Saturday, May 14, 2011

`No Ascetic Can Be Considered Reliably Sane'

Never have I known so many people eager and happy to tell me how I ought to live my life. Perhaps because I’m deficient in busybody genes, and have no wish to proselytize or meddle, I expect the same of others. Unsolicited advice, always presumptuous, is never welcome and often dangerous.

The school nurse, apropos of nothing, told me to eat more yogurt. The fourteen-year-old I tutor twice a week told me to buy a new car because mine has a crack in the rear bumper. A teacher told me to read Keith Richards’ memoir. A reader of this blog told me to stop reading Yvor Winters. My barber told me to become a vegetarian: “You’ll be a happier person,” she promised.

That final comment, from an excellent barber, distills what I hate most about efforts to usurp my will and run my life: arrogance and self-righteousness, and the assumption that someone else knows better than I what’s good for me. What if I don’t want to be happier? What if I suspect I’m already too happy? What if I wish to indulge in the occasional cheeseburger? Beware, always, of do-gooders and their casual fascism.

A.J. Liebling would have understood. No one better appreciated the centrality of enjoyment in our lives. He savored and celebrated the pleasures of food and drink, Pierce Egan and George Borrow, French culture, boxing and newspapers. For a man plagued late in life with depression, who died prematurely of overindulgence, Liebling is a world-class enthusiast, and that’s why some of us regularly reread his books. For today’s militant neo-Puritans, his example is a nightmare. For some of us, it’s a dependable source of joy and excellent prose. In Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris (1962), he writes:

“No sane man can afford to dispense with debilitating pleasures; no ascetic can be considered reliably sane. Hitler was the archetype of the abstemious man. When the other krauts saw him drink water in the Beer Hall, they should have known he was not to be trusted.”

[ADDENDUM: A retired professor of English in Wisconsin writes: "This wonderful piece should be sent to every liberal in Washington--and beyond." Thank you, but let's not leave out the conservatives.]


George said...

North Point Press reissued An Appetite for Paris in the early 1990s. I wish I could find my copy. Macmillan has what looks like the NPP edition.

Don't most of us have the impulse to offer unsolicited advice? Some of us have eventually slowed down on noticing how rarely the recipient acts on it. But deep down the fourteen-year-old lives on.

Ascesis and indulgence: as the local Borders was closing, I bought a slim collection of Cavafy's prose, where I found about midway an essay "The Pleasure Brigade" and at the three-quarters mark "On St. Simeon the Stylite". The latter might be laudatory out of patriotism as much as conviction, I suppose.

Sue said...

You are adorable.

Especially when I've been pigging out all week on chocolate eclairs and put on 2 kilos :P

Margaret said...

Sue, so right - now I feel better about the 7 yummy fresh cannoli I ate in one afternoon - they were minis, still, I was feeling delightfully piggish. And I still have some cheesecake in the fridge...but now you have me thinking about eclairs...they can be soooo good when they are fresh!

Sue said...

Indeed! :P