The Epicurean Quality of Life (a Defense of Hedonism)
By Wil Forbis
May 1st, 2008
I was recently fascinated by a black-and-white photograph posted at Andrew Sullivan's website of a recently deceased woman. Eyes shut, her face fills the borders, and while she looks calm, she doesn't look quite dead. She appears lost in deep thought, as if she's musing on a particularly chewy algebra problem, and must close her eyes to avoid any distraction from the outside world*.
* I'm reminded of my cousin's description of my uncle's death and how he, at the moment of passing, raised one eyebrow so that his face took on an expression of curiosity, as if he was saying, "So this is heaven?"
The woman's appearance of still being alive is granted some explanation when you read the blurb accompanying the photo:“It’s absurd really. It’s only now that I have cancer that, for the first time ever, I really want to live,” Roswitha told me on one of my visits, a few weeks after she had been admitted to the hospice. “They’re really good people here,” she said. “I enjoy every day that I’m still here. Before this my life wasn’t a happy one.”
It's a common complaint -- the statement that "until I realized I was going to die I didn't really want to live." People settle down into the daily humdrum of life, or they focus on life's negatives, or they obsess over what others have or what they used to have and forget to enjoy the very experience of being alive --- of breathing, of eating, of fucking, of getting drunk, of reading acidlogic.com.
But it's a complaint that --- and I say this with no small amount of gratitude --- I do not share. I feel fairly content that were I plagued with a life-threatening disease, and it's certainly a possibility that one day I will --- I won't feel that I did not make an effort to enjoy my moments on the earthly plane. And I think this is mainly because I have an appreciation for what I would call the Epicurean quality of life: the raw pleasures that can be garnered from sensations, whether they be augmented chemically or via sexual acts, or purely by being a living human being. And more to the point, and this is key, I don't have a lot of guilt in pursuing them. Too many people let life's pleasures be ruined by guilt --- the little voice in their head that tells them they're going to burn in hell or be exposed as a fraud to friends and family for their secretive acts of metaphorical or literal onanism. But I've eaten my share of delicious food, done my share of drugs, had my share of sex, drunk my share of alcohol (probably more than my share) viewed my share of porn (again, probably more than my share), and remained fairly guiltless about the whole thing*.
*Am I saying that the only joys that can be garnered through life are those of hedonistic excess? Is there no place for pleasure to be found outside of a pill, a powder, a bottle or the many orifices of a woman's body (excluding the ear and nose holes)? For the purposes of this article, no.
Why do I feel so guiltless? At least partly because I never had religion shoved down my throat by my parents. And I've always had a somewhat cold mechanical view of the world. Food makes you feel good because satiated tastebuds stimulate pleasure centers in the brain. Booze increases the mood enhancing chemical serotonin within your system. Sex (whether coupled or by yourself) produces a rush of endorphins. There's no real magic here. These are not temptations offered by the devil, merely chemicals interacting with other chemicals.
Of course, I understand the need for guilt to be placed on some of these actions, at least in a historical context. 2000 years ago, people lived in much smaller social units and if everyone was screwing around they'd be passing the same often life-threatening sexual diseases to everyone else while birthing generations of children with no obvious father. Fidelity was necessary for the survival of the group. Alcohol and drugs inhibited people's productivity in a time when people were heavily dependent upon each other. There were very predictable and understandable reasons requiring pursuits of pleasure to be frowned upon. But as technology has emancipated us from the burdens of communitarian living (I never fully understood how the advent of the birth control pill caused the sexual revolution until thinking through this article), the shame of living hedonisticly still remains. Our morality is bound to a previous era. (No, I'm not unaware of the other argument against free love, drug use, binge drinking etc.: the issue of personal cost*. Keep reading.)
*Coincidentally, while writing this very paragraph I'm listening to singer Seannana's song "Tumor Party" which touches on this very topic with the line, "Seannana partied his way to a tumor."
There's perhaps one other reason I shamelessly defend our right to indulge in hedonism: because I know it can end in an instant. Like everyone, I've had a few brushes with death in my life (I often proudly recall the time I fishtailed my Subaru into a complete 360 on the 405 interstate, coming to a halt in the very lane I'd started in, then jamming the car into first and taking off.) But one incident always sticks in my mind. It was about eight years ago and I went into the dentist. He gave me the standard once over, but as I was leaving he called me into a private office. There he mentioned he'd seen something on my tongue that could be indicative of AIDS. "AIDS?" I thought incredulously. It seemed unlikely --- at this point my sexual experience had been pretty, shall we say, conservative. I let the moment pass with only a little concern. But a week later I made the granddaddy of all mistakes, which was looking up my symptoms online. There at Web M.D. I came across a blurb stating that not only was AIDS the cause of the symptom but it was the only possible cause. Of course I instantly went and got an AIDS test, but, while nowadays you can get your results back overnight, I had to wait a week. As that week dragged on, I became ever more convinced I had the disease, and even started to see additional amorphous signs of its existence -- fatigue, a tendency to bruise etc. On the weekend before I was scheduled get my results back, I drove down to Los Angeles for the first time in years and stumbled across an independent newspaper that had an interview with a porn star who had gotten AIDS and since become an AIDS activist. I remember finding some quiet inspiration in her words, as if this calamity could be somehow tolerable.
Anyway, you can probably write the rest of this. I got the results of the test and it turned out I did not have AIDS. (Since then I've had numerous tests confirming the same.) When I returned to the doctor he couldn't even see the symptoms that had originally concerned him.
Of course, there's an obvious retort to this. "Wil, after escaping the curse of a deadly STD, your reaction should be to avoid excessive sexual liaisons, binge drinking and drug use, not revel in them." And of course, you're right. Well, you're partly right. To cut out such activities entirely is a different sort of death. A slow death committed to living only the most humdrum moments of life, a life without experience or visible sensation. The art, and it is more of an art than a science, is to find a balance. To be able to enjoy a moment and live it for what it's worth, without constantly finding yourself dancing at death's door. Part of our culture idolizes the Lord Byrons of history --- the Jim Morrisons, the Jimi Hendrixes, the Janis Joplins - but did they really live enough in their short lives to make up for their quick ends? I often reminisce about one of my best friends in the 90s, Brady, and the way I was constantly jealous of his ability to leap into life without a second thought. His willingness to stomp down the gas pedal, to freely drink from a bottle of homemade absinthe, to stick a syringe filled with god knows what into his veins. And we spent hours discussing our intense yearning to live exceptional, memorable, stimulating (and stimulated!) lives. But he died at 27 after flipping his car while drunkenly rounding the corner of a back road in Olympia, Washington, taking one of our friends with him. And as I grow older I become more aware of the pleasures his death denied him. The wisdom that comes with experience, the intrigue of watching people you know and the world outside change, the self-confidence you feel as you get better at the things you love to do. You could call this the intellectual quality of life I suppose. And it's a quality not without its charms.
There's no real ending to a piece like this. How we value these two sides of life, and how we weighed the differences between them is constantly in a state of flux depending on our circumstance, mood, health etc. No one wants to die at 90 feeling they never really lived. But no one wants to die at 27 having done nothing but live.
Even if we achieved a perfect balance between the two, would we even know it?
Wil Forbis is a well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy, he is making the world safe for democracy. Email - firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.