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New Orleans, Louisiana, United States
Admire John McPhee, Bill Bryson, David Remnick, Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr and James Martin (and most open and curious minds)


Why You Should Read Fiction

Why You Should Read Fiction: Reading medieval literature, it’s hard not to be impressed with how much the characters get done—as when we read about King Harold…

The Bookish Life by Joseph Epstein | Articles | First Things

The Bookish Life by Joseph Epstein | Articles | First Things: The village idiot of the shtetl of Frampol was offered the job of waiting at the village . . . .


Tom Stoppard

Tom Stoppard, Always Tackling ‘The Hard Problem’Tom Stoppard, Always Tackling ‘The Hard Problem’

Tom Stoppard near Lincoln Center Theater, which is presenting his play “The Hard Problem.”CreditCreditDaniel Dorsa for The New York Times
Tom Stoppard isn’t all that bright. This at least is what Tom Stoppard believes. He grumbles — well, it’s airier and more philosophical and much nicer than grumbling — that critics of his early work used to ding him as “too clever by half.”
“I always thought, ‘I wish I were,’” he said. “In fact, I’m not clever enough.”
Where does that leave the rest of us?
In a long career, 50 years and counting, Mr. Stoppard, 81, has written plays, radio plays and screenplays that have discoursed on everything from Dadaism to analytic philosophy to particle physics to early Pink Floyd. O.K., maybe not everything. But it’s close. There’s a killer section in “Arcadia” on comparative theories of landscape gardening.
Take his new play, “The Hard Problem,” which begins previews Oct. 25 at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, directed by Jack O’Brien (“The Coast of Utopia,”“The Invention of Love”). In about an hour and a half, it somehow encompasses neuroscience, metaphysics, econometrics, philosophy of mind, social-exchange theory. Not to mention Pilates. It’s also a mystery and a kind of love story and this being the theater, there is at least one dinner party that goes hopelessly, tipsily, smolderingly wrong.
I asked him if about an hour and a half was too short a time to contain all of that. “It may be too long,” he said.
First seen in 2015 at the National Theater, “The Hard Problem” takes its title from a decisive neuroscience riddle: What is consciousness? In other words, how does a three-pound lump of dendrites and axons and sodium channels create a loving, sorrowing, self-knowing self? Show your work.
Here anyway was Mr. Stoppard’s self on a recent weekday afternoon in a Lincoln Center lobby, all 6’1” of it elegantly folded into a cafe chair. He was casually dressed in a textured gray suit over an Indian block print shirt. A pair of jaunty red-and-white striped socks peeked out below. There were bags under his eyes that would crowd an overhead compartment, but he was still recognizable from that 1966 Lord Snowdon photograph of a young man trying to ride a wheelless bicycle.
His voice has a music that isn’t quite English — born in Czechoslovakia, he spent his early childhood in Singapore and India — and his conversation is effortless, enthralling. If he didn’t always answer the questions I’d asked, I didn’t notice it until later. That’s how thrall works, I guess. And just so I don’t embarrass myself, let’s let his longtime collaborator Mr. O’Brien say something: “He’s one of the most seductive people I’ve ever been around. He’s catnip to women.”
Let’s let Mr. O’Brien say something else: “Being with him is like being with a benign pachyderm who’s terrified he’s going to put his foot down and accidentally crush you with his intelligence.”
I’d read a lot about consciousness in the weeks leading up to our talk and he told me, courteously, that I shouldn’t have bothered. (I’m pretty sure I should have.) Everything I needed to understand the play was in the play, he said, and once I saw it, all of those headache-inducing pages on materialism and mysterianism and panpsychism (the idea that maybe consciousness is ubiquitous, that our cafe table might have feelings, too) would become clear. “You don’t need to know anything except to keep your ears open and if possible, your brain awake,” he said.
“The Hard Problem” probably began in the mid-90s when Mr. Stoppard read a debate between the philosopher John Searle (who receives a thanks in the published script) and the philosopher and cognitive scientist David J. Chalmersin The New York Review of Books, and clipped those articles out. He read a lot and he thought a lot and he came to realize that while most neuroscientists agree that the brain causes consciousness and that we’ll know how once math and science progress far enough, that answer “rather skips over of how the trick is done,” he said.
He prefers to believe in some immaterial element. It’s a belief that many of his plays quietly promote, that there is something else — call it love or grace or divinity — that shapes our ends. It’s the claim that Hilary (Adelaide Clemens), the young psychologist at the heart of “The Hard Problem” makes. “The God idea shoves itself to the front like a doctor at the scene of an accident, because when you come right down to it, the body is made of things, and things don’t have thoughts,” she says.
Plays do have thoughts, of course. Mr. Stoppard’s plays are packed with them. Great plays have something more.
Mr. Stoppard is the rare playwright — Shaw, Pirandello and Pinter are others — to have earned his own adjective. Stoppardian works take clever, comic approaches to complex ideas. Mr. Stoppard didn’t dispute this, though he called it “a slightly lazy way of summing me up.” (He also made a self-effacing joke: “If I were called Jones, I don’t think anyone would try to make an adjective out of it.”)
Olivia Vinall in the National Theater production of Mr. Stoppard’s play, which has been rewritten for Lincoln Center Theater.CreditJohan Persson
That definition pinpoints what has long been Mr. Stoppard’s problem — not thehard problem, but a hard problem, at least as far as his critics are concerned: How to twine all that intellectual jaw-drop and Ping-Pong wordplay to story and character. How to write a play that not only makes us think, but also makes us feel.
It isn’t easy. As Mr. Stoppard said, in conversation with his biographer, Hermione Lee, at the 92nd Street Y last month, “Inventing the story, having to invent the story from nothing — you can do anything you want but you’ve got to invent it — it’s hard for me. It’s very hard indeed.”
Or as he said to me, “The whole difficulty of doing plays — the reason one doesn’t do two or three a year — is this very thing of trying to subsume thought and calculation into the interior of, say, a love story or a story of triumph and failure.”
He’s managed it in several of his plays. “Arcadia,” certainly. “The Real Thing,” of course. “The Invention of Love” and “India Ink”? Why not. He thinks he came out on the right side in his last play, “Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
Of all the reviews of it he read — “I do read what’s written about my plays. I don’t really believe people who say they don’t. I mean, I’m just too curious” — the one he liked best was by a woman who said she’d cried on the way home. “That’s a really, really nice thing to be told,” he said.
What about “The Hard Problem”? When it played in London in 2015, critics were divided. Michael Billington wrote in The Guardian that “the competing arguments always have a strong emotional underpinning.” In The New York Times Ben Brantley called it “the first work I have known from this ever-questing dramatist in which the ideas overwhelm the characters.”
Reviews like that didn’t come as a total surprise. “It didn’t quite feel we’d gotten there,” he said of the London production, directed by Nicholas Hytner. (It’s also been done at the American Conservatory Theater, the Wilma TheaterChicago’s Court Theater; he skipped those reviews.) He’s tinkered with the script, reversing the order of two halves of a scene, taking out lines he had been persuaded to put in.
Where does he hope to get to? Will this production, which opens Nov. 19, get there? Those were questions he didn’t quite answer. But he did say that “nowadays, I really believe that a play is an emotional narrative which works on the audience’s passions.”
Mr. Stoppard, left, in 1975, with the actor John Wood outside the theater where the playwright’s “Travesties” opened on Broadway.CreditMeyer Liebowitz/The New York Times
The director and the actors can help that work along. Tom Hollander, who played the lead role in last year’s Broadway revival of Mr. Stoppard’s “Travesties,”remembered thinking “that we were trying to find the humanity sometimes between the lines.” (Mr. Hollander was speaking by telephone on a break from shooting a detective series — “ a dark tale, a sad story” — in Antwerp; he sounded glum that his character had so far survived.) He also confessed that he’d seen the “Hard Problem” in London and “didn’t really get it.”
Mr. O’Brien gets it. When the play was first offered to him, he read it and found it daunting, “a wall of thought,” he said. He read it again. Then a third time. “And I was weeping at the end,” he went on. “I was crying. And I thought, ‘Oh there it is.’”
His job, he said “is to get it to lead with its heart, rather than feeling you’ve taken a graduate course when you come out,” he said.
He said he hoped he didn’t mess it up, but he said it a lot more profanely.
“It didn’t quite feel we’d gotten there,” Mr. Stoppard said of the London production of “The Hard Problem.”CreditDaniel Dorsa for The New York Times
When “The Hard Problem” had its premiere, it was Mr. Stoppard’s first new play in nine years. He doesn’t think it will be his last. He recently abandoned one drama after four pages — “Just a kind of husband and wife conversation; it involved a robot” — but now he is stuck into a new one. He’ll finish it this year with any luck. He wouldn’t say what it was about, what ideas it attacked, what theories. But he would say it told a story.
“An evening at the theater is an evening at a story,” he said. “Pretty much all the time. Pretty much every time.”



