Taste as Experience: The Philosophy and Aesthetics of Food (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History) - Nicola Perullo 2016
Third Mode of Access: Indifference
The first chapter of Don DeLillo’s short novel The Body Artist describes the Sunday morning breakfast of the film director Rey and his wife Lauren, a young performance artist. The dialogue is sparse. The atmosphere is rarefied and distressing and sets the stage for what will follow: Rey’s suicide and Lauren’s elaboration of grief through hallucinations. In this text, food is not addressed as such, but in the first chapter, DeLillo describes the small everyday actions involved in lovingly preparing breakfast: coffee, cereal, tea, blueberries, honey, butter, toast. This very short but extraordinary passage marks the growing tension: “She took a bite of cereal and forgot to taste it. She lost the taste somewhere between the time she put the food in her mouth and the regretful second she swallowed it” (2001, 19, my emphasis). This striking remark describes an action of Lauren’s. A reflection by the narrator on reading the Sunday morning papers, an action that leads to imaginary conversations with the characters in those articles, precedes that moment, “until you become aware you are doing it and then you stop, seeing whatever is in front of you at the time, like half a glass of juice in your husband’s hand” (19). What does Lauren’s forgetfulness express? The care and attention put into preparing breakfast set the stage for its meaning; we are faced with a contingent distraction, a sudden and nondeliberate inattention within the experiential flow. The perceptual attention to taste retreats for a few seconds because a new detail requires attention, yet with a lingering feeling of regret. The cereal is swallowed and its flavor is lost beyond recovery. Contingent distraction is a very common case of gustatory indifference in everyday life. It is not something to condemn, but to understand. The frequency of food intake, which rhythmically marks the course of our days, includes the possibility of distraction from the quality of the substances. In all these cases, the perceptual experience is not aesthetic, yet it would be wrong to underestimate its importance.
Marcel Proust, the narrator par excellence, offers another telling example. It may seem bizarre to include Proust in this chapter on indifference, seeing that the French writer has become an eponym for great attention to food experiences, thanks to the well-known episode of the petites madeleines, the cakes that deliver extraordinary pleasure connected to childhood memories. To compensate for what might seem an insult, therefore, I will first quote the more famous excerpt, not only because it is so beautiful that it deserves to be read over and over again, but also because it will give further incentive to the reversal of perspective that follows. Here then the passage from Swann’s Way:
When one day in winter, as I came home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, suggested that, contrary to my habit, I have a little tea. I refused at first and then, I do not know why, changed my mind. She sent for one of those squat, plump cakes called “petites madeleines” that look as though they have been molded in the grooved valve of a scallop-shell. And soon, mechanically oppressed by the gloomy day and the prospect of a sad future, I carried to my lips a spoonful of tea in which I had let soften a piece of Madeleine. But at the very instant when the mouthful of tea mixed with cake-crumbs touched my palate, I quivered, attentive to the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. A delicious pleasure invaded me, isolated me, without my having any notion as to its cause. It had immediately made the vicissitudes of life unimportant to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory, acting in the same way that love acts, by filling me with a precarious essence. . . . Where could it have come to me from—this powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected to the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it went infinitely far beyond it, could not be of the same nature. Where did it come from? What did it mean? How could I grasp it? I drink a second mouthful, in which I find nothing more than in the first, a third that give me a little less than the second. It is time for me to stop, the virtue of the drink seems to be diminishing. It is clear that the truth I am seeking is not in the drink, but in me. The drink has awoken it in me, but does not know that truth, and cannot do more that repeat indefinitely, with less and less force, this same testimony which I do not know how to interpret and which I want at least to be able to ask of it again and find again, intact, available to me, soon, for a decisive clarification. I put down the cup and turn to my mind. It is up to me to find the truth. But how? . . . I go back in my thoughts to the moment when I took the first spoonful of tea. I find the same state, without any new clarity. I ask my mind to make another effort, to bring back one more the sensation that is slipping away. . . . Then for a second time I create an empty space before it, I confront it again with the still recent taste that first mouthful and I feel something quiver in me, shift, try to rise, something that seems to have been unanchored at a great depth; I do not know what it is, but it comes up slowly; I feel the resistance and I hear the murmur of the distances traversed. . . . And suddenly the memory appeared. That taste was the taste of the little piece of madeleine which in Sunday mornings at Combray (because that day I did not go out before it was time for Mass), when I went to say good morning to her in her bedroom, my Aunt Léonie would give me after dipping it in her infusion of tea or lime-blossom. (2003b, 47—49, my emphasis)
This passage could be (and has been) the subject of endless comments, but we have to limit ourselves to the essential concerns. The gustatory pleasure that invades Marcel closely resembles the totalizing and pervasive experience that we have already come across in the selections from Amélie Nothomb, even though Proust adds a detail useful for our present purposes. Of the explosion of that pleasure, he writes, “it had immediately made the vicissitudes of life unimportant to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory.” In that scene, in that specific context of the experience, taste becomes the main character banishing all the rest to indifference, to the anonymous and undifferentiated buzz that is the background of every vital process.
