The Insatiable Self

Pride, sloth, lust, greed, envy, wrath and gluttony: these are the seven deadly sins. Unlike their criminal cousins of assault, battery, rape and murder, the sins have undergone a transformation in the past few decades. Leeched of badness they can hardly claim to be sins any more. Indeed, many people would now consider the traditional sins to be virtues.

Pride has become self-worth.
Sloth has become ‘taking time for yourself’.
Lust is doing what is natural.
Greed is entitlement and, according to Gordon Gekko, it is good. (This is one of the few clear messages trumpeted by Donald Trump and parroted by his besotted and deluded followers.)
Envy is a fair response to unfairness in the distribution of society’s rewards.
Wrath is emotionally healing.
And gluttony…well gluttony is the odd one out, but this has always been the case. Of all the sins, only gluttony dishes out its own punishment. Indigestion, arteriosclerosis, liver disease, collapsed joints, diabetes, and many more physical ailments punish the glutton mercilessly and, it must be said, often fruitlessly. However, this is not the only quality that sets gluttony apart, but more of that shortly.

When the world was a simpler place there was a virtue to combat each sin. So humility would address pride, diligence – sloth, chastity – lust, charity – greed, kindness – envy, patience – wrath, and temperance – gluttony. In much the same way that many of the traditional sins have been stripped of their sinfulness, so many traditional virtues are now regarded as highly undesirable. Humility conjures up a bowing scraping Dickensian character with poor self-esteem; diligence is associated with a mindless functionary who needs to get a life; chastity is a pathology in the lay population and aligns with sexual perversion in the religious; charity promotes lazy dependence and a class of dole bludgers; kindness is all very well but only towards those you can trust, and patience is a poor achiever.

As recently as fifty years ago there was a set of sins and virtues subscribed to by the vast majority of people in western Judeo-Christian societies, and there were social structures to help maintain them: family, church, political and educational systems. Fundamental writings contributed further support. The Bible is full of admonitions against sin and praise for the virtues. Dante’s long poem The Inferno, in which the poet-pilgrim is guided through the circles of hell by Virgil, reveals numerous sins with all their horrible consequences in one of the most creative and compelling narratives ever written. Milton dipped his pen into this material as did poets as varied as Pope and Byron.

Novelists have long looked to the seven deadly sins to fuel their work, so much so that to remove greed, lust, envy, anger and pride from fiction would shrink the library to a shelf. A New York Public Library series of lectures on the seven deadly sins conducted in 2003 attracted various august contributors such as Francine Prose and the incomparable Joseph Epstein, and in my own library I have a slender hard-copy of the seven deadly sins from 1962 (a cancelled book from the Sunshine Coast Regional Library Service) with the following contributors:

Angus Wilson: on envyseven deadly sins
Edith Sitwell: on pride
Cyril Connolly: on covetousness
Patrick Leigh Fermor: on gluttony
Evelyn Waugh: on sloth
Christopher Sykes: on lust
W.H. Auden: on anger.

If I did not already own this book I would covet it, I would lust after it, I would have to have it.

Sins warrant punishment, whether it’s Adam and Eve banished from Paradise because of their disobedience, or the pride of the Hebrews who thought they could build a tower to Heaven and were punished by God for their effrontery. God split their common language into several tongues, and thereby split the people asunder (thus: the Tower of Babel). In the secular realm, the various legal systems that have accompanied human settlements over the millennia have meted out punishments for the sins of their citizens, while commonly held values and attitudes have meant that sinners were banished to the margins of society and treated as pariahs.

Shared attitudes towards sin and virtue have allowed people to live closely in communities under a system of common values. Pride, envy, anger, lust, greed and sloth all can damage others; even gluttony is at someone else’s expense particularly in times of scarcity. An awareness and value of the other, of the family and neighbours who reside in close proximity, as well as strangers passing through the community, have undergirded the proscription against sin and the encouragement of virtue.

But times have changed.

A few dacades back, the global village replaced the local village, and in our own digital age, cyberspace has replaced the global village. We are now joined with everyone else via a huge web of connections built out of ’likes’, ‘send’, ‘post’, ‘share’, and mediated by vast, rich corporations run by strangers who/that* have easier access to you than your friends and family.

To return now to gluttony. Like the other sins it has been transformed – but not to a virtue. Gluttony has become INSATIABILITY, and in its current form, it is ubiquitous. Insatiability is the power engine of modern life, it drives the modern self.Gluttony

Insatiability has put the self centre-stage. Insatiability has cut us off from others – unless they can supply something we need. Insatiability is fast killing empathy. To want more and better wealth, to want more and better sex, food, friends, family, travel, jobs, leisure, possessions – this is what we have become, this is who we are.

Insatiable.

Insatiability separates us from other people: all that matters is our own perpetually needy, wanting and demanding self. The assault on social life is profound, but many aspects of human endeavour are threatened. For example, insatiability is anti-creative, in both the arts and the sciences. With so much energy directed into wanting/needing/expecting more and better for the self, there’s little time or desire or perceived need to create something new, something with questionable utility. Always lacking, always in a state of deficit, insatiability sees us feeding off the self in order to feed the self.

This is a madness.

