Friday 18 June 2010

On the value of company

As I leave my socially solitary time in Paris (days spent at seminars and in conferences have their own logic and purpose and so don’t count here) I have been struck by the way that an individual existence can seem undermined or lacking in a kind of validity because it isn’t shared with others. Describing this – by email! – to a couple of friends, I've had reports of similar experiences. Thus one friend described an occasion of returning home alone from the pub recently:

“It was a beautiful evening - warm, still, beautiful inky blue colour in the sky, stars, the sound of oystercatchers in the distance. I sat in my garden thinking that it ought to be a lovely moment, that I should immerse in it but I was so conscious of thinking about the moment in that way that I spoilt it.”

She wondered whether, because she was alone in the garden that evening, it seemed somehow “not to count”. That describes exactly a doubt I have: that when one is alone for a period, what one does lacks a kind of validation and that, in turn, undermines the point of things.

But it isn’t clear to me that it would have to be like that (even for those of us who accept the worry in principle). Here’s the alternative to thinking that one needs to share things for them to have that kind of validity.

I think it helps to start by conceding something. There’s obviously a difference between some kinds of appetite and lots of other sorts of wishes, aims or ventures. With the appetites, eating another slice of pizza (eg to finish a pizza before one) or another glass of wine (from the bottle to hand) is just a simple intrinsic pleasure. But to cross Paris to drink another kind of beer; to take a trip out to buy a pizza from a wood-fired pizzeria (when some convenience food is available close by); to visit Notre Dame at dusk: these are all to be involved in something more like the example of looking at the stars (when the alternative is to give up and go to bed). For these projects then it is so much easier – I find this month! - to have a 2nd person ready to hand. Unlike simple appetites, the pleasure in such ventures is not so simply there, to outweigh the costs. There has to be more involved in the motivation of the venture. The addition of another, or others, to share the experience seems enough to tip the scale, but it can seem that when alone the project, in each case, isn’t worth it, doesn’t somehow count enough.

What I’ve been wondering (whilst in Paris but also before) is whether the extra normativity of a practice or custom might also tip the scale. To be able to say: I do this now - search out new pizza / beer / art - because it’s part of a custom to which I’m committed, might be more than just a calculation of immediate pleasure and say something more about longer term meaning. I think that there are two arguments for this. First, it just seems somehow right that that appeal to custom has weight in the case in which the individual activity gains meaning from association with a more general existential orientation.

But second, what one does in company is often not what would be the most pleasurable thing - as regards appetite - even for those (plural) involved. Dragging Lois across town for an obscure beer (were she so to need dragging, I hasten to add: it’s a hypothetical case) doesn’t make that event necessarily more immediately pleasurable overall. The costs, as well as the benefits, have gone up (doubled, perhaps) after all. So it’s not clear that it is people that does it. Rather, I suspect, we have in mind a kind of communal custom or practice. If this is what we do in general, it makes sense for us to do this now. But if that’s the case, it is not the communality that matters, it is the custom, and maybe that can be enacted by the individual. (Obviously I’m recklessly applying Simon Blackburn’s ‘The individual strikes back’.)

I think that there’s some plausibility to this. We’ve not had a decent summer in Kendal since 2006 but that year I got into the habit of filling my chimenea with garden wood and sitting outside listing to the sound of nose flutes on Radio 3’s Late Junction with a mochito in hand, whether or not Lois could make the time to join me. But on each occasion, the work of foraging, fire making, and mochito mixing (goodness, I sound like a scaled down Ernest Hemingway!) was a significant cost compared to the benefits (the sound of nose flutes under the stars). But once the individual acts were bound together as a custom, of how I spent the summer of 2006, as part of a sense giving practice, then the weighing of costs and benefits changed. Eventually, one does not even question whether it is the right thing to do that evening: it is just what one does.

That said, although that’s what I thought in principle, I’m not sure that my Paris habits quite reached the stage of a happy individual custom.