Claude Shannon was a brilliant mathematician, electrical engineer and cryptographer known as "the father of information theory." And then he abandoned the field he created:

"Shannon pub­lished 'A Mathematical Theory of Communication' in a 1948 issue of the Bell System Technical Journal. He was then thirty-two years old. Most of the work had been done years earlier, from about 1939 to 1943. Shannon told few people what he was doing. He habitually worked with his office door closed.

"As Bell Labs people gradually learned of this work, they were as­tonished that Shannon had devised such an important result and then sat on it. In what amounted to a scientific intervention, friends goaded Shannon to publish the theory. Shannon recalled the process of writing the 1948 paper as painful. He insisted that he had devel­oped the theory out of pure curiosity, rather than a desire to advance technology or his career. ...

"Shannon began teaching at MIT in the spring 1956 semester. ...
 It was supposed to allow Shannon the free time to be­gin writing a long-anticipated book on information theory. ...

"Shannon enjoyed the stimulation of MIT in limited doses. He did his best work alone. He had perhaps underestimated the volume of distraction confronting a living legend at a large urban university. Shannon 'started disappearing from the scene,' recalled Robert Fano. 'He kind of faded away, Claude.'

"Shannon took few Ph.D. students. They often had to meet him at his home in order to get advice. One student, William Suther­land, remembers walking in on Shannon's oboe practice more than once. 'He slept when he felt like sleeping,' said Betty [his wife], and would spend hours at the kitchen table thinking.
Claude Shannon
"Shannon's career as publishing scientist was just about over. He never completed the book ...

"Artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky speculated that Shannon stopped working on information because he felt he had proven almost everything worth proving. The self-contained per­fection of Shannon's early work was unsurpassable. Fano mentioned an uncanny phenomenon. With rare exceptions, it seemed that whenever an information theorist mentioned a current problem to Shannon, (a) Shannon was aware of the problem, and (b) Shannon had already solved it, but hadn't gotten around to publishing it.

"'I just developed different interests,' Shannon said of his near-abandonment of the field he created. 'As life goes on, you change your direction.' ...

"Letters, papers, and phone calls, many from world-renowned scientists, poured into Shannon's office. They wanted Shannon to review a paper or contribute one; give a talk, an opinion, a recom­mendation. Shannon turned down an increasing share of these re­quests. ... From time to time the CIA and other agencies turned to Shan­non when challenging cryptographic problems arose, only to be informed politely of Shannon's retirement. ...

"Shannon dealt with correspondence by shuffling it from folder to folder. On these folders he would write labels like 'Letters I've pro­crastinated on answering for too long.'

"Shannon was yet in his forties when he took what amounted to an early, unofficial retirement. Thereafter Shannon was MIT's Bartleby, whose characteristic reply was 'I would prefer not to' -- ­clerk of his own private dead-letter office."

Brains Connecting

Rajesh P.N. Rao, Director of the NSF Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering (CSNE) and the Cherng Jia and Elizabeth Yun Hwang Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington in Seattle, and Andrea Stocco,  Assistant Professor at the Department of Psychology and the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, are the first to successfully allow one human brain to communicate an intention directly to another human brain:

"Technologies known as brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) are now beginning to allow paralyzed individuals to control, say, a computer cursor or a prosthetic limb with their brain signals. ... In 2010 one of us (Rao) had a realization: perhaps we could use this same principle to beam thoughts from one human brain to another. Imagine if a teacher could convey a mathematical proof to your brain, nonverbally. Or perhaps a medical student could learn a complex surgical skill straight from a mentor's mind. ... In short, we would use one person's brain data to produce a specific pattern of neural activity in another individual. ...

