Punching your own one-way ticket #3: Life regret?

The late Robert Nozick in his 1974 philosophical blockbuster Anarchy, State, and Utopia offered a thought experiment called the Experience Machine. I’ve written about this thought experiment at ErosBlog and if you want to read its original version you can do so here. A very short version of the thought experiment would be this: imagine that there is a machine that you could plug yourself into that would provide you with a lifetime of truly wonderful experiences. Would you plug in for the rest of your life? Nozick and many of his readers would answer no. Nozick adds the gloss that plugging in for the rest of your life would be “a kind of suicide.”

I am persuaded that my life would have gone better if I had plugged into an Experience machine at the age of about 24 or so.

Readers of my Thaumatophile Manifesto will know that I went through a long bleak stretch of agonizing career collapse and romantic starvation in my young adulthood. The string of humiliations and failures that were part of this period stretched out over several years, although in my memory that all fail almost as if they happened last week. Indeed, I have spent the better part of two decades since that period feeling as if they all happened last week. In the later parts of this period I would go to bed at night (alone, of course) hoping that the life I was leading was all somehow a bad dream, and that when I awoke the next morning I would be waking up in my “Real” life, which would be better. I would often wake up disappointed that it wasn’t. Sometimes, when things were really bad, I would be disappointed to wake up at all.

Now, let me be try to be clear about a few things. I am not claiming that what I suffered at that time was in some way especially or unusually bad or that other people do not suffer worse. I think that many people suffer worse in this life. Possibly even most people suffer worse than I do. This awareness of relative privilege does not make me feel better, only pretty sad for humanity. The only claim I would wish to defend is that it was bad enough. What do I mean by bad enough? Bad enough that even though things in my life are materially better now than they were then, they are not so much better than I think that on any sensible aggregation over the whole of my life that I will be able to count my life as a positive thing. The deficit from the bad period is too large to be made up by whatever small surplus of good things over bad now exists in my life, and I don’t foresee for myself a future in which that surplus grows much. Indeed, mostly it will shrink; observation of other people and myself getting ever older tends to convince me that pleasures diminish and miseries accumulate as one gets old. There is a possibility that something will happen in my future that will make me glad I persevered through the misery of my late 20s, but I do not rate the probability of any such set of events and experiences as being very high. Perhaps the overall situation can best be explained with a financial analogy: imagine running up a huge debt during one phase of one’s life. Now you are earning, but not really all that much, and you expect your earnings to decline in the future such that you will never have a positive net worth, unless, perhaps, you win the lottery. And you’re really not that likely to win the lottery.

It was at about age of 24 that things began to sour in my life, and so if there was a point at which I should have been plugging into the Experience Machine, it should have been then. That marked the point where I would begin longing for escape, and the point where it would have been the most rational for me to consider punching my own one-way ticket. There might seem to be an air of paradox here for someone who in his last post on the subject considered the possibility that his fantasies were terror management. The apparent paradox dissolves, though, when we realize that (1) contemplating a past counterfactual is not the same thing as contemplating a future inevitable and (2) the Experience Machine is exactly the sort of hedonic sweetener that makes it possible to manage terror. It would have been an ideal escape even if — and at the same time, perhaps because of — being a kind of suicide.

On a recent episode of her subscription “In Bed with Susie Bright” podcast (Episode 582), Susie Bright, in the course of reviewing this book, speculated on the sexuality of Edgar Degas, as it might have been revealed by one of his most famous creations, this highly provocative image:

And to the obvious if boneheaded charge that this sculpture represented Degas perving out on a fourteen year-old girl, Susie advanced the observation that sometimes we create images of those they want to fuck, but that at other times we create images of those we want to be. Susie reads Degas’s sexuality as “masochistic, femme, and repressed,” a thesis surely consonant with the image.

And Susie’s insight generalizes. A lot, I am sure. Because it suggests that perhaps what I’m feeling toward all these characters of mine who punch their own one-way tickets is not hostility, but envy. They’re the ones who can actually take Phillip Larkin’s advice to get out as early as they can and avoid the miseries that beset us as we grind into adulthood. Ashley, Nanetta, Moira, Anwei, Millie Newman, Cassandra Kam, and any number of others to come (no spoilers!): they are the lucky ones. They have a sweetened escape, an ecstatic escape, even if it is too a kind of suicide.

The point would be incomplete without an illustration of ecstatic one-way ticket punching found in Bacchus’s custom Rule 34 search:

A photomanipulation SUPERvolunteer at DeviantArt by brazorf82.

Punching your own one-way ticket #2: Terror management?

So now I am going to engage in a bit of speculation about my own psyche. I have four conjectures about what need I might be fulfilling with my interest in one-way ticket punchers, and that means four posts (at least). None of the conjectures appears to me to logically preclude any of the others, so it is possible that all of them are true — we all have many needs, after all. It is also possible that any or all of them are false. As someone once said there is no royal road to science, and you have to go up a lot of blind alleys before you find the right path.

