The Gentle Hedonism


"The New Favorite", Filippo Baratti (1849 - 1936), Italian

Hedonism, that powerful word that, depending on an individual, can cause for one's pupils to widen or to pass puritan judgements of how pursuit of any pleasure, even the most innocent one, is a distraction and should be looked down upon. The many different attitudes between the Epicureanism and theological dualism in the Western cultural sphere have probably in either case, developed, what in my view appears to be an unhealthy attitude towards sensory pleasure and enjoyment. What is then sensory pleasure? Can hedonism be beautiful? What role does it play in our lives? Today, we shall explore that.

Between Indulgence and Puritanism

"Les Almées", Paul Louis Bouchard (1853 - 1937), French

Epicurean philosophy was founded by the Greek philosopher Epicurus. It rose as a challenge and in a way opposition to Platonism and later Stoicism. Epicurean hedonism during the ancient Greek period was slightly different than what we come to define as Epicurean attitude in the modern age where we use the name in a slightly different context. Epicureanism was at the core, materialism and the two virtues it believed in was to seek tranquility and freedom of fear and freedom of bodily pain. Epicureanism however does believe that pleasure is the main good in life and to bring the greatest amount of pleasure possible in one's life was worthy pursuit. However, the best of pleasures were the pleasures of the mind for these ancient hedonists. We have since moved from the conceptualisation of pleasures as a mental category and have gradually come to the place where we see hedonism as purely physical and sensual. While pleasures of the mind could be many, today's essay's focus is precisely the physical pleasure and our relation to it. Physical pleasure is a shiny gem before our eyes - it is difficult for us humans to say "no" to its pleasure - be it sex, a beautiful piece of chocolate, a relaxing massage, a good steak - these pleasures do not respond just to our needs of being fed, of having sex but also touch the parts of our brain responsible for deriving deep, addictive pleasure. We very easily become addicted to our sensory joys and overindulgence and opulence comes easy. When taken to an extreme, the indulgence easily comes to look ugly to us as it very often appears that a person who is overindulgent is being ruled by his beastly self - there is something primitive about it and it almost feels like an insult to a human being. When hedonism takes its worst form - that of indulgence, it is only natural that in the shadow of it, its nemesis, the puritanism would appear. Looking at how low the indulgence and pursuit of nothing else but sensory pleasures can bring human, the puritans come to another extreme where everything that is related to body is secretly hated and everything that brings joy to the senses, despised and spoken against. The architecture shall no longer be ornamented, the clothes shall be simple without decorations and body will be given just enough to live, for food is fuel of the body and not the pleasure, and sex is for procreation exclusively and not the bodily pleasure. However, the "samsaric" cycle does not end as puritanism, with its repressive ways, often once again, helps indulgence to come to life. The enemies of one another, can seemingly exist, only if the other one exists too. Stuck between these two opposing paradigms, the people of the modern Western cultural sphere cannot even conceptualise anything that is not either of the two. Neither puritanism nor hedonism needs religion or lack of thereof to exist - plenty of so called "secular" puritanism can be seen in minimalism, in attitude towards the traditional nude art, especially the nude art in which woman is portrayed as an object of a man's desire. Yet at the same time, the social media and the internet have never had more of the most vulgar representations of the human, particularly, female body. The dualism has deeply penetrated the psyche and unlearning it may take a lot of time.

Orientalism & the Western Shadow

"Court of the Harem", Paul-Albert Girard (1839 - 1920), French

There was an era in Western art called "Orientalism", an era, during which Westerners who traveled to colonies, painted, generally Muslim cultures. While a lot could be and has been said about the colonial "othering", through those like Edward Said, the focus of this text is not critical theory. While this art may be observed through the critical lens, it can also be observed through Jungian or metaphysical ones too. The Orientalist art is full of pleasures - there are many colors, harems, people lounging in hammams, rose petals spread across the place, animals, musicians playing on the lutes, dry fruits, rose water, oils, dances. The general feeling of the paintings are extremely sensual. A critical theorist would say that this is due to fetishisation of the "other", and while it may hold true to a degree, I believe it also has simply showed a suppressed but still present "shadow" of the Western psyche, the part of it that was burdened by dualism between body and soul, by Enlightenment's rationalism and Calvinist and Victorian morality. In the colorful and generally, more open towards pleasures cultures of the Ottoman Balkans, Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, they saw, even more visibly that which has been suppressed in their own corner of the world and was done "behind the closed doors." Orientalist paintings often, did not simply show hedonism in its "decadent" way, there was elegance to it, a consciousness, the unification of Apollonian and Dionysian.

The Sweet and Gentle Pleasure

"Omar Khayam", Sri Bhuwan

The images that come as personificiation of Khayyam's and Hafiz's poems in Orientalist art, like said above, do show another side of hedonism and that is the gentle, conscious kind of it. In such a hedonism, one does not seek to escape or to numb himself or herself down from own feelings, but rather to intensify them. The perfumes, the music, the beautiful interior, the sound of water in the pool all of it adds to the intensified feelings. The pursuit of such a pleasure is not to go outside but to go deeper within, deep into the Dionysian depths of our primordial unity. The conscious and not the unconscious, escapist pleasure can and should perhaps been seen as art, because it requires a lot of gentleness, a lot of reverence for detail, for the subtle, for the soft - for it is not the pleasure that comes as a firework but that beautifully, slowly builds up, like a beautiful piece of music. Us modern people in our consumerism have forgotten what it is to take time for anything - to take that date, that fruit and truly devour it, feel it, before we consume it, to truly listen to music, its notes not as a background, to truly feel the texture, the smell of beloved's skin as we touch them. This hedonism, blessed by sacred light, serves to connect rather than alienate and if we learn it, we might heal ourselves from repression of our senses or from oppression of our souls, through the senses.

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