Why is it that philosophers have always felt obliged to think badly of the basic biological functions? They may believe in a life-force; they may even applaud its ferocity; but they do not inquire whether it keeps its chin clean at table. It almost seems as if to come near the breathing, sweating, farting body were an unphilosophical act; and it is certainly true that although the philosopher frequently prefers to begin with some commonplace fragment of experience, ready enough to ponder the lessons of the spider or the problems of the sodden wax, as though to say: “Look, you think I deal with empty abstractions and make my thoughts fly off from daily life like a startled sparrow, but how unjust that is, for as you see I begin by considering the shape and color of this quite ordinary penny, the snowed-on blankness of this simple sheet of writing paper, the course these burning logs are taking, or even the existence of my own well-manicured hand”—he does not deceive us with these subterfuges, since we can also see how carefully he ignores the secretion of saliva, the shaping of dung in the lower intestine, the leap of sperm (indeed the whole history of that brazen nozzle), all our vague internal twinges, heart-stops and belly-aches, though distantly these things are made the subject of denigrating comparisons.
Thus from Plato to Tolstoy philosophers have felt that to liken something to the art of cookery was better than an argument against it. Even when Epictetus advised us to behave in life as at a banquet, he did not mean, “eat hearty”; he meant, “be polite.” Had they tongues of leather, these gentlemen (and they were all, all gentlemen), or was it rather that the needs we each share and must daily confess to are uninteresting, unromantic, unsuited to the royal aspirations of so head-proud an animal?
In the West man’s sexuality was never the object of any important or prolonged philosophical study before Freud (in Plato, in St. Augustine, and so on, there are brief sallies), yet of our fundamental occupations only something discreetly called “loving” has received much notice. The reason, I suspect, is that of the lot it is the only one which can be successfully prohibited, and the only one, therefore, it makes sense to condemn.
The eighteenth-century version of human nature, for example, constructed with a Johnsonian sense of the decorous, was triumphantly shallow, and it is possibly for this reason that when Hume hunted through his own experience for that constant impression which might be identified as the source of the idea of the self, he never came upon his own breathing, traditionally identified with the soul, and whose regular, unobtrusive rhythms, like those of the heartbeat, accompany all our acts and feelings, and order and qualify them who knows how profoundly—just as profoundly, certainly, as the man whose experience of the world is always accompanied by the grinding of his teeth is affected by that.
We always ski on the higher slopes when we can. Countless works of rich abstraction have been written about perception. I know none on the subject of chewing.
Now all of us have read of men, and some of us have even seen them—such are the chances for experience in our time—who were by want and ill condition returned into the animals they came from; who fought among themselves and rushed upon their meat (though it were rank, spat on, and cast before them in the dirt) with all the mindlessness of dogs; and it is distressing but necessary to observe that manners serve one badly in such circumstances, that civilization is an impediment to life—who holds to it will perish.
The happier case finds us at table. There is fresh water and wine at the points of our silver, and our eye considers whether the colors on the central platter are properly composed and if the sauces will be smooth and thoughtful. We listen to a ribald anecdote about Petronius from a scholar on our right, and wish the lady on our left had not employed so vulgar and insistent a perfume, it is ruining the bouquet of the food; and while we damn her in that moment as a savage only lately from the forest, to remember, then, the truly opposite condition I just mentioned, is to realize that she has not forgotten her manners altogether, but has merely got her arts confused. Such are the vexations of a civilized existence.
Between these two extremes, as I should like to study them, lie all the stages that must be passed, all the conditions that must be met, if one is to leave one’s place among the beasts to someone else. It is fundamentally a process of design, and the advantages of my central situation, as I perceive them, are that its lines are simpler and show themselves more plainly than the lines of others; that concentrating on the human stomach effectively removes the problem of styles, which is my real subject, from the preconceptions and confusions that so muddle most examinations of it in the major arts.
