The pleasure of excesses
“Anyone who isn’t into enjoyment is a killjoy.” Arno Plack (1930 – 2012), German philosopher and writer.
I still remember exactly how it was that I became a luxury girl.
When I was a student I once came first in a competition. The prize consisted of an evening of champagne and oysters in the ‘Vier Jahreszeiten’, one of Hamburg’s top-notch 5-star hotels.
There was just one problem. I didn’t like oysters. But there was nothing but oysters to go with the champagne – which I held in high appreciation. So I decided to try them – rather hesitantly. By the third oyster I’d acquired the taste.
It was a great evening out. I ate dozens of oysters and drank litres of champagne – and I’m not exaggerating. In the course of this special evening I also had a lively chat with Prince Alain, of the Pommery champagne vineyard, as he only spoke French and I was the only one who could converse in French.
Days later I was still impressed with having experienced such a sensory rush in the city’s most beautiful grand hotel.
Now, you’ll simply have to decide for yourself whether this evening really took place at all, or whether it originated – maybe wholly, maybe partially – in my imagination. The latter frees me up a bit when I’m writing, after all.
Such an enjoyable excess always raises questions though, doesn’t it? To what degree should such excessive pleasure be tolerated? When do we cross the boundaries of good taste? The decadence of Oscar Wilde’s sentiment – ‘provide me with luxury; I can do without everything that’s necessary’ – leaves me with a rather stale aftertaste.
It was different when I was a child. I quite innocently dreamt of bathing in gold coins made of chocolate. Unlike many of my friends, I was much more interested in Scrooge McDuck than in Donald Duck.
Perhaps that’s why it wasn’t at all surprising that I, of all people, should meet a rather well-known lawyer in a bar in Hamburg many years ago. Someone told him that I needed a job, as my employer had just gone bankrupt. He was looking for someone.
He needed a ‘Girl Friday’, he told me, who would do some legal work and... Then came a sentence that I’ll probably never forget. “When I come downstairs to the living room in my dressing gown in the morning, I expect the political and economic situation to have been read, analysed and evaluated. If I want to give my wife a sky-blue VW Beetle with a pink bow on the tarmac at JFK in three days’ time, well, then you’ll have to organise that.” I’ve often wondered whether he was really being serious. My impression was that he certainly didn’t think his wishes were exaggerated at all.
Hedonism has been both more appreciated as well as ridiculed in Europe in the past. Just take the neologism Tuscany socialists, as some of SPD politicians in chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s coterie were called in the early 1990s. It always made me wonder why I, too, perceived my northern European homeland as less fun than the Mediterranean region.
The chef Vincent Klink has said that “pleasure is more prevalent in Catholicism,” though he admits “it’s a bit of a sweeping statement.” I wonder if that has anything to do with confession, which requires sin, after all? And isn’t it also true that pleasure and sin sometimes coincide?
At least that’s how Robert Pfaller, professor of philosophy at the University of Linz, sees it. “Pleasure that is renounced is not pleasure. Indulgence always contains something unpleasant, perhaps something harmful to health. A hangover, risk of infection, cholesterol.”
I’ll close with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. “No pleasure is temporary, for the impression it leaves behind is always long-lasting.”