Taste as Experience: The Philosophy and Aesthetics of Food (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History) - Nicola Perullo 2016
Pleasure, Image, and Pathology
First Mode of Access
The experience of pleasure is often associated with representations and always with images—both internally (mental images) and externally (gestures and language). The image is the mode in which pleasure as a sensory input takes shape: in other words, without images, the vital impulse and its immediate continuation as a hedonic drive would not have a sensorial existence or form. Describing her taste of spéculoos, the famous Belgian spice cookies (another aesthetic encounter that leads to “roars of pleasure”), Amélie lives and intensifies her enjoyment through a mirror. Seeing oneself in a mirror is a fusion of image and representation. The mirror reflects one’s own body as another body, and, doing that, it makes one reflect on “being an image” of sensibility. Moreover, seeing oneself represented during the act of enjoyment is also a joy. Actually, a real mirror is not necessary. Any medium, like verbal or gestural language, works. Nothomb writes: “I . . . began to eat, studying my reflection. I wanted to see myself in a state of pleasure. What I saw on my face was the taste of Speculoos. It was a real spectacle. Just by looking at myself, I could detect all the different flavours: there was definitely something sweet, or else I wouldn’t have looked so happy; the sugar must have been brown, judging by the characteristic agitation of my dimples. A lot of cinnamon, said my nose, wrinkled in delight. My gleaming eyes announced the colour of the other spices, as unknown as they were exciting. As to the presence of honey, how could anyone have doubted it, seeing how my lips twitched with ecstasy? . . . The sight of my exquisite pleasure served only to intensify it” (Nothomb 2006, 51). This narcissistic description—mirrors are the home of narcissism—borders on autovoyeurism. The representation of the self by way of the reflected image heightens the pleasure and allows an analytical exploration of the details, particularly of the face: mouth, nose, and eyes. In the context of such an experience of solipsistic pleasure, the mirror can have the same function as the grandmother in the previous examples, namely, that of a distributor of pleasure, and as God, as the gustatory intertwining between perceiver and object perceived. It is as if pleasure required a third party, an outside eye, or a reflected other: this gustatory relationship, in other words, is not dual but threefold. Beyond the autovoyeuristic radicalization of the mirror, however, every ordinary experience of pleasure points to this threefold relational frame. Naked pleasure emerges always from a relationship that requires a medium (even if it is only our bodies seen by others). At the same time, this mediation is accomplished and experienced in that specific manner that does not approach food armed with the awareness of knowledge, but rather awaits and receives it unarmed.
The experience of food, in general, is an experience that is expressed via a third party. To expand a question that we will take up again in the next chapter, it must be remembered here that eating is the convivial, sharable, and, therefore, maybe mimetic experience par excellence. This act of sharing stems from the original mutuality of mother/infant relationship (Dissanayake 2000), and today it seems also to have a basis in biology related to the discovery of mirror neurons and their operating in the areas of the brain responsible for emotions and pleasure. In relation to our subject, it seems that the study of certain phenomena such as the aversion to or the desire for certain foods well illustrates emphatic sharing based on the theory of mirror neurons (the observation of a particular action causes the activation of the same neurons in the observer). Some examples are the very common phenomena of mouthwatering or of repulsion, when we see someone eating a food we adore or making a grimace of disgust, or the contagious smiles between mother and child during feeding (a case that we will get to in this chapter), or better still, in another context, that of contagious yawning. The need to share taste—through representations, gestures, and language—is as much biological as cultural: deeply rooted in our evolution, conviviality, in its broadest sense (from the Latin cum vivere, “living together”), has grown so much that by now it is part of our aesthetic nature.
A long time ago, one of the most basic functions of taste was nociception. Evolutionary speaking, the primary goal of taste is, in fact, a safeguard against damaging and toxic substances that would be harmful to the body and therefore to survival. The relationship between taste, health, and disease is crucial for our relational aesthetics. Even though this relationship is immediately complicated by exceptions and variables (not all disgusting or repulsive foods are toxic—just think of certain tasteless poisons—and not everything pleasant-tasting is healthy), it provides taste with a constant correlation with the states of psychophysical well-being or the lack thereof in structures of increasing complexity. In contrast to what is generally assumed, finding pleasure in food is initially closely related to health (Halpern 2005). If the infant has the ability to want and appreciate the food she needs in terms of nutrition, with the entry into adulthood pleasure moves away from its biological matrix and adheres to processes independent of the nociceptive function (Gibson 1966; Auvrey and Spence 2007). A fine and at times ineffable line between normality and pathology distinguishes the sphere of adult gustatory pleasure.
Amélie Nothomb’s fiction also contains elements of taste regarding physical appearance in relation to psychological discomfort and mental illness: fatness, obesity, skinniness, physical deformation, anorexia, and bulimia. In The Life of Hunger, Amélie’s father is an elusive and bulimic gentleman, obsessed by hunger but unable to feel pleasure. In another novel, The Stranger Next Door, obesity becomes a couple’s mental code. The Bernardins, with the abnormal weight of their huge, wasted bodies alone and without so much as a word, become the psychic predators of their new and unsuspecting neighbors, Emile and Julette. Yet the Bernardins live their physical deformity in different ways. While Palamedes draws no pleasure from food and hovers between annoyance and indifference—“Mr. Bernardin was all the more empty for being fat: because he was fat, he had more volume to contain his emptiness”—his wife Bernadette, “the cyst,” loves to eat and eats with pleasure (Nothomb 1995). Bernadette is obese, but not bulimic, she eats with gusto, but without being refined. Without knowing anything about the food she eats, she enjoys it compulsively, with an approach that mirrors a serious mental disorder, even insanity. If we leave coded and diagnosable disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder aside, many people have an ambiguous relationship with the pleasure of eating and oscillate between euphoric lapses and feelings of guilt. This oscillation is a tangible sign of how the religious sense of sin often transmigrates to a prohibition of the pleasure of food: that good is bad for you is the dietary translation of the supposed equation between knowledge and suffering.