Is God an Epicurean Lover?

by Rolf-Peter Wille

It is Sunday morning, 2 am. And I am enjoying my third helping of vanilla ice-cream, gingerly blended with fresh durian and just a whiff of mango sherbet.

"That’s okay," suggests my host, "be an Epicurean, but don’t be a… — oh no, I forgot!"

A pig, maybe? But that does not really matter. It is not an easy accomplishment for a northern German to become a "piglet of the Epicurean herd" Horace). After all, even Epicure himself, the great Greek philosopher, would not match today’s Epicurean standards. One of his doctrines in fact states that "it is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and honorably and justly." But some wicked bon vivant — after an unbroken succession of drinking-bouts — translated this in the following manner: "It is impossible to live a pleasant life without oysters and caviar and champagne."

And the oyster has become the symbol of Epicurean hedonism ever since. In Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina Stepan Arkadyevitch orders two "— or better say three —" dozen oysters. Then we have Nicolai Rubinstein, brother of the famous Anton and friend of Tchaikovsky, who swallowed a dozen oysters on his deathbed. He died of consumption, and Tchaikovsky did not hesitate to immortalize the "memory of a great artist" with a magnificently melodramatic trio. In the variation movement of this famous trio, we find each variation dedicated to a certain character trait of Maestro Nicolai Rubinstein. There is a great fugue, symbolizing of course Rubinstein’s virile contrapuntal prowess. (This fugue is usually skipped by today’s lazy performers — including me.) The oyster variation, "Andante flebile," inspired by that certain nausea induced by excessively Epicurean oyster consumption, comes right after the fugue.

When Renoir painted Wagner (imagine the mismatch) in just 35 minutes, Wagner naturally hated the portrait and compared it to "the embryo of an angel that has been swallowed as an oyster by an Epicurean." In other words: Epicureans and Cantonese will just eat anything from crunchy roaches to wobbly, oystery embryos of Wagnerian angels.

Does this mean a modern Horace has to go to Hongkong to join the herd of Epicurean piglets? I am afraid not. Something is missing in the Cantonese version of hedonism. The stomach may be Epicurean, but the Cantonese mind is busy calculating diverse stock transactions while the palate feasts on diverse dim sum delights. And this is not in the true Epicurean spirit.

Pleasure is not just a background or a diversion from life’s necessities but it is life’s ultimate goal. Rossini at 37, having written 40 operas and being celebrated as the most popular musician on earth, retired in France. He was paid a pension that allowed him to feast on caviar, truffles and champagne every day. He never wrote another opera again. Handel too belongs in the herd. There is a story about him holding a dinner party during which he stealthily retreated into an obscure back-room. He was found there giving a truly sumptuous banquet all to himself alone. His stage designer, Joseph Goupy, who was among the hungry guests, I guess, got his sweet revenge by painting Handel as a fat glutton, a "charming brute," a bewigged hog playing the organ. The immortal Maestro is depicted as a pig sitting on a beer barrel and his legs look very much like barrels too. He is surrounded by foul, ham, wine bottles, etc. and the devil (Goupy?), standing behind the organ pipes, confronts Handel’s piggish mien with a mirror. Now this is somewhat illogical, I feel, because should not the devil rather encourage such orgies of debauchery?

The little sarcastic poem under this caricature reads:

"The Figure’s odd.. yet who wou’d think?
(Within this Tunn of Meat & Drink)
There dwells the Soul of soft Desires,
And all that HARMONY inspires:"

"Can Contrast such as this be found
Upon the Globe’s extensive Round;
There can — yon Hoglbead is his Seat.
His sole Devotion is — to Eat."
This nice work of art was copied in an engraving, the prints were distributed all over London, and Handel struck Goupy from his will.

In the right hand corner of the caricature we do find the Epicurean oysters, right next to the caption "I AM TO MYSELF ALONE," but the mere quantity of goodies and the Maestro’s piggish snout suggest that this is the picnic of a gourmand rather than of a gourmet.

