Ethics, our laws and civilization itself are products of our shared preferences, or desires. We desire food, clothing and shelter. All things being equal, we prefer not to have a knife stuck in our back or our eyes poked out. If someone runs at us menacingly with a knife or a sharp object, we will flee or fight back; we will seek the assistance of the community to defend and protect us, and expect that it will do so. These basic preferences are the core of civilized life.
Our basic preferences can be categorized as health, satisfaction of material needs and wants, pleasure, longevity, happiness and fulfillment. A stab in the back is unhealthy and unpleasant. Significant hunger is unsatisfying. Death at an early age is undesirable in itself. We avoid unhappiness and seek to be happy, and to be fulfilled.
These basic preferences are the necessary bridge from our sensations, emotions, thoughts and actions, to ethics, law and society. The brain’s processes create experiences, which we may interpret as sensations, emotions, thoughts, actions, or a combination of domains. Those experiences have both a content and a quality. Because humans agree on fundamental points about the quality of experience – we have a common ground of broadly shared preferences – we can understand and appreciate each other’s desires, bond together in families, communities and nations (imagine a universal human family without boundaries), adopt and enforce laws, develop ideas about justice, and strive toward a better world in which all people live to the fullest, while stewarding and preserving foundations for the future. People marry, each partner imagining a future together; many marital disputes arise when preferences are not shared. Parents may have one vision for their child’s future, while their child has another vision. Sometimes the parents do not agree on what is best for – what they prefer for – the child. Communities and nations are divided over political preferences, sometimes with disastrous consequences. The theory proposed herein traces obvious points (e.g.. people do not wish to have needles stuck into their eyes) back to their origins, and connects the dots forward. Seen another way, if we start building at the bedrock, then perhaps we can better understand how our common preferences can be used to bring us together into a more unified human community.
Without our preferences – our desires – there is no such a thing as morality, ethics or religion. Set in ideas about good and evil, right and wrong, morality implies a set of preferences, such as life over death, as in “Thou shalt not kill.” Similarly, ethics implies an evaluation of conduct that either serves or disserves desires. The entire field of religion is a set of narratives and prescriptions for everything desired, from the desire for rain to the desire for a sense of peace. Messy though they are, our preferences are inescapable. They form a necessary bridge into moral, ethical, religious and spiritual development.
Our preferences have their foundations in our character as human beings. The organic brain is to ethics as chemistry is to biology: its essential foundation.
Technical and Analytical Readings
- Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape (Free Press, 2010).
- Ogi Ogus and Sai Gaddam, A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the World’s Largest Experiment Reveals About Human Desire (Dutton, 2011): “The concentrated essence of this curious book is contained in its 11th chapter, which attempts to explain what the ‘Mona Lisa’ has in common with Chicken McNuggets, vampire novels and the concluding scene of most pornographic videos. Each of these works of human creativity . . . exploits perceptual trickery to arouse and gratify our desires.”
- Paul Bloom, Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil (Crown Publishers, 2013): “ . . . psychologist Paul Bloom draws from his research at the Yale Infant Cognition Center to argue that ‘certain moral foundations are not acquired through learning. . . . They are instead the products of biological evolution.’”
- Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (350 B.C.E.): a new translation “addresses modern well-being”.
From the dark side:
Tabloid and other yellow journalism:
- Joe Pompeo, Blood and Ink: The Scandalous Jazz Age Double Murder That Hooked America on True Crime (William Morrow, 2022): “The newspaper publisher Joseph Medill Patterson is alleged to have ranked the subjects most popular with his 1920s readers: “(1) Love or Sex, (2) Money, (3) Murder.” The best stories — the kind that propelled his upstart New York tabloid The Daily News from local rag to the most circulated newspaper in America — involved all three.”
- David Berry, Journalism, Ethics and Society (Routledge, 2016).
- David R. Spencer, The Yellow Journalism: The Press and America’s Emergence as a World Power (Northwestern University Press, 2007).
Cosette in her shadow, like Marius in his, was all ready to take fire. Destiny, with its
mysterious and fatal patience, slowly drew together these two beings, all charged and all
languishing with the stormy electricity of passion, these two souls which were laden with
love as two clouds are laden with lightning, and which were bound to overflow and mingle
in a look like the clouds in a flash of fire.
