Taste as Experience: The Philosophy and Aesthetics of Food (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History) - Nicola Perullo 2016
Pleasure, Enjoyment, and Intelligence
First Mode of Access
In 1970, a team of psychologists at Stanford University began one of the longest-running experiments in behavioral psychology: the “marshmallow experiment,” conducted on about six hundred children, then aged four. The purpose of the experiment was to study the processes of delayed gratification. The children were led into a room, offered a marshmallow, and told, “If you don’t eat the marshmallow now, in fifteen minutes I’ll bring you another one.” Researchers wanted to verify the correlation between the capacity to resist temptation—thus delaying gratification—and an individual’s behavior in the following years. The same participants were then periodically subjected to more trials, and the results seemed to indicate that the greater the ability to resist sweets, the greater the ability to succeed first in school and then at work and in social relationships (Casey et al. 2011). The explicit and implicit meanings of this experiment are numerous. They do not, in fact, concern the cognitive and emotional implications of food alone, but also the social and political ones: What does it mean to “be successful”? What are the benchmarks for the test’s “positive” evaluation? Although these questions go beyond the direct purpose of the experiment, they are not without importance for our inquiry on taste as an aesthetic relationship. This test, in fact, seems to substantiate the view that moderation and control of taste are the only possibilities for a socially and individually virtuous life.
A notable philosophical tradition considers sensual pleasure—namely, sex pleasures and food pleasures—as an obstacle to knowledge and to intelligence. In a coevolutionary paradigm, however, mind and body are not two separate entities but representations of the same biopsychic unit. Along the same line, pleasure and intelligence are modulations of the ecological and adaptive process that characterizes human life. We must insist on this connection to avoid the mistake of believing that the only chance for pleasure to turn into a shared value is its rarefaction and dematerialization into pure internal aesthetic pleasures. (Dematerializing pleasure was exactly Kant’s brilliant move in the Critique of Judgment.) The Belgian writer Amélie Nothomb agrees with us regarding the misconception of the disembodiment of pleasure and the union between sensuality and intelligence: “There has always been a large group of imbeciles opposing sensuality to intelligence. They inhabit a vicious circle: they deny themselves any extravagance to exalt their intellect, and the result is they diminish their intellect” (Nothomb 2003, 27). The pleasure of food is an ideal access for promoting the virtuous cycle of sensual enjoyment and intelligence, because food is a daily, necessary, and universal pleasure, but with a vast number of variables that summon human imagination. Put in this frame, the question of moderation is not an alibi for neglect; rather, it assumes a different connotation for the cultivation of one’s life.
Pleasure, enjoyment, and desire—carefully kept separate in the tradition of contemplative aesthetics—permeate one another seamlessly in food, or rather they are different facets of the same thing. In Nothomb’s works, the notion of pleasure crops up everywhere. In her writing, pleasure—very often just gustatory pleasure—plays a fundamental role. In one of her most important autobiographical novels, The Character of Rain, Nothomb narrates her own primal scene. In the first pages, she describes her true initiation into life at the age of two and a half. Before then, she remembers having been plant material (“Your child is a vegetable,” the doctors judge [Nothomb 2003, 4]) or even less: plants at least possess a primitive sensibility that leads them to react to external stimuli, but the little girl is “wholly and completely impassive” (5), a being “without sight” walled into absolute ontological autism. Heretically, the narrator compares this condition to that of God: Amélie feels like God because God is a tube, inertia without movement, and pure passivity. This hydraulic cavity is home to a neutral and purely energetic absorption of food: no taste or smell is attached to the act of ingestion. In this narrative process, God is on the opposite side of taste. The real “birth” of Amélie therefore only takes place at the age of two and a half, thanks to an experience of pure pleasure, a delight: “Sweetness rose to God’s head and tore at its brain, forcing out a voice it had never before heard: It is I! I’m talking! I’m not an ’it,’ I’m a ’me’! You can no longer say ’it’ when you talk about yourself. You have to say ’me.’ And I am your best friend. I’m the one who gives you pleasure” (24). Pleasure transforms mere passivity into active sensibility, into perception: the awareness and voluptuous abandonment to the pure material substance of a food lead to an upheaval that promotes the psychophysical processes of active life, identity, and language. This pleasure is obviously not intellectual, but rather pure sensitive enjoyment. Yet which food gives such pleasure as to rouse the child from her lethargy? A bar of white chocolate skillfully administered without the parents’ knowledge by her paternal grandmother. By shared opinion, in our society chocolate is the food of pleasure par excellence: a “category of the world” (to use Barthes’s [1997, 23] expression), a universal stimulant. This white bar full of sugar, “good, sweet, and velvety,” leads Amélie from inertia to memory and language, to an intelligence that phenomenalizes in sight: “life begins with sight” (2).
