The Search for Non-Capitalist Pleasure
by Ansley Clark
One of my most pleasurable memories occurred in my friend’s tiny room, sitting in her plastic and unremarkable desk chair. We were English teachers living in Beauvais, France; my hair was full of split ends, and my friend offered a trim. Since none of us owned any glassware, she handed me red wine in a mug. Her fingers combed through my hair, occasionally skimming my scalp, while her scissors quietly and steadily snipped away, like small gentle insects.
It had been several weeks since someone really touched me, other than a few hugs among American friends and the dry French bisous with my coworkers. With my friend’s expert touch, the soft background noise of her scissors, and the wine, it felt as though a warm, sleepy liquid poured over the top of my head, sending tingles down my spine. It was the quietest bliss.
A few weeks later, I sat on a twin bed with three women, more of my fellow English teachers. Since none of us had any furniture beyond what was provided in our dorm-like rooms, we used pillows to arrange the bed into a couch and sat under a blanket with our knees comfortably touching. We drank more cheap, delicious red wine. We shared creamy cheese and a big bar of chocolate. A BBC adaptation of Dickens’ Bleak House played on someone’s laptop. The woman whose room we were in had filled every surface with taper candles in old wine bottles. It was fall and drizzling outside.
Everything I needed was arranged inside this tiny, sort-of-crappy room, on a twin bed, in a drab northern French suburb. I earned around 800 €, about $1,000, per month. Suddenly, one of those surprisingly and sharply clear thoughts, the kind that sticks with you years later, arose: I’m so happy.
I’m interested in moments of pleasure that do not involve spending money: pleasure that exists outside of capitalist systems. These moments are rare, because almost everything we do each day involves moving within and relying on these systems. Capitalism defines us. Our jobs and how much money we have determine our self-worth.
I want to believe pleasure is the true reality that lies beneath these enormous, oppressive structures.
Since I began working as a babysitter at the age of 13 or 14, I have existed in varying stages of being broke, doing all right, doing actually pretty well(!), and then being broke again. Beneath this cycle is my erotic and sensual life, which I view as deeply connected to, yet not exactly the same thing as my sex life. My erotic and sensual life encompasses all kinds of physical pleasure: in winter when I step into the shower and let the hot water first touch my bare back, in summer when I smell my fingers after touching a tomato plant.
While my financial state certainly affects my erotic and sensual life, this life also exists as a subtle shimmering outside of whatever is going on for me monetarily. Its existence is both scary and thrilling. It can feel impossible to accept pleasure when one supposedly isn’t earning one’s keep within capitalist systems; like, we don’t deserve to enjoy hot showers or pause long enough to smell tomato plants if we’re not making enough money. However, I think that if we (I) can reject this self-loathing, embracing our sensual and erotic lives—our lives of pleasure—we (I) can resist daily oppressive structures.
I am interested in the way that, like lamps in the darkness, memories and moments of pleasure sustain us during difficult times.
It is difficult to describe the degree of pleasure that my daily routines brought me the year I lived in France. I slept on a twin bed on a simple foam mattress that, surprisingly, was the most comfortable bed. Sleep in this bed felt like cloud-sleep.
Each morning, I heated water in a flimsy plastic electric kettle, poured the water over coffee grounds, and strained it all with a tea strainer. The result was an intensely rich, gritty concoction into which I poured French milk, which somehow tastes better than American milk, perhaps just because the words “French” and “milk” sound so nice together (le lait français). The linguistic realm offers sensual pleasure as well.
After coffee, I bought a buttery croissant for one euro at the bakery. The process of buying this croissant was almost more pleasurable than eating it. The bakery always smelled like warm butter and sugar. The woman working at the counter always trilled the same greeting, comforting in its consistency: “Bonjour, mademoiselle,” and “Merci bonne journée au revoir!”
My responses as I worked out the French language were pleasurable, too—the pursed, round, and soft consonants of “Je prends…” and the slow and careful way I strung foreign words together, searching for accuracy.
I took the city bus to the elementary school where I taught English classes all day. These classes usually oscillated between being mildly fine and being complete disasters, in which I stood humiliated in front of thirty rowdy French children and attempted to get them to stop talking and climbing under their desks for one goddamn second so we could sing “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” for the millionth time. Every other day, the school’s head teacher told me something along the lines of I just wasn’t doing a very good job and could I try singing more English songs with the students?
That my work was chaotic only amplified my connections to pleasure during off-work hours. I became good at detaching from work, and I became good at throwing myself fully into pleasure. (Travel often helps one more fully embrace pleasure.) On the bus ride home, I sank happily into the quiet fact that teaching was done for the day. I listened to music on my iPod and stared out the window at concrete apartments, rainy streets, high school students, ringed with eyeliner and pure effortlessness, arguing and smoking. Back in my building, I cooked a simple dinner in the shared kitchen, which was a two-burner stovetop, a square of counter, a crusty microwave, and a card table missing a chair. Then I took a walk along the canal in the cold autumn night.
I often grabbed a book and crawled into my weird foam cloud beneath a hand-me-down blue comforter. The thrill of settling into this bed with a book, knowing that I was in France, deeply lonely but thriving, was delicious. The English teachers all borrowed books from each other, and I read so much in bed that fall: Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Patti Smith’s Just Kids, Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84.
