Thomas More in a labor camp
I once thought of Varlam Shalamov as a powerful but rather straightforward writer, but I’ve been learning from Sarah J. Young that he does more than bear witness to prison camp suffering. She has a substantive post on defecation in Shalamov. As usual I learned quite a lot from it, but I was confused by a bit in the middle about bodily functions in Thomas More, Rabelais, and Shalamov.
First, I wasn’t sure where Rabelais came in, or the idea of a “grotesque body.” Shalamov’s narrator paraphrases More as distilling happiness down to four basic feelings: eating, sex, urination, and defecation. These are the four feelings that Gulag prisoners were deprived of. If Rabelais were making such a list, surely drinking massive amounts of alcohol could not be left out, and More-according-to-Shalamov’s four feelings would be made grand, mock-epic, hilarious, rather than a minimal concession to nature in a dry philosophical argument.
Beyond that I’m pretty sure Shalamov is modifying More to suit his purpose here (perhaps More is a prestigious name to attach to a shockingly simple idea). He seems to be talking about this part of Utopia where More explains how the Utopians see happiness. They prefer things we are drawn to by both reason and direct feeling, like the four feelings Shalamov mentions, but also other pleasures of the body, like “the pleasure that arises from music” and “delight in health,” and beyond all these, “they esteem those [pleasures] most valuable that lie in the mind,” such as “knowledge,” “that delight which the contemplation of truth carries with it,” “joyful reflections on a well-spent life,” “the assured hopes of a future happiness,” “true virtue,” and “the witness of a good conscience” (70-72). What the Utopians don’t think qualifies as real happiness is seeing other people kneel before you or wearing bright-colored stones or fancy clothes – for people aren’t drawn to these things by nature, but only after culture and reason assign them false value.
Shalamov’s own topic, in the passage SJY quotes, is what it’s like to be deprived of the pleasure of defecation, then regain it. Compare More on the pain of deprivation outweighing the pleasure of a need satisfied:
If any man imagines that there is a real happiness in these enjoyments, he must then confess that he would be the happiest of all men if he were to lead his life in perpetual hunger, thirst, and itching, and by consequence in perpetual eating, drinking, and scratching himself; which any one may easily see would be not only a base, but a miserable state of a life. These are indeed the lowest of pleasures, and the least pure; for we can never relish them but when they are mixed with the contrary pains. The pain of hunger must give us the pleasure of eating; and here the pain outbalances the pleasure; and as the pain is more vehement, so it lasts much longer; for as it begins before the pleasure, so it does not cease but with the pleasure that extinguishes it, and both expire together. They think, therefore, none of those pleasures are to be valued any further than as they are necessary; yet they rejoice in them, and with due gratitude acknowledge the tenderness of the great Author of Nature, who has planted in us appetites by which those things that are necessary for our preservation are likewise made pleasant to us. (72)
I’m not sure we can square this passage from More with Shalamov’s narrator’s talk of “four basic human feelings, the satisfaction of which leads to the highest bliss in More’s terms.” It seems complicated to me how More’s idea that it would be perverse to deliberately suffer hunger for the later pleasure of food fits with Shalamov’s description of the “resurrection” of the four basic feelings for the (ex-?)prisoner. Maybe there’s nothing here but the oddness of comparing the effects of harsh treatment in the Gulag (and its end) to disputes on what kind of happiness is best in Utopia. In any case, read all of SJY’s post, which is about much more than this.