My first conjecture is that what I’m actually doing in writing one-way ticket-punching stories is terror management. The surest thing we know is that we are all going to die someday, and this prospect of our annihilation terrifies us. Most people cope with this terror either by adopting a religion that has a reasonably cheery view of an afterlife or by adopting some system of cultural meanings, either religious or secular, that reassures them that in spite of the temporal finitude of their lives they nonetheless have objective value. Both these paths are blocked to me. I know what the mad-dog naturalist knows, that death really is the end and that “objective” values or meanings are just illusions that careful analysis will dispel.

The thought occurs that while a mad-dog naturalist cannot avail himself of the consolations of religion, but those of philosophy are still open. There is something here. As a matter purely of the intellect, Epicurus was right. It is irrational to be afraid of death, for where we are death is not and where death is we are not. Death is not some sort of bad experience we can have, it is only the end of experiences. The problem for this elegant view is that we aren’t creatures of the intellect exclusively, or perhaps even primarily. (I shall grant that the view probably worked for intellectual supermen like Epicurus himself and also probably David Hume who clearly shared it but I, alas, am just not on their level.) The fear of death is like having a strong phobia, one that you are quite unlikely to rid yourself of even with the best of philosophy. The reason that this fear is so refractory is that it has probably been wired into us by our evolutionary history. Given how miserable life often is, nature needed a whip to wield over us to keep us going, and fear of death would have worked well. Those of our primate ancestors who lacked such a fear would have been succumbed to the dangers and fatigues of the world. Those who had it struggled onward, surviving to produce more little primates who would be our ancestors. Against the tremendous influence of millions of years of evolution, cultural innovations of the last few thousand years like philosophy struggle mostly in vain.

So what is one to do, aside perhaps from nurturing the faint and flickering hope that in one’s lifetime a positive technological singularity arrives and death itself dies? Well, one thing one might do is what I here have done, and try to re-imagine death as a process led up to by the most extraordinary of erotic experiences. Enough sweet will cancel out the bitter.

Bacchus’s research turned up any number of examples of people creating work that has the property of erotic experience ultimate in two distinct senses of the word, la petite mort and la grande mort at the same time. Here I’ll share two. One is a story — magical rather than mad science but well within the concept, entitled “Sculptura” and written by an author working under the name Redline. A young woman goes in for a transformation which it seems she pretty clearly knows will be one-way. But what a way!

She groaned, arcing her head back from the waves of pleasure caused by the crafting, and reached one flame-red hand towards her sex. The flesh there was taking on a more intense white-hot glow than the rest of her did, and I gently pushed at her spirit, guiding the curious hand away. She moaned loudly in disappointment, her head rolling from side to side as the energies of the enchantment coursed within her. Her insistent cries were more than enough reason for me to continue — her sexual energies were mounting swiftly under the effects of the spell, and I intended to use that to my advantage.

As the glow intensified, with patterns of orange and yellow dancing on the white-hot flesh, I began the core of the ritual. Her body slid downwards under my mental urges, and she lay on her right side, propped up by her elbow. Gently, I pushed her spirit body here and there, the flesh connected to it moving in unison. Her right leg drew towards her chest, sliding along the smooth marble of the studio floor, while her left leg angled back, the tiny toes curling back with the arch of her instep. Smiling, I noticed that the angle of her hips had parted her sex, and smiling to myself, I released the hold on left arm, allowing her curious fingers to slide towards it. Gently, she parted her womanhood, and slid a single finger within; her movements became more and more primal, more and more carnal. This was the moment I was waiting for, and as she tossed her head back in the throes of orgasm and opened her tiny mouth in a scream of release… I closed the crafting.

Readers paying attention to the title will well be able to guess where all this thaumaturgy is heading.

Rather more controversially, many of the stories associated with the notorious Dolcett have the property of providing their protagonists with an ecstatic and apparently voluntary end. An example called “Current Affair” starts like this:

I wouldn’t defend this work as particularly well-drawn or -written, but it is within the concept. Our heroine clearly has terror (“Gulp!”), but she is managing it with the promise of an erotic payoff. If you have a strong stomach, you can follow the rest of the story here.

Gnosis Dreamscapes: Chapter Six, Page Twenty-Two

Waldron’s movie sharpened the satire by taking a turn for the nightmarish.

Marcia turned into canned food by the Lav-o-Matic X5000.

(Click on the image for larger size. Creative Commons License
Gnosis Dreamscapes: Chapter Six, Page Twenty-Two written and commissioned by Dr. Faustus of EroticMadScience.com and drawn by Lon Ryden is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.)

Gnosis Dreamscapes: Chapter One, Page Twenty-Eight

Poor Rob! (Or maybe not?)

Michiko dumps out Rob's salts, effectively trapping him inside her forever.

(Click on the image for larger size. Creative Commons License
Gnosis Dreamscapes: Chapter One, Page Twenty-Eight written and commissioned by Dr. Faustus of EroticMadScience.com and drawn by Lon Ryden is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.)