THE PURSUIT OF PLEASURE By Lionel Tiger (Little, Brown, 330 pages, $26.95)
Lionel Tiger says that his fascination with pleasure began decades ago in his native Montreal, on a night when he stood naked in his cousin’s bathtub. The adolescent Tiger was babysitting. After his charges were asleep—and well before the children’s parents were expected to return—he resolved to try his hand at masturbation for the first time. On that night, Tiger
writes in his occasionally bombastic new book, “I mastered myself during an act of theft from a gloomy culture that embargoed pleasure.” Ever since then, he continues, “the question of who has a right to pleasure and how much and why” has intrigued him. In The Pursuit of Pleasure, Tiger, an anthropology professor at New Jersey’s Rutgers University, claims that enjoyment is a fundamental human right. “It should be treated with full seriousness in political and economic as well as psychological terms,” he asserts, “but it isn’t.”
In a book that is by turns thought-provoking and prosaic, Tiger argues that “the carrot is at least as important as the stick.” He examines how and why human beings derive pleasure from activities as diverse as eating, having sex and wielding political power. As in some of his previous books, which include Men in Groups
and Optimism: The Biology of Hope, Tiger argues that mankind’s long, cave-dwelling prehistory essentially shaped human nature. Whatever delights modern humans, he believes, is evidence of genetically encoded “behaviors, emotions, social patterns and patterns of taste [that] served us well during our evolutionary history.” Far from being a trivial pursuit, pleasure is in fact an “evolutionary entitlement.”
Noting that early humans lived for millions of years as hunter-gatherers, Tiger claims that “the modem period in which we live has had no
significant and fundamental impact on what we are.” Substances and activities that were vital to primitive humanity’s survival remain the things that latter-day humans crave. Why do so many people have a sweet tooth? Tiger says that hunter-gatherers learned from bitter— and even fatal—experience that consuming sour, unripe food was dangerous. Why do people prefer hot meals to cold ones? Before the discovery of fire, it was safer to eat a freshly killed animal while it retained its body heat than to let the meat cool and spoil.
In one of The Pursuit of Pleasures most absorbing sections, Tiger suggests that modern humanity’s tendency to gluttony, alcoholism and other addictions may have originated in the distant, hunter-gatherer past. “We evolved to live in environments in which scarcity was more common than overabundance,” he
writes. For that reason, Tiger claims that the legalization of currently illegal drugs would be a mistake: “The human central pleasure system is too avid, too frail and too addictionprone. It doesn’t make sense to subject it to any more perilous blandishments than it has already.”
The thrill that he first experienced many years ago in his cousin’s bathtub, however, turned Tiger into a foe of sexual repression. “The sexual spasm is the most physically pleasurable human event,” he writes, noting elsewhere that sex is “always complicated, always interesting, always an issue.” But much of the author’s writing on the subject merely states the obvious: people enjoy sex, and the availability of effective contraception has changed the relationship between pleasure and consequence.
A grocer’s son who claims that he selects meals “the way more serious people select investments,” Tiger offers more piquant insights into the joys of food. Describing the mouth as “the recipient of a vast sensual diplomacy,” he adds that “no other organs, not even the genitalia, are the subject of such concentrated and varied attention, experimentation, etiquette and congeniality.” He also points out that humanity’s pronounced preference for eating with others may harken back to the cave-dwelling days, when survival depended on the sharing of collectively gathered food.
Unlike food and sex, power is not a live-ordie imperative—but many people crave it and savor it. “Powerful people enjoy it when they are able to define and restrict the pleasures of others,” Tiger observes. But beyond that, he cites research indicating that there is an apparent physiological basis for the pleasure of power. Experiments conducted on monkeys at the University of California in Los Angeles revealed that the dominant male in a group possessed a sharply higher concentration of a substance called serotonin in his bloodstream than the others did. In conjunction with other chemicals in the body, serotonin seems to promote moderate blood pressure and general good health. When scientists removed the dominant male from the group, another leader emerged—and the newly dominant male’s serotonin level soared. It seems that power literally is a drug. “The body and the body politic, the Constitution and the constitution,” Tiger writes, “are linked in a complex but increasingly knowable way.”
An unabashedly informal writer, Tiger excels at explaining scientific findings to the lay reader. But in places—such as in the subtitle of one section, “That Old Gang Rape of Mine”— his self-conscious witticisms are unfunny and tiresomely precious. As well, some of his personal anecdotes would be better left unshared (“My own adult dog yields an appealing nutlike smell when he wakes up”). Still, Tiger makes a strong case for taking pleasure more seriously: for those who are fortunate enough to live in relative comfort, life is a banquet—and it would be a shame to go away hungry.
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