Desires, alas, do not contain their own fulfillment. There is a necessary incompleteness in them. They must figure to themselves some end which, lying public, they can reach for, and in that effort they express themselves. At one end there is feeling and sensation, hunger’s pain and discontent for instance, while at the other is the set of hunger’s objects, seen one by one and each by each as food, for no desire will be so foolish as to feed upon a class and miss the nourishment of members. Desire upon its natural base is always general and can be said to have a general aim: we are hardly born with a passion for cream-puffs. Each need has an eye—a principle—a set of marks—whereby it recognizes something as its own, and in this way desire defines its nature. Simple hunger asks for any food and since the goal it posts is broad, the means are many; but its pangs are pangs which issue from the stomach and only through some great maliciousness of nature can these signs be so confused that hunger’s pain or hunger’s motions seem directed from the throat or lungs or from the heart or bowels or from the privy members, though such maliciousness is not unknown.
Suppose we ate through our anus and shat through our mouth: how much of the world would be turned topsy-turvy besides ourselves?
Hunger’s purpose is to satisfy—that is, destroy—itself, and it is a matter of the merest chance, to it, that sight and smell are its most useful instruments, or that the stomach must be filled through the mouth so that food finally happens on the palate (we can feed through our veins); but when the desire for food is stylized, it is not hunger which receives the elaboration, but these instrumental senses, these accidental ones, and this is always true when a desire is shifted from its natural base and satisfied by symbolic actions. Thus there is a general movement toward sensation, concentrating first of all around the products of the act of eating, certain tastes and odors mainly, swallowing and chewing, and second around the signs of wanted objects, special sounds and colors.
This movement, which I’ve chosen to call the displacement of desire from its natural base, begins with the association of hunger with something formally higher, something otherwise than blind and random in its effort, something intrinsically aware. As the movement continues this association becomes so intimate and necessary that, at the end, the values of eating are inverted, and one eats largely to produce a succession of agreeable sensations, and only incidentally, and regretfully, to fill the stomach.
The need for nourishment is very general, but it soon becomes precise. Precision in desire, like the association with it of sensations, defines a rarer, less attainable object, for the gourmet’s hunger issues commands no longer from the stomach, whose chemicals are perfectly indifferent to sauce Mornay and truffled fowl, but from the tongue and lips and from the eye and nose, and finally, from imagination. The process whereby desire is made precise depends, first of all, upon the lessening of its strength through success, and second, by the interruption of its haste by forcing choice upon it. The desperately hungry man finds his whole soul filled with pain and incompleteness, his body is aflail for food, every sense and every thought is lost but to that aim, and any object bearing the proper sign will be intently set upon and instantly consumed.
All discrimination thus demands a ground of satisfaction, a blunting of the edge of want which permits the exercise of choice and provides for the leisure of body and calmness of mind essential to contemplation. When rage retires, a man may understand his hate. When emotion leaves the eye a man may see. So he may be able to express himself with style when the need to express himself at all has passed its adolescence. A man who must choose must reflect upon the nature of his wants and the power objects have to satisfy them. Finally some factor tips the scale, and that factor acts as the principle of preference. The original class of hunger’s objects divides. Desires multiply. Where one object was before, soon there are a dozen, then a hundred, then a thousand, so that where the purely hungry man wished food, the mildly hungry man with choice considers vegetables and meats and fruits, considers soups and casseroles and stews, and in the object of each new desire may arrange all its probable representatives according to his preferences. The entire process of precision may be repeated for each fresh division and may continue until the object of each desire is perfectly precise: one individual thing.
The poor man has no such problems. He works; he grows hungry; he eats what he has. His table rites may be as complex and ceremonial as anyone’s, and he may have a hundred recipes for rice; but his circumstances narrowly limit his opportunities, the world chooses for him, and boiled, baked, or fried, prayed or sung over, his rice remains rice. Even his elaborations are confined within the closed circle of his existence, however deep his dancing drives his feet. An economy which is devoted to the satisfaction of many, widely varied wants (and even to the manufacture of new ones) can easily be thought to be corrupting, as Tolstoy believed: the simple life of the peasant replaced by the temptations of the supermarket.
What happens to the composer of traditional tribal songs when set down in the middle of a modern music market? What happens to the painter locked in Malraux’s wall-less museum? or the poet caught between the covers of some world-wide anthology? And will straightforward screwing sustain a man in a country where kinds of copulation are canned and merchandised as variously as peas, beans, and carrots are? Soon he will wonder: which brand? Poverty protects the simple man from sin—at least the sophisticated and expensive ones. So it has been frequently argued.
Copyright © 1971 by William H. Gass.