In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (J. K. Rowling), Harry discovers a mysterious mirror in a back corridor. On it are letters that at first appear unintelligible, though they are arranged and separated like words. When Harry realizes that, read backward, they say "I show not your face but your heart's desire," he gains the inspiration and self-knowledge he needs to triumph. The reversed letters are a metaphor for unawareness of our deepest longings. Harry's discovery of their meaning is a metaphor for our discovery of meaning in any phase or aspect of life.
Barry Hannah "could at gunpoint write the life story of a telephone pole." He lived an inner life large. His fictional works fairly drip with unsentimental longing.
- Barry Hannah, Long, Last Happy: New and Selected Stories (Grove Press, 2010).
- Barry Hannah, Geronimo Rex (Viking, 1972).
- Barry Hannah, Airships (Knopf, 1978).
- Barry Hannah, Bats Out of Hell (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1993).
- Barry Hannah, Ray (Knopf, 1980).
- Barry Hannah, Boomerang (1989).
- Barry Hannah, High Lonesome (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1996).
- Emma Donoghue, Inseparable: Desire Between Women in Literature (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010).
- Marina Warner, Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights (The Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2012): an interpretation of The Arabian Nights “as an overgrown garden of delights and hazards of desire.”
- Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, 36 Arugments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction (Pantheon Books, 2010): “ . . . philosophers and scholars may construct as many proofs or disproofs of divinity as they like. But to people of faith such questions remain as inarguable as the persistence of kugel.”
- Christos Ikonomou, Good Will Come from the Sea: A Novella (Archipelago Books, 2019): “A novella consisting of four connected stories, the first installment of a projected trilogy, ‘Good Will Come From the Sea’ is set on an imaginary island in the Aegean that serves as a proxy for Greece — a place to which displaced Athenians are forced by unemployment and other economic necessities to flee and start their lives again.” ^^^
- Jean-Philippe Blondel, Exposed: A Novel (New Vessel Press, 2019): “The increasingly intense relationship between older muse and younger artist takes a turn, however, when Alexandre hesitantly asks that for the final portrait Louis pose in the nude. ‘Exposed’ leaves open to the last minute whether that concluding canvas will be more Lucian Freud or David Hockney, and who, exactly, is undressing whom.”
- Amanda Popkey, Topics of Conversation: A Novel (Knopf, 2020): “How Much Power Do Women Want?”
- K-Ming Chang, Gods of Want: Stories (One World, 2022): “Metabolizing the World Into Something Wild and Achingly Alive - The stories in K-Ming Chang’s 'Gods of Want' are obsessed with the hungers and precarities of emigration and queer love.”
Music: songs and other short pieces
- Giacomo Puccini (composer), “O Mio Babbino Caro” (lyrics in English), from the opera Gianni Schicchi
- Franz Schubert (composer), “La Pastorella al Prato” (The Shepherdess in the Meadow), D. 513: a young woman dreams that her love may one day be hers.
- Paul Simon, “How the Heart Approaches What It Yearns”
- Paul Simon, “Proof of Love”
- Ustad Saami, “Longing”
- Franz Schubert (composer), "Sehnschucht" (Longing), D. 52 (1813)
- Franz Schubert (composer), "Sehnsucht" (Longing), Op. 8, No. 2, D. 516 (1817) (lyrics)
- Franz Schubert (composer), "Sehnsucht" (Longing), D. 636 (1819) (lyrics)
- Franz Schubert (composer), "Sehnsucht" (Longing), Op. 105, No. 4, D. 879 (1826) (lyrics)
- Franz Joseph Haydn, “O Tuneful Voice”, Hob. XVVI:a42 (lyrics)
- Salvador Dali, The Birth of Liquid Desires (1932)
- Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Fire (1566)
Film and Stage
- Like Water for Chocolate, a fable about a woman whose mother tried to repress her desire
- Fire: a story of “two beautiful women, one . . . married to a cad, the other to a fool,” who fall in love with each other. To the film-maker Deepa Mehta, the film is about women having choices and so it is but to me the most moving moment in the film is when one of the women tells her husband, whose religion leads him to renounce desire, that she wishes to love and live.