"We decided to test our brain-to-brain interface by seeing if we could play a simple two-player video game. After students in our labs spent months writing computer code and integrating the technologies, on August 12 of last year we finally tried out our setup. Rao took on the role of the sender of information, and Stocco assumed the part of the receiver.
"In the game, a pirate ship is shooting rockets at a city. The goal is to fire a cannon to intercept each rocket. Rao alone could see the screen displaying the game. But only Stocco could press the button to fire the cannon. At just the right moment, Rao had to form the intention to shoot, and a few seconds later Stocco would receive the intention and press the button.
"Rao donned a tight-fitting cap studded with 32 electrodes, which measure fluctuations in electrical activity at different locations across the head. At any given time, distinct populations of neurons may be oscillating at many different frequencies. When he imagined moving a hand, the EEG electrodes registered a telltale signature that our software could detect. The giveaway was a drop in the low-frequency oscillations in Rao's brain. We used that signature as our cue to send a command over the Internet to stimulate Stocco's brain.
"Stocco did not register the impulse consciously, but his right hand moved anyway. The stimulation caused his hand to lift, and when it fell it hit a keyboard and fired the cannon. Success! For the first time, a human brain had communicated an intention directly to another human brain, allowing the two brains to jointly complete a task. As we played the game, we got better and better, to the point where in our last run, we intercepted the pirate rockets with almost 100 percent accuracy. Rao learned how to imagine moving his hand in a consistent manner, giving the computer a chance to make sense of his EEG brain data. Stocco found that he did not know his wrist was moving until he felt or saw his hand in motion.
Rajesh Rao, left, plays a computer game with his mind. Across campus, researcher Andrea Stocco, right, wears a magnetic stimulation coil over the left motor cortex region of his brain.
"We have now replicated our findings with several other pairs of humans. Not every trial went perfectly in these experiments, but in all cases, whenever an intention was correctly detected by the EEG system, the information was communicated directly to the receiver's brain using TMS. Throughout the experiment, both subjects were conscious of each other's roles and willingly cooperated to solve a mutually agreed-on task. When a pirate rocket gets hit, the sender knows that his or her partner's brain enacted a movement in response to the sender's own brain activity. We believe this conscious cooperation between subjects is the ultimate goal of true brain-to-brain communication, something that may be hard to achieve with animal studies."


Review: The Measure of Homer by Richard Hunter | Peter Thonemann

Review: The Measure of Homer by Richard Hunter | Peter Thonemann: The Measure of Homer bounds acrobatically backwards and forwards across the centuries, from the aristocratic Greek symposium of the sixth century BC to Christian Gdanmaa in the fifth century AD.

Does the Enlightenment Need Defending? » IAI TV

Does the Enlightenment Need Defending? » IAI TV: Steven Pinker and Homi Bhabha discuss the good, the bad and the ugly of the Enlightenment


Growing Up in the Library | The New Yorker

Growing Up in the Library | The New Yorker: Susan Orleans writes a personal history about growing up in libraries, and rediscovering them later in life.


