Journal of a Literary Traveller 3: The Limitations of Chocolate Cake

All week I looked forward to today. In fact, last night, a Saturday, I stayed at home and turned in early so I could get up early today.

Today was my binge day. The day in which, from eight in the morning to eight in the evening, I eat anything I like. On this day, my primary concern is chocolate cake.

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I recently commenced a very low-carb diet whose requirements made me wonder how in the world I would have the discipline to give up so many things. I came up with the binge day, and so far it has worked like a charm.

The binge day solution gives me satisfaction all week. Because every time a slice of chocolate cake beckons me from a cafe window, I make a mental note to eat it the coming Sunday. It’s as if this thought is as delicious for my mind as the cake itself.

My body, on the other hand, knows when Sunday morning is approaching.

So this morning I woke up brimming with energy. I catapulted from my bed like a toddler discovering that it’s his birthday. Before I had eaten a gram of sugar, I cleaned up the kitchen without a hint of my usual procrastination and bolted out on a merry quest of overeating and incidental discovery of the city where I currently find myself: Barcelona.

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Of course, I knew exactly where to go, so it was not long before I was sitting down and holding my first plate of assorted chocolate cakes. This is a city where aesthetics combine with good food, coffee, wine and cake, so it was not surprising that pleasure ensued.

However, I noticed a certain bluntness in the experience.

After a week of strict low-carbing and disciplined working on my new book, sugar felt like an abrupt energetic onslaught. I had the sensation that several levers had been activated in my brain although I had done nothing to earn their activation. Simultaneous to the pleasure, I at first felt the desire to cry and many other mental and emotional activities, but for no reason or motive.

I continued to eat, to sight-see and to eat some more. In a moment of absolute culinary satiety, I entered the Picasso Museum, where I was able to enjoy the exhibition without feeling any desire for more provisions. I found Picasso’s depictions of the Infanta Margarita especially alive and eerie, and I couldn’t help laughing out loud at some of his later works depicting families and social gatherings. The paintings seemed executed in such an irreverent and tongue-in-cheek manor as to warrant laughter, however serious my European education would have me behave in the elevated setting of the Picasso Museum.

Well, maybe the sugar made me do it.

I left the museum and continued on my Gargantuan quest. I ate bread, tortilla de patata and especially cake accompanied by coffee. The pleasure kept streaming through me, and I found it increasingly easy to handle the extra mental and emotional charge. I ate without any inhibitions whatsoever, and the sugar continued to pump through my system. And there, on the road of excess, I discovered the limitations of chocolate cake, which I had believed confined to the realms of mythology.

The sugar gave me pleasure with each bite I ate, no matter how full I was. And yet there was a limit.

I have thought for a while about what this limit can be, and I have come to the conclusion that the limitation of chocolate cake – and any analogous substance – lies in the difference between pleasure and happiness.

On Sundays I give myself the day off from working on my novel and devote myself to pleasure. This pleasure, as wonderful as it is, is beginning, in the absence of restrictions, to reveal its emptiness.

Pleasure brought on from overeating comes from nothing and leads to nothing. But more than that, I am discovering that this pleasure is course.

I am convinced that I would not have discovered this if it were not for the work that I do from Monday to Saturday. While keeping a strict diet, I work on a novel that I feel is my most important mission at the moment. It demands discipline and effort of me, and it gives me some frustrations. But the chief feature of this activity, far subtler than chocolate cake, is happiness. Amid the discipline, effort and abstention, happiness always lurks in the background of my work in progress, as long as it continues to progress.

I believe that what I am describing is general for the human condition.

I do not feel qualified to draw a final conclusion on this topic. But I will draw a preliminary one: it seems that pleasure without effort is empty and therefore demands more and more to continue to supply the same good feeling. It is course and in your face. Contrasted to that is happiness, which is subtle yet far more powerful. It does not demand, but bestows its gift upon the person who follows his or her highest desire, no matter how many frustrations this pursuit may bring. It does not need to prop itself up; it simple is.

As I write these lines it occurs to me that happiness is available to everyone in every moment. It has to be, if it doesn’t need to prop itself up or feed on anything.

However the case may be, it seems to me that happiness may be the most effective tool to deal with the addictions brought on by course pleasure. If you have happiness in your life, you find yourself more independent of cravings.

But how may happiness be found? Does it come about exclusively through pursuing your higher desires or are there other ways? Is my ad hoc distinction between higher and lower desires even valid? And how would you pursue your higher desires to let happiness into your life?

Please comment below and let me know your thoughts.

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