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The Toss of a Coin

The notion of destructive pleasure that is linked to the destruction of pleasure can be initially explored through Guyon’s systematic destruction of the Bower of Bliss in Book II ‘Canto xii’ of The Faerie Queene:

But all those pleasaunt bowres and Pallace braue,

Guyon broke downe, with rigour pittilesse;

Ne ought their goodly workmanship might saue

Them from the tempest of his wrathfulnesse,

But that their blisse he turn’d to balefulnesse:

Their grouse he feld, their gardins did deface,

Their arbers spoyle, their Cabinets suppresse,

Their banket houses burne, their buildings race,

And of the fairest late, now made the fowlest place. (II.xii.83.1-9)

Guyon’s strategic targeting of the Bower by naming key sites ensures its complete destruction. The eradication of ‘those pleasaunt bowres and Pallace braue’ until only ‘the fowlest place’ remains appears necessary, as the Bower threatens the temperance Guyon is associated with throughout Book II of The Faerie Queene.

Therefore, Guyon’s restraint from fleshly temptation opposes the Bower’s lavish artificial construction:

Whereas the Bowre of Blisse was situate;

A place pickt out by choice of best alyue,

That natures worke by art can imitate:

In whch what euer in this worldly state

Is sweete, and pleasing vnto liuing sense,

Or that may dayntest fantasy aggrate,

Was poured forth with plentifull dispence,

And made there to abound with lauish affluence. (II.xii.42.2-9)

The Bower’s pandering to fleshly desires indicated by ‘what euer in this worldly state/Is sweete, and pleasing vnto liuing sense’ flows into a corrupting ‘lauish affluence’. Limitless pleasure is offered in a fantasy landscape imitating nature as a sinful paradise.

Worse still, the Bower is home to the witch, Acrasia, who Guyon finds sexually alluring:

Vpon a bed of Roses she was layd,

As faint through heat, or dight to pleasant sin,

And was arayd, or rather disarayd,

All in a vele of silke and siluer thin,

That hid no whit her alabaster skin,

But rather shewd more white, if more might bee:

More subtile web Arachne  cannot spin, (II.xii.77.1-7)

Acrasia’s posture and thin veil offers sexual passion in order to trap knights. She complements the Bower’s landscaped affluence as a seductive lure promising endless pleasure.

Though, Guyon’s wrathful destruction of the Bower is in itself an overwhelming passion, which he finds himself entrapped. Arguably, he gains satisfaction in tearing down ‘those pleasaunt bowres and Pallace braue’ section by section until there is nothing left. The idea of gaining pleasure from a painful experience is explored by Sigmund Freud in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1922). Freud theorises:

The pleasure-principle is then a tendency which subserves a certain function – namely, that of rendering the psychic apparatus as a whole free from any excitation, or to keep the amount of excitation constant or as low as possible. We cannot yet decide with certainty for either of these conceptions, but we note that the function so defined would partake of the most universal tendency of all living matter – to return to the peace of the inorganic world. We all know by experience that the greatest pleasure it is possible for us to attain, that of the sexual act, is bound up with temporary quenching of a greatly heightened state of excitation. The ‘binding’ of instinct-excitation, however, would be a preparatory function, which would direct the excitation towards its ultimate adjustment in the pleasure of discharge (Freud 81).

Minimising excitation is ‘a preparatory function’ leading to a heightened pleasure Freud terms ‘instinct-excitation’, after which the psyche returns to its tranquil state. Freud further argues that ‘whatever it is in the process of excitation that engenders the sensations of pleasure and “pain” must be equally in existence when the secondary process is at work as with the primary process’ (Freud 82). Guyon’s ‘tempest of his wrathfulnesse’ is an ‘instinct-excitation’ that removes the Bower’s corrupting influence from his psyche. The pain Guyon experiences from resisting temptation indicated by his inflamed aggression is coupled with a pleasurable sense of accomplishment through transforming a functional place into a desolate space. In other words, Guyon’s ‘pleasure of discharge’ indicated by his destructive impulse eventually lessens excitation, as he can derive no fleshly pleasure from ‘the fowlest place’.

A similar process of constructing a paradise that is then systematically destroyed is described in a real-life account of Sirte captured in Rory O’Keefe’s recent The Toss of a Coin: voices from a modern crisis. A former fishing village, Sirte was transformed over four decades by Muammar Ghaddafi mainly because, in 1942, he was born south of the town. Furthermore, the Surt region accommodating Sirte is ‘the “homeland” of the Qadhadfa tribe, to which the Ghaddafi family belongs’ (O’Keefe 82). Therefore, Ghaddafi set about making Sirte the Libyan capital of an united Africa. O’Keefe describes how Ghaddafi:

…moved government departments from Tripoli to new buildings within the burgeoning city, staffing them with Qadhadfa tribe members, built three new suburbs (Manitika Wahid, Mantika Ethnaan and Mantika Thalaata’a, or Areas One, Two and Three), new roads and an international exhibition and conference centre (the Ouagadougou Centre) (O’Keefe 83).

Ghaddafi’s favouritism towards Sirte and the Qadhadfa tribe indicates a corruptive affluence. O’Keefe notes that ‘Sirte’s gains, while real, came at a cost: increased regional and tribal rivalry, jealousy and contempt from almost all other areas of the state, and association with a scheme whose worth was questioned even by its supporters’ (O’Keefe 83). Like the Bower of Bliss, Sirte is an ‘excitation’ that appears to be an extravagant affront to Libya’s status quo.

O’Keefe’s interview with a local reveals the envious living standards in Sirte, but also the tragic consequences of Ghaddafi’s favouritism:

When I was younger, it was a clean city, the cleanest in all of Libya, and far less busy and full than Tripoli and Benghazi. It had several parks and in the summer all the families would go to spend time on the beach. It was a lovely place to live.

Today, the parks have been destroyed and you cannot go near the beach (O’Keefe 85).

The aggressive impulse to overthrow Ghaddafi’s dictatorship resulted in ‘extensive NATO airstrikes, the repeated bombing of schools, hospitals, universities, homes and health centres’ (O’Keefe 92). The complete destruction of Sirte to flush out Ghaddafi appears to contradict the UN Security Council’s Responsibility to Protect, ‘set out to enable outside forces to protect Libyans from genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing’ (O’Keefe 92). Though, as I have shown with Guyon’s destruction of the Bower of Bliss, perhaps NATO’s systematic bombing of Sirte belies a greater pleasure.


I am indebted to Rory O’Keefe and Hygge Media for giving me permission to quote from The Toss of  a Coin: voices from a modern crisis. The book can be purchased from here.


Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. 1922.Trans. C.J.M. Hubback. Mansfield Centre: Martino Publishing, 2010.

O’Keefe, Rory. The Toss of a Coin: voices from a modern crisis. Bury: Hygge Media, 2015.

Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene. 1590 & 1596. Ed. A.C. Hamilton. Harlow & London: Pearson Education, 2001.