- Black Orpheus, a retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice, in which a man tries to reclaim his murdered lover by following her into hell
- Pablo Neruda, Sonnet XCV
- John Keats, “Fill for Me a Brimming Bowl”
- John Keats, “On a Dream”
- Theodore Roethke, “The Long Waters”
Music: Composers, artists, and major works
Egyptian singer Oum Kolthoum (Umm Kulthum) is said to be the one thing on which all Egyptians agree. Hers was a voice of barely restrained desire. “Imagine a singer with the virtuosity of Joan Sutherland or Ella Fitzgerald, the public persona of Eleanor Roosevelt and the audience of Elvis and you have Umm Kulthum, the most accomplished singer of her century in the Arab world”. “Kalthum's voice was expressive--some critics say melodramatic--and her performances would alternately hold her audiences in thrall and bring them to emotional paroxysms. . . she appeared to perform as if in a trance.” “. . . she sang songs for which she would be remembered for the rest of the century, especially colloquial love songs echoing the language and music of working-class people.” She left a long playlist, including the songs on this compilation. Her most popular songs include Hagartak (I Left You), Al Atlal (The Ruins), Siret el Hob (Talk of Love), Enta Omri (You Are My Life), Ba’eed Annak (Far from You), and Enta el Hob (Take My Life).
Alexander Zemlinsky styled his Lyrische Symphonie (Lyric Symphony) for soprano, baritone and orchestra, Op. 18 (1923) (approx. 40-45 minutes), after Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. The lyrics are taken from Rabindranath Tagore’s poems, “The Gardener” (1915). “The poems loosely trace a love affair from initial yearnings to final disappointment . . .” “The baritone and soprano alternate with one another over the course of the seven movements in what is not so much a narrative as an exploration of various stages of love. The first two songs present views of yearning, the next two its achievement, and the final three love’s end. . . . the Lyric Symphony is a Tristanesque exploration of longing and desire.” Best performances are by Marc & Hagegård, conducted by Chailly, in 1994; Isokosky & Skavhus, conducted by Conlon, in 2001; Karlson & Grundheber, conducted by Beaumont in 2002; and Goerne & Schäfer, conducted by Eschenbech in 2005.
Edvard Grieg, Haugtussa (Maid of the Hill Spirits), Op. 67 (1895) (approx. 25-30’) (link to lyrics), based on a book of Poems by Arne Gorberg, “is a late work that contains some of the composer’s best songs and exemplifies his synthesis of nineteenth century art music style with Norwegian folk-music idioms.” The songs are about longing and passion in a simple country setting. Top performances are by Flagstad & McArthur in 1940, von Otter & Forsberg in 1992, Ólafsdóttir & Ólafsson in 2006, Kielland & Mortensen in 2013, and Booth & Glynn in 2010.
In emotional appeal, Natalia Lafourcade is a contemporary Mexican version of Oum Kolthoum, with less dramatic flair. In style, they are worlds apart, Lafourcade offering traditional-length songs, in contrast to Kolthoum’s extended pieces. Natalia’s heartfelt singing conveys “an artful simplicity that transcends the bounds of time”. She has released several albums since 2009.
Musically, Carlo Gesualdo is best known for his six books of madrigals, all of which have been recorded by Delitæ Musicæ under Marco Longhini, and by Les Arts Florissants under Paul Agnew. “Carlo Gesualdo's strength was his ability to combine musically a variety of unconventional strategies into the service of a deeply felt and psychologically effective whole.” Personally, he is best known for his tragic first marriage, ending in his wife’s death. His passion found expression in his music, which is characterized by dissonance, and rejection of musical conventions of his time.
- First Book of Madrigals (1594) (approx. 56-60’)
- Second Book of Madrigals (1595) (approx. 55-60’)
- Third Book of Madrigals (1595) (approx. 65-70’)
- Fourth Book of Madrigals (1596) (approx. 65-70’)
- Fifth Book of Madrigals (1611) (approx. 55-60’)
- Sixth Book of Madrigals (1611) (approx. 90’)
- Johannes Brahms, Alto Rhapsody, Op. 53 (1869) (approx. 14-16’) (lyrics): “This text is a fragment from a longer poem and describes a wandering misanthrope for whom the narrator offers a prayer that his heart will be moved (the prayer marked by the entry of the chorus). Brahms apparently identified with this protagonist, and the work is often associated with the marriage of Julie Schumann (daughter of Robert and Clara) with whom Brahms had been infatuated.”
