The pleasure of pain

What if there was so much pleasure in the painful memories of old that we can’t help living in the past?

An fMRI study from 2016 revealed that ‘when nostalgia was triggered, participants’ brains showed activity in two powerful neural networks: the areas of the brain associated with memory and the brain’s reward system’. Pleasurable memory.

It is perhaps this which explains why in Homer, Ulysses took so long to get back to Ithaca, his wife and his son.

The archetype of the nostalgically suffering.

Nostalgia has a Greek root meaning the pain (algos) of return (nostos). But this pain is not an undesirable feeling, but a kind of suffering close to pleasure. The hero didn’t hurry back home to Penelope and Telemachus, but tarried. Sometimes on the seas, sometimes in the arms of seductive nymphs and goddesses, like Circe and Calypso.

My theory is that the thought of his home triggered in Ulysses a kind of reward-type pleasure which, while motivating him to keep pushing homewards, urged him to seek an extension of that feeling, which could only be gratified as long as he was still on the way, buttressed by bonus pleasure moments, like his short sojurn among the Mediterranean ladies. On this reading, we can imagine Ulysses a bit reluctant to avoid the call of the sirens, even though good judgment and long-term thinking prevailed in the end.

Torn as any good ancient Greek hero should be, Ulysses kept his eyes on the target but made sure that the flight of the arrow would take as long as possible before it reached its endgame.

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