The Back Roads

Up before four, and what do I do? I read and I write and I wonder. I drink strong black coffee and think about cats and gaze at photographs of magnificent scrap metal sculpture. I think about characters I’ve created and muse about where they are now. Life is a boat, a vessel that can be steered like a ship or simply allowed to float like a raft.


Take the back roads instead of the highways.

~ Minnie Pearl ~


Archeology did not fully capture my interest until recently. I suppose I found the subject dry, thanks to several erroneous assumptions I made about the discipline. Only in recent years have I come to understand how much we can learn from the study of archeology. This morning, I watched a BBC video that deals with some of the culinary habits of Vikings. The archeologist filmed for the video demonstrated how dried cod, ground barley, herbs, and malt vinegar were used to create a porridge that was accompanied by roasted turnips. Just watching and listening to the video opened my imagination to what life might have been like for Vikings during cold winters. By examining archeological evidence, the world as it once was—and how that world served as the foundation for the one in which we live today—becomes more real and more understandable. Archeology is just one of dozens—perhaps hundreds—of disciplines that have sparked my interest over the years. If I had a mind capable of absorbing and retaining vast amounts of information, I think I would have been delighted to have been a perpetual student. I might have become the legendary Renaissance Man, cultured and knowledgeable in a wide range of fields. Alas, my brain seems incapable of retaining much of what passes through it. Only bits and pieces of information remain after stopping to visit. Those shreds are often adulterated with fantasies that infiltrate and contaminate the “real” information residing there. Such is life. Still, I enjoy learning and relearning. It is not too late to become enamored with archeology. And medicine and metallurgy and on and on…


Pleasure comes in innumerable ways: eating ice cream, viewing beautiful paintings, watching talented creative people engage in their crafts, experiencing a clear, dark night when the sky is rich with twinkling stars, warming in front of a roaring fire on a cold day…the list is endless and it is unique to the individual. The pleasure for one person of tasting the flavor of a peach and feeling its texture in the mouth is, to someone else, an unwanted, unpleasant experience. No matter one’s preferences, the concept of pleasure is almost universally regarded in a positive light. And that probably is as it should be. But what of the pleasure some people derive from inflicting discomfort or pain on others? Is that deviant experience actually pleasure, or is it something else…something that only mimics pleasure? An article published ten years ago by the Association for Psychological Science does not answer the question, but implies that people who enjoy inflicting pain on others do, indeed, experience “pleasure” from their actions. The article reported the work of three researchers, whose earlier work identified a “Dark Triad” of personality traits, “surmised that sadism is a distinct aspect of personality that joins with three others — psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism — to form a “Dark Tetrad” of personality traits.” The authors’ later work suggests “sadists possess an intrinsic motivation to inflict suffering on innocent others, even at a personal cost.” The article does not address the question, directly, of whether sadistic “pleasure” is, in fact, the real thing; but it implies as much. Another article, published earlier this year in the Journal of Personality, notes that “Sadistic pleasure presumably incorporates processes that support an authentic enjoyment of others’ pain.” An untested theory about sadists’ “pleasure” in inflicting pain, supported to some extent by the article, suggests “sadistic people may occasionally care about seeming moral (or not seeming antagonistic) and that sadism may be somewhat ego-dystonic in this respect.” The meaning and practical implications of the exploratory work surrounding sadistic behaviors and their ostensibly pleasurable components to sadists have yet to be fully fleshed out. But the admittedly limited reading (and considerably more thinking) I have done on the matter leaves me thinking this: the enjoyment some people experience from inflicting pain is not the same thing as the pleasure most of us feel from more positive experiences. If I were a psychologist involved in behavioral research, I would explore my theory that the infliction of pain on others does not give pleasure to the sadist but, rather, gives a deviant psychological “high” that resembles pleasure. Perhaps it’s a matter of semantics, but I simply cannot fathom the idea that a person who enjoys inflicting pain on others feels the same sense of pleasure I have when enjoying a glass of wine while sitting on my deck, reveling in the sights and sounds of the forest.


I have long appreciated a poem by a poet whose last name and mine are almost identical (but to whom I have no evidence I am related). These words, extracted from the chorus of a poem-play by Algernon Charles Swinburne (Atalanta in Calydon), appeal to me:

Before the beginning of years,
There came to the making of man
Time, with the gift of tears,
Grief, with a glass that ran;
Pleasure, with pain for leaven;
Summer, with flowers that fell;
Remembrance fallen from heaven,
And madness risen from hell;
Strength without hands to smite;
Love that endures for a breath;
Night, the shadow of light,
And life, the shadow of death.

And the high gods took in hand
Fire, and the falling of tears,
And a measure of sliding sand
From under the feet of the years;
And froth and drift of the sea;
And dust of the labouring earth;
And bodies of things to be
In the houses of death and of birth;
And wrought with weeping and laughter,
And fashioned with loathing and love,
With life before and after
And death beneath and above,
For a day and a night and a morrow,
That his strength might endure for a span
With travail and heavy sorrow,
The holy spirit of man.

I must have thought of this poetic expression because of the phrase, “Pleasure, with pain for leaven.” That phrase resonates with me and it is somehow linked in my mind with the subject of the paragraphs above regarding pleasure and whether sadistic “pleasure” is really pleasure at all.


About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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