The novel’s narrative proposes a hierarchical turnaround of the perceptible: if matter changes, passive inertia, the neutral, the tasteless, and the monotonous (the food is “always the same”) are on God’s side. This means that the logos, the spoken word, is not the origin of life. In other words, it is not spiritual substance that animates human beings, making them as such and differentiating them from vegetative life, as held by the Judeo-Christian and the Greco-Roman tradition. On the contrary, Nothomb postulates that material pleasure experienced through food is essential to the human experience. Therefore, in the beginning, there was emotion as sensory pleasure rather than logos. But this would mean that the human experience originates with the senses of touch and taste, and not the distal ones. Human experience starts with a relationship, since pleasure is born from the contact between two beings, and this relationship is aesthetic, since hedonic input is involved. Thus, the aesthetic relationship as pleasure triggers the plastic responsiveness of perception and opens up to memory, intelligence, awareness, and language, the functions that manifest themselves in sight. This primary relationship that becomes manifest in abandonment to voluptuous pleasure—narrated in such an exemplary fashion by the Belgian writer—stems from the depths of our biological human nature and, as such, is something that everyone should have experienced, especially individuals who have a positive and passionate relationship with food: an engrossing and surprising pleasure, a captivating burst of flavor (which can also activate memories, as we will see). Nevertheless, the path of “naked” pleasure is not without context. Even naked pleasure is an ecological perception. Enhancing the perceptual experience of gustatory naked pleasures does not, therefore, mean adhering to a naive form of naturalism. The pleasure of food is a vehicle for a more expansive urge, which points to a human being’s first vital and adaptive functions: hunger for food is related to a more general hunger, an evolutionary energy (in philosophical terms, the conatus) that drifts toward the gratification of needs and desires. Regarding the theoretical importance of the nutritive function, the French philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas wrote: “Of course we don’t live in order to eat, but it is not really true to say that we eat in order to live” (1988, 20). This thought reminds us that food is not a fuel or an inert medium, and proposes a philosophy of hunger, or better a philosophy through hunger. Being hungry means desiring at a deep level, where the physical and the metaphysical coincide. Nothomb, from her point of view and with different words, writes: “Superhunger . . . wants the best, the most delectable, the most splendid, and it sets out to find out in every area of pleasure” (2006, 15). And further: “ ’Too sweet’: the expression seems as absurd to me as ’too beautiful’ or ’too much in love.’ There are no things that are too beautiful: there are only perceptions whose hunger for beauty is half-hearted” (16).
