“Guns will make us powerful- butter will only make us fat.”
-Feldmarshall Herman Goering, 1936
I’m a paradox and I know it. On the one hand I eat plenty of bran and exercise five times a week. On the other I eat nearly everything under the sun, smoke like a (very small) chimney and drink at the drop of a hat. I never get tired of people pointing out that my lifestyle is unhealthy. And it is.
It’s an expression of a unique philosophy I’m developing called the “Good-Looking Corpse Routine”, which doesn’t really need explaining. The way I see it, we are all going to die sooner or later and, in relative terms, the sooner the better. Better to get that carbon and nitrogen back into the soil for the next generation. Perhaps it’s a conceit of being young and fit, but to me advanced old age and decrepitude don’t allure. I might feel different when I get to 50.
It’s an attitude that isn’t widely shared. We live in a hemisphere engaged in throttling every last iota of life out of the corporeal form. Everything is regulated now: fats, sugars, tobacco and alcohol (not to mention fireworks, firearms and flammable materials), as part of the Western ideology that dictates that every human being should be babysat from cradle to grave by the smiling, grandfatherly Realpolitik. It’s a truly terrifying and insidious form of fascism that we willingly submit to. That might sound like hyperbole, but bear with me, because our obsession with health and longevity has some very dark and murky origins.
It’s not going too far to say that the modern worship of the body, and of longevity, is a result of the rise of secular society. Humans once worshiped God and eschewed the self but, since Nietzsche’s famous proclamation (“Gott ist tott!”), the old hair shirt and chaste bed no longer fit the mood of the people, and so a new and peculiar form of idolatry sprang up. God no longer cuts it: the body is a temple. A decline in church attendance has been matched by a rise in health farms, Pilates classes and gym memberships. The old Hebrew god demanded that “Thou shalt not worship craven images”, but it might be said that the most craven image of all is one of washboard abdominals and perfect skin.
Freudian psychiatry tells us that religion occupies a central part of people’s lives due to the interplay between Eros and Thanatos, or sex and death. According to Freud, sex and death are linked in the primitive mind. Sex depends on a certain abnegation of the self, as does death, and so sex, with its mysterious processes that annihilate the self, is like death. Sex and death are things to be feared: enter religion, which delivers us from both. Nearly all religions advocate abstinence with the promise of life eternal, ameliorating our fear of them. Since religion, as is well known among developed cultures, can take a powder, the modern society needed some new belief system that could replace it and the function it provides. Hence Health, which promises an extended lifespan (through a religious adoption of certain rules and proscriptions), delaying death. As for sex, if you’re busy running 10K and eating soy, you’re far less carnally inclined. Two birds with one stone.
That’s not all there is to this, for the 20th Century also precipitated a rising interest in Eugenics and the perfection of the self. Though we are a far cry from seeking a Nazi Nordic ideal, we have our own cultural concepts of perfect health. In Britain especially the primary psychosexual outlet for men is sport and has been for centuries. The primacy of sport among youthful activities can hardly be overstated, and has often been parodied, as in this Bonzo Dog Band song:
The odd boy lay down by the football field
Took out a slim volume of Mallarme.
The centre-forward called him an imbecile.
It’s an odd boy who doesn’t like sport.
Sport, Sport, masculine sport.
Equips a young man for society.
Yes, sport turns out a jolly good sort.
It’s an odd boy who doesn’t like sport.
Sport, in the British psychology, is tied to manliness, cleanliness, abstinence, and Godliness. Sports institutions emphasize mens sana in corpore sano, “a healthy body in a healthy mind”, conveniently overlooking the fact that this Latin bon mot was originally intended to be sarcastic in the extreme by its originator, Juvenal. Healthiness, Sportiness and Cleanliness are the tricephalic gods of British Good Living, a fact that goes some way to explaining why the rest of the world considers us bad at sex.
I find all of this very odd. It was brought home to me recently how bizarre this attitude is. On Christmas day it’s our family tradition to go for a short amble and enjoy the crisp, still air that everyone else is conveniently ignoring. Nothing too strenuous: just what my mother calls a bimble
. Wandering over the frosty grass we chanced upon a man in lycra shorts and a hi-visibility pullover, jogging. Jogging! On Christmas Day! That kind of devotion to health is bizarre and frightening. Jogging is a thing that everyone considers healthful, despite being by far the least enjoyable activity on earth, bad for the knees, spine and chest and carrying the risk of being hit by a car or stumbling over a corpse
. Joggers are maniacs.
But because of its faux-religious origins, healthful living is often unpleasant. Eat a spoonful of flax seeds (high in Lignans and Omega-3), drink a glass of Grapefruit juice (a source of Vitamin C) and go for a jog (reduces cholesterol) and you may want to kill yourself: your tongue with be scorched by the acid, you’ll have flax stuck in your teeth, and your lungs will be on fire but, hey! You’ll live longer. More days in which to eat flax and go for a jog. Well done you.
This isn’t conclusive.
Given the choice, I’d rather be dead. I didn’t exist for billions of years and it didn’t bother me none. I practice Taoist living (if that’s not an oxymoron), which explicitly states:
Your body dies.
There is no danger.
This entails the obvious truism: life is precious because it is brief. The goal of being alive isn’t to see how long you can push your run of luck (and being here really is a fantastic run of luck) but to enjoy it as much as you can and depart, satisfied that of all the people that could have been here, you were. You got to see the world: that is satisfaction enough.
It also entails a darker, harsher truism: many people have lives that aren’t worth living now, never mind in thirty years time. We have convinced ourselves that human life, no matter how miserable, is sacred. The more miserable you are (unless you like Alfalfa and Tofu, in which case I can’t help you) the longer you’ll live! Hurrah.
Maybe if you’re really, really good, you’ll live long enough to die of cancer. This is a thing that nutritionists and health-food specialists fail to mention when talking about longevity – the degeneration of DNA, which causes cancers, is inevitable and the longer you live the bigger your chances. If human beings could be engineered to live to 150, they’d all die before that from cancer. That’s an uncomfortable thought, huh?
I don’t wish to be grim and flippant about something as precious as human life. Life is a buffet of experiences; often a literal buffet, for one of the most enjoyable aspects of human life is the variety of foods. People who eschew trans fats and oxidants in favor of cranberries and salads are undermining their own work: certainly, they’ll live longer, but the purpose of any life is to sample all there is to offer.
Obvious metaphor. I recently discovered Nyotaimori, or “body sushi”, and I’ve had it on the brain ever since.
It ultimately comes down to a personal choice that each person has to make: one hundred years of solitary, ascetic dining, or deep-fried Scampi tails, broiled lobster with garlic butter, red wine, strawberry smoothies, frappucinos, mashed potatoes, hot dogs, spicy chicken wings, muffins, Fettucini Alfredo, Penne Aglio Olio, Dominos pizza, hot chocolate, Haagen Dazs, and my personal favourite, Moules Frites.
I know which one I’d rather have: a brief, joyous life. But I’m clearly mad.