Taste as Experience: The Philosophy and Aesthetics of Food (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History) - Nicola Perullo 2016
The Ethics of Pleasure: Good That Does “Good”
First Mode of Access
The liberating value of pleasure that we have observed in the novels of Amélie Nothomb can be lived in everyday life as an ethical program. In one sentence: good does us “good,” and what does us “good” does everyone else “good” too. In opposition to the religious and ethical condemnation of sensorial pleasure stands the idea that pleasure contributes to the welfare and happiness not only of a single individual, but also of society and humankind at large. The paradigm that, reversing the hierarchy of the senses, establishes duty in pleasure is in Epicurus’s thought or—more correctly—in its popular diffusion. Epicurus is regarded as the “gourmets’ philosopher” par excellence, and in everyday language, “epicurean” has become synonymous with gourmet and gourmand, or simply someone who enjoys the pleasures of life. Although the philosophy of Epicurus is more complex than its vulgarization (Symons, 2007, and also the fourth chapter of this book, where I will deal with Epicurus again), it is useful to emphasize a position that, throughout the history of Western thought, was a constant thorn in the Platonic side.
“The beginning and root of every good is the pleasure of the stomach. Even wisdom and the refinements are referable to this” (Athenaeus of Naukratis 1929, II A.D., 12, pp. 546—47). This extraordinary aphorism, attributed to Epicurus, is from The Deipnosophists (which translates as “Philosophers at Dinner” or “The Gastronomes”) by Athenaeus, the great writer from Naukratis who lived around the second century AD. In The Deipnosophists, the term gastronomy is also documented for first time, in reference to a lost book by Archestratus of Gela. Whether Epicurus actually did or did not express this thought, its content is of great theoretical importance for an aesthetics of taste as experience. The physical pleasure of the stomach is the beginning and root of every good: the material enjoyment of food is the original root of the good, intended as an ethics of happiness. As is common knowledge, in ancient Western philosophy aesthetics and ethics are often related, even if their go-between is, of course, not food but beauty. The Latin language also bears witness to this relationship: the adjective beautiful (bellum) derives from good (bonum), by way of the diminutive bonellum (Tatarkiewicz 1980). For this reason, the thought attributed to Epicurus is important for an ethics of pleasure. The link between good as (gustatory) pleasure and the good—the ultimate goal of human life, what makes life worth living, and what corresponds to happiness in Epicurus’s philosophy—is the manifesto for a new way of living.
The bond between aesthetics and ethics has been proposed again in various ways and by many authors in the course of Western modern history. In the twentieth century, for example, Ludwig Wittgenstein stated that “ethics and aesthetics are one.” But there are more radical positions, ones that emphasize the supremacy of aesthetics over ethics: just think of the famous axiom expressed by Prince Myshkin in Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot: “Beauty will save the world.” Or think of the theory of the psychologist James Hillman on the “politics of beauty,” namely, that effective political action starts with the reappropriation of the ability to perceive, and to reject the bad, the degraded, and the discordant (Hillman 2006). Or, again, think of the artistic practice of Joseph Beuys, the goal of which was to demonstrate that every human being is an artist, suggesting that aesthetics be regarded with the perspective of everyday practices aiming to influence and to change the world around us. One may even think of Joseph Brodsky’s surprising observation in his acceptance speech on the occasion of the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987, when he said that “aesthetics is the mother of ethics.” The most plausible meaning of Brodsky’s daring declaration is that at the foundation of ethical behavior, the good in an ethical sense, lies its desirability and the satisfaction we receive from pursuing such behavior. The pleasure of acting one way rather than another marks the true ethical agent (Eaton Muelder 1997). One might even claim that aesthetic desires establish the rational values that make up the sphere of ethics—or, less radically, that rational values and aesthetic values, reasons and imagination, are intertwined from the very beginning. As the philosopher Cora Diamond maintains, an ethical imagination awakens the sense of our humanity—meaning agreement on that systemic and evolutionary concept of aesthetics that has led us to consider nature and culture as jointly liable elements and two sides of the same coin. How can such a view exclude taste perception from its consideration? How can the fundamental question regarding the origins of a sense of beauty not also imply the theme of the origin of the sense of the good and, with it, of gustatory pleasure?
