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.

We cannot will an end, Kant said, unless we are prepared to will some way of achieving it, and he separated willing from wishing for us on that basis; for when I merely wish for something—as I might dream of owning a yacht one day or of having peace or marrying a movie star—it can be observed that I never take any effective steps to obtain it. Therefore when desire takes aim at its object, it takes aim also at some means, and the force it has for its object it has also for the means. If I want the bananas which are yellowing on the tree, I want equally badly the stick which will knock them down. This energy, however—the measure of my need—since in its object it has a single end, and in the means generally a choice of many, cannot stake itself entirely upon one method and so preserve its purity and power, but it must hover, avoiding ultimate commitment, prepared to give way at one point to succeed at another. Stick or ladder, each will serve. I shall not insist on the stick when it is simply the bananas I want. The desire of the end is thus obtained for the means, but ordinarily the desire is disloyal, based upon pure utility.

The most important step in the stylization of desire, as in the stylization of anything whatever, is the amalgