In a scene from David Lean’s epic 1965 film Dr Zhivago, wealthy Russians enjoy a banquet in sumptuous surroundings as the Bolshevik revolution rages through the country. It is the middle of winter. Food and fuel are scarce and the poor and hungry, with nowhere to go, walk along the street in the snow. They stop to stare through the window. The diners inside continue eating.
Luke Slattery, Sydney-based journalist and author, says Dr Zhivago is one of his favourite films. He also talks about another film he’s seen recently, by Italian auteur Paulo Sorrentino. “There’s a great character in that Italian film, The Great Beauty. I think it’s a satire, maybe a satire on the church. He’s a monsignor, and he just sits at the dinner table and talks about recipes and bores everybody’s tits off.”
Mr Slattery has written film reviews and articles on literature, education and ideas for The Australian and The Age. Writing about the classical revival in film and literature inspired him to pursue a long-standing interest in the classics. He left his job with The Age in 2004 to study in Paris and write. Dating Aphrodite is his book about “our relationship with the classical world”. In a chapter called The Good Life, he wrote an essay about the three great Hellenistic therapeutic schools of thought: Stoicism, Aristotle’s Peripatetics and Epicureanism.
In his Curiosity talk, On Epicurus, he looked at how we can apply the ancient creed of Epicureanism about how to be happy with less to our lives.
He says the modern interpretation of Epicureanism bears no resemblance to the teachings of Epicurus. The original is to modern ‘foodism’ as gourmet is to gourmand.
“There are people around me who would call me a Philistine for this,” he says. “I personally really enjoy good produce, but something inside me recoils from really elaborate food cooked at restaurants where the chef seems to believe he or she is an artist and has to do something original and make a statement.”
The more he thought about the material on Epicureanism in his first book, the more he realised “it not only offered some interesting answers to the question of how to live and how to be happy but that it connected with all these debates that we’re having about sustainability and climate change.”
His latest book, Reclaiming Epicurus, makes that connection. Epicurus addressed burning contemporary issues such as environmental degradation, over-consumption, pollution and climate change “from a distance of 2300 years ago”.
The ancient Greek philosopher also believed in plain food and wine. In fact, the only pleasures of the table celebrated by Epicurus are those of conversation. He taught his followers to regard “wealth beyond what is natural as of no more use than water to a container that is full to overflowing”. In Mr Slattery’s words, he “diagnosed the disease of insatiability” and believed that to curb desire was inseparable from the search for happiness.
Mr Slattery has observed over a number of years the obsession of middle class Australians with food. “It seems to have filled a kind of a vacuum that’s been left by the retreat of politics,” he says. His prompting to write Dating Aphrodite was not just intellectual curiosity.
“Quite frankly … dinner parties I was having with middle class, educated friends would devolve into discussions about recipes and food and who’d found the best food and who had a new recipe and food programs.” He recalled the dinner parties of 20 years ago, when people discussed great ideas from the worlds of science or psychology, writing and literature, or talked about saving the world.
He says he does not want to sound moralistic, but it is his observation that although he and his guests still talk about current issues from time to time, these are not central to their lives. Marxism is dead and feminism is splintered and there is no longer “the galvanising political ideas or ideology”. Everything always defaults back to food “and every nuance to do with food”. It borders on a fixation. Maybe it’s boredom, he says.
“I think it’s a bit of a joke when I see so many recipe books, so many food shows, so many star chefs. Chefs are the new pop stars and we look up to them. They’re much better known than authors, much better known than scientists.” And while Mr Slattery does not want to detract from our chefs’ contribution to the country’s prestige, he says, “It’s a measure of where we’re at that they’ve become so hugely popular and influential, and have an amazing cultural presence that I think is a bit unbalanced.”
Mr Slattery says Epicureanism was a philosophy of simplicity, “living in touch with nature and giving your life over to friendship”.
As part of his work, he has eaten elaborate food at fancy restaurants, and says he appreciated the experience. “But quite frankly, if I think of my favourite meal, certainly amongst them, it would have been a meal eaten on the island of Chios in Greece. One night in a small town where the lights went out, when there was a power failure and everyone just spoke in the dark, and the food that we had was just the simplest Greek country cuisine and the simplest village wine, and it wasn’t the star. The star was the conversation. And I don’t know about you, but simple food in my experience has so often been the best food.”