Sunday, June 18, 2017

Of Hedonism and McGuffins

Hedonism, as the pursuit of pleasure is often critiqued as an impossible goal. Happiness cannot be pursued for happiness’s sake and whatever pleasure obtained is often fleeting. The hedonic treadmill makes us quickly adjust to our new circumstances so that whatever pleasure obtained becomes the new status quo and is no longer appreciated, or even felt.

This has lead some to posit that happiness in-itself fails as an objective. Rather happiness can only be a by-product of pursuing other things. The challenge then of course, is if “happiness” cannot be an objective in-itself, then what should we pursue in its stead? Virtue, the service of God, the service of man, 42?

The existentialist seemed to think life’s purpose was inherently meaningless. The only meaning was that which we create ourselves. The existentialist goal became one of authenticity – that or decision and pursuits reflected the person we wanted to be or become. That approach resonates with. Our purpose is our own manufacture. And while that may leave us at certain times with a sense of dread or despair, it at least is a dread and despair of our own making.

But I’m also a hedonist and I started thinking about the literary plot device known as the McGuffin.

Made famous and perhaps even coined by Alfred Hitchcock, a McGuffin is essentially an object or person, important to the protagonist and sometimes other characters, but not necessarily to the story – it is the secret documents that must be found/protected/destroyed, the Maltese Falcon, the shaggy dog. What is important about a McGuffin is that it propels the characters to do the things they do, to meet, interact, have adventures and conflicts – they are storytelling fuel.

So, why shouldn’t we use them to tell our own stories? Perhaps the pursuit of happiness can be driven by a McGuffin? Perhaps it already is? An interest or hobby that motivates, a fandom, a commitment, a secret pleasure – in the big scheme of things, the particulars really don’t matter. Their existence though, drives us into having our own adventures, connecting us with others, and actually giving us a life that’s a worthy story to tell. Thus a McGuffin might just be a key to our happiness. Paradoxically, a McGuffin might also be the thing that makes us authentic.

A McGuffin may even be superior to a “goal” or “objective.” While at first glance they might seem to be synonyms, but so much judgment is loaded into those other terms. Are they worthy? Should we actually be pursuing them? We can agonize too much about what our goals ought to be. Whether our objectives meet some standard as we trot out the usual stuff of resolutions: loose weight, get healthy, help people – blah blah blah.

But a McGuffin, doesn’t have to have some intrinsic or moral importance. It’s just there to move the story along. And maybe that’s true of our goals and objectives too. The journey is more important than the destination, yet the destination is still necessary to undertake the journey.

In as much as our lives can be aesthetic projects, why not embrace a literary device to craft our own stories? We should embrace our McGuffins, no matter how silly, self-indulgent, or absurd. Revisit those goals and resolutions and see them for what they are, clever plot devices to tell a better story. They introduce us to the characters in our life, our conflicts to overcome, and perhaps are the very things that ensure our ongoing happiness.

Here’s to the Existential McGuffin.

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