Of course, the attribution of a fundamental emancipatory value to the body is not a new theme in Western thought, as philosophers such as Spinoza, Merleau-Ponty, and others have reminded us. It becomes more difficult, however, to find someone who speaks for the body as gustatory pleasure. Among them, we can mention Feuerbach (to whom we will return in the third chapter), Nietzsche, Charles Fourier (Brillat-Savarin’s cousin, who dedicated a few pages of his Theory of the Four Movements and the General Destinies to gastronomy as a virtuous synthesis of harmony and social welfare; Fourier 1996), and the aforementioned Emmanuel Lévinas. From their own perspective, each of these authors emphasizes the importance of a philosophy with or through food. They argue that gustatory pleasure is not opposed to knowledge as subjective and idiosyncratic, and that it is not foreign to aesthetics, despite being both physical and ephemeral. Nor does it represent a danger to ethical thought inasmuch as it is egotistical and uncontrollable. Instead, gustatory pleasure is valued precisely because it allows the rejection of a paradigm of knowledge, of aesthetics, and of ethics in which one does not want to recognize oneself anymore. However, to recover the radicalism of the verdict attributed to Epicurus, it might be necessary to look beyond philosophy. In literature, maybe Epicurus’s successor can be considered François Rabelais, the author of The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel, the novel of the body and the pleasures of food par excellence, in which the universe and all its relations are explored through the lens of food consumption.
Is it possible to find attitudes consistent with the consequences of Epicurus’s thought in real life? Can we see the tracks of our own relational existence in the pleasure of food and extrapolate our adhesion to our social ties? Here we need to bring different ways to bear on this issue. Let’s take, for example, the famous movie Babette’s Feast. This story proposes a solution, but within a context that upholds social values strengthened by religious faith. The pleasure of food is designed to place these values in a new and renewed light. Babette, through the pleasure bestowed upon the ignorant villagers (a variation of the scene of the grandmother administering chocolate to Amélie), manages to kindle a sensus communis, a universal and communal feeling that had been hidden by disembodied precepts and rules. If we wanted to answer this question in purely immanent terms, the answer would have less obvious exemplars. Fourier, for instance, who tried to theorize a social system based on free love and gastronomic pleasures, was a utopian and a visionary. In the fourth chapter of this essay, I will offer a broader interpretation of Epicurus’s thought and will attempt to propose a plausible, comprehensible, and mindful attitude of considering sensual pleasure. The difficulty in answering the above question leads us directly to the second modality for accessing taste: taste as knowledge and culture, in its dressed taste.
The path of naked pleasure is the main and primary access to food. The variations of the human being (in both ontogenic and phylogenetic terms) must not remove or hinder it. In adulthood, it is the necessary allusion to the biological and instinctual depths that constitutes our human nature. “Nature” here does not imply naturalism; nature pinpoints a prereflexive ingenuity, as the one that characterizes an infant’s gaze: the relationship with the environment prior to reflection. In the course of one’s life, this is also an irreplaceable imprint, the sign of everyone’s unique individuality. It is universal as a need or desire and is singular as it is differentiated with respect to the different environments and situations in which it has developed. Naked gustatory pleasure can be a valuable, free, primitive, and regenerating endowment. If properly understood, it can also be a powerful tool of resistance against dominant and hegemonic discourses on taste, made by the dominant class (Bourdieu 1984). Just as irony corrodes the seriousness of philosophical discourse and candid vulgarity bothers culture, bare pleasure buzzes around knowledge and sometimes manages to challenge it. However, growth marks its steps. The infant grows into an adult. Nude pleasure gets dressed, imbuing itself with new layers of meaning and with sharing and negotiating. Imagine experts or enthusiastic foodies discussing a dish: if the criterion of discussion and appreciation were set exclusively on naked pleasure, the dispute would stop immediately. It is precisely this impasse to which the famous medieval motto “de gustibus non est disputandum” refers, because taste as an expression of individual and naked pleasure cannot form the basis for a negotiation. Instead, in a discussion among experts or foodies the appreciation for a dish or a drink is rightly and inevitably expressed through a shared grammar based on common elements, beyond the dimension of pleasure, toward an idea of quality. This fluid, dynamic difference between two levels of taste experience—naked pleasure and dressed taste—marks the thin line between the first and the second access to eating.