Cultural Caviar

Kierkegaard on the Catwalk

February 28, 2012

It would mean all that and a wagonload of experiences besides, but the sweet tooth of instant gratification, of boringly earned or serendipitously inherited creature comforts, of thoughtless Ibiza nights and lazy mornings on Panarea, is merely an X-ray of life to excite common dental hygienists. Constraint, discomfort, anxiety, even frustration and fear: These are the modern hedonist’s playthings. Bittersweet jouissance is more pleasurable than sweet plaisir. Ecstasy is more intoxicating than the pill that bears its name.

Where the Aristotelian’s pursuit of the active life has always made him something of a sadist—building empires, projecting reason’s power to Earth’s four corners, demanding submission from bodies both temporal and heavenly—the modern Kierkegaardian hedonist is highly contemplative and a bit of a masochist. Any woman whose pulse quickens as she uses her lover’s credit card to pay for the cutest of the season’s diabolical snares that is at least a size too small; any mermaid who swaps her natural form for the eroticized torment of a fairytale princess; any angel who senses her wings being singed in the flames of the unattainably human; any of these real, flesh-and-blood modern hedonists knows what, in our Antipodean hell of topsy-turvy rationality, being a bit of a masochist really means.

The modern hedonist has what psychiatrists call an active fantasy life, and in this his playground resembles Parisian catwalks. Not for him the drudge’s plainness, the accountant’s practicality, or the empire-builder’s providence. He dwells in impossibility, revels in discomfort, and would rather be plunged into iridescent penury than attain a dull eminence. If he could be bothered to design a coat of arms, it would depict the green helleborine Jocelyn Brooke immortalized in The Orchid Trilogy; fun for the botanist yet cleistogamous and self-loving, too. How shortsighted of Mademoiselle Coco to have chosen the saccharine-sweet camellia!

Bittersweet is more fun. Such is the modern hedonist’s mantra, and as he follows his hero Kierkegaard into the deepest vortices of life’s emotional currents, what pleasure he finds is heightened by the imagination’s sorrows. In the rational, practical, predictable world he reluctantly inhabits, he is a drama queen with real diamonds in her crown.

 

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