Tales of Sin City

Tales of Sin City 1
Photo by Ameer Basheer on Unsplash

Out in the barren desert exists a swollen spread of light and colour, as though mustered and plonked by some alien species—a kind of base experiment, to be observed with scientific, oversized eyes. It glows like a party of a million writhing fireflies, criss-crossing their way across sandy dancefloors, and buzz buzz buzzing through the all-too-quick night, spindly legs shaking in protest at the emerging glares of the unsought sun as it peeks over the horizon. No matter, another night awaits, and another, and another, until bellies, livers and minds become bloated to excess, desperate to burst with raging torrents of sickly vomit.

Spic and span is the money-making plan—every surface must be gleaming, carved from imitation marble, threaded with lavish bands of silver and platinum. How better to gain riches, than to present richness? How better to stoke vanity than with the illusion of splendour, nourishing the confidence of its imprudent admirers? Here’s a gleaming pyramid, surface spotted with warm, yellow luminance; here’s a soaring water feature, radiating with the sheen of a thousand beams of light, undeniably beautiful, but designed to hypnotise nevertheless. A city filled with gratified cooing, senses endlessly feasted, treated like the kings of old, perched atop their garish thrones peppered with gold and jewels, celebrating their awesome stature with the enthusiasm of a thousand unhinged men. Every seat suitably padded, every bed perfectly soft, every whim wholly satisfied—grunting, belching, slapping and snorting our way to hedonistic ecstasy, ingesting Mitsubishi-stamped pills and mounds of white powder with the stench of chemicals, blood trail leading back to the slums of South America, too dark and distant to be perceived.

Luckless ladies weave throughout the grid, targeting men of every kind, their ill repute disguised beneath a glossy-lipped smile of feigned interest. Wife waiting back at the hotel? No problem—we’re here to please, not to judge— take my hand and let me lead you to the softest of places, that may or may not be smeared with hair-clinging crustaceans, waiting for the opportunity to clamp their yellowy claws onto a victim new. We even take chips as payment. Swappin’ plastic for fellatio, just don’t ask us to swallow—a hangover remains. Not interested? Then fuck you. Flee to the pole-clinging strippers, stuff their lace with paper, and forego the satisfaction of a real happy ending. Try to ignore the empty look in their eyes as they thrash about like reluctant puppets, wondering how it all went so tragically wrong—but wait, I love this song!

Rooms packed with sweat-glistened bodies, jostling and grinding to the sunken soundwaves of the latest musical fad, sipping extravagant, overpriced vodka—same stuff, different label—obvious, pitiful peacocks, drowning in feathers and arse, deficient in novelty. Swanky swimming pools peppered with brown bodies, arms flailed in the direction of a sunglass-wearing douchelord—a commander of the most basic of sheep. Respite is taken in the squishy comfort of a private poolside cabana, waited on by a bony young waitress wearing a plastered smile, serving spirit from a $750 bottle—every penny soothing our insecurity through the illusion of status. In the Nevada desert, eminence is expensive, and oh-so-fleeting.

Just a couple of colours to determine your destiny, with another thrown in, sometimes twice, to cheat you out of it. A table surrounded by expectant faces, one moment joyful, the next despairing, as the chips inevitably make their way back into the owner’s overstuffed pockets, ready to be reinvested into some shiny new thing—a glistening fountain; a glossy chrome staircase, or a younger, red-lipped waitress—whatever it takes to bring in the hapless punters. At table forty-two is a man with his head in his hands, who sold his home to make it big—a hundred thousand chips shrunk down to one, with remorseless masters grinning in the shadows, and beaming as a fresh-faced mug nestles into the seat next to him.

It isn’t really the money we’re after, but dopamine, to be got at all costs, with peril ignored—a teeny brain squirt after every little success, scantly experienced, yet catching us hook, line, and sinker, over and over again, until our mouths are dry, and pockets desolate—an empty space where even the most dishonourable moth wouldn’t be caught dead. Success at the table is not the same as success at life. Moments of jubilant triumph, laden with chips of the richest colour, are equalised by periods of exhausted devastation, when you’d better hope that there’s someone who loves you enough to comfort you. On its most lucrative days, the city carves out our insides until all is hollow—nothing left but an empty shell whose hopes and dreams have been efficiently collected and deposited. 

But don’t worry, you can win it all back next time.

How pleasure is destroying our planet

1_iqlaGvODrgqDlXD4_SLBMAPhoto by NASA on Unsplash

If the boffins of the world were able to invent a machine that magically pulled everyone’s desires from their heads, analysis would likely show a motivating force more prevalent than anything else: pleasure. It pervades and influences much of our lives, acting as a primary catalyst for seeking out thrilling sex, delicious food, hypnotic music, and a glut of other experiences too numerous to mention. Sigmund Freud, the pioneering psychoanalyst who may have been a little too enamoured with his mother, developed a “pleasure principle” theory which posited that people have an innate desire to seek pleasure, and avoid pain. His insights demonstrate that pleasure is a huge and inescapable driving force in our lives.

