Fat and happy

By Ingrid Fetell Lee


Roger Cohen has a wonderful op-ed piece in today’s New York Times about the recently published study showing that rhesus monkeys fed a restricted calorie diet (30% below normal intake) live longer than those who eat what they please. He views the study as an opportunity to pose the question, “What’s life for?” Is it for enjoying, with life-shortening indulgences like chocolate and cheese peppered throughout? Or is it for something else, in which case the longer the better, whatever the cost?

Cohen points to this photograph of monkeys Canto and Owen to suggest his answer:

Which brings me to low-cal Canto and high-cal Owen: Canto looks drawn, weary, ashen and miserable in his thinness, mouth slightly agape, features pinched, eyes blank, his expression screaming, “Please, no, not another plateful of seeds!”

Well-fed Owen, by contrast, is a happy camper with a wry smile, every inch the laid-back simian, plump, eyes twinkling, full mouth relaxed, skin glowing, exuding wisdom as if he’s just read Kierkegaard and concluded that “Life must be lived forward, but can only be understood backward.”

Is this a living example of aesthetics of joy? It occurs to me that enjoyment has its own aesthetic, that its not just the things enjoyed but the results of enjoyment that are aesthetic. Owen communicates joy (as much as a caged primate can, at least) in his roundness, his expression, his glossy wellbeing — the products of accumulated moments of joy in his life. Canto evinces an aesthetic of deprivation, and like parched land, hunger strikers, and disappointed children, deprivation evokes a primal aversion, decidedly not joyful. So is there something to this idea of fat and happy?

NYT: “The Meaning of Life”

July 16th, 2009


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