You Go Girl

The Promise of Misery

WE ARE NOT SHOCKED BY NAKED WOMEN. Skinny women. Women forced to field abuses in the bedroom or advances in the workplace, women who have undergone operations to whittle their waists into fine points. But an unhappy woman appalls us, especially if she does not collude in regarding herself as deficient. All happy women are alike, but each unhappy woman jolts us in her own defiant way. Each woman sulking in the back of the photograph, ignoring injunctions to smile. Each woman insisting that she isn’t angry, or at least, she wasn’t angry before she was asked if she was angry, which made her angry, and with reason.
But an unhappy woman, consensus has it, is unreasonable or unwell. Her unhappiness is an illness she’s obliged to remedy, either by sequestering herself in therapy sessions or by diligently annotating self-help manuals in her domestic prison—in any case, in private, where her discomfort cannot discomfit. And so in the poem “How to Be Perfect,” we find ourselves implicitly situated inside, in the house, where the writer Ron Padgett instructs,
Don’t stay angry about anything for more than a week,
but don’t
forget what made you angry. Hold your anger at arm’s length
and look at it, as if it were a glass ball. Then add it to your glass ball collection.
He writes,
As much as possible, use wooden objects instead of plastic or metal
Look at that bird over there.
After dinner, wash the dishes.
Calm down.
Calm down! Perfection is within your reach if you will only consent to be happy—if you will only agree to shelve your discontent. “Don’t be afraid,” Padgett advises, “of anything beyond your control. Don’t be afraid, for instance, that the building will collapse as you sleep, or that someone you love will suddenly drop dead.” Don’t fret about mortality or meaninglessness. Don’t lament the fragility of your body, which breathes with frightening contingency as you scale the slow slope of 4 a.m. Instead, calm down—and don’t forget to scrub those after-dinner dishes.
It’s not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with calm, or with washing the dishes, or with the meditation techniques and modes of positive self-address that so many people (most of them male) have recommended (mostly without prompting of any kind). And it’s not that I begrudge anyone any curative measure that works, whether or not it’s a nostrum. It’s just that the cultists of therapy and self-help impose uneven obligations, demanding the most conspicuous happiness from people with the greatest reason to be unhappy and the fewest resources for becoming happier. The feel-good mantras and fuzzy exhortations to optimism that are rapidly becoming ubiquitous shift the burden of reform away from society, away from a whole culture of men smirking and asking if you’re angry, away from the civility chorus smugly intoning Calm Down! in the face of every human pang, and onto those too uncalm to alchemize their anger into cool glass balls.
Men Against Misery
Self-help—the enemy of the uncalm—is, unsurprisingly, an American phenomenon. It evinces a sensibility well suited to a country where the self has always been the most relevant unit. One of its earliest practitioners was none other than Benjamin Franklin, whose 1758 get-rich-quick manual, The Way to Wealth, frames labor as a cure for poverty and acumen as a cure for destitution. “Sloth, like rust, consumes faster than labor wears, while the used key is always bright,” he writes. “When you have got the philosopher’s stone, sure you will no longer complain of bad times, or the difficulty of paying taxes.” Franklin’s advice was as false as it was appealing—who wouldn’t prefer to pay taxes in the inexhaustible currency of self-improvement?—and it reinforced a myth that blue-collar Americans would find difficult to relinquish or escape.
By the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Protestant working classes had developed a robust appetite for books with names like Pushing to the Front and The Way to Win, which counseled that a strong character was the key to a healthy fortune. These Gilded Age exercises in self-aggrandizement blazed a trail for the treatises on winning that began to emerge in the late sixties and early seventies, when self-help as we know it began to flourish in earnest. Born to Win (1971), Winners and Losers (1973), Winning through Intimidation (1974), and The Winner’s Notebook (1967) promised to distinguish the wealthy wheat from the indigent chaff—and thereby set the stage for Trump’s oeuvre, in which winners reign supreme. In Think Big and Kick Ass in Business and Life(2007), which rose briefly to the top of Amazon’s personal finance bestsellers in 2015 but which nonetheless proclaims itself the preserve of a vanishingly small elite, Trump’s ghostwriter reflects,
to be successful you have to separate yourself from 98 percent of the rest of the world. Sure, you can get into that special 2 percent at the top, and it is not just by being smart, working hard, and investing wisely. There is a formula, a recipe for success that the top 2 percent live by and you too can follow.
If the remaining 98 percent of people follow the formula, will they somehow come to comprise only 2 percent of the population? What are such patent mathematical impossibilities doing in a guide to business savvy, anyway?
Like many books in the self-help tradition, Think Big combines the promise of universal efficacy with a flatteringly individual appeal. It claims both that anyone—ergo, you, so don’t be daunted!—can become a winner, but that some people—ergo, you, so savor your singularity!—are special in ways that others aren’t. This confusion about self and other, about who is to be helped and who is to do the helping, is not unique to Trump’s garbled efforts. As the comedian George Carlin so aptly put it, “if you’re reading it in a book, folks, it ain’t self-help. It’s help.” The central premise of Think Big is that you, or at least the you yet to be elevated by Trump’s sage financial instruction, are inadequate. Only with the aid of the product in question are you able to help yourself.
Self-help—the enemy of the uncalm—is, unsurprisingly, an American phenomenon.
The closest self-help came to acknowledging its covertly altruistic nature was in the early sixties, when it was appropriated by New Age gurus who organized “encounter groups” for people with common insecurities. At this early stage in the genre’s development, soon-to-be- classic feminist works like The Feminine Mystique and Our Bodies, Ourselves so thoroughly mystified everyone that they were routinely regarded as works of self-help. The help on offer—call it other-help—linked solitary selves, promoting solidarity, a virtue anathema to publishing’s marketing departments today.
But by the late seventies and early eighties, self-help had reverted to its ruthlessly individualistic origins—and expanded to target a new market of theretofore underserved selves. The sententious tracts of the Gilded Age had always been aimed at breadwinners and would-be financiers, which is to say, at men. What’s more, their authors had often directly equated masculinity with success. As Judy Hilkey writes in Character is Capital: Success Manuals and Manhood in Gilded Age America, “the idea of manliness, ‘manhood’ or ‘true manhood,’ represented the solution to the problem of achieving victory in a dangerous new industrial age. ‘Manhood,’ in a word, summarized the individual virtues, character, and willpower that made for success.”
The assertiveness literature that emerged as the seventies gave way to the money-manic eighties addressed itself to women desperately struggling to fit into hostile workplaces.