And here we find another important feature of the Epicurean: He does not become a slave of debauchery, but keeps a cool distance with the air of a connoisseur. Caviar — yes! But not any. A friend of mine went to Russia. When, at a formal banquet, he was served a prodigious quantity of sturgeon embryos (I mean caviar), he rejected it without even sampling, and asked the maître d’hôtel for another, rarer kind of specially large pearly grained silver caviar, which — surprise — he got. It also reminds me of Jacob Lateiner, who studies lengthy Chinese menus for hours and then asks the headwaiter with a gentle yet firm voice: "Pardon me, but do you have something which is not on the menu?"

Now this a German will not do. Menu is menu, and if, by a cruel stroke of fate, the menu lists steamed horse "apples" or poached grasshoppers, then this is the choice he is stuck with. As a good German he will complain and mumble for hours, but eventually he will order either the horse apples with wine, or the grasshoppers with some beer, or walk out of that restaurant.

Out on the street, maybe, he will be confronted by two young rascals engaged in a snowball battle (but using horse apples as substitutes of course). He will start to complain and when he opens his mouth, just then, just during that very sensitive moment, a fresh snowball—alias horse apple—will land right in this aperture. In case you are not a very attentive reader, let’s put it again in very simple non-metaphoric English: At this dramatic point in my story our hero’s mouth is full of stinking horse manure. As a good German (which he is, of course, otherwise I wouldn’t have used him as an example) he will not spit it out, but stare down those rascals, firmly; and with a face twitching in utter disgust he manurely mumbles: "Thish will shtay right in here until the poleesh comesh!"

In other words, an orderly ritual is applied to just any situation. I am quite sure that the two rascals follow certain rational, though not necessarily chivalrous, rules of conduct in their apple bombardments. Likewise a German hedonist will follow the rules of hedonism, and this is not bad at all, but it will make him a poor Epicurean, because — eventually and poco a poco — these rules will replace the object(s) of his desire. Thus we can invent a German Weintrinker — let’s call him Werner Weinstedt — who inherits a real treasure, a bottle of a very rare vintage Chateau d’Yquem in pristine condition. Overjoyed Weinstedt throws out the collection of erotique garden dwarfs from his basement and converts it into a wine cellar. He buys lots of wine, special vintages, but reasonably prized and a far cry from his pristine treasure. Then he places the bottles, neatly ordered, into specially designed and climatized cabinets. He creates a computerized list of his complete collection, vintage, quality, year of purchase, etc., and — last not least — he researches wine magazines and auction catalogues in order to acquire the properly pretentious metaphors of a wine connoisseur.

Weinstedt (he is a good German) possesses a clever and methodical mind and it takes him only half an hour (as long as it took Renoir to paint the angelic Wagnerian oyster-embryo) to see through the structure of these metaphors. He creates a simple mind-map that divides those fuzzy terms into four broad categories: the color, the scent or "bouquet," the texture, and the finish. Of these categories color is not really important and it may be sufficient to use just prototypical word combinations such as dark/purple, brick-red, golden-straw hues, and so on. More fantasy is needed for the bouquet and it may be advisable to select your metaphors from the appetizing realms of nature, forest (red wine), garden (white wine), fruit, the seasons. For special effect some non-edible items such as stones, metal, smoke, oak, etc. can be sprinkled on top of the metaphor — as exotic spices so to say. It is absolutely imperative to elegantly fade in and out of a bouquet metaphor by suggesting that the flavor has touches of, tends or leans toward, picks up, or bursts and scintillates with.

Texture and finish are the true delights of the wine metaphorôlogist because they are so far removed from any objective observation. A dull anti-Epicurean professor of physics would label the texture of wine liquid. But ever since red wine has been upgraded to symbolize the sweet blood of our Redeemer, its texture has been associated with all the sensual pleasures of the human body from the suave, silky, satiny, pliant feminine to the huge, dense, massive, muscular masculine. All these astonishing and delectable qualities may or may not be echoed nicely on the finish where they may linger harmoniously in mid-palate.

