Who are you? Why do you not let me live
As I please? And how could your caress, so rough,
Be kinder than my smooth alternative?
Your steel-brush strokes are forcing me to slough,
Daily, my fleshy growths of appetite,
But still they come; I cannot have enough.
I would forever scratch my itches, light
At first, then harder at the thickened sore;
But you would give me radical delight,
Gouging my itches till I have no more.
“The Pleasure Principle” is published here with the permission of Southern Humanities Review, where the poem first appeared in Spring 1974.
In this poem, sinful desires are characterized as skin sores whose itchiness is temporarily relieved when scratched—but the scratching also makes the sores become irritated and enlarged and even more vile-looking, and the itch comes back not too long after.
The speaker addresses God, first in a posture of defensiveness. God has presumably broken into his conscience, convicting him of sin, and he responds with a string of accusatory questions to the effect of, “Who do you think you are, coming into my life, telling me what I can and can’t do? How could dealing with a constant itch be more satisfying than giving in and scratching?”
The poem seems to develop progressively, with time passing between the stanzas, because in the second stanza, the speaker reluctantly accepts the intervention of God, whose caress he characterizes as like a steel brush. Steel brushes are designed to remove rust, paint, and debris from metal; they clean scale and grime. Similarly, God’s touch on our lives—paradoxically gentle and rough—impels us to scrape away all that is impure and unholy therein. To describe this cleaning action the speaker uses the verb slough, a biological term meaning “to separate dead tissue from living tissue”; in its nontechnical sense, the word means “to cast off.” Sanctification is a sloughing process: it’s a continual putting off of the old, dead man—and a putting on of the new.
But despite our best efforts to pare down the “fleshy growths of appetite,” they still oftentimes come back. That’s because they have to be cut out at their root—a procedure that is beyond our ability to perform. And so God comes at us with his gouge, excising our corrupt desires. It’s a radical approach, but one that ultimately brings radical delight.
Oliver calls his poem “The Pleasure Principle,” after a concept from psychoanalytic theory that refers to mankind’s instinct to seek pleasure and avoid pain. As articulated by Sigmund Freud, the pleasure principle is the driving force of the id that pursues immediate gratification of all needs, wants, and urges. Using a Christian framework, we could say that gouging out sin from our lives is painful, so our instinct is to avoid it. Conversely, indulging in sin is pleasurable, so many times we don’t even think twice about it.
But what if we adopted a different principle of pleasure? What if instead of the fleeting “ahhhh” feeling, we chased after real, enduring pleasure in God? What if he himself were our only desire?
Desire is not a bad thing, nor is pleasure, as the Bible makes clear. But some desires are damaging, de-forming us from God’s image, and it is these that the Bible cautions us against. Instead it encourages us to pursue pleasure in God, in whose presence there is “fullness of joy,” and at whose right hand are “pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11).
That’s certainly a noble aspiration—to want God and God alone. But as much as we try, it’s still a struggle. Because temptation, the draw of sin, is a reality. Sometimes, like the apostle Paul, we ask God to gouge out a particular itch, and he doesn’t. Why not? Paul reasons that his “thorn in the flesh” was given to him to keep him from becoming too prideful, to remind him of his weakness and, by contrast, the power of God’s grace (2 Corinthians 12:7–10).
Oliver’s poem exposes the faultiness of the world’s pleasure principle, which operates on the assumption that repeatedly scratching an itch, even past the point of inflammation, is the best form of gratification there is for us. As an alternative he proposes that we invite God to make an incision where the itch is and to put himself in the void.