The assertiveness literature that emerged as the seventies gave way to the money-manic eighties addressed itself to women desperately struggling to fit into hostile workplaces—but it didn’t break with the pernicious tradition of conflating manliness and accomplishment. Instead, it encouraged women to act more like men. Books like Jean Baer’s classic How to Be an Assertive (Not Aggressive) Woman in Life, in Love, and on the Job (1976) argued that “women don’t think of themselves as equal to men so they don’t act equal; consequently men, employers, relatives, society do not treat them as equals.” In other words, it’s not men’s fault for undermining women: it’s women’s fault for taking a cue from men and undermining themselves. If women only asked for equality, as men do, they’d get it. After dinner, wash the dishesWinners and Losers counsels, “if men are better off in any area of divorce, it’s because they choose to be better off; if women are worse off, it’s because they’ve chosen to be worse off.” Calm down!
While popular accounts of selfhood have shifted, the staunchly American premise that the self can transcend its circumstances persists. In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, one of the best-selling self-help books in history, Stephen Covey emphasizes that success is a choice. He recounts that a woman who worked as a caretaker to a cranky, tyrannical man initially expressed skepticism at one of his talks. “[F]or you to have the gall to stand up there and suggest that nothing can hurt me, that no one can hurt me without my consent, and that I have chosen my own emotional life of being miserable—well, there was just no way I could buy into that,” she objected. Calm down, he might have been thinking. But then she had her highly effective epiphany:
I kept thinking about it. I really went inside myself and began to ask, “Do I have the power to choose my response?” When I finally realized that I do have that power, when I swallowed that bitter pill and realized that I had chosen to be miserable, I also realized that I could choose not to be miserable. At that moment I stood up. I felt as though I was being let out of San Quentin. I wanted to yell to the whole world, “I am free! I am let out of prison! No longer am I going to be controlled by the treatment of some person.”
But wasn’t she? Wasn’t she now controlled by the treatment of a man who dared to tell someone who cared for other people for a living that she should help herself—that the real issue was not the man abusing her but rather her negative attitude? And wasn’t she slated to remain financially dependent on someone who would no doubt continue to degrade her? And wasn’t she additionally degraded, now that she’d been talked into degrading herself whenever she allowed her degradation to make her just a little bit unhappy?
Perhaps the purpose of this whole song and dance is to convince the marginalized that they are to blame for their own marginalization—to prevent ill-treated female caretakers (and of course the bulk of caretakers are female and many of them are ill-treated) from comparing notes. Or perhaps self-help is supposed to insulate men from the unseemly display of female frustration. “It is often a requirement upon oppressed people that we smile and be cheerful,” writes philosopher Marilyn Frye. “Anything but the sunniest countenance exposes us to being perceived as mean, bitter, angry, or dangerous.” Whether it is designed to sabotage sad women or console uncomfortable men, the happiness industry has gone a long way toward stigmatizing public admissions of suffering. The self isn’t even the one that self-help is helping: it merits its name only insofar as it perpetuates the illusion that social problems are located at the level of the individual—only insofar as it isolates the marginalized, sealing them off from the social body.
The Isolation Chamber
Therapy isn’t always continuous with self-help—some of it, anyway, is backed by science, though for a time I saw a psychoanalyst who made me lie on a fainting sofa outfitted with a tiny rug for my feet—but all too often, it can play a similarly splintering role. Therapy and self-help may have different content and drastically different credentials, but they’re both the provinces of exiles, the places where we quarantine people whose complaints we’re eager to debunk and reluctant to resolve.
Perhaps sensing the need to secure their longevity, both self-help and therapy have taken measures to ensure that displays of unhappiness remain safely segregated from life. To fail to fix yourself by yourself is precisely to fail by the lights of Stephen Covey and other devotees of radical responsibility. “Transactional Analysis,” an early self-help fad popularized by Thomas Harris, author of the hit monograph I’m OK—You’re OK, has it that “the patient . . . is responsible for what happens in the future no matter what has happened in the past”: no matter how insurmountable the material or cultural obstacles he’s faced, no matter how violently or viciously he’s been victimized. If divorce laws are unfair to women, if your employer paws at you beneath your desk, well, it’s all your fault. (A consistent theory would have it that the caretaker’s vitriolic employer was likewise wholly responsible for his behavior—so I guess Covey and Harris believe that harassment is entirely the harasser’s fault, but, somehow, entirely the victim’s fault, too.) To seek help from others, even in the modest form of encouragement or support, is to demonstrate the kind of reliance that smacks of weakness and excuse-making, of undue abdication. The only alternative that Thomas and Covey sanction is to shut up and “choose success.”
If therapy itself does not take matters any further, we wrench it one step forward when we afford it such an elaborately confessional quality. “I’m not her therapist,” an acquaintance will snap, implying that anguish has no place in polite conversation. The suggestion is that pain belongs in therapy, fortified by the anodyne paintings and muted by the padded walls. The therapist’s office is as ritualistically private as the priest’s stall, but the penance it prescribes is not prayer but silence. It’s inconspicuous, camouflaged in a respectable building lined with other doctors’ offices. If you ever encountered anyone you knew in the foyer or the hallway, you could claim you were on your way to the dentist or the cardiologist. You almost wish you were. It would be less embarrassing to need bypass surgery or a thousand root canals.
That unhappiness is never public is the mechanism of its pathologization, for isolation is discrediting. I have a desperate fear of flying, and when the ground drops out from beneath the plane, I watch the passengers around me, who are fumbling with knotted headphones or already falling asleep. No one else looks nervous, so I conclude that my panic must be ill-founded. But this principle cuts both ways. You look around and no one else is flailing, crying in public, so you conclude that you’re crazy. If your reaction were rational, wouldn’t everyone else give some indication of feeling the same way?
The secret is: they do. In fact there are thousands of them not actually having bypass surgery or root canals but instead sitting on fainting couches behind closed doors with their feet perched on tiny carpets, all of them stifling the sobbing, all of them feeling the same way. They do!And perhaps they should. Perhaps their anger and anxiousness aren’t character flaws or symptoms of some illness but rather appropriate, rational, sane responses to a warped and wretched world. As Audre Lorde writes in The Cancer Journals,
Like superficial spirituality, looking on the bright side of things is a euphemism used for obscuring certain realities of life, the open consideration of which might prove threatening or dangerous to the status quo. . . . The acceptance of illusion and appearance as reality is another symptom of this same refusal to examine the realities of our lives. Let us seek “joy” rather than real food and clean air and a saner future on a liveable earth! As if happiness alone can protect us from the results of profit-madness.