Surfing the web for more and more outrageous wine metaphors, Weinstedt quickly stumbles into exclusively Epicurean wine forums, which he all joins and soon bombards, not with horse apples, but with such a horrendous flood of exotic wine verbosity that the other illustrious members of these forums fade out utterly crushed, annihilated and intimidated, and with a scent of tannin and disgust lingering in mid-palate.

Weinstedt feels like a winner. He celebrates his victory, not by drinking his wine, but by going to the Club Aldiana in Senegal where he lazily lingers at the beach and drinks Australian wine in the range of 10-20 Euros.

Eventually he forgets all about his Chateau d’Yquem. He dies from heatstroke right at that beach.

His son, Dr. Peter Weinstedt, is not a wine connoisseur and he sells the entire collection of his late father to Vlado Vinogradovich for 2000 Dollars. Vinogradovich, a major wine merchant and clever businessman, auctions off the 1921 d’Yquem. It fetches 1.000.000 Swiss Francs and the highest bidder is the multi trillionaire Charles Duvin, who gives the bottle — as a humble present — to a certain E.P.Q. Rean.

E.P.Q. Rean calls his two best friends and on the same night he opens the bottle and drinks it. Then he produces a magnificently complex belch of multi-layered chewy texture, echoing strongly with a muscular rambunctious finish and exclaims: "This was delicious! But I believe that I can find a better wine than this." And his two best friends will echo this remark with a whiff of metallic bitterness yet smooth fine-grained tannins.

Needless to say: Mr. Rean, E.P.Q., would have been considered, by the northern Protestant standards of my childhood, a shallow fellow if not a vile villain indeed. I vividly remember my brother as a student applying for a certain scholarship or grant, and being asked by the director of our Musikhochschule about his hobby. My brother happily mentioned his stamp collection and, when he observed a surprised smile on the directorial face, managed to ask: "Are you also collecting stamps?" The club of great historic philatelists includes Franklin D. Roosevelt, Prince Rainier of Monaco, and Queen Elizabeth II of Britain. But — quite regardless of this — the fact that my brother, for a moment at least, believed the illustrious director of our distinguished Hochschule capable of collecting such profane commodities was seen as proof of his utterly hopeless naïveté, and he was almost rejected.

But why do I have strange inklings now that this stern director may have collected stamps after all? Maybe he even had more profound vices than a love for little scraps of printed paper. And this leads me to a special and rather curious species: the closet-Epicurean, lover of secret delights and hidden delectations, a species which is, by the way, not an endangered one in Germany and Europe. Here we have an inclination to a split personality and, like Humbert Humbert, the lover will harm the Lolita of his desires and eventually find himself in the hellish whirlpool of progressing affatuation accompanied by a vicious deterioration of the self. Again — this is quite un-Epicurean.

Is Quilty the true Epicurean rather than Humbert? No. Quilty is an egotistical profligate. Depravity incarnate. I am reminded — and you too, I guess — of the old Chinese lotus lovers, their sadistic treatment of concubines and infliction of pain on the tiny feet. These refined gentlemen of antiquity did not shrink back from shrinking feet and crippling women in order to enhance the pleasures of the pillow. They developed a golden lotus metaphorôlogy far more poetic than Werner Weinstedt’s wine verbosity.

The Epicurean though does not believe in torturing the soul to enhance the body or vice versa. He does not care to destroy himself or the object of his pleasure. Believing in the mortality of both, body and soul, he is neither a masochist nor a sadist. Unlike Jesus, the melodramatic masochist who sacrificed himself for the benefit of his immortality, the Epicurean is more like God.

Some of you may believe in a God like our director, serious, dignified, and not an open lover of philatelist pleasures. Others may see Him more resembling Werner Weinstedt, somebody who is vainly involved in His power and abandons His sweet wine (or sour creatures, that is). You may even think of God selling us to the highest bidder — like Vinogradovich, wine merchant. But I believe in a Lord much rather like E.P.Q. Rean. He will enjoy us and exclaim: "This is truly magnificent! But I do believe that I can create something even better."

And then He shall try.

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