Insatiability locks us into the present. We want more, and we want it now. Insatiability has no patience – and neither does the digital world. Immediacy is king. A moment ago doesn’t matter any more. On average, people check their phones every 4.5 minutes, they are checking what’s happening now – friends, news, work, leisure, arrangements – and in the now they respond. And 4.5 minutes later they tap into the now again. And 4.5 minutes later they do it again. And in each 4.5 minute bracket they may have gone to the toilet or made a quick cup of coffee or paid a couple of bills. But four and a half minutes is insufficient for a new Mona Lisa, a new Enigma Variation, a new Mrs Dalloway. Four and a half minutes is insufficient to understand the suffering of the woman next door whose husband has just had a stroke; or the harm heaped on desperate people seeking refuge among us; or the brutality of pledging an eight-year-old girl in marriage to a forty-year-old man.

Combine the digital world with craven insatiability and you have a scenario where the self reigns supreme. This self needs to be looked after, rewarded, stroked, recognised; it can never have too much attention. This self has become our god, our only God.

This self, this insatiable self has already gobbled up much more than the seven deadly sins.

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* It’s impossible to differentiate the non-human corporation, that mysterious behemoth, from the people who work there.

12 thoughts on “The Insatiable Self

  1. Julie Amsberg

    I enjoyed this. Just read while indulging in sloth , instead of scrubbing my house ready to sell. You will pleased to note that all books and pictures are in storage on instructions from the agent. You’ve addressed this before. I hope buyers will feel a insatiable need pay an enormous amount and allow me to move to a new house which others will envy. Probably not, because the books and pictures will be back.

    Reply
    1. Andrea Goldsmith Post author

      I’ve heard about this policy of estate agents. The idea is that people can walk through a house, YOUR house, and imagine themselves living there. Too much of YOU will muddy their imaginings. The problem with this reasoning is that the imagination is having a hard time these days (this was the focus my my Ray Mathew Lecture at the NLA, as well as several posts here). If I enter a personality-less home I want to run out again. If I am buying a house, I want to know who the ghosts of my future home will be. I want to know who I’ll be living with. A basic requirement would be books.

      (All the best with the sale.)

      Andrea Goldsmith http://andreagoldsmith.com.au

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      Reply
  2. elb30

    Brilliant…I hope you will be publishing this..should be required reading!
    Always love your posts.
    Thanks and all the very best
    Eva

    Reply
  3. Penelope Kearney

    Such a thoughtful piece that aptly reflects today’s world. Thank you.
    Re the house sale…… I’ve just sold my house resplendent with books and pictures. It sold well within days to one of the six hopeful purchasers (not an auction) who loved its atmosphere. One (not the final buyer) remarked on the beauty of the home that was obviously very loved. We had no such advice from the agent (and would have ignored it anyway) – but then, we are not in the city!
    We are moving to the country in an effort to create more time to create.

    Reply
  4. jean Porter

    My husband and I have just been over a house nearby that a relative was thinking of buying. The whole place was sterile . Not a weed ,not a picture ,and most of all no books ! My husband thought a couple of unmade beds and a wet towel on the floor would liven it up.
    Estate agents please note.

    Reply
    1. Andrea Goldsmith Post author

      Thank you, Jean, this gave me such a laugh. When I enter a new house I make a beeline to the book shelves. Reading the titles is akin to reading private letters. If only estate agents realised they would attract so many more people to open houses if there were books on show.

      Andrea Goldsmith http://andreagoldsmith.com.au

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  5. Julie Amsberg

    Our indigenous friends can teach us a thing or two here. Kindness and the absence of that most pernicious, envy.
    I spent December and January in Paris, a city in shock; and now Bruxelles. Such indiscriminate hatred, such waste. God? My God, their God, whose God?

    Reply
    1. mary nastasi

      Dear Andrea , I agree with your thoughts that ” insatiability separates us from other people, insatiability is anti creative, insatiability locks us into the present ” What society/ world doesn’t realise is that this obsession has also trapped freedom of movement and employment . Having the phone switched on, the journey to work and back is probably known by your phone company . A cyber entrapment . Today applying for a job has become a mindfield . After jumping all the hurdles and investing valuable time in the process , parting with all ones personal details and resume. Its impossible to acquire a simple job. For cyberspace as created more competition . The one job is sent to a million phones or more . There is no chance of success . And this format of job searching has destroyed the simple interview where the uniqueness of many individuals was revealed and an employer had a realistic choice, not going by what’s written on a impressive cv that may not really capture the nature of that individual. Though it is wonderful to live in this time . Its obvious that we need to stay in the cyber space race to keep afloat , but it should be for sensible projects , research, educational , creativity , music or simply for healing .
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      Reply
      1. Julia Harper

        I lost interest with the deeply offensive comment about Donald Trump and his “besotted, deluded followers”. Your smug certainty in your own understanding-which falls far short of the reality for literally dozens of millions of Americans- does however illustrate that you are yourself guilty of the greatest, the mother of all sims, that of Pride.
        Perhaps before you hurl such insults at such a huge demographic group whose motivations, needs, problems and desires you do not, indeed,mcannot understand because they are strangers, you should take some time to,examine yourself.

  6. Andrea Goldsmith Post author

    I’m sorry you did not read beyond the first few lines. We are all deluded about something, and some of us about many things. So, too with besottedness. There are reasons for the widespread dissatisfaction that seems to characterise the modern experience. This is what I was wanting to write about.

    Reply

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