From Lust To Zest

The English-speaking people do not have a perfect equivalent for the French joie de vivre. The latter conveys the accord between body and soul, the excitement at the prospects of the future (advienne que pourra), the feeling of well-being (se sentir bien dans sa peau). La joie de vivre means that one embarks with enthusiasm on the fresh, beautiful and vivacious today (le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd'hui), while the English always postpone enjoyment for another day. The title of a successful James Bond movie, Die another Day could be more appropriately replaced with Laugh another Day. It is not surprising that one of the most exhilarating poems of English literature was inspired to Wordsworth by French history, namely The French Revolution: Oh! pleasant exercise of hope and joy! For mighty were the auxiliars which then stood
Upon our side, we who were strong in love!
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!--
The exercise of hope and joy is definitely not frequent in Anglo-Saxon culture. Bliss, as well as its lesser kins – happiness, joy and mirth – seldom marks the finest hours of a lifetime. Consequently, they are not worth much talking about. However, there is another expression, typically English, which denotes the taste for the pleasures of the day: the lust for life. It is debatable whether lust comes from the German Lust, or from the Latin lascivus. We favor the latter, for Lust für Leben is exempt of any erotic implications, while the lust for life could not be complete without carnal pleasures. The masters of the early English novel, such as Fielding, Sterne and Smollet, admitted it with bold frankness. Irving Stone, upon writing Lust for Life, a romanticized version of Van Gogh's life, tried to purify the syntagm, transferring it to the ecstatic state the artistic innovation brings about. He repeated the attempt in The Agony and the Ecstasy, inspired by Michelangelo's life. The idea he fostered was that the 'real' joy of creation would highly compensate whatever frustrations the artist has experienced in his lifetime. The subsequent, popular movies that Stone's novels inspired turned his rather commonplace idea into a downright cliché. In order to get an in-depth understanding of the lust for life, we have to turn back to the XVIIIth-century's England. There, we'll meet a fascinating character, James Boswell. He was born in 1740, in Scotland, in an old, well-connected and ambitious family, which exerted strong pressures upon him, ever since he was a child. In his twenties (spring of 1760), he ran away to London. He was, he soon found, passionately fond of metropolitan culture, gregarious, high-spirited, sensual, and attractive to women. London offered just the combination of gross and refined pleasures that seemed to fulfill him. During the day, he conversed with scholars, and, in the evenings, he would go to St. James Park, where he would never fail to pick a woman of his choice. As a result, he contracted gonorrhea, an affliction that he was to endure many times in the course of his life. The literary conversations excited his mind; the daily sexual intercourses excited his body. The two of them went hand in hand, and made a perfect image of lust. The great event in Boswell's live was his encounter with Samuel Johnson, which was to be "the beginning of a beautiful friendship". Samuel Johnson's Biography, written by Boswell, would eventually become a must in English literature, although the late discovered Boswell's diaries outweigh it as far as literary value is concerned. Boswell had been deeply affected by Johnson's piety and tried to follow his example. His pious program proved stimulating for a time, but it soon palled when it had lost its novelty. He was discouraged to find that dissipation brought him more happiness than chastity and hard work, and he soon lapsed into his former promiscuity. Practically, all religions condemn lust as despicable. However, they do not do it in the same way. Tlazoltéotl, the 'fifth deity' of the Aztec Pantheon, represented sexual impurity and sinful behavior. She was known in four guises, associated with different stages of life. As a young woman, she was a carefree temptress to lust. In her second form, she was the destructive goddess of gambling and uncertainty. It is notable that the excitement of uncertainty is akin to the one of sexuality, because both share the same unpredictability. In her middle age, she was the great goddess able to absorb human sin, and, in her final manifestation, she was a destructive and terrifying hag preying upon youths. Tlazoltéotl was thought to provoke both carnal lust and illicit sexual activity, but she could also grant absolution to those who had so sinned. She became best known for her capacity to cleanse such sins during confessionals conducted by her priests. Thus, although she could, in one form, inspire debauched behavior, she could also forgive sinners and remove corruption from the world. For the Aztecs, lust is a sin, but not a mortal one. When Gotama Buddha accepted an offering of a bowl of milk rice from Sujata, the daughter of the landowner of the village of Senanigama, he knew that this was his last supper before getting beyond the mundane world. In the evening, he went to the base of a pipal tree (Ficus religiosa), now known as the bodhi tree, and sat cross-legged, determined