29/03/2012

Epicurus is not Dionysian!



...our court, infected with their manners
Shows like a riotous inn: epicurism and lust
Make it more like a tavern or a brothel
Than a grac’d palace
.

- Goneril, King Lear (1606)


Such a view of life is the meanest form of selfishness, leading in general to vice ... If sincerely embraced and consistently carried out, it undermined all that was chivalrous and heroic...

- New Advent Encyclopaedia (1913)



(In which I complain that the word 'epicurean' is really misleading - and accuse Christians, Jews, and rocknroll. There could be snakes in here: addressing your marginal concerns with excessive urgency since 2010.)


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I like Epicurus for his lack of melodrama. (Which he manages to have despite living in a melodramatic culture - Hellas - inset in a melodramatic species - us.) Unlike the trendy philosophies of the last 200 years, Epicureanism is able to include and dignify everyday things. (One synopsis of his philosophy is just four lines imploring us to not worry, to not make such a fuss. "The universe doesn't take notice of us - and that's good news; death is beyond us; if you demand less you'll be happier sooner; bad things are usually not as bad as we imagine.") It's therapeutic and minimal: for Epicurus, the most that people like us can aim for are the twin goods freedom from anxiety & absence of pain, ataraxia & aponia. In direct opposition to his Judaeo-Christian reputation, he insists that excess keeps us suffering and fearful, that the pleasure to seek is long-term, serene, and reflective.

And yet the noun and adjective "epicurean" primarily means aesthete, gourmet, hedonist, un-Epicurean, melodramatic devotion to sensuality! This grew partly out of a misunderstanding his claims that 'pleasure is the ultimate good' and that we must 'live while we are alive' - but there's active slander in it too. (The word for heretic in Judaism is "apikoros", transliterated expressly after him; a smear campaign against him was part of the seizure of Europe's intellectual space by the Patristic Christians. It lasted, and still lasts.)

When we say that pleasure is the end and aim, we do not mean the pleasures of the prodigal, or the pleasures of sensuality, as we are understood to do by some, through ignorance, prejudice or willful misrepresentation ... It is impossible to live the pleasant life without also living sensibly, nobly and justly - nor can we live sensibly, nobly, and justly without living pleasantly."

- Epicurus



"[Epicurus points out that] You can transcend the horror of the world through moderate delight in ordinary things. It may seem an obvious and trite insight - but genuine profundity is just that: honest, trite and profound.

- Peter Brooks


Dionysus - pretty things, fun mental states, wild self-expression, abandonment of responsibility - is not enough. And the rest is Stoic; Epicureanism is stoic utilitarianism, theology without the metaphysical melodrama. It is also quietist. So it goes.


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Dionysus in Camden





I guess I just lost my husband
I don't know where he went
So I'm gonna drink my money...
So what - I'm still a rock star!

- P!nk



Lemma: there are nine metal bands named "Dionysus". (As ever, historical talk is not really about the past, or ideas. It is about us.) Who was Epicurus' opposite, I wonder? The properly melodramatic precursor to Byron; Rimbaud; Kerouac; Keiths Moon and Richards; Richard Hell; Chris McCandless - a tradition which gets called Epicurean by arch fans (but which should be called Gothic hedonism). Was it that fascist fool Homer? Are Achilles and Ajax the first rock and roll heroes?

We, alternative first-world youth, have homogenous stances to the world, despite our individualist posture. What shall we call our standard ideology? "Carpism"? (after bloody carpe diem) "Rockism"? (after its largest source of imagery and cultural momentum) Gothic hedonism?

As the above tradition I just made up suggests, it runs through Romanticism, Modernism, the Beats, the hippies, cyperpunk - making successive generations of hipsters make themselves sad.

The bad bits:
  • The aim is to lose control. Whether to a consuming love, or intoxication, or the Beat. Thus anti-intellectual and thus really a way of ducking your problems, making them into things that happen to you. When we medicalise unhappiness, we are submitting to rockist ethics. Epicurus is diametric to this: your peace of mind is up to you to attain.

  • Contempt for the ordinary. We are such special snowflakes in such corrupt surroundings that it is an affront that we should have to queue, or file, or work. The extremes of life are arbitrarily taken to be the real bits. The spontaneous too.

  • Utterly dilute dregs of Marxism, Nietzscheanism, critical theory, held as superstitions are. Result is loud nihilism - since if you tear down old-style Morality without M or N's moral sense...

  • Individualism for its own sake.

  • Bohemia, that is, the attempt to change the world through art, instead of y'know politics or work. Result is accidental conservatism / quietism.


Rockism wouldn't be so bad if it was not also monomanaical, dividing the whole world into squares and cognoscenti. An aggressive overcompensation against 'normality', it uses style, immorality and recklessness as bludgeons.

And in pop. The deep similarity between (e.g.) thug-hop and metal is that they are each Gothic forms founded on the rule that only the rawest is real. In case you needed telling, that's fake as hell, and it leaves them unable to mention ordinary emotions, ordinary actions, ordinary sights: almost the lived world in its lovely bland entirety.

This all ties in with the most idiotic remant of Sixties culture: fun as social protest. This kind of radicalism is decidedly safe in most social groups under, say, 25. In some circles it is not safe to not seem dangerous. Hence nerds (blessed be their unrock authenticity).

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