The notion of receiving something for nothing invokes a tricky psychological algebra. Whether its investing in extraterrestrial acreages in hope of becoming a lunar landlord or raising one’s kilt in glee after having purchased some Scottish highland peat bog (the better to become an exclusive member of a landed gentry, any gentry), the promise of cheap thrills for pleasurable rewards abounds within us all. We didn’t ascend this high on the evolutionary food chain as a species by an excess of charitable magnanimity or an inability to calculate the easiest way to get what we want. As organisms there’s a hydraulic force at work in much of our life, whereby our purposeful pursuit of pleasure and egoistic expansion into untapped realms runs up against that old nemesis of hard work and diligent labour: common sense. What we call common sense, in life as in learning, likely arises from the deepest of deep time recesses when the first primates emerged from the jungle into the light of day of conscious self-awareness.
Where meanings and motivations are concerned, Sigmund Freud’s body of work is particularly worthy of a gander. To Freud, we nubile primates are in essence exactly what every steadfast Gen Z member of the popular science fandom claims: animals doing animal things, with animal desires and animal impulses. And urges. Freud’s starting point, in terms of understanding the ways and wiles of Homo sapiens, might best be summarized by a 90s rock song by the aptly-named band the Fun Lovin’ Criminals. “You and me Baby, we ain’t nothin’ but mammals, so let’s do it like they do on the Discovery Channel”.
Pursuant to pleasure’s carnal and intellectual aims, Freud named this implacable core drive, with its many offshoots and avenues impacting modern life choices from feverish creativity to rabid baby fever, the pleasure principle. The pleasure principle, ranging from how much butter we slather onto a piece of bread to how much money we spend on a Valentine’s Day bouquet, involves matters social to others and egoistic in our mind’s eye. Through pursuit and withdrawal, the pleasure principle serves to guide our actions and our passions. Throughout life’s little circumstances, happenstances, and accidents, “the course of those events is invariably set in motion by an unpleasurable tension, and it takes a direction such that its final outcome coincides with a lowering of that tension—that is, with an avoidance of unpleasure or a production of pleasure” (Freud, 21). Cultural calculus, in other words, combines with the rawer drives of our organic essence as living beings. We have to balance and define needs and wants, be it in bank statements or verbal statements. As with paramecia in a petri dish or bacteria in a jug of yogurt, we must attain an unstable peace betwixt exigent realities of society and the innate tendency to fulfill procreative desires. Despite, as Aristotle put it, being the human who thinks, reproductive—gonadal—realities affect the way that we humans decide our fate. Our body is the arbiter of our mind via the unconscious in ways that are hard to pin down, let alone hold in bondage per se, in the manner of the comedy tune “tie me (sic) kangaroo down, sport.”
To be sure the passionate and sometimes ill-advised pursuit of our most carnal pleasures provides dubious and fleeting rewards that balance against an awful lot of heartbreaking consequences. From tawdry divorce court proceedings under the enraptured eyes of millions of livestream viewers, to the emotional maladjustment of children whose innocence is lost when they realize that Mommy and Daddy were only pretending to love one other, the earnest pursuit of pleasure is never a value-neutral drive in the manner, say, of a squirrel seeking nuts for winter or a pooch seeking a pantleg whereby to relive itself. As humans, we’re responsible for the consequences we engender, and no time of year is this truer than in our participation in that time-honored litmus test of loving relationships and labile expectations: Valentine’s Day.
Contrary to the pleasure principle, which to Freud and biologists alike may be said to be the Prime Mover of all that we do and desire, the reality principle holds sway as a means by which we biped organisms hold our most fanciful fancies in check, the better to preserve our reputations, dignity and adulting veneer. Freud succinctly summarizes the reality principle’s prime directive: “Under the influence of the ego’s instincts of self-preservation, the pleasure principle is replaced by the reality principle. This latter principle does not abandon the intention of ultimately obtaining pleasure, but it nevertheless demands and carries into effect the postponement of satisfaction…and the temporary toleration of unpleasure as a step on the long indirect road to pleasure” (26). Pleasure-cum-reality, to add a Latin flourish, may be said to involve compromises, tradeoffs, and transactions—not least of which between our little inner angel and inner demon, the stuff of which cartoon climax scenes are made.
Any spouse who’d really prefer not to get gussied up and spend three hours at a fancy and overpriced restaurant but desires the happiness of her spouse and the memory of a well-done Valentine’s Day to go with an over-seasoned steak can relate to how the reality principle provides checks and balances to our desires. Probably we’d prefer to simply receive free lunches and easy tickets out of the “my spouse is an asshat, let me tell you why” jail free card. But, in foraging, as in fornicating, the human realm follows the way of nature. We can’t, as Mick Jagger sang with those fulsome, miniskirt-flapping lips, all get what we can’t. Some of us, but not all of us – although, as the saying goes, even a blind squirrel finds a nut now and then.
Then again, maybe we can all have our Valentine’s Day cinnamon hearts and eat them out too. As students and adult-esque citizens, the means to our ends need not merely inveigh a weighing of pros and cons, truths (sometimes bitter) and consequences (sometimes dire). True love, real romance, and authentic good intentions can be the stuff of Valentine’s, just as such sentiments can impart a rosy glow to third dates, proposals, and My-Big-Fat-Canadian-Weddings. Love, however it translates itself out of our primordial soup bowl of DNA and through the symbolic sycophancy of cultural expectations, is a fascinating thing to behold – and an even more lustrous event in which to participate. This Valentine’s Day, let’s remember that on the greatest report card of life, it’s not whether we spoke or wrote a perfect answer, or expressed an elegant silence, but simply whether our actions were filled with loving kindness towards that special someone who we love the most.
(This article is dedicated to my dear wife Janice, for eight wonderful years!)