugh.
To the extent that I have a theory of why other people don’t just laugh, it goes something like this: some substantive minority of people in general view the political value of an act as its ultimate, determinative value. Thus other things they might enjoy or value need to be reconfigured to have political value, or to be in plausible proximity to something that has such value, because otherwise they will feel judged about it and that would be bad. So if you believe you’d be spending your life more worthily blowing up pipelines, but instead write blog posts or work for a hedge fund or have tenure at a university, then you can either live with the self-knowledge that you aren’t willing to live up to your beliefs past a certain level, or you can declare the pursuit of your own comfort to be on the same spectrum of value. I choose these particular jobs for a reason. You only start to justify the political necessity of your own comfort to strangers if you know there’s something a little ridiculous about it.
Are there communities of people for whom otherwise neutral acts do have a political value? Sure. I can laugh off the bean-counting figure who wants me to justify owning a dog. But it’s a very different situation for a homeless person, who might derive a lot of love and comfort from a pet that they’d have to give up to enter a shelter. (The same goes for victims of domestic violence, who might fear leaving pets behind with violent partners, but may not find a shelter that will take them both in.) Though pets and children are not the same, the treatment of a homeless person’s pet as a luxury good has much in common with judging poorer people for having children: if you don’t make a certain amount of money, you do not deserve to have love and care in your life.
The ruthless assumption that things without direct utility are needless luxuries deprives many people of comforts simply because they can be so deprived. That is political. But I would suggest that this assumption is properly resisted, not by trying to bring every good in life under the general umbrella of “politics,” but by pushing for a recognition that almost none of us live a life informed by and justified by one thing and that to demand somebody justify these basic comforts and pleasures to a hostile authority is inhumane and shameful.
Probably many of us could be performing more acts of service for those around us; certainly, I could. It is good to be useful to others, without asking for something in return. And it’s also good to love your friends, to go dancing, to write poetry, to play music, to break your heart. That’s life, too. Recognizing the difference doesn’t mean drowning in guilt or retreating to a life of purely private consumption or sneering at people who go dancing or love roses. You can go dancing and organize your workplace. It’s fine. It’s also fine, even necessary, to be no fun sometimes and bring up labor conditions and environmental impact.
I am not sure, anyway, that pleasure itself needs much in the way of a defense, when it comes to how people really live their lives and not how they talk about it. It’s true that sometimes half-hearted pieces promoting asceticism appear somewhere, usually having to do with climate change or labor conditions, but it’s hardly the case that we are surrounded by people who live such lifestyles in practice. People who do live that way are considered weird — maybe even mentally troubled — and certainly no fun to be around. Self-restriction for aesthetic reasons is of course fairly common, whether it be through dieting or through carefully minimalist home decor. But well-heeled simplicity is not really asceticism.
The principle under which I try to live my life, not necessarily very well, is that nothing I have is really mine. They’re gifts, here for as long as they’re here, to be let go of one day. The cash in my pocket isn’t mine and if somebody needs it they should have it instead. My dog came into my life unlooked for and will one day depart. This stance isn’t really asceticism either, but if I were a good ascetic, I’d probably do a better job at living up to it. But surely this gift-like quality is also true of beauty, which is always gratuitous, always pouring itself out, which can be shared and shared without depletion. Pleasure too is a gift. These things are present in cold mornings, in the smiles of strangers, in mathematics. They do not need an argument. They won’t stay with us forever. You don’t earn them. They’re just given to you. Put out your hands.
B.D. McClay is an essayist and critic.