Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright

Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright

Author:Robert Wright
Language: eng
Format: epub, mobi
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Feelings and Stories

There’s one other thing that essence seems to be intertwined with: stories. The stories we are told about things, and the stories we tell ourselves about things, influence how we feel about those things and, presumably, thus shape the essence that we sense in them. If the story behind a tape measure is that it belonged to JFK, that implies a different feeling—and a different essence—than the story that the tape measure belongs to a plumber. If we think of ourselves as having a successful marriage and wonderful, thriving children, then the sight of our home probably gives off more positive vibes than if we think of ourselves as trapped in an oppressive marriage that has bred ne’er-do-well kids. And so on.

This is a major theme of Bloom’s: that the stories we tell about things, and thus the beliefs we have about their history and their nature, shape our experience of them, and thus our sense of their essence. One of his favorite examples is a study that involved wine connoisseurs. Forty of them deemed a Bordeaux with a premium label (grand cru classé) worth drinking, but only twelve bestowed that honor on a Bordeaux labeled as mere table wine (vin de table). You’ve probably guessed the punch line: the two kinds of bottles contained one kind of wine.

Wine is an especially clear example of how stories inform our pleasures (“That was a very good year”), but Bloom thinks that, if you look closely enough, every pleasure has a consequential story behind it. He once said to me, “There’s no such thing as a simple pleasure. There’s no such thing as a pleasure that’s untainted by your beliefs about what you’re being pleasured by.” He used food as an example: “If you hand me something and I taste it, part of my knowledge is that it was given to me by someone I trusted, and I would taste it differently than if I found it on the floor, or if I paid a thousand dollars for it. Or take paintings. It’s true that you can look at a painting and not know who painted it . . . and just appreciate it largely based on what it looks like. At the same time, you know it’s a painting.” In other words, he continued, “it’s not a natural occurrence of paint splattered on a wall. . . . Somebody made it at some time for display, and that colors things.” So too, he said, with “the simplest of sensations: an orgasm, drinking water when you’re thirsty, stretching, anything. It’s always under some sort of description. It’s always viewed as an instance of some sort of category.” There is always, in other words, an implied narrative.

The fact that pleasure is shaped by our sense of essence, and thus by the stories we tell and the beliefs we hold, suggests to Bloom that our pleasures are, in a sense, more profound than we may realize. “There is always a depth to pleasure,” he has written.


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