The Garden of Earthly Delights

I saw this quiz posted on Facebook the other day and was surprised by how much it amused me. I’d been in a fairly bad mood for most of the evening, one of those times when I don’t really know why I’m in a bad mood, I just am—usually something that I’ll recognize only later as one of the phases of a migraine. Getting my result for this quiz made me laugh, though, and I’ve been surprisingly cheered by it.


In all seriousness, it also makes me think of something I’ve been mulling over the last few days: Why are so many people, and societies in general, opposed to pleasure on principle? Did it originate with religion, or is religion just the vehicle for people who would feel that way anyway? Where does the idea come from that pleasure is a temptation, something for “righteous” people to rise above?

It’s tied in with, if not completely the same as, the question of why people are so opposed to any (non-religious) method of altering one’s state of consciousness, particularly with drugs and alcohol. I read a fascinating report in Harper’s Magazine a few months ago, about the American “war on drugs,” and the idea has been in the back of my mind since then.

As long ago as 1949, H. L. Mencken identified in Americans “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy,” an astute articulation of our weirdly Puritan need to criminalize people’s inclination to adjust how they feel. The desire for altered states of consciousness creates a market, and in suppressing that market we have created a class of genuine bad guys — pushers, gangbangers, smugglers, killers. Addiction is a hideous condition, but it’s rare. Most of what we hate and fear about drugs — the violence, the overdoses, the criminality — derives from prohibition, not drugs.

Incidentally, I agree wholeheartedly with Dan Baum’s premise in this article, that the way to win this ridiculous “war” is to legalize everything. One of the things that surprised me most as I started discovering my own liberal beliefs is that I can’t see any reason why drugs should be illegal. Not just marijuana, but even heroin, cocaine, meth. Because I just can’t see why the government should be able to tell people what they can and can’t smoke (or eat or drink or shoot up) if they goddamn want to. Just like with everything else, the minute your choices infringe on someone else’s rights, then your rights end. But if you want to spend your weekend rolling on ecstasy, why shouldn’t you be able to? The host of societal ills that currently come with that question—the smuggling, theft, murder, whatever—those come from our criminalization of the drugs, not from the drugs themselves.

Mostly, though, beyond the question of legality, I wonder about that prejudice against pleasure. I want to know why it exists, and then I want it to go away. I want to live in a world that doesn’t stick its nose in everyone else’s windows, that doesn’t judge people for doing what makes them happy. If the trend toward increasing secularity continues, is that something that will go along with it? I’d really like to think it is.

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