not to rise without attaining Enlightenment. At that point, the greatest of Gotama's struggles began: Mara, the evil one, the tempter who is the lord of the world of passion (this painted veil, which those who live call life), determined to defeat him and prevent him from achieving his goal; he approached Gotama with his hideous demonic hordes. Gotama, however, sat unmoved in meditation, supported only by the ten paramitas (great virtues) that he had perfected during innumerable past lives as a bodhisattva ("buddha-to-be") in order to attain Enlightenment. In order to attain buddhahood, all bodhisattvas have to perfect, during innumerable lives, these ten paramitas: charity, morality, renunciation, wisdom, effort, patience, truth, determination, universal love, and equanimity. Mara was thus vanquished and fled headlong with his armies of evil spirits.The battle with Mara is graphically described in ancient Buddhist texts and depicted in paintings on the walls of Buddhist temples. In the Padhanasutta ("Discourse on the Exertion") of the Pali Suttanipata, one of the earliest texts, the Buddha states that, when he was practicing austerities by the NerañjaraRiver in Uruvela, Mara approached him, speaking such words as: "You are emaciated, pale, you are near death. Live, Sir, life is better. Do meritorious deeds. What is the use of striving?" After some preliminary words, Gotama replied: "Lust is your first army; the second is dislike for higher life; the third is hunger and thirst; the fourth is craving; the fifth is torpor and sloth; the sixth is fear (cowardice); the seventh is doubt; the eighth is hypocrisy and obduracy; the ninth is gains, praise, honor, false glory; the tenth is exalting the self and despising others. Mara, these are your armies. No feeble man can conquer them, yet only by conquering them one wins bliss." Buddha vanquished lust in order to get eternal bliss. In the Christian tradition, Mara is replaced by the Devil who tempts Jesus Christ, during his fast in the desert. Lust, craving, torpor and sloth did not amount to much, but hunger and thirst did. While doubt, hypocrisy, obduracy could be, in His case, easily dismissed, praise, honor and glory of the exalting self could not. Christ was less tempted by lust than by glory. He realized, however, than being the Son of God amounts to much more than being the descendant of David. For true Christians, that commune into Jesus Christ, this life is just a 'valley of sorrows' and containment from lust is a reliable means to get happiness in the eternal after-life, beyond. This does not mean, however, that Christian faith, in the Anglican, Episcopalian version, repels all joy. Only, instead of the lust, it favors the zest. Initially, zest was an orange or lemon peel, used as flavoring. It eventually came to signify the enjoyably exciting quality, the refined piquancy of a duly controlled life. To control life means essentially to write it down. The lustful Boswell, whom we described at length, realized the zest that the personal account of his life would add to his contentment. Anticipating great happiness, he began the journal that was to be the central expression of his genius. His great zest for life was not fully savoured until life was all written down, and he had a rare faculty for imaginative verbal reconstruction. His journal is much more dramatic than most because he wrote up each event as though he were still living through it, as if he had no knowledge of anything that had happened later. There are people for whom the zest for life resides particularly in the love for books. Sir Robert Bruce Cotton was, during 1585 and 1631, a distinguished collector of historical documents, manuscripts and printed old books. His library formed the basis of the manuscript collection of the BritishMuseum. His acquisition of so much printed matter had aroused misgivings: a book lover is always a suspect, as he is bound to be a partisan of free expression (whether in speech or in writing). His The Reign of Henry III was published in 1627, in the face of a government threat to prosecute the printers. Finally, the publication of his political tract, entitled The Danger wherein the Kingdome now standeth and the Remedie (1628), caused his imprisonment in 1629 and the sealing up of his library. His trial fortunately coincided with the birth of the future Charles II, and he was released in honor of the event, but his library was not restored, and his zest for life was destroyed. There is no consolation for the loss of books, so Cotton died subsequently of sorrow. After his death, his son regained possession of the library and greatly enlarged it. Sir John, the 4th baronet, presented it to the nation in 1700. Lust is concerned with life itself; zest, with its representation. The first is juicier; the second, more refined. Lust fades away with age, zest grows stronger. Illness and poverty stifle lust, human aggressiveness diminishes zest. Caliban wanted to steal Prospero's books, depriving him not only of his power, but of his reason to be. After the war, Heidegger's enemies suggested that his library be seized, as a punishment for his collaboration with the régime. Puritan religion condemns lust, Puritan ideology inhibits zest. Those that confiscate, prohibit or even burn books do not destroy only the archives of culture, but also the zest for life.

by Adrian Mihalache