. . . In this disastrous time, when little girls are still being stitched shut between their legs, when victims of cancer are urged to court more cancer in order to be attractive to men, when twelve-year-old Black boys are shot down in the street at random by uniformed men who are cleared of any wrongdoing, when ancient and honorable citizens scavenge for food in garbage pails, and the growing answer to all this is media hype or surgical lobotomy; when daily gruesome murders of women from coast to coast no longer warrant mention in the New York Times, when grants to teach retarded children are cut in favor of more billion dollar airplanes, when nine hundred people commit mass suicide rather than face life in America, and we are told it is the job of the poor to stem inflation; what depraved monster could possibly be always happy?
Lorde was suffering from breast cancer, and as she rightly notes, she had many causes for complaint: she was a victim of institutionalized racism; a victim of her own body, which was bad enough; a victim of the misguided belief, an unfortunate Judeo-Christian holdover, that sickness is evidence of wrongdoing or sin; and a victim, no doubt, of the medical establishment’s pernicious tendency to dismiss expressions of female pain as exaggerations. (Men who arrive at the ER with stomach pain wait an average of forty-nine minutes to receive painkillers, while women wait an average of sixty-five.) It isn’t just that therapy and self-help separate women from other women: they also keep all marginalized groups, all of whom are stereotyped as different kinds of crazy (“angry” black women, “neurotic” Jews), from coming together and commiserating.
I’m not okay—you’re not okay. Maybe someday we won’t be okay together.
Misery Loves Solidarity
Here’s another way of understanding why the “self” belongs in self-help. Self-help concerns the self because it excludes others—because it actively discourages acts of intervention or compassion. Self-help is for selves because it is selfish on the giving end (that is, the not-giving end) and lonely on the receiving end (that is, the not-receiving end). It isn’t hard to see that the shame that attends female unhappiness compounds the initial unhappiness, which might have been bearable. It was bad to fear planes tilting up the steep sky, bad to ascend the uphill days, but it was worse when men told me to jettison my anxiety. Then I was anxious about being anxious in addition to just being anxious. Then my unhappiness wasn’t just unpleasant but also unspeakable, and I had to choke on it whenever I tried to gulp it back.
I don’t object to happiness, whatever happiness even amounts to, as if any of us had any idea, but I cannot stomach its fetishization: the way it’s foisted on “crazy” women and “angry” people of color, the way it’s used to discredit anything uttered in a spirit of dissatisfaction. Happiness is a law that’s rigidly enforced, and any deviation from absolute unmitigated joy is supposed to remain a disgraceful secret.
If divorce laws are unfair 
to women, if your employer paws at you beneath your desk, well, it’s all your fault.
Just think of the classic literature of womanhood: Mrs. Rochester festered in the attic, and the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” had no one but the furniture to confirm her suspicions. Her sickroom was so airless that she had to animate its trappings, just for company. The confinement of women, it emerges, is usually solitary. If we let them out of the attic or off of the psychoanalyst’s sofa, we’d risk a collective reckoning. People might start to notice that they had difficulties in common. And if they started to identify the struggles they shared—if they started to say not just “me” but “me too”—they might also start to realize that the problems they faced weren’t personal.
Lydia Davis, a shrewd chronicler of female unhappiness, frees misery from its strictures. In “Negative Emotions,” a story so short and so apt that it’s worth quoting in its near entirety, she indulges a fantasy of public, communal revenge. One day, “A well-meaning teacher” sends a quote from a Buddhist monk to his colleagues at the school:
Emotion, said the monk, is like a storm: it stays for a while and then it goes. Upon perceiving the emotion (like a coming storm), one should put oneself in a stable position. One should sit or lie down. One should focus on one’s abdomen. One should focus, specifically, on the area just below one’s navel, and practice mindful breathing. If one can identify the emotion as an emotion, it may then be easier to handle.
The other teachers are offended. They “thought he was accusing them of having negative emotions and needing advice about how to handle them. Some of them were, in fact, angry,” and justifiably so. In the end, they decide to follow the opposite of the Buddhist monk’s advice:
The teachers did not choose to regard their anger as a coming storm. They did not focus on their abdomens. They did not focus on the area just below their navels. Instead, they wrote back immediately, declaring that because they did not understand why he had sent it, his message had filled them with negative emotions. They told him that it would take a lot of practice for them to get over the negative emotions caused by his message. But, they went on, they did not intend to do this practice. Far from being troubled by their negative emotions, they said, they in fact liked having negative emotions, particularly about him and his message.
In the introduction to her 2010 book The Promise of Happiness, the philosopher Sara Ahmed writes that “happiness is used to redescribe social norms as social goods.” Feminism has therefore “struggled against rather than for happiness.” In other words, the spectacle of female anguish can be revelatory. I find it rapturous, because I am an unhappy woman: a woman whose misery has often been characterized, by irritated interlocutors, as willful. I have been what is sometimes called “depressed.” What this means is that I have shed tears in public when it was not appropriate to do so. Have had difficulty heaving from the bed to the bathroom or facing a refrigerator whose sparse contents I knew were rotting. And some days the bare act of existing without any embellishment or pretense of achievement winced like a freshly skinned knee.
You know what’s actually therapeutic? Screaming where people can hear you. Weeping on the train.
In 1937 the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran described “the voluptuousness of suffering,” a phenomenon so universally recognizable and ubiquitously salient that the novelist Machado de Assis, writing in Brazil fifty years earlier, eulogized “the voluptuousness of misery.” (“Memorize this phrase,” he urges, “if you do not succeed in understanding it, you may conclude that you have missed one of the most subtle emotions of which man is capable.”) Maybe it is willful. Maybe there is something ever so slightly ecstatic about the perversity of it all.
You know what’s actually therapeutic—more therapeutic than staring at the ceiling desperately inventing a string of “free” associations, more therapeutic than reading a book with a vested interest in establishing your insufficiency so that you will have to purchase its string of accoutrements and sequels? Screaming where people can hear you. Weeping on the train. Indulging in the intimacy of jointly cultivated resentment. Seeing your suspicions that you aren’t a self-pitying maniac confirmed.
So shatter the dishes. Dismantle the glass ball museum. Never meditate. Say no as often as possible. Pour weed killer on the flowers. And above all, do not calm down. Let the loathing simmer until you can boil the apostles of positivity alive, like so many wriggling lobsters. And while you are seasoning your fury, while they are engaging in positive self-talk to no obvious avail, while you are lowering the knife toward their necks, ask them if they are happy. Let the highly effective wonder why it’s suddenly so difficult for them to choose success.


