Wake me up when they fight: sex, violence, and other highbrow pleasures

Michael Sandel’s Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? offers acritique of utilitarianism that veers strangely into aesthetics.  The basic principle of u-ism, that ‘the right thing to do’ is whatever provides the greatest pleasure (or least pain) for the greatest number, is open to several criticisms: woult The Torture Channel be an ethical if enough people enjoyed watching it?  Does anyone think that we have a reliable calculus of pleasure on which to base our decisions?

But Sandel is also unhappy with the non-judgmental character of u-ism, which seems to me one of its virtues.  JS Mill said that we should only call something desirable if people actually desire it…well duh, one is tempted to say, but his society was so deeply committed to repression that this statement ran afoul of the prevailing discipline-and-punish conception of morality.*  And Sandel and Mill both felt the need to establish that some pleasures are created more equal than others (beyong the very utilitarian idea that it is not good to take pleasure in another’s pain).

Sandel describes a classroom exercise in which he shows students three film clips: one of professional wrestling, one of The Simpsons, and one of a soliloquy from Hamlet. He then asks the students which is most enjoyable (The Simpsons wins) and which is highest or most worthy Shakespeare wins).  Sandel takes this as evidence that the pleasure of watching Hamlet is nobler than the pleasure of watching The Simpsons.  He quotes Mill to the effect that it is better to be a dissatisfied human than a satisfied pig , and wraps up thus:

We consider Hamlet great art not because we like it better than lesset pleasures but because it appeals to our highest faculties and makes us more human.

Can someone tell me what the hell this means?  I am quite fond of Shakespeare, but to assert without explanation that this makes me more human than people who are not fond of Shakespeare…well, it’s a bit arrogant, especially since I am also very fond of The Simpsons, which presumably makes me more piglike…or perhaps it is wrestling fans who are porcine, and Simpsons fans are some in between, let’s say chimplike.  Sandel could at least have thrown us a bone by telling us what our hightest faculties are.

If we wanted to see whether the students’ conception that the pleasures of Shakespeare are more ‘worthy’ (beyond the obvious one, that they have been told that Shakespeare is high art), we would have to start by asking: what are the pleasures of Shakespeare?  Here is some evidence from experience:

I was once at a rather modest production of King Lear.**   As we took our seats, a small girl in the next row curled up in a blanket and announced, “Wake me up whent they fight.”  The fight scene was actually rather exciting, since we were close to the stage.  There is of course a big fight scene in Hamlet, but Sandel specifies a soliloquy, so I don’t think that’s what he had in mind.

Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary that he had been to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream;  he didn’t think much of it except that there had been dancing by pretty girls.  Again, a Hamlet soliloquy doesn’t sound particularly sexy, though I gather that many of both sexes regard Patrick Stewart as quite the hottie.

When my then-teenaged sisters went to see Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, the younger one had apparently not been warned about the ending.  She sat in the theater sobbing and wailing “Why did they have to die?”  while her older sister poked her and hissed “Shut up shut up you’re embarrassing me!”   The purifying (as Aristotle would have it) pleasure of intense emotion is certainly one of the things I read Sheakespeare for, but again, does anyone cry at Hamlet?  H is a very smart but rather off-putting young man, and his soliloquies are more interesting than moving.

Personally, I would say that sex, violence, and tears are all more worthy and authentically Shakespearean sources of pleasure than pretentious cant.  But of course there is more.  There is the pleasure of being part of a complex game, teasing out the strands of cultural and linguistic resonance that play with and against each other.  Of course, this is just as true of The Simpsons.  The difference is that the fun in Shakespeare has a substantial startup cost because his culture and language are alien to us.  I daresay most of Sandel’s students have no idea what a bodkin is, or a mortal coil–there is a human gratification in figuring stuff out and in helping other people figure it out, if you’re lucky enough to find people who want to learn.

But a lot of this same effort is need to understand anything from that period, and nobody thinks George Chapman and Richard Barnfield are great artists.

So maybe we should take our harmless pleasures where we can, and feel a certain private pride in sharing a taste with other people we think are cool, without too much preening and posturing about how it makes us more human than everybody else.

* Somewhat later, Freud claimed that all morality is based on the threat of castration (which is why women lack a moral sense, ’cause you can’t threaten to cut off what they don’t have).  But Freud is a nutcase for another day.

**The role of Kent was played, weirdly,  with a Scottish accent–I thought that perahsp the actor had wanted to do Macbeth instead, but it turns out the actor’s name was Robert the Bruce Brake, so maybe he insisted on putting a bit of Scots in every role.

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2 Responses to Wake me up when they fight: sex, violence, and other highbrow pleasures

  1. Alejo says:

    Visiting Facebook for the first time in six months or so, I came across your peerless essays. My first impulse was to wolf them down all at once like when we read The Stand or Cien A~os. But I think it is better to savor them one or two at a time and make the pleasure last! As for your question about what the hell Sandel means when he says that Shakespeare makes us more human –I, too, am puzzled by his non-sequitur science but, without the benefit of reading the whole selection, I wonder if he meant that Shakespeare “makes us more human” each as individuals in comparison with the person we would be without reading him. That doesn’t make the argument right, or even plausible, but perhaps slightly less classist since, in Sandel’s theory, one could presumably share a few Sonnets with a video-game slacker and thereby improve them. Or maybe just piss them off. And I agree with you that Sandel should back off The Simpsons. I think the humor in The Simpsons can be very sophisticated. Maybe Sandel just doesn’t get it. I’m pretty sure that if you ask the average 1st grader what he knows about the curvature of Space-Time, he got part of his conception from a Simpsons episode. He can learn the math later. On the other hand, I did see Homer play Hamlet in one of the episodes and it made me feel… well, more human.
    Your friend, Alejo.

    • Roy says:

      Hey ‘jo, good to see you here!

      I agree that Sandell means Shakey makes us more human than we would otherwise be, but I think that my version is a corollary. After all, if we start with two groupls of equally human people, and one group reads Shakey while the other group watches the Simpsons, the Shakespearean group will become more human than they were before, while the Homeric group will either remain at the same level of humanity or get less human. Since they were equally human to begin with, the former will now be more human than the latter. It’s all very silly and pointless.

      I hope you’ll stop by regularly…it gets pretty quiet around here.

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