Bloom (Psychology/Yale Univ.; Descartes’ Baby: How Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human, 2004, etc.) presents essentialism as a weighty determinant of our pleasures.
“What matters most is not the world as it appears to our senses,” writes the author. “Rather, the enjoyment we get from something derives from what we think that thing is.” In this scholarly yet spry book, the author strives to convey a sense of that mojo, surely one of the most elusive of qualities. A blind tasting of wine is always a good illustration of this point, as is the letdown we feel if we discover that the watch or painting we bought is a fake. The things that give us pleasure may bestow evolutionary advantage, excite pure sensuality or carry psychological significance. Bloom salts the book with all manner of pungent, apposite points—“females were drawn to males who gave them sexual pleasure, leading to the evolution of a better penis”—and stresses that we experience pleasure through the thing’s real or imagined history. A record-setting, home-run baseball, the unwashed T-shirt of a celebrity, the purity of spring water, an original piece of sheet music or art—these have elemental stories, and we want to be part of those stories, to be transported, transformed and enriched. Adding to the thrill is a sense of the numinous, that there is something in operation beyond our ken. The author probes the history of sentimental objects, the contact and context that give them meaning; how we hope that qualities of the things we eat will pervade us; the ways in which we are attracted to the process of making art and storytelling; and the strange case of giving and receiving pain.
A heartening, well-developed argument.