Can a melody provide us with pleasure? Plato certainly thought so, as do many today. But it’s incredibly difficult to discern just how this comes to pass. Is it something about the flow and shape of a tune that encourages you to predict its direction and follow along? Or is it that the lyrics of a certain song describe a scene that reminds you of a joyful time? Perhaps the melody is so familiar that you’ve simply come to identify with it.
Critics have proposed variations on all of these ideas as explanatory mechanisms for musical pleasure, though there remains no critical consensus. The story of their attempts and difficulties forms one vital component of Western intellectual history, and its many misdirections are revealing to trace in their own right. In early modern Europe, theorists generally adopted a view inspired by Aristotle’s Poetics: they supposed that the tones of a melody could work together with a text in order to imitate the natural world. Music, in this view, was something of a live soundtrack to a multimedia representation. It could assist in an analogic way with the depiction of the natural sentiments or features of the world captured in the language of its poetry, thereby eliciting a pleasurable response. Determining specifically how this worked was, in fact, the elusive goal set out at the opening of RenĂ© Descartes’s first complete treatise, the Compendium Musicae (written in 1618). Unfortunately, Descartes never made it past a simple elaboration of musical preliminaries. He felt that, in order to make the connection to pleasure and passion, he would need a more detailed account of the movements of the soul.
This didn’t discourage later thinkers from picking up where he left off. The idea of music as an imitative or mimetic medium eventually became a major component of 18th-century aesthetics. For some thinkers, music was naturally disposed to imitate the sounds of the emotions. ‘Just as the painter imitates the features and colours of nature,’ wrote the French author Jean-Baptiste Dubos in 1719, ‘so the musician imitates the tones, accents, sighs, inflections of the voice, and indeed all of those sounds with which nature exudes the sentiments and passions.’ Hearing these representations of the various passions was itself pleasurable.
So perhaps music can sound something like a passionate utterance, which might in turn be pleasurable to hear and enjoy. One can imagine a melody as a distant echo of something more primal – the direct expression of emotion in the form of a raw cry. The 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau held a position similar to this. But this idea about melody supposes a more abstract relationship between musical tones and feeling, one that doesn’t yoke music to the specific meanings of a text.
Indeed, as the 18th century drew on, theorists became increasingly interested in the aesthetic power of musical sound as a matter independent of poetic expression. Could it be that there was something about the motions of musical tones that could capture the forms of the various passions? Could the shape of music imitate the shape of feeling? The theorist who became most associated with this view was Johann Mattheson (1681-1764), a Hamburg diplomat, lexicographer and musician. Mattheson proposed rough correspondences between musical materials and the passions: since joy is an expansion of our vitality, music that expresses joy should use expansive melodic leaps. Despair, on the other hand, would find its musical expression in drooping melodic lines. Faster tempos were for desire, while the slowest were for lamentation.
There is something that still rings true of Mattheson’s general idea. We do tend to associate some musical features with being uplifted and others with melancholic reflection, both of which might afford a certain subsequent pleasure to listeners. Just think of how we use music in our everyday lives: some tunes help us to work out or to get something done, while others allow us to cry. Unfortunately, Mattheson’s theory turns out to be incredibly difficult to implement in practice. For an example, consider the opening of one famous melody: the tune that begins the Fugue in C Major from J S Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier Book I (1722). You can listen to it here (and watch a visualisation as you follow along). In just the first few seconds, we already have too much musical information to make any decisions about the passions depicted, at least according to Mattheson’s theory. The melody both crests and falls, expands and contracts. It’s impossible to say for certain which rubric of Mattheson’s we should be using. And, in any case, the formal features he singles out in his theory – tempo, melodic shape and so forth – are all part of a single musical tapestry in practice. How are we to account for their interactions?
For some 18th-century thinkers, the difficulty of pinpointing the exact nature and content of musical expression was a virtue. Pleasure, on this view, came from the indefiniteness and open-endedness of musical representation. ‘Painting shows the object itself,’ wrote the French philosopher Denis Diderot in 1751, ‘poetry describes it, but music only excites an idea of it … How is it then that, of the three arts that imitate nature, the one whose expression is the most arbitrary and least precise speaks most forcefully to the soul? Is it that in showing less of its objects it leaves more to the imagination?’ Music, after all, does a rather poor job of showing you anything, especially when there isn’t any text to consider. It doesn’t have the same resources to depict things that the other arts do (apart from the occasional cheap trick such as a loud thunderclap). Perhaps music’s power is in its ambiguity.
If we’re to take Diderot seriously, then music was the first of the arts to be considered an abstract aesthetic medium. And Diderot wasn’t alone. The end of the 18th century saw the emergence of a new type of explanation for music’s effectiveness that undermined the older Aristotelian model of imitation. Thomas Twining (1735-1804), an English classicist, tackled this problem directly in his 1789 commentary on Aristotle’s Poetics:
Music … is not imitative, but if I may hazard the expression, merely suggestive. But, whatever we may call it, this I will venture to say, – that in instrumental Music, expressively performed, the very indecision itself of the expression, leaving the hearer to the free operation of his emotion upon his fancy, and as it were, to the free choice of such ideas are, to him, most adapted to react upon and heighten the emotion which occasioned them, produces a pleasure, which nobody, I believe, who is able to feel it, will deny to be one of the most delicious that Music is capable of affording.
For Twining, then, it was precisely what music lacked in specificity that afforded pleasure. Thinking of Bach’s melody in this way would mean that the variety of ideas that it possibly affords could generate pleasure for a listener in the free choice thereof. It’s enjoyable to create meanings out of the abstract energy of musical performances. This thesis emphasises the mutability of musical sound and the subjective nature of its interpretation – a view exactly opposed to that of the mimetic theorists, for whom music evokes pleasure in the specificity of its depicted sentiments. Music, then, could be something of an open playground for each individual. Listeners allow themselves to wander through it, discovering new features, making meaning and deriving pleasure.
It can be difficult even for a professional musician to hear the composite effect of a fugue spinning out
But let’s stay for a moment with Bach’s melody. If we allow it to play on, we’ll discover that it’s only the short opening fragment of a much longer composition written in the form of a fugue. Fugues open with a single melody – the subject – that is transformed and replayed throughout the composition in a systematic fashion. Imitation in fugues is not of nature, but instead of the fugue subject itself.
Fugues are written in a texture that’s called polyphonic, which means that each individual musical line is an independent entity worthy of being called a melody in its own right. All of these lines are coordinated with each other in counterpoint so that they can overlap and interweave. The result is a complex composition that maintains several simultaneously active registers of narrative. It’s a little bit like the effect achieved when a film cuts rapidly between its different plot lines, only in this medium there are no cuts; all of the lines play at once. It can be difficult even for a professional musician to hear the composite effect of a fugue spinning out. And these pieces are not just difficult to hear in their entirety, they are also difficult to compose. Eighteenth-century theorists referred to them as ‘worked-out’ or carefully pre-planned.
Elaborate counterpoint, like the writing featured in Bach’s fugue, was a concern for 18th-century writers on music. Some wondered whether and how this difficult music could be pleasurable, and others were concerned about its capacity to raise the sentiments in its listeners. The Berlin theorist and musician Christian Gottfried Krause (1717-70) worried that the composers of this sort of music had ‘even forgot the affections altogether’. But he also described another experience associated with this difficult music: ‘It was noticed that when all the voices were worked-out, as the composers say, this expresses a grandeur, an admiration, a great zeal, and a general pleasure, and the heart is filled by it with certain elevated and strong feelings.’ Here Krause is not proposing that music imitates and somehow reproduces feelings, but rather that it affords them in the admiration it brings about. He comes close, in this passage, to a description of the sublime, which sometimes characterised critical reactions to complex counterpoint. In his view, the inability to track the unfurling of all the intricate and interlacing lines of a Bach fugue has the capacity to generate the melancholic awe and subsequent pleasure associated with what the German philosopher Immanuel Kant in 1764 called the mathematical sublime. Krause found in the difficulty of this sort of musical complexity a potential for the experience of limitlessness.
