The difficulty with resolving this disagreement about the kinds of pleasure is not that we struggle to agree on the right answer. It’s that we’re asking the wrong question. The entire debate assumes a clear divide between the intellectual and bodily, the human and the animal, which is no longer tenable. These days, few of us are card-carrying dualists who believe that we are made of immaterial minds and material bodies. We have plenty of scientific evidence for the importance of biochemistry and hormones in all that we do and think. Nonetheless, dualistic assumptions still inform our thinking. So, what happens if we take seriously the idea that the physical and the mental are inseparable, that we are fully embodied beings? What would it mean for our ideas about pleasure?
The dining table is a good place to start. Along with sex, food is usually considered to be the quintessential lower pleasure. All animals eat, using the senses of smell and taste. It doesn’t require any complex cognition to conclude that something is delicious. Philosophers have generally assumed that to take pleasure in eating is simply to sate a primitive desire. So, for instance, Plato believed that cookery could never be a form of art, because it ‘never regards either the nature or reason of that pleasure to which she devotes herself, but goes straight to her end’.
Two years before Roman’s untimely death, Eugenia had co-founded Luka, a startup that used artificial intelligence to build chatbots. Its first product was a Yelp competitor that users could text for restaurant recommendations. After Roman passed, Eugenia realized her company’s tech could be put toward another purpose.
From the digital history of texts she’d exchanged with Roman, Eugenia created Romanbot, a chatbot that allows anyone to “communicate” with a digital re-creation of her lost friend. Not only has Romanbot inherited aspects of Roman’s personality and patterns of speech, but thanks to machine learning, which enables the bot to dynamically improve through interaction, Romanbot will grow. Over time, Romanbot has and will continue to develop an understanding of current events, form new opinions, and evolve beyond the Roman his friends once knew—just as a living human would continue to mature.
My dad grew up in El Dorado. The youngest of four and the son of a vending-machine salesman, he was the last of his siblings to leave town for college. In May, I returned there for the first time since before my grandfather’s death in 2014 to attend the newly minted Southern Food & Wine Festival, a weekend featuring world-renowned chefs and sommeliers visiting from Michelin-starred restaurants, and found a town battling that cliched storyline: a one-industry place damned for being stubborn and static. In the middle of the south Arkansas oil fields, El Dorado is hoping to remake itself as a cosmopolitan capital.
It’s kind of a nutso idea, as its orchestrators will proudly concede, but the town has staked its future in the faith that it can work. When I asked Austin Barrow, an El Dorado expat who left his position as the drama department chair at a Georgia college to return home and spearhead the revival, whether he thinks the revamped downtown can become a destination, he said, simply, “It has to.”
To those who believe movies should reflect the way they want the world to be and not the world as it is, it is easy enough to rate romantic comedies as being too full of bad politics and bad faith to take seriously. I am more of the mind-set that we already live inside waves hand in general direction of entire planet this whole mess, and I like to see stories that exist in the same dimension that I do. A romantic comedy doesn’t succeed when it is too virtuous and fail when it is too cynical (though both of those qualities do qualify for a wet, wasted afternoon). A romantic comedy fails when it refuses to be read as a story about anything other than love: We need families and friends, really good kitchens and absurdly organized closets, and some unexamined and troubling assumptions about class, race, gender, and sexuality. This summer of the romantic comedy, with its return to familiar and relatable plots and themes, has been a relief—we’re grateful to be reminded of what we like about love, even when we hate it. Workaholics make time for love, the guarded learn to let intimacy in, everything wraps up exactly as we wanted it to—fairy tales come true. We still want the recognition of ourselves in better lighting—the shared language of our concerns, our questions, our heartbreaks and our loves but with snappier dialogue and better haircuts. Really we want nothing less than the feeling of seeing how the universe exists between two people who are almost definitely going to bang.
Like most successful trends, these emotions were deeply felt, and linked to bigger forces in our culture. At a time when few of us dare to go anywhere without a smartphone, books tapped into a growing desire among many consumers for a sense of physicality and the measured pace it commands.
Like the other analog goods that have seen a resurgence in recent years, including vinyl records, board games, and even film cameras, books promised a slower, isolated experience, free from distractions, pop-up ads, dead batteries, Russians (unless you’re reading about them), and the other byproducts of digital innovation. In an age of noise, they offer the quiet many of us desperately desire. They also offered certain incalculable tangible pleasures for our senses: the oft-cited smell, feel, and sound of books, which book lovers relish with romance.
“The theory behind the ring,” Mason said, his own wedding band visible on the hand resting on his knee, “is if a psychiatrist goes into a room without it, that’s going to change what the patient’s going to share. Much more information is going to come when a patient meets a doctor who’s not wearing a ring and, according to people who believe this very strongly, the patient asks: ‘Are you married?’ That’s a moment when a psychiatrist responds: ‘We could talk about that. But maybe more important right now is what you were feeling when you asked that.’ And then, this door opens — hopefully: We’re always looking for a door that might open — and a patient might say, ‘Well, I imagine that you are married because I imagine that everybody is happily married except for me.’ That’s Answer A. Answer B is: ‘I don’t think you’re married because you’re attracted to me.’ Answer C is: ‘I have no idea. I don’t feel like I can read anybody now. I don’t understand anybody. I didn’t understand my wife, apparently. I don’t understand you.’ Each one of those leads the psychiatrist down these totally different paths. That’s really helpful information.”
Mason wears his ring while seeing patients, as do many of his colleagues. But despite that measure of clinical transparency, he was clear during our conversations that it was essential to his ability to practice medicine that certain details of his personal life beyond the most basic published facts — he is married to the novelist Sara Houghteling — remain unavailable to his patients. He acknowledged the awkwardness of this preference — I was there, wasn’t I, to profile him? — but it couldn’t be helped, given that he has been, as he says, “negotiating two worlds” throughout his professional life. In one, he serves on a team of clinicians that includes psychologists, social workers, nurses, occupational and physical therapists, residents and medical students, treating people admitted for acute mental illnesses or crises. And in another, he is a fiction writer who, nearly two decades ago, published, at 26, while still in medical school, his first novel, “The Piano Tuner,” which describes the journey of a man sent by the British War Office to the Burmese interior in 1886 to repair a piano. It became an international best seller, was translated into 28 languages and adapted as an opera. His third novel, “The Winter Soldier,” which took 14 years to complete — his first about a doctor and, in part, a coming-of-age story about what that profession can demand and return — arrives this month and with it, for Mason, no little inner negotiation: It will be his first book to appear since he began practicing psychiatry, a vocation which maintains that the practitioner’s face is best kept blank.
At its core, Odette’s story is about how trauma is a kind of time travel, compelling the sufferer to return again and again to the scene of their shock. It’s witty, inventive and unflashily wise about human hearts; Mascarenhas’s future promises to be an exciting one.
It’s perhaps an indication of the severity of our current predicament that Lepore, for all her deep understanding of the American experience, feels it necessary to end “These Truths” with a wistful, heartening epilogue that pictures the republic as a beleaguered ship. “It would fall to a new generation of Americans, reckoning what their forebears had wrought, to fathom the depths of the doom-black sea,” she writes. “They would need to drive home nails with the untiring swing of mighty arms and, with needles held tenderly in nimble fingers, stitch new sails out of the rugged canvas of their goodwill.”
This is too pretty by half. After so many pages of cold, hard truths, the last thing I wanted was to have them warmed over. To feel cheated by such platitudes is a testament to how good the rest of the book is. This cleareyed history had done its civic duty: It primed me to miss the Lepore who tells it like it is.