Self-Indulgence or Mindful Pleasure?

This week we have been discussing the idea of place and what constitutes home. On Tuesday our in-class exercise was to write about our homes and how to get there, which we shared with the class. It was interesting because as a previous poster mentioned, it helped us come out of our shells a little bit and learn more about our class mates.

The readings for this week, Shipping Out and A St. Petersburg Christmas both painted interesting pictures of travelling and the idea of vacations/leisure time. Usually when we think of vacations, we associate them with pleasant things–relaxation, having a good time, and new experiences. In the readings, however, both authors write about vacationing experiences that were not so pleasant.

In “Shipping Out”, David Foster Wallace talks about the time he spent on a 7-day cruise on a ship called the Nadir. Usually when people think of cruises, they think of luxury, being pampered and sometimes debauchery. Wallace describes all these things, but paints them in a unique, ominous light. He points out the innate wrongness of luxury cruises wherein staff wait on customers, people do as they please, and as he puts it do “absolutely nothing.” This is partly from his own idiosyncratic fear of sharks, which he associates with the ocean, but also because of his disapproval of luxurious treatment. Wallace is bothered that the wait staff is there to do everything for him, including carry his food tray and constantly clean his room. Wallace observes that although many fantasize and wish desperately to spend a week of decadent relaxation, there is something forceful about being on the cruise. He writes that on the Nadir there is a “grim determination to indulge the passenger that go far beyond any halfway-sane passenger’s own expectations” (p. 44). He comes to realize as the cruise vacation progresses, that he is starting to become more demanding and still remains dissatisfied, finding little things that bother him and expecting the porters to do more to comfort him. He realizes that this is exactly what the advertisement for the cruise was trying to sell him: “the promise t sate the part of him that always and only WANTS” (p. 51). In a monet of self-realization, Wallace comes to understand that the whole business of luxury and indulgence is that people are never completely satisfied, that their “infantile insatiability” will make them come back for more pampering and luxurious treatment. This is because no matter how much a person gets pampered, s/he will always have something to complain about. This was an interesting revelation for me too, as I had understood that people who come back from luxury vacations were so satisfied that the brief period of indulgence and passive pleasure, as Wallace puts it, would be enough for them. I never thought that self-indulgence would be insatiable like the way Wallace describes it.

In “A St. Petersburg Christmas”, Gary Shteyngart recounts his time vacationing in St. Petersburg during Christmas. He starts off by saying that Russia’s “national pastime is forgetting,” (p. 282) and continues to explain how the new regime under Vladimir Putin has changed the city. Shteyngart observes how westernized and Moscow-like the city has begun, which was previously “the tasteful, stoic city of his birth” (p. 283). The city, he observes, has become become garish and tasteless architecturally, and has joined the ranks of the most expensive cities in the world, disproportional to the general Russian populace’s lack of wealth. Shteyngart bemoans how his beloved city, the place he calls home, has lost touch with and has deviated far from its origins. It seems to him that St. Petersburg, and Russian as a whole, goes through phases and forgets what it was like before, transforms with no nostalgia for the past. This goes back to his theme of forgetting, which Shteyngart claims is the national mentality. In the search to feel like he’s at home again, Shteyngart travels to his childhood neighborhood Moskovskaya Ploshchad and reminisces about the city he once knew.

Both authors vehemently repudiate over-indulgence, but do not associate it with the same things. While Wallace associates over-indulgence and passive pleasure with infantility, an inherently un-American experience, as he grew up with the Protestant work ethic and the American ideal of hard work/merit.  Shteyngart is the exact opposite, and believes Russia’s transformation into a decadent society as a product of western, presumably American, influence. Both authors depicted self-indulgence negatively, but believe them to have different origins. I also thought about Wallace’s idea that passive pleasure is not satisfying. After analyzing his statement, I came to understand the truth in his statement. I can relate the idea of passive pleasure versus enjoying the fruits of my own labor. I have always felt more pleasure in something I worked hard to create, like a work of art or an academic project, rather than producing work that resulted from someone else’s ideas. I feel that there is a huge different in overall satisfaction when you take “mindful” pleasure in something you worked hard to create versus the decadent pampering you receive as a result of someone else’s labor (like Wallace felt when he was waited on by the porters on the cruise).

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