In The Character of Rain, the original emotion that kindles intelligence is the result of a precise and intentional plan by a third party, the paternal grandmother. The grandmother plays the role of martyr and revealer of secrets. In fact, once she has handed her granddaughter the key for sight and consciousness, she immediately dies, because the act of passing on the secrets of pleasure also saves the child from death: “I sat on the stairs, thinking about my grandmother and her white chocolate. She had helped liberate me from death, and soon after it was her turn” (Nothomb 2003, 42). The gustative relationship drawn from the encounter with a bar of white chocolate takes place in a situation where a primary hedonic drive appears together with contextual elements. Therefore, the experience of naked pleasure is ecologically lived and fulfilled and emerges from a whole narrative process. The perceiver’s perspective is peculiar here, and this peculiarity is what the aesthetics of taste as experience plans to analyze and enhance. Taste as experience loves differences more than analogies. In another autobiographical novel, The Life of Hunger, the Belgian writer comes back to chocolate, further specifying its value and changing its meaning with respect to the encounter between pleasure and divinity. Here, God no longer possesses the passive inertia of a water pipe, that is, purely neutral and tasteless matter, but God actually becomes a gustative relationship, an encounter between the perceiver and the matter perceived. “Is it not enough to have some very good chocolate in your mouth, not only to believe in God, but also to feel that one is in his presence? God isn’t chocolate, he’s the encounter between chocolate and a palate capable of appreciating it. God was me in a state of pleasure or potential pleasure: therefore he was me all the time” (Nothomb 2006, 21). The sin of gluttony is nullified, the relationship sanctifies delight. The experience of pleasure is a union between the self and the divine. However—Nothomb specifies—reaching such heights requires great capacities “and a palate capable of appreciating” the power of chocolate. Unlike what we saw in The Character of Rain, pleasure here explicitly goes hand in hand with a code of appreciation, an expertise. This is a subtle but significant difference, which points in the direction of the main thesis of this essay: every taste experience is embedded in a theater of meaning, an ecological situation from which it grows and develops, making it specific and different from other experiences. In the example just mentioned, clearly pleasure and knowledge are intertwined. Perhaps more than any other substance, chocolate lends itself to symbolizing this variety of possible approaches: the emblem of pure childish enjoyment of sugary sweetness, it can also be the object of mindful adult appreciation for the bitter taste of cocoa. Even alcoholic beverages can express the same duplicity in an adult context. As a matter of fact, Amélie rejoices when she discovers the matrix of alcohol: sugar. “Alcohol was the apotheosis of sugar, the proof of its divinity, the supreme moment of its life. Plum brandy was syrup that went to your head: it was the best thing in the world” (29). In certain contexts, the access to food exclusively through pleasure can therefore be entirely legitimate, because it is the expression of needs and drives to be heeded and respected.
I have already stressed that naked pleasure is both historical and contextual. Let’s go back to The Character of Rain, where the access to life by way of the indulgence in white chocolate is preceded by a story about Amélie’s relationship with her mother. A few months earlier, the girl had come to refuse breast milk because her mother represented (as often happens in reality) the antithesis of the grandmother: the denial of pleasure, the prohibition of sugar. “My mother had her theories about sugar, which, she felt, was responsible for most of the world’s ills” (Nothomb 2003, 28). Amélie’s mother is an advocate of modern dietary rationality and associates the consumption of sugar and cakes with a wide spectrum of physical illnesses. In this context, the radical overturn of the medieval motto quod sapit nutrit is at play: good is bad for you. In contrast with this ideology, the paternal grandmother takes us to a different paradigm, where a positive relationship with taste is possible, and this is mediated by hunger and by the energy of pleasure. Taste experiences of great intensity are not only legitimate but fully desirable. The strategy of changing hierarchical food values is, therefore, also accompanied by moments of socially libertarian and politically incorrect emancipation. These differences in approaching taste are also historical: in the biographies of chefs and gastronomes—both in literature and in real life—the topic of a “generation gap” looms large. Moreover, the caregivers offering a passionate access to food are often the grandparents. For example, in Muriel Barbery’s best-selling Gourmet Rhapsody, the grandmother is the source of gustatory desire. In the novel, Monsieur Arthens, a well-known food critic, reveals that his skills hail from his grandmother’s kitchen: “I think that my entire career sprang from the fumes and aromas that came from that kitchen and which filled me, as a child, with desire. I literally went mad with desire. People don’t really know what desire is, true desire, when it hypnotizes you and takes hold of your entire soul, surrounds it utterly, in such a way that you become demented, possessed, ready to do anything for a tiny crumb, for a whiff of whatever is being concocted there beneath your nostrils, subjugated by the devil’s own perfume!” (Barbery 2009, 40). We will meet Monsieur Arthens again.