Stolen waters are sweet and bread eaten in secret is pleasant. — Proverbs 9:17
Most of us equate guilty pleasures with the “Seven Mortal Sins”: pride, wrath, envy, sloth, lust, gluttony, and avarice. It is a compact and convenient formulation. Sins have been catalogued for our use. We need not concern ourselves with other sins not mentioned. We sin, we feel remorse or guilt, we repent (or not). So runs the usual course of events in the “sinful” world.
But are these sins truly guilty pleasures? Or are some of them pleasures followed by guilt? Suppose we were to define a guilty pleasure essentially as a dual – or divided and simultaneous – state of consciousness: pleasure and remorse in the same instant. Then we would need to rule out most of the Seven Sins. Sloth, anger, pride, and envy would go, because such states completely absorb us either into an engulfing awareness of the state (such as feeling wrathful) or into unconsciousness (although sloth straddles a boundary here, and could be considered a guilty pleasure if it did not consist completely of being unconscious).
Moreover, can we truly say that we enjoy being angry or envious? States of mind brought about by stupefacient agents like alcohol, drugs, or even sleep are also eliminated in this formulation. In all of these sins, the self-censor or self-judge customarily speaks (if ever) only after normal consciousness resumes. Sins committed in haste and repented of at leisure do not qualify here as guilty pleasures.
2003 © Eric Edelman. All rights reserved.
The quote from Proverbs elegantly sums up the elements of this concept of guilty pleasure. To exist, this state must encompass sharp awareness of the pleasurable act in the moment of its commission and, simultaneously, awareness of its sinfulness. Concealment is essential. Fear of scrutiny or discovery is an inevitable concomitant – the “voyeur” of one’s own conscience playing the role of censor and judge and serving as a safe stand-in for the dreaded outside witness. The dialectic of enjoyment and painful guilt only serves to increase excitement, heightens our awareness of pleasure…and thus intensifies the pleasure itself.
To illustrate these ideas, consider six states of guilty pleasure: opportunistic theft (casual, “lying-in-the-street” and “when-no-one-is-looking” theft, without violence but possibly by breaking and entering), illicit sex, secret eating, buying, collecting, and wasting. The first three cleave to the Proverb, while the others have a more modern flavor. All are presented as tableaux in separate but linked square boxes, placed in two vertical groups of three, each group fastened upon a side wing of a triptych makeup mirror. In the central mirror is placed a longer box representing an artistic activity. The boxes within the side groups communicate with each other, and are joined to the central box, by flexible red and blue tubes, suggesting that guilty pleasures and art can connect by a “circulatory system,” as organs within a body connect to nurture, support, and stimulate each other. The mirrored wall and window that split each box into an inside and an outside space, and the mirror used elsewhere in the piece, represent the split in consciousness occasioned by guilty pleasure – our awareness and self-awareness, both as voyeur and participant. The Buddhas behind the windows personify the observer/voyeur half of our consciousness: our conscience/censor/judge/jury/neutral witness. Clear bubbles containing mottoes about pleasure and the likeness of William Blake (who wrote most of them) occupy the former light bulb sockets on the sides and top of the mirror frame.
At the top and bottom of the triptych center panel are instructions inviting the viewer to participate: “Reflect upon your own guilty pleasures and draw or write them on the slate below.” Fastened to the base of the piece and in front of the triptych is a child’s “magic slate,” with a stylus attached to it by a chain. The viewer can draw or write anything on the slate, and then immediately erase the writing by lifting the slate’s top sheet. The slate and stylus confer upon the triptych the role of confessional booth.
The choice of Buddha and Blake as observers and actors in the tableaux was neither arbitrary nor entirely blasphemous. In his prophetic book The Marriage of Heaven & Hell, Blake dethroned conventional concepts of morality and Christian religion, inviting his readers to redefine morals, and introducing them to a religion of his own making, in which the Christian God and His Heaven occupy the lowest rank of a pantheon of gods and goddesses representing the qualities, desires, and dualities of human nature. Blake reminds us that the true God is not without but within us, that we are our own worst judges and best enemies, and that each of us contains the seed of a better, more transcendent and enjoyable life – shown by our “lineaments of gratified desire” and the reconciliation of our conscience with our pleasure. Who better than Blake to guide us on a tour of “guilty” pleasures?
Buddha appears as the other actor in this piece because of his compassion, his detachment, and his somewhat sardonic sense of humor. Although not condoning guilty pleasures, he does not condemn them either. He reminds us by his teaching, wit, and lack of judgment that we all have been (and continue to be) both participants in and judges of such pleasures.
(All artwork, descriptions, & other text created & copyright © by Eric Edelman. All rights reserved.)