Quite surprisingly, then, in another section of the novel Proust gives us a totally different description of an experience with food: in the face of a strong emotional investment (falling in love with Gilberte) and turbulence, which absorbs all of his perceptual attention, taste is relegated to the background of the undifferentiated. We are in the first part of In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower and Marcel, recalling an afternoon spent at the Swann’s home, writes: “[Gilberte] even asked me what time my parents dined, as though I knew something about it, as though the emotional upset from which I was suffering could enable any sensation such as lack of appetite or hunger, any notion of dinner or family, to survive in my vacant memory and paralysed stomach. Unfortunately this paralysis was only temporary; and there would come a time when cakes which I consumed without noticing them would have to be digested. But that moment was still in the future; and in the present, Gilberte made ’my tea.’ I drank huge quantities of it, although normally a single cup of tea would keep me awake for twenty-four hours. So it was that my mother had come to remark, ’It’s a worry—as sure as that boy goes to the Swann’s—he comes home sick.’ But while I was at the Swann’s—I would have been unable to say whether or not it was really tea I was drinking. And even if I had known, I would have gone on drinking it; for even if I had been restored momentarily to proper awareness of the present, this would not have given me back the ability to remember the past or foresee the future” (2003a, 81—82, my emphasis). This passage masterfully describes the loss of appetite, but most of all the gustatory indifference that marks intense emotional states. We have already come across the connection between taste and emotion, but it was manifest in the opposite experience. In Calvino’s Under the Jaguar Sun, Olivia and the narrator, on vacation in Mexico, explored the country and communicated with each other through taste. The quality of such taste perception, attentive and intense, all-encompassing and sophisticated—more generally, the “passion for food,” as it is quite tellingly called—is very common in long-term relationships, to seal, modify, enhance, or sometimes even exalt stagnant sentimental dynamics. The experience described by Proust, whose character is usually so attentive to the sensory and sensitive nuances of every vital element (even the food-related ones: Gilberte continues to prepare him “his tea” because Marcel has his own tea, a tea to his taste, as all tea enthusiasts have), is therefore particularly significant. The contingent indifference is a suspension of attention, an involuntary paralysis of taste, just as it was for the performance artist Lauren, even though for different reasons. The point is that both attitudes are relevant, appropriate, and consistent with the overall ecology of the experience in which they grow and develop. Try imagining the comic, grotesque, and pathetic effect of a scene in which perceptual dynamics based on an evident emotional or sentimental situation persist. Think, for example, of a first date between two people in love, in which the distraction from the object of affection in favor of a dish or a wine was to cause inappropriate behavior. Or even—leaving our field, but with an example that, I think, hits the spot—think of the same distraction in favor of a ball game. This explains why so many women are disappointed by male attitudes whose objects of attention shift after the initial phase of falling in love. Unfortunately, this is not something done deliberately, because the objects of attention vary according to changes in emotional investment. If one objected that I am working here with a rigid definition of “appropriateness” and that I am using context as a regulatory term, I would reply that appropriate is what every single experience finds to be appropriate, and this is not an a priori condition, but rather the outcome of processes that develop in a field of forces.