The Two Kinds of Pleasure—& Tiger Woods
Dear Unknown Friends:
To begin this new decade we publish the lecture Pleasure and Self-Conflict, by Eli Siegel. He gave it 63 years ago, and it explains what people now—in living rooms and at worksites, in schools and kitchens, at social gatherings and in halls of government and in bedrooms—most need to know. It is one of the lectures in his Steinway Hall series (1946-7). And what we print is based on notes that were taken at the time.
The “current psychologies,” to which Mr. Siegel refers critically, are of course those of the 1940s. But today’s dealers with mind are just as unknowing about the grand, compelling, intricate, inescapable subject of pleasure as the two people he mentions, Sigmund Freud and Karen Horney, were.
Aesthetic Realism is the philosophy that explains that there are two kinds of pleasure: the pleasure of contempt for the world, and the pleasure of respect. The first, contempt, is the feeling we’re more because we can see what’s not ourselves as less; and it is the most hurtful thing in the human self. This pleasure can be quietly ordinary. It can be a certain relish, a smug satisfaction, in telling ourselves someone “is an idiot.” But the pleasure of contempt is also the pleasure a white woman of Alabama had in 1860 ordering a black woman around—and feeling she was far superior to this slave and had the right to own her.
A fight between the two kinds of pleasure goes on within every one of us. It is the central matter in our lives. In issue 162 of this journal, Eli Siegel writes eloquently on the subject:
One thing that is clear in the history of man is that he has had pleasure of two kinds. Man has had pleasure from seeing a sunset; from Handel’s Messiah; from seeing courage in someone; from a great rhythm in words. He has also had pleasure from making everything he can meaningless; from changing architecture into broken eggshells; from making the mighty malodorous; from trivializing.... Seeing meaning, then, has given pleasure; taking it away has also given pleasure....
There is a feeling that if we couldn’t make things less, despise them, we should be nobody in a large, intricate, and dark world. Contempt, it seems to us, is the foundation we need for our desire to be somebody; to matter.
This passage, and the lecture published here, contain the basis on which to understand a person much in the news lately. The revelations about Tiger Woods—presented usually with ill will by the media—have puzzled, disappointed, and, unfortunately, titillated people. But what impelled this athlete, so revered and apparently upstanding, to have multitudinous extramarital affairs?
Sports & the Pleasure of Respect
There can be a true, mighty pleasure of respect from about every sport, and golf is no exception. Tiger Woods has been called the most famous athlete in the world. Along with his unmistakable ability, the fact that he seems ethnically to have the whole world in him has also affected people very much. (His background is Asian, African American, Caucasian, and Native American.)
Whenever we are pleased truly, beauty is present. And all beauty, Aesthetic Realism shows, “is the oneness of the permanent opposites in reality.” As athlete, Tiger Woods has that oneness of opposites. He has been described as thrilling and also cautious, very careful. He has flare and precision. He has a fine freedom through control. The pleasure people have gotten seeing Tiger play is the pleasure of respect. It’s the pleasure of seeing reality’s opposites made one.
And there is the game itself—that sport which seems to have begun in Holland, and came, perhaps early in the 15th century, to Scotland, where it became loved. What is the particular way the world pleases and is respected in golf—and has pleased Tiger Woods and been respected by him? We find some indication in a text now a hundred years old, the famous 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Take this sentence:
The game of golf may be briefly defined as consisting in hitting the ball over a great extent of country,...and finally hitting or “putting” it into a little hole of some 4 in. diameter cut in the turf.
It’s quite clear that golf is a oneness of expansion (“a great extent of country”) and contraction or concentration (“a little hole”). And there are concentration and expansion, point and width, in making that neat little ball soar through space.
The Britannica article continues:
For the various strokes required to achieve the hitting of the ball over the great hills, and finally putting it into the small hole, a number of different “clubs” has been devised to suit the different positions in which the ball may be found and the different directions in which it is wished to propel it....It is this variety that gives the game its charm.
So the pleasure, the “charm,” of golf comes, too, from a sense of manyness in oneness: from a “variety” of strokes and clubs used in behalf of a single goal.
And there is that immense pleasure that comes when a ball goes into a hole. That pleasure is present in other sports too, including pool and basketball. And it has to do with the tremendous opposites of sameness and difference, matter and space. How different a solid ball and the space of an empty hole are; how thrilling when they join!
The Other Pleasure
Tiger Woods, playing golf, has had the big, respectful pleasure of using himself to be fair to the world. He has used his body and thought to deal justly with reality’s opposites—those I described and more. And he has had the joy of trying to meet respectfully those representatives of the world which are earth, air, water, the metal of a club, a flexible and firm ball. But athletes have also had another kind of pleasure from a sport, and they haven’t distinguished it from the beautiful pleasure. That other pleasure is the pleasure of contempt. It’s the feeling they’ve beaten out the world through beating an opponent. It’s the feeling that Shakespeare had Pistol express: “Why, then the world’s mine oyster, / Which I with sword will open.” It’s the joy in seeing someone else flop so oneself can be supreme. It’s the feeling, not clearly articulated but powerfully real, “I don’t have to be fair to anyone or anything, because I’m a WINNER!”
The feeling that the world exists to be conquered, beaten, looked down on, owned, is entirely different from—and opposed to—the feeling that the world exists to be known, honored, respected. I’m sure Tiger Woods has felt both, and not been clear about either, or about the difference between them. Tiger Woods has likely received as much praise, adulation, and money as any athlete in history. Meanwhile, the only way we can like ourselves, no matter how famous we are, is through wanting to know and be just to the outside world—and not just on a golf course. People think they’ll like themselves through getting a lot of glory and money. But no matter how much of these they get, they’ll never feel satisfied, and so they’ll want more and more.
That, I believe, is what happened to Tiger Woods, as it has happened to others. He tried to think well of himself through conquering the world, beating it. Yet he didn’t like himself, because his deepest desire was to see reality and people justly. And so, with all his victories on the golf course, and all his millions of dollars from product endorsements and the luxurious items those dollars could buy, Woods, inevitably dissatisfied, felt driven to have more power and victories—from women.
To the desire for power, having an attractive woman do what you want her to is like conquering an opponent. Having a woman give you that praise which sex is felt to be, is like having crowds cheer you. When the sex, too, arises from a desire to manage the world, not understand it, your carnal victories leave you deeply ashamed and unsure. And you try to think much of yourself by going after more and more.
Tiger Woods, then, stands for the fight—between contempt and respect—that all people long to make sense of. In the lecture published here, given 28 years before he was born, Aesthetic Realism understands him.