Twining and Krause get us closer to the view that music is pleasurable not for its reproduction of objects or imitations of emotions, but for its opacity. In this view, it is the inability of musical tones to refer or represent that affords a certain pleasurable contemplation. This idea – which flips the earlier theories of imitation on their head – received its fullest elaboration in Eduard Hanslick’s The Beautiful in Music (1854), a screed against emotional interpretations of the art. Hanslick took direct aim against earlier theorists such as Mattheson, who had proposed systems for linking musical materials with the emotions. For Hanslick these efforts were sentimental and misguided, and they encouraged listeners to hear music in the same way that they might enjoy a warm bath. Deriving this sort of pleasure from music was, for Hanslick, both lazy and wasteful. To hear music thus was to misunderstand the true nature of the art, which, he suggested, is hidden in the details.
In Hanslick’s thinking, music consists of nothing but sounds and motions, which together create a play of forms. This formal play aims at the creation of the beautiful in music, and while the contemplation of this beauty might arouse various emotions, these are distinct from the beautiful as such. The pleasure of listening to music instead arises from the intellectual satisfaction that derives from attempting to follow the compositional design of a piece. This is a difficult, almost athletic task – not a soak in the tub. Led in unexpected ways from one moment to the next, the listener is sometimes rewarded and other times frustrated in the play of expectations. A particular kind of musical difficulty is prized in this system, which depends on our temporal encounter with varying degrees of musical familiarity and novelty. Hanslick described this as an ‘intellectual flux and reflux’, or a kind of ‘pondering of the imagination’ that is particular to music. The cultivation of this aesthetic listening strategy was, as he saw it, an art itself.
It is precisely our difficulty in interpreting music that affords our pleasure as listeners
This is an extreme position on musical pleasure. It’s one that divorces music not only from the representation of emotions but also from the outside world. It posits the existence of ideal types of listener and composition, reifying a certain kind of play with formal conventions and expectations as the essence of musical composition. And although this type of thinking has been the subject of withering critique from countless critics and musicians, elements of it persist in our current thinking on musical pleasure.
Twentieth-century theorists sought to redress Hanslick’s assault on the representation of emotions in music. Among them was Susanne Langer, whose Philosophy in a New Key (1941) proposed a symbolic interpretation of meaning in art. Langer, like many of her predecessors, also found in music a prodigious lack. For her, music was nothing but pure structure. This rendered it an ideal case for the investigation of symbolism since, as she put it, ‘there is no obvious, literal content in our way’. Taking this formal view of music, Langer made reference to historical theorists of Mattheson’s generation in order to argue, contra Hanslick, for a deep connection between music and emotion. The twist in Langer’s interpretation is that music cannot transparently symbolise human feeling; music, on her view, is an ‘unconsummated symbol’, meaning that its significance is implied rather than being fixed. This allows for a personal determination of music’s symbolic emotional content, which is thus itself intellectually satisfying. As we listen, we create our own emotional narratives. We dramatise the experience for ourselves, matching up formal musical features with our own ideas about their ever-shifting content.
So once again it seems that it is precisely our difficulty in interpreting music – in consummating, as it were, its symbolism – that redounds to our ultimate benefit and pleasure as listeners. It is this difficulty that affords pleasure. Langer might be worlds away from Hanslick in her ultimate conclusion, linking music back up with emotional interpretation. But this core belief in the value of music’s abstract, formal play is something that the two have in common. And indeed, it is a facet shared by the 20th century’s other major theorist of music and emotion, Leonard Meyer. In Emotion and Meaning in Music (1956), Meyer synthesised a type of musical formalism with principles from Gestalt psychology in order to argue, like Langer, for a new theory of musical expressionism. For Meyer also, music is made up of abstract, non-referential components. Its dynamic unfolding in time creates a play of expectations for the listener. Pleasure, in Meyer’s theory, derives from the listener’s real-time discovery of the music’s deviation from formal expectations.
The influence of Langer and Meyer has been lasting. The game-like, challenging, subjective involvement with music’s formal materials and conventional strategies that they describe has remained the underpinning of many theories of music and emotion in our present day. And while the specifics have transformed significantly, this basic idea owes much to its 18th-century predecessors. Within it there is still a distant echo of something suggested by theorists as early as Twining and Krause, which is that we take pleasure in music precisely because it is a dynamic field of elements that are difficult to interpret, and into which we project ourselves.
According to this notion, what makes the Bach fugue work is that it hits a certain sweet spot of difficulty. We can track the opening melody – the subject – as it begins the piece. Perhaps we follow along as another voice picks up that melody. Soon we are awash in a deep thicket of musical information, but holding on just enough to those familiar tones from the beginning that we’re not totally lost. The idea here would be that this piece of Bach challenges us just enough that we’re working hard to track the subject, but not enough that we give up and lose the thread. It holds us active and engaged as we run through its labyrinthine design (another metaphor connected to music in early modernity), tested and excited but not so challenged as to be defeated. All of this suggests that there is a kind of pleasure at being pushed to the very asymptote of difficulty.
If we follow this logic, then some of the most difficult music might also be some of the most pleasurable. This would draw listening to difficult music into proximity with enjoying spicy food, or walking across suspension bridges, or taking rollercoaster rides. These experiences play on discomfort and push us past the quotidian in order to produce intense sensorial effects. At their most extreme, they can, like music, bring about disorientation, shock, the discovery of immersive innumerability, or even the sublime. In this case, it’s not just that pleasure is the result of something about the way a melody is designed; rather, it is the complex interaction of countless musical components that works to challenge the listener to the point of a detached satisfaction and a subsequent pleasure.
Perhaps we’ve been asking too few questions about how pleasure is a phenomenon with musical qualities
Still, though this idea is inspiring, there is much lacking within it. This model, still popular in today’s music theory (and especially the way we teach it to undergraduates), pushes us too far toward abstraction. It values a very specific, directed kind of musical listening, and it tends to construe musical pleasure as something divorced from the social reality in which music is made. It also risks ignoring the individuals who make it, and indeed the identities and structures of power under which the musical performance comes to life.
Respecting these might mean understanding music qua representation once again. It would entail paying closer attention to other forms of meaning-making in music, such as those connected to its texts (where it has them) and those of the social environments into which it is brought to life. Here we encounter the familiar difficulties of linking up the formal materials of music with the rest of the world. This returns us, then, to problems similar to those posed by the imitative model inspired by Aristotle, adopted by the early moderns, and qualified in the 18th century. These have been with us, of course, the entire time. But different moments in the history of theorising music are more apt than others to bring them out.
Perhaps then, pleasure and music are connected in some way further removed from both the obvious sonorous tickle that music affords or the formal demands that music places on the listener. Perhaps we haven’t gone far enough when we suppose that pleasure in music derives from the recognition within it of a passionate utterance, or an imitation of nature, or an intense game of challenging listening to be played. Perhaps we’ve been asking too many questions about what in music is pleasurable, and too few about how pleasure is a phenomenon with musical qualities.
Seen in this light, music and pleasure are both modes of inter-subjective recognition with multiple registers of enactment: we play music in performance and we perform our reception of it in the shifting modalities of meaning-making that take place in our assessment of it. This second mode of performance constitutes the long and shifting history of theories attempting to explain how it is that music is pleasurable. Historical theories turn out not to be extrinsic afterthoughts but are rather integral to musical practice. Our penchant for continually rewriting and revising them bespeaks a perpetual difficulty: both music and pleasure are phenomena with concrete, definable contours but whose exact nature exceeds complete specification. Perhaps this formal linkage is why music and pleasure have enjoyed intertwined histories for so long.