This is the piece that I read at the recent Godless Perverts Story Hour, the one that was livestreamed as part of the Freethought Blogs Con online conference. The entire event was recorded: you can watch the whole thing if you like, and videos of the individual performances, including this one, are being posted on the new Godless Perverts YouTube channel. Visual video quality from the livestream isn’t great, but the sound quality is lovely.
We are a way for the universe to give itself pleasure.
There’s a famous quote by Carl Sagan — well, famous among atheists and skeptics and other people who think of Carl Sagan as super-famous. There’s this quote by Carl Sagan: “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” And yes, that is (a) true, and (b) mega-cool. We are how the universe knows itself. 13.7 billion years ago, the universe went Foom, and it’s gone through countless configurations since then — and one of those configurations, one that’s happening right here and right now, is conscious life. Not just conscious life, but conscious, curious, exploring life that’s capable of looking around, and carefully examining what it perceives, and sorting out better ideas from worse ones, and figuring out what exactly is going on out there. The matter and energy of the universe has been morphing and morphing and morphing, and right now, it’s morphed into a state that is capable, in a small way, of understanding itself.
This makes me so happy. Yes, the universe is amazing — but without conscious life, the universe has no way of knowing just how amazing it is. It has no way of experiencing amazement. We are the experience, not only of knowledge, but of amazement at that knowledge. We are a miniscule piece of the matter and energy of the universe, looking carefully at some of the rest of the matter and energy, and saying, “Wow. Really? Black holes? Moving continents? All life on the planet sharing a common ancestor? Are you freaking kidding me? That is wicked cool.”
But we aren’t just that.
We aren’t just a way for the universe to know itself. We are a way for the universe to give itself pleasure.
For 13.7 billion years, the universe has gone through countless configurations — and one of those is the configuration, not just of consciousness, not just of knowledge, but of ecstasy. When we come, we are shifting the matter and energy of the universe into the form of euphoric, all-encompassing pleasure. When we fuck, when we suck, when we lick, when we finger, when we spank, when we pierce, when we tie each other up, when we masturbate, when we make good porn and enjoy good porn, when we dress up like saloon girls or ponies or 1950s biker gangs, we are the universe getting itself off.
Take a moment. Really appreciate that. We are not just how the universe knows itself. We are how the universe enjoys itself.
A friend of mine has a nerdy T-shirt that says, “Serotonin and dopamine — technically, the only two things you enjoy.” It made me chuckle… and then, me being me, I started to analyze and quibble, and I replied, “Well, if you’re going to get technical about it, serotonin and dopamine aren’t things you enjoy. Technically, serotonin and dopamine are your enjoyment.” Enjoyment is a particular set of configurations of the goop inside our skulls. I know that many people find this view of human experience depressing: cold, mechanical, reductionist. But for me, it’s exactly the opposite. Chemicals turned into different chemicals, which turned into different chemicals… and eventually, over billions of years, they turned into chemicals that generate joy.
And we aren’t just capable of experiencing our own pleasure. We’re capable of experiencing each other’s. We’re capable of giving each other orgasms, and taking pleasure from them. We’re capable of fingering each other’s pussies and sucking each other’s dicks and spanking each others asses, and having it flood our own brains with the chemicals of joy. As much as we are hungry for our own pleasure, we are also capable of being desperately, feverishly hungry for each other’s. We are a miniscule piece of the matter and energy of the universe, looking carefully at some of the rest of the matter and energy, and saying, “How would you like to get off?”
I love that this is how life perpetuates itself. I love that one of the chief ways that evolution works is that the experience of survival and reproduction is a pleasurable one. Life, almost by definition, is that which survives and reproduces — and I love that one of the central mechanisms by which this happens is that, for hundreds of millions of years, survival and reproduction have felt deeply, intensely, overwhelmingly good.
And I love that we’ve taken this powerful evolutionary drive to reproduce, and have taken ownership of it. I love that we’ve taken this drive, and have said, “Sure, this was once about reproduction, and sometimes it still is — but it doesn’t have to be. This can be about anything we want.” I love that we’ve dressed it up in studs and feathers, boots and stockings; that we’ve added personal theater and public theater; that we’ve spent millennia exploring it in painting and writing and film and pixels. I love that we can take this drive and use it to turn pain into ecstasy, shame into intimacy, helplessness into adventure, power into trust. I love that we’ve blended this drive with our uniquely human ability to make and use tools, in the form of dildos and vibrators and buttplugs and floggers and condoms and lube and violet wands and things that I don’t even know what they are. I love that we’ve blended this drive with our uniquely human ability to learn and explore and understand, in the form of books and videos and workshops and research papers and blog posts, about anatomy and sociology and psychology and sexology, about birth control and the psychological health of homosexuality and how, exactly, you tie someone to the bed. I love that we’ve blended this drive with our uniquely human ability to precisely communicate through language, so we can say to each other, “What I like is feathers and boots and floggings and vibrators and getting tied to the bed — what do you like?” I love that we’ve taken this powerful evolutionary drive, and have transformed it into expressions of love, friendship, companionship, consolation, community, art. In the words of Darwin, although not about this subject exactly — endless forms most beautiful.
And in the same way that I fall into rage and despair over people who deny their capacity to understand the universe because they think their god forbids it, I sometimes fall into rage and despair over people who deny their capacity to experience pleasure — harmless, honest, entirely ethical pleasure — because they think their god forbids it. In the same way that I fall into rage and despair over people whose religion leads them to not only deny their own capacity for knowledge but to suppress other people’s, I fall into rage and despair over people whose religion leads them to suppress other people’s capacity for pleasure. It makes me rage and despair to think that there are people who are taking their one short life, their miniscule sliver of matter and energy, and are devoting it to denying reality and obstructing joy, because they’ve been taught that this is necessary in order to experience an invisible, inaudible, intangible world that nobody has ever shown any good reason to think even exists. It makes me rage and despair to think that we have such a short time to create understanding and ecstasy, and there are people who are actively devoting their lives to throwing up roadblocks.
But I mostly don’t want to talk about rage and despair today. I want to acknowledge it, I want to recognize it and let it motivate me to make things better, and I want to move on. My own sliver of matter and energy is small, and getting smaller. As They Might Be Giants sang, I’m older than I’ve ever been, and now I’m even older, and now I’m even older, and now I’m even older. I have a small sliver, and I want to devote part of that sliver to demolishing the roadblocks to pleasure — but I also want to devote it to experiencing pleasure, and appreciating it. We have a miniscule sliver of matter and energy; we are an infinitesimal eyeblink in the vastness of time and space. But in that eyeblink, we get to be the universe giving itself pleasure. We get to be chemicals that generate joy. That is extraordinary. That is amazing. So let’s take a moment, and arrange the goop inside our skulls into the configuration of amazement, and let ourselves be amazed.
Here, by the way, is the embedded video of the reading.
And I’d just like to say: I am betting that this is the only blog post in the world illustrated with an image of the Big Bang, an image of serotonin and dopamine, and an image of a cover of Bizarre Magazine with art by John Willie. If I’m wrong, please let me know — I really, really want to see that other blog post.