We have to dig deep to find this type of pleasure

Is happiness a fridge full of cold beer, a wardrobe of dresses or just a very good book?

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 July, 2013, 3:44am

In one of my favourite television commercials, a compact, smartly dressed and middle-aged woman gives her female friends a grand tour of her elegant flat.

They are polite and well mannered, but as they enter the woman's huge, walk-in closet, they can hardly contain their excitement. Like teenage girls screaming and crying in front of their idols at a rock concert, they whoop and holler at the sight of what must be the woman's very impressive, jaw-dropping wardrobe.

But any excitement they feel - and this is the punchline - pales in comparison to the ecstasy experienced by her spouse and his male friends in a room nearby, who find their promised land in the flat's walk-in beer fridge.

This funny commercial is a sad commentary on our capacity for pleasure. The great British philosopher John Stuart Mill equates happiness with pleasure. "By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure," he famously writes in Utilitarianism, published in 1863. But do not take what the man says at face value. Mill is a hedonist with a difference.

For him, not all pleasures are equal, and it is possible to distinguish in some principled way between what he calls higher and lower pleasures.

The higher pleasures of intellect, imagination and emotion are superior in their intrinsic nature, he believes, and therefore ought to be pursued with more vigour and for their own sake.

Well said. Of course, there is nothing "low" about the irrefutable pleasure of having a cold beer on a hot summer day. But I, and I believe, many others of my kind, do have a much more pronounced weakness for the various kinds of intellectual pleasures. For people like us, the reading of an exquisite passage, or the pondering of an intriguing scene from a movie, is neither a diversion nor a release from chores but an event and an experience that can be both consuming and transformative.

We may not whoop and holler when we listen to a recital, watch a painting or bury ourselves in a book, but our souls are stirred and we immerse ourselves quietly in raptures.

This profound, mysterious pleasure and sense of joyful discovery that can only come from an encounter with art and an immersion in culture is what cultural magazines such as The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books try to convey to their readers. Just as the highest compliment that one can pay to a work of art is to say it enhances one's understanding of life, the best thing one can say about a cultural magazine is that it strengthens its reader's capacity for pleasure.

Hong Kong is a city famous for a wide range of things from egg tarts to the degree of press freedom, but hardly ever for the popularity of its cultural magazines. Doesn't it tell you what sort of pleasure seekers the majority of its people are?

Perry Lam is a cultural critic