Leap back a couple of millennia, and observe a philosophy that had pleasure as its primary goal: hedonism.

“Fill your belly. Day and night make merry. Let days be full of joy. Dance and make music day and night […] These things alone are the concern of men.” – Siduri

The hedonists believed pleasure to be the highest good, and a legitimate goal of human life. This might be construed as a mortally selfish philosophy, but social obligation and altruism were still considered important, containing hedonistic value in themselves. The world’s most famous wanderers – the Jews – also believed that mankind was created for pleasure, with “Eden” being a translation of the Hebrew word for it. This is the reason that God placed Adam and Eve in the perpetually pleasurable and shameless Garden of Eden. If it wasn’t for that pesky danger noodle sweetly hissing into Eve’s ear, we might not have ended up in such a terrible mess.

In many people’s minds, pleasure is synonymous with all things good. It’s the toothy grin that appears on your face whenever presented with a freshly roasted joint of lamb; the satisfaction that follows after realising that you’ve created an excellent piece of work; the erection that springs to life when presented with something soft and curvy. All truly awesome experiences, to be sought after and savoured. The problem occurs with imbalance, when your primary aim is solely pleasure and nothing else. Attempting to shut out every other emotion aside from pleasure is laughably foolish, sickeningly unhealthy, and completely unrealistic. Our minds and bodies are magnificently complex; we’re equipped to experience a huge range of astonishing, varied emotions, including those interpreted as negative. Many of these unfavourable emotions have a immense measure of utility, which if we just looked a little closer, could be employed to our advantage. Attempting to live your life at one end of the scale just results in disillusionment and burnout. You must take the good with the bad.

“What if pleasure and displeasure were so tied together that whoever wanted to have as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other — that whoever wanted to learn to ‘jubilate up to the heavens’ would also have to be prepared for ‘depression unto death’?” – Nietzsche

Pleasure and displeasure; joy and suffering; up and down – these aren’t mortal-enemy dichotomies, they’re part of a single, unbreakable scale. It’s impossible to eliminate one without the other. Remove pleasure, and displeasure must go along with it. What a dreadfully boring, grey world we’d live in if we just experienced pleasure and it’s accompanying emotions. It’s a place similar to Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”, a society in which negative experience is expelled, but at the expense of truth; of how our lives should be honestly lived.

“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.” – Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

A modern version of this idea can be found in the movie Demolition Man, which takes place in a “happy joy joy” dystopian future. Ironically, the entire movie is a gluttonous guilty pleasure.

One of the biggest issues to arise out of pleasure seeking at all costs is economic materialism. Buying stuff provides us with temporary pleasure, and this drives our capitalist economy at an increasingly devastating environmental cost. The relentless warnings from the scientific community don’t appear to be loud enough for our selfish ears, not when there’s pleasure to be had. How did humanity ever reach such a disturbing level of ignorance? The tipping point that we’ve reached can no longer be disregarded, and unless curbed, our greedy, implacable pursuit of pleasure will be what pushes us to self-destruction. Not only is this obviously our most foolish mistake, it’s also completely misguided, because accumulating more and more stuff has shown to cause a decrease in personal well-being. Hungarian economist Tibor Scitovsky named this a “joyless economy”, in which people eternally chase after comforts, to the detriment of happiness. Research also suggests that when we deny ourselves a pleasure, the next time that we obtain it, we savour it much more. You’ll appreciate your delicious coffee more intensely if you can muster the willpower to have it just once a week. By curbing our substantial impulses towards pleasure, we’re not only making ourselves happier, but we’re saving our planet in the process. This isn’t to suggest that we should become hunger-ravaged ascetics, holding a firm hand up against every possible pleasure that appears before us, but instead take a more cautionary approach in our lives, and consider your own happiness before dive-bombing into temptation. Your life probably wouldn’t be better if it included a petrol-guzzling V8, regardless of the narcissistic pride you might feel when your arm is perched out of its side-window. Neither will it be measurably improved with a pair of fetching designer glasses. These things are ultimately worthless, and just for show.

Pleasure is a good thing when pursued at a healthy and responsible level. Life would be much less exciting without it. But when it presents itself before us, we must have the mindfulness to pause for a moment and consider whether it’s good for us and our planet in the long-run. We have a choice to make: voracious in-the-moment pleasure, or a balanced forgoing that could slowly tip the environmental scales back in our favour, ensuring our continued existence on this glorious planet.

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