- Berenguer de Palol, consort works: this 12th-century composer wrote about the longing for love and joy. ^Though he composed entirely during the classical era, Hyacinthe Jadin captured the unashamed longing of Romanticism in his fortepiano sonatas.
- Franz Liszt, Orpheus, S. 98 (Poème symphonique No. 4) (1854) (approx. 10-11’): “. . . the composer is less concerned with the specifics of the Classical legend of Orpheus and his attempt to rescue his beloved, Euridice, from the underworld than with the notion of civilization prevailing over barbarism.”
- Gabriel Fauré, Violin Sonata No. 1 in A Major, Op. 13 (1876) (approx. 24-27’), is a pinnacle of nineteenth-century Romanticism.
- Rimsky-Korsakov, May Night (1879) (approx. 123-153’) is an opera full of dreams of romantic love, and a happy future. “The dramatic structure is somewhat haphazard and the narrative negligible, but the opera’s unpretentious humour and warm rusticity — lots of drunken escapades, mistaken identities, and supernatural visitations — are as engaging as its cantabile folk-derived melodies and colourfully orchestrated score.”
- Kaija Saariaho, L'Amour de loin (Love from Afar) (2000) (approx. 140’), “is a work about an emotional and spiritual journey—about the eternal themes of love and death embodied in a medieval troubadour. He is a character tired of the life of a Lothario and longing for a real love, but who dies at the moment he finally attains his desire.”
- Carl Orff, Der Mond (The Moon) (1938) (145-155’): the characters steal the moon, because their country does not have one. ^John Adams, The Dharma at Big Sur (2003) (approx. 14’)
- Granville Bantock, Sappho: Nine Fragments for Contralto (1906): “The 'fragments' are all that remain of the work of the Greek poetess Sappho who lived c700BC, and Bantock has given her erotic and beautiful poetry a luscious late-romantic score for a vast orchestra.” Sappho’s “poetry was said to be inspired, passionate and also erotic.”
- Leonard Bernstein, Trouble in Tahiti (1952) (approx. 45’): “In 1950s suburbia, Sam and Dinah appear to have the perfect life in their little white house. But their growing detachment exposes a mutual feeling that they are trapped in a life that has turned into a lie. Sam escapes to the hyper-masculine, win-or-lose world of work and the gym, while Dinah loses herself in the movies, where the hit picture of the day is the ominously-titled Trouble in Tahiti.”
- Bernard van Dieren, Symphony No. 1, “Chinese Symphony”, Op. 6 (1914) (approx. 36’), “was based on German translations of ancient Chinese poetry.”
- Raga Bihag is a Hindustani classical raag for late evening. “In classical music . . . it is regarded as a raga of Shringara rasa (romantic sentiment). The mood of the raga is celebratory as well as romantic, making it a common raga sung especially on occasions of marriage.” Linked performances are by Nikhil Banerjee in 1971, Amir Khan in 1974, Rashid Khan and Ravi Shankar in 2001.
- Kate Reid, “The Heart Already Knows” (2018) (47’)
- The Crossing, “Moonstrung Air”: choral and vocal works of Gregory W. Brown (2015) (65’)
- Aphrodite’s Child, “666” (1971) (68’), is named after the Greek goddess of sexual love and beauty.
- I Fagiolini, “Draw On Sweet Night” (2022) (76’), a collection of choral pieces by John Willbye
- Janice Burns & Jon Doran, “No More the Green Hills” (2022) (40’), is an album of longing and “lost love and the accompanying loneliness, sometimes despair.”
From the dark side: Richard Wagner, Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods), WD 86 (1848) (approx. 250-290) (libretto): Wagner intended this opera as an allegory for the end of the (old) world, prefacing a new one. Unfortunately, Wager’s worldview was so one-dimensional that taking the opera seriously as a story is nearly impossible, though Wagner by all accounts was entirely serious. This opera is better seen as an allegory for the dark side of desire, in keeping with Robert Frost’s poem “Fire and Ice”: “Some say the world will end in fire / Some say in ice. / From what I’ve tasted of desire / I hold with those who favor fire.” The penultimate scene in the opera is an immolation scene, which predicates the restoration of the world to its original state. Top audio performances were conducted by Krauss in 1953, Furtwängler in 1953, Keilberth in 1955, Knappertsbusch in 1958, Elder in 2010, and Jankowski in 2013. Here are links to video-recorded performances conducted by Mehta and Fischer).