"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The Seven Deadly Sins –A Modern Take On How To Feel Good About Sinning, Part I (Lust And Gluttony)

Harold Benson had a very active sex life for a man of his age.  When others were considering retirement, a final and long-awaited end to the routine of métro, boulot, dodo, Harold felt that he had just gotten started.  A new career, sexual adventures that most men in their later years could only dream of, he had voracious appetite for food, wine, and sexual pleasure.  After a life of rectitude, fidelity, and a mutually respectful marriage, something happened.  He turned a moral corner, leaving issues of honesty, transparency, and marital integrity behind.  He was a new man, and as long as his health and virility permitted, he would live life to the fullest.  Women still found his charm, silver tongue, and appreciation of femininity seductive; but whereas in the past he held his desires in check, feeling that responsibility to others came first and foremost in a good life, he no longer did.  He had lovers and mistresses in every port – the lovely Usha in Aden, Maria Elena in Equatorial Guinea, and the stunning Rachel in Tel Aviv.  While he remained married, he was unconcerned about the consequences of his dalliances.  Let it be, said the new Harold.

Bar Rafaeli

Now, there were some who lectured him on the impropriety if not moral delinquency of what could only be called sexual obsession.  Didn’t he know that sexual allure passes along with potency; and wasn’t it time to consider the end of days rather than revert to adolescence? What was the point of his sexual adventures since he himself admitted to no permanent relationships nor any desire to form them?  Wasn’t  serial sexual adventure – or in his case multi-lateral adventure – a dead-end street, and wouldn’t he wake up one day alone, his young women long ago gone, his body and mind failing with no one to take care of him, to love him?

Nonsense, replied Harold.  Sexual union was the be-all and end-all.  Sexual epiphany the highest form of existential experience.  Of course he had been influenced by D.H.Lawrence – or at least hopeful that Lawrence was right despite his idealism and neo-spiritual claims – but was willing to settle for far less.  The company of women was just fine.  He was unrepentant, unapologetic, and completely honest about his sexual desires and affairs.  Sex if not transformative as Lawrence suggested was certainly the only real affirmation of his manhood.

Abel Ferrara produced the film Welcome to New York, a tale of an unashamed philanderer who refuses to be put in the cage of conventional morality.  He is neither proud of nor guilty about his infidelities or sexual appetites.  It is who I am, he says, a self-described libertine whose supposed immorality is other people’s problem, not his. The real-life Strauss-Kahn was no less defiant.  When he flippantly rejected charges of procuring, he said that he had no idea that the women at a party he attended were prostitutes.  “All women look the same without their clothes”, he said.  “I did no wrong”.

Sexual libertinage, promiscuity, or addiction – whatever the press might call it – in his eyes is morally neutral.  Prostitution has always been tolerated if not legal in France, and women are as much commodities as those he has always traded on world markets.   The fact that his sex drive is more insatiable than others is not the point.

The  penultimate scene – that of Devereaux propositioning the maid – is the moral closure of the film.  He is virile, irrepressible, contemptuous of the bourgeoisie and its myopic values, and subversive of them.  He is reminiscent of Fyodor Karamazov, the father of the brothers of Dostoevsky’s novel, who is as sexually driven, condescending, and irreverent.  Both men are attractive in their will, defiance of the meek, timid, and sexually repressed.

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Sex for the Ferrara character was necessary and absolute.  As in the case of most older men, sex with younger women is their only hope of retaining the potency and vitality of their youth.  Although sexual conquest is enough for most men, Devereaux could not stop there.   It was the sex act in all its twisted diversity that mattered.  And what was wrong with that? Men always cheat on their wives because sexuality is the defining characteristic of human nature; and lovers, the variety of sexual experience, the roll call of conquests, and the loosening of the traces, make us – especially men - what we are.

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So lust has lost all moral opprobrium in today’s tolerant, accepting, and relativistic world.  Harold Benson felt that he deserved a time of sexual freedom before it was too late and especially after so many confined years of good behavior.  Not only did he believe that, given men’s biological nature and persuaded by a post-modern nihilism, there was no point in advanced-age celibacy or fidelity; but he felt – like Ferrara’s character – there was absolutely no need for explaining or explaining away sexual appetites.

Moreover, sexual behavior has become political; and in an era of diversity, strong statements concerning sex, sexuality, and sexual identity are expected.  Gay men’s bathhouse sex in the 70s including hundreds of anonymous encounters was liberating, affirming, and righteous.  Today’s sexual spectrum including both the straight and narrow and every possible permutation of sexual identity imaginable.

Lust, then, has disappeared as a notion and an idea.  Harold Benson was on to something.


Browning Alberts considered himself a connoisseur of fine food and wine and an excellent amateur chef.  He had contributed to both popular journals and to the academic press.  His knowledge of food went far beyond simple good taste and culinary experience, but into the areas of food chemistry.  He was not unlike a parfumier who could discern the slightest molecular difference in scents and recombine them in ways to please the nose.  He had an uncanny ability to both critique and create dishes of unusual complexity; and his skill at pairing foods was considered genius.  For example, with one nip at the leaves of a particular New Zealand fern that it would be the essential complement to lamb.  His foraging in the estuaries of northern Norway was done long before Rene Redzepi.  He so understood the nature of plants that he fearlessly scraped and collected bits and strands of sea vegetation, knowing exactly how to include them as ingredients in his creations.


His ability to pair these unusual offerings with wine was also legendary.  Who would have thought that a New York State Riesling, grown on a small property near Sarasota Springs, and known among wine enthusiasts as the best of all American Rieslings and perhaps even of the original Rhine Valley wines, would have paired with wild cod cheeks and brown algae (Postelsia)?

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There was no end to Browning’s curiosity and inventiveness and dedication to food.  He loved to create, to prepare, to eat, and to share.  He was the consummate, perfect food advocate, consumer, and lover.  Like in most things culinary, Browning was among the first to use architectural concepts in his plating.  It was never enough for him to get taste, texture, and aroma in a subtle blend; nor enough to array and display the food in a way that showed off color and form.  He had to add another dimension – height – to his servings.  Although at times challenging for the diner,  Browning spared no effort to conclude the design he had in mind.

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Gluttony is a very passé concept in today’s modern society.  While obesity is a problem, it is not a result of gluttony.  Americans whose dollar can only stretch to corn meal, flour, fatback, bacon and an occasional fast food meal, who work two and three jobs, and do not have the luxury of sports clubs or tennis courts, are bound to become obese.  Not because they have, according to Webster’s definition ‘habitual greed or excess in eating’; but because of the nature of their diet and the socio-economic and cultural factors which condition their appetites.

If anyone is a glutton today, it is Browning Alberts.  Although he never ate great quantities of food, he was obsessive about it.  He thought about food from morning to night.  He planned his itineraries around food, picked restaurants after much research and with meticulous care.  He cooked frequently, but only for friends who would appreciate his preparations and offer informed opinions and critiques of it.

Today’s glutton has transformed food from a staple to plaything.  Browning’s consideration of food was indeed excessive and habitually so.  His obsession fit right into the classical Biblical injunction – gluttony could lead one away from God and spiritual values.  While he was as proud of his trim, athletic figure as he was his food creations, both were as sinful as Evagrius Ponticus postulated in 365 AD.  In other words, the nature of gluttony has changed, but it is still very, very common.

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