What is the Difference Between Pleasure and Virtue?
Ralph Waldo Emerson
What do I mean by pleasure, and what do I mean by virtue?
I started to think about this question in these terms when I came across the phrase in James Boswell's Life of Johnson. It seemed in an interesting way to encapsulate issues I'd been wrestling with for a long time related to aesthetics and ethics. Harold Bloom had been a critic who took hold of the aesthetic domain, nominally, in literature. But he always struck me as a good man, for those powers of discernment do not grow from nothing. "Nothing can come of nothing. Come again" (a line from Shakespeare's great play, King Lear). Meaning, things do not grow from nothing. Things are earned. And Bloom's interpretive capacity, throughout his more than fifty years of teaching at Yale and NYU and Harvard, and the thousands, tens of thousands of students he taught, in the classroom, in his books, articles, you name it, suggested that he was what is called in the Jewish tradition a tzaddik, a righteous man.
The most deservedly famous book Bloom ever wrote is called The Anxiety of Influence. It is a difficult book, and needs to be studied. It's about how artists grow, but by artists I mean individuals. (Bloom uses the word "poet" for artists.) It is a work of genius, just as the work of Emily Dickinson is. But it set the tone for his later work, in which Bloom focused on aesthetics, the beautiful, but not the beautiful in the sense of a kind of boring landscape in a tepid museum, but a kind of rugged sublime, something that was unafraid and, therefore, could experience the beauty of the world. The experience of the beauty, like discernment, is something earned.
When we talk about something earned, we are talking primarily about virtue, by which I mean being a good person. Being a good person means being an uncompromising person. It means listening to your heart no matter what, not matter what people tell you otherwise, whoever they are; and it means learning to listen to your heart over time, because this is also a practice, not just something you stumble into or bang your head against or invent from whole cloth. Every practice that leads to substantial changes comes from a tradition. Without that, the practice means nothing. With tradition, actual change happens, because tradition is borne form the experience of men and women, and experience matters more than intellect.
Bloom wrote about objects that he described as beautiful, as in the domain of aesthetics: poems, plays, short stories, novels, essays. (Graphic novels should also be included in this list.) He did this in part because, from his own studies that led to The Anxiety of Influence, he realized that the role he needed to play as a critic was to individuate from his master, Samuel Johnson, the greatest English literary critic, who wrote in the 18th century, and who Boswell's biography mentioned above is about. Johnson and Bloom, along with Ralph Waldo Emerson, an American who lived in the 19th century, are the most important literary critics we have seen in the Western world. But they each have different ratios in their work of pleasure and virtue.
How so? All three focused primarily on pleasure, but to get there they had to be virtuous. They knew that no one cared about reading a dry treatise if it wasn't living, if it wasn't imaginative, if it wasn't fresh, because they knew that the works that survived, like Shakespeare's - who was each of theirs personal favorite writer - did so because it was invested with an enormous imaginative and spiritual power. A ruggedness, and a lightness. A depth, and a subtlety. The very heights of sophistication, and the bawdiest and most violent and bloody. Shakespeare represented the globe to them. His work was aesthetic, but you could only read it if you were virtuous, if you earned it.