Montreal Photographers Make Food Dangerously Alluring. Take A Bite At Your Own Risk. – Magazine advertisement
What a perfectly silly, ambiguous and terrifying word, both a combination of “sacrilegious” with “delicious” and also implying nearly unlimited commercial possibilities! Only in America! (more on that below.) The word has been part of the lexicon at least since Homer Simpson uttered it in 1994. I invite you to googgle it to see the vast number of places and images where it has appeared. Here is one of the most famous:
Homer, our lower-middle-class everyman, is fantasizing about a sweet (or, depending upon a certain judgmental perspective, rather disgusting) treat, while being fully aware that it will clog his arteries and condemn him to future suffering. In a modern version of Puritanism – eating healthfully, or rather, not eating unhealthfully – he is certainly contemplating a form of sinful behavior. Mildly sinful perhaps, but sinful nevertheless.
This is a uniquely American dilemma. As immortal souls, we must tolerate this carnal existence; as Americans, we feel entitled to become, accumulate and consume whatever we set our minds upon; and as inheritors of an ancient dualistic tradition, we can’t stand ourselves for having bodies. How do we live with or release the tension that constantly builds in our souls? In the long run, as when a major tectonic shift causes a huge earthquake, we release the tension by going to war and sacrificing some of our children to the great gods of Time.
In the short run, as when smaller temblors occur, we do so with humor. We make fun of our own excesses and unacceptable desires that are both sacrilegious (from the Latin: “stealer of sacred things”) and delicious (“a delight, allurement, charm”), or sacrilicious. This is how the pagan imagination seeps through the censoring walls of our puritan psyches, but only as one of Aphrodite’s toxic mimics.
I invite the strong-hearted and good-humored to consider some of the ways in which we play with this tension:
(note the pizza that “Christ” offers…)
Or this (be forewarned): http://www.reddit.com/r/sacrilicious
This leads us to a broader category of popular culture and speech: “guilty pleasures.” Such a curious yet familiar phrase. Googling it, we find songs, restaurants, films, TV shows (mine is The Sopranos), novels, recipes, celebrities, fashion statements, Halloween outfits, kinky clothing stores, several “Top Ten” lists, a “Top Fifty” list, and the news that “Every four seconds a romance novel published by Harlequin…is sold somewhere in the world.”
For conventional politicians like Hillary Clinton (predictably, it’s about chocolate), guilty pleasures serve as proof that they are just folks like us. And a large part of the mystery of Trump’s popularity with evangelicals is that he seems to lack any sense of guilt whatsoever.
A sub-category is “embarrassing guilty pleasures.” We’re so afraid that our secrets will be revealed. Or are we? Aren’t some of us hoping for the opportunity to confess and be absolved? Exhibitionism is balanced by voyeurism. Who hasn’t played the Grand Inquisitor, demanding that someone else “…admit it?”
Another sub-category is “shock value,” an expression of a particularly American, adolescent stance toward parental authority: Madonna, David Bowie, Rue Paul, Boy George, Black Sabbath, etc. And now, Trump.
We find almost unlimited imaginative combinations of delicious sacrilege in several other surprisingly common English words and phrases (each of which has many images, both commercial and just plain goofy, that you can google, if you are curious): Sinfully Delicious, Devilicious, Scandalicious; Sinlicious, Disgracefulicious; Chocolate Sin Cake, Sin-free Sugar, Sinful Sweets Chocolate Company; Delightfully Decadent, Chocolate Decadence, Viva la Decadence, Sweet Decadence, Deliciously Decadent and Red Decadence Chocolate Raspberry Wine.
Laugh if you like (or need to), but this is one of the true meanings of “American exceptionalism.” Can you imagine finding these words and phrases in French, Spanish or Italian? Can you imagine these nations associating chocolate with sin, even as a joke?
Don’t get me wrong. The Catholic countries of Southern Europe are hardly innocent; they have histories of violence and repression as long as any other nations, and they suffer from most of the ills of the modern world. But, at least in comparison with Americans, these very old cultures seem to have resolved this particular question. They sin; they confess; and they are absolved, at least until the next time they sin. Or perhaps they have evolved a culture-wide form of compartmentalizing: they (the men at least) are fully and proudly carnal on Saturday night and they are spiritual on Sunday morning, and who cares about perfection? How do they consume all that rich food, smoke all those cigarettes, drink all that wine and still have better health – and far lower alcoholism rates – than Americans?
A related question: why are northern European (especially German) alcoholism rates so much higher than those of southern Europeans? And another: why did Protestantism arise in the north and not in the south? Perhaps the roots of these questions go much farther back. Two hundred years before the Reformation, Dante (Inferno, Canto XVII) writes, “In Germany, where people drink a lot…”
There are many differences between southern Europeans and Americans (inheritors of the worst extremes of northern European Calvinism) that help explain their apparently greater ability to enjoy life. These include: greater family solidarity, especially around meals; rootedness in the land; less mobility; comfortable and moderate use of alcohol; notions of working to live, rather than living to work; the tradition of the siesta; and a basic preference toward play over productivity, of luck over merit.
