Hedonism Is An Ethos From Another Time

“A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want?” — Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

No longer is the cigarette a perfect pleasure, in our world possessed by attention to health and obsession with self-improvement. Decadent pleasures (though not hedonistic pleasures, more on that later) have become something démodé, as self-preservation becomes more fashionable than self-destruction. Today it is desirable to be moderate in one’s pleasures, wholesome and never overwhelmed. Though I quite like cigarettes, I am drawn to more harmless things, for fear of ruining my teeth. I spend a good amount of my free time trying to figure out a way I can enjoy myself without consequences, and I think I have found a perfect pleasure for today: Trader Joe’s frozen Indian food — a pleasure ephemeral, yet somehow eternally suspended in time.

Allow me to set forth the differences I see between decadence and hedonism. I often see the two conflated, usually by people who do not understand the concept of Thanatos. There is, as Matei Calinescu writes in Five Faces of Modernity, “an acute and feverish sense of urgency” to decadence, a feeling that time is running short and of tiredness and decay. This feeling is summed up quite effectively by the following line from Paul Verlaine’s poem ‘Languour:’ “Je suis l’Empire à la fin de la décadence…” or by Nietzche in Ecce Homo: “already dead as my father, while as my mother I am still living and becoming old,” or, most comprehensively, by the character Jean des Essientes in J-K Huysmans’ novel À Rebours, who indulges in such excesses as covering his pet turtle in gold and gems, eventually leading to its death. Decadence is not the pleasure of happy, healthy people. It is smoking a cigarette while fully aware that one has a cough, or drinking expensive wine so that one can fall asleep — it is desperate pleasure-seeking with no expectation of fulfillment. In decadence, the vanity of one’s actions is fully acknowledged. On the contrary, hedonistic activities, such as eating good food or drinking with friends or spending a lot of time and money on one’s appearance, are things done by healthy people with a full expectation of enjoyment and pleasure. Frozen Indian food would fall into the latter category, but with a few distinctive qualities of its own. The hedonism of frozen Indian food is not that of fat Bacchus drinking barrels of wine, but rather that of today’s self-conscious, overworked, overplanned person looking for any way — any — to forget for a moment their oppressive schedule.

We have in Trader Joe’s frozen Indian food a perfect example of Deleuze’s idea of the masochistic artwork: there is a frozen quality, quite literally, as it lies suspended in time in its hermetically-sealed tray. There it is, recumbent on its conspicuous altar halfway down the frozen-foods aisle, separate from more mundane offerings, glaring at me from its color-coded box and demanding to be bought. I cannot resist its will-consuming gaze. Each time I go to Trader Joe’s, I return with one or two paneer tikka masalas or palak paneers, even if I resist the impulse to buy them.

The frozen Indian meal is a pleasure for the image-conscious. One can say, paraphrasing Deleuze on Masoch, of Trader Joe’s frozen Indian food, that “no one has been so far with so little offense to health.” There is no possibility of excess here, no harm done to health; in its place a pleasure suspended in ice, perfectly partitioned to avoid getting fat. If one ate multiple frozen paneer tikka masalas, for example, the amount of material waste would be enough to make them ashamed of their overconsumption. As in Masoch’s novels, the language of Trader Joe’s frozen Indian food is one of “persuasion and education.” We are persuaded to eat in moderation and educated about the dangers of overeating through shame. As the contract enforces the scheme in Venus in Furs, so the portion size of frozen Indian food enforces the modern mandate that one should take care of their body’s health. In Trader Joe’s Indian food we have pleasure without danger, without questions of self-control.