Other sources of non-monetary-based pleasure:
- the discovery of a small lake on the edge of town, after previously believing the town to be mostly industrial
- the gift of a fresh fig from a woman who worked at the weekly outdoor produce market
- wandering home by myself at night after drinking wine with coworkers, looking at the stars, feeling lonely, but in sort of a spacious way, like anything could happen
I cannot write this essay on non-capitalist pleasure without also examining how this concept is inextricably woven within and influenced by privilege. If I examine these moments of pleasure within their greater contexts, they are of course embedded within a deeply fucked up system of privilege regarding class, race, and ability. I was incredibly privileged to have been able to travel to France. It was pure privilege that I was able to go to college, take French classes from good teachers who recommended the teaching program, and leave the country without worrying about having to support my family back home. It was also privilege that my body was able to travel, that my race and nationality made it relatively easy to receive a visa to live and teach in France. This is definitely an essay written by an American white girl.
Accessing pleasure is, or should be, everyone’s right as a human being, regardless of class, race, ability, gender, sexual orientation, etc. And yet, our capitalist structures—the 40+ hour work week; the gap between rising cost-of-living and minimum wage (or even just average wage); the absence of accessible health care; the lack of tools to heal from violence and trauma; the emphasis on working oneself at times literally to death—make it very difficult for those who don’t fit into the mainstream to access pleasure. Cutting off access to pleasure, and disseminating the belief that one doesn’t deserve it, is a complicated and terrible method of control, one that is steeped in religious and cultural history.
I recognize that it is much easier to talk about pleasure when I’m not working a 10-hour, seven-day-a-week shift in a factory or at a deep fat fryer, when I have opportunities for change.
I also believe that there is a connection between pleasure and noticing things, which capitalism doesn’t usually encourage us to do. Typically, one needs to squeeze in as much labor and general busy-ness as possible in order to make money and survive within capitalist systems. If you have more time in your day, you should definitely spend it working more, making more money.
The fatigue from this kind of frantic, urgent movement is profound and leaves little room for true pleasure; at the end of the day, all we (I) want to do is escape through screens, scrolling, buying things online, sleep. These shallow methods of escape often leave me numb and completely unaware of my physical body.
My friends and I discuss our favorite escapist methods on the Internet, our addictions. M says, rather glumly, that hers is Instagram. I realize that my addiction is Amazon. I have grown addicted to the website’s nearly instant gratification, the tiny thrill of this virtual hunt, searching for any object I could ever want and then finding it, clicking “buy now,” knowing that it will be delivered to my doorstep in a neat package in two days.
Each Amazon purchase seems to carry with it the promise of a new life, new possibilities, more freedom. If I buy this eyelash curler, I will be more naturally beautiful and interesting for people to look at. If I buy this geometric-patterned throw pillow, I will lead a richer life. And of course, these are the lies that consumerist culture wants us to believe. I’ve noticed that I’ve even started to do this with materials that usually feel outside of capitalist structures. Books, for example, which I buy online believing that they will at last bring me back to true moments of pleasure, and then they end up unread in a pile beside my bed, because these days I often choose the ease and shower of quick images from scrolling down a screen over the printed page. After this initial thrill, I feel merely emptied, dull, and restless to buy something again. (This topic deserves it own essay, which I will write someday.)
What kinds of pleasure can be had without spending money? Sex, simple movement, existing outside, a patch of sunlight, the sensory, the sonic—a city’s morning bustle, any kind of running water. It’s hard to talk about this without sounding cloying and contrived. The last thing I’m trying to say is that one simply needs to “live in the moment” to enjoy their life, or some other over-simplified cliché seen on those fake wooden plaques meant to sit on a mantle—the “Live, Laugh, Love” type.
Rather, I’m interested in tiny, daily pleasures as acts of resistance to consumerist, materialist culture. Pleasure that resists the idea that pleasure comes from buying things on Amazon.
Three more things that I did for pleasure while living in France:
- Held conversations with myself in French in front of my mirror—usually these involved an imaginary French person saying something to me like, Mais—votre francais est vraiment super! Comment est-ce que c’est possible?, to which I replied, demurely but entirely self-possessed, Oh, I’ve just been living here for a year now, it’s been hard, but I do think I’m improving, and then I pretended to casually swirl my wine glass while gazing off at the French horizon
- Ate nutella by the spoonful, alone in my room, while drunk, and when it dripped onto my desk, licked it off my desk
- After work, instead of catching the bus that headed back into town, took the bus heading in the opposite direction, to enjoy an extra twenty minutes of staring out the window and listening to music
I really have no idea where this essay is going. Which in itself is sort of pleasurable. And which, I suppose, is fitting for an essay about pleasure, which is complex, unique to each person, dependent upon larger cultural and social contexts, and situated within larger spheres of suffering. Perhaps it is fitting that this essay wanders, because I wouldn’t want to attempt to force pleasure into a neat linear structure with a conclusion and a clear, packageable message. While writing this essay, I was actually just laid off from one of my jobs. Which makes sitting down to do any kind of activity that is not going to earn me money difficult. I should be looking for more work, not lazing around.
I’m writing this essay for myself, then. As a reminder. A lamp in the dark.
Perhaps this essay is also a sort of gleeful “fuck you” to those neat Amazon packages that arrive on my doorstep in two days. Pleasure is messy and strange. This essay on pleasure is also messy and strange. Discovering one’s pleasure is a lifelong process. I have no answers.
Ansley Clark has an MFA from the University of Colorado Boulder, where she also teaches undergraduate creative writing classes. Her poems have appeared in or are forthcoming from Colorado Review, Typo, Sixth Finch, Black Warrior Review, Jellyfish, DIAGRAM, Denver Quarterly, and elsewhere. You can find her here: ansleyclark.com.
Top image: Ansley Clark / France