The Mexican poet Gabriel Zaid offers the Catholic tradition of the Lottery as an example:
Playing the lottery means trying to make a connection with divine providence, giving God a chance to intervene in our lives, rejecting the narcissistic idea that success is due solely to our own efforts—in short, accepting grace over merit. It also means accepting a fundamental equality in which we’re all children of God, though some of us are more favored than others…In Catholic countries, which favor holidays over the work ethic, there’s a joke: “How can work be good when it’s God’s punishment on us?”
At the root of our puritan heritage lies the still-powerful notion of predestination and the anxiety that all Americans share of never knowing for sure if we are among the elect. Lewis Lapham argues that
…material objects serve as testimonials to the desired states of immateriality – not what the money buys but what the money says about our…standing in the company of the saved.
Every American – at least every white American – has two major internal voices that never stop speaking, even if he pays little attention. The first, voice of the Predatory Imagination, says, “The world is your oyster. Go for it. If it feels good, do it.” The second reminds us that the Paranoid imagination is never far away: “Your behavior – even your innermost thoughts – will betray you. You have failed to crucify your lusts.”
Some innocently assume that the Paranoid Imagination is waning. But during last year’s election cycle, at least five Republican presidential candidates were so desperate for the endorsement of Pastor Rick Scarborough that they spoke at one of his “religious freedom” events. This is the same Pastor Rick who has declared that AIDS is God’s punishment for gay people’s “immoral act” and that:
U.S. women seem to be having a lot of dirty fantasies and that’s why God has also decided it would be a good idea to give them breast cancer so they could learn from their sins…American women can’t get enough of dirty fantasies. You’ve got rape, kidnapping, incarceration, BDSM, anal, masturbation, you name it and our women are fantasizing about it.
As I have written in another blog – What if We Allowed That to Happen? – nobody put these images into Scarborough’s head. They emerged from his own fevered, puritan imagination. His followers, however, were able to overcome their revulsion with Trump’s history of irreligious, hedonistic, indeed childish behavior, partially out of misogyny, partly out of race hatred and partially (I think) out of good old-fashioned, barely conscious envy.
Hillman wrote, “…we are each…like it or not, children of the Biblical God. It is a fact, the essential American fact.” By that he meant that regardless of our specific religious background or our current mode of “spirituality,” we are all subject to a legacy of literalistic monotheism even older than Christianity that has shrunk our indigenous souls and determined our default responses to the ambiguity of the world. By requiring us to think in terms of dualisms – male/female, black/white, clean/impure, sacred/profane (literally “out in front of the temple”) – it has constricted the infinite imaginations that we were all born with.
We consume in order to satisfy a longing that really is infinite. Pursuing happiness through material wealth is like trying to fill a sieve. We are like the “hungry ghosts” of Buddhism, constantly famished yet unable to fit food through their pinhole mouths; or like Tantalos, condemned to the Greek underworld, where he must lie below a tree bearing delicious fruit. When he reaches up, the branches also rise, then fall back almost within reach, “tantalizing” him forever. Americans may consume the Earth in the futile attempt to fill the unlimited hole in our national soul.
These myths are metaphors for life in a demythologized world, where just below our grandiose assumptions of unlimited resources, and even below our puritan legacy, is an even more fundamental belief – what I call the myth of scarcity.
Capitalism teaches belief in unlimited resources. In truth, however, this is a superficial stance of our modern minds. Just below the surface lies a deeper assumption of scarce resources – fuel, food, education, power, freedom, knowledge, erotic contact and especially love. These assumptions begin in our monolithic creation myth, the expulsion from Eden, and continue in the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son to appease an unappeasable god. Along with the compensating belief in progress, they lie at the core of all western thought.
The Old Testament provides occasional visions of plenitude (manna from Heaven); but these are followed by laws and restrictions, which, when disobeyed, result in expulsion. It is, writes Regina Schwartz, a world “where lying, cheating, stealing, adultery and killing are such tempting responses to scarcity that they must be legislated against.”
Because scarcity is one of modernity’s most pervasive and unexamined assumptions, it has the potency of myth. Many indigenous cultures, however, assumed that abundance flowed continuously from the other world. Indeed, the reciprocal relations between spirit and matter meant that problems in each world were healed by adjustments in the other. For all of life’s tragedies and impermanence, people were held from birth to death in a web of spirits and ancestors.
In this way, the Dagara people of West Africa still spend most of their time preparing for, doing and recovering from ritual. The Bushmen of Southern Africa still do much “visiting, entertaining, and especially dancing,” writes Anthropologist Marshall Sahlins. He argues that as culture evolves, the amount of work per capita increases, while leisure decreases: “The world’s most primitive people have few possessions, but they are not poor…Poverty is a social status. As such it is the invention of civilization.”
Western travelers still report that even amid extreme material poverty, many Third World people are actually happy, a word that stems from the same root as “happen.” In their mythologies, nothing is “sacrilicious,” and the only sacrilege is to be out of alignment with the moment-to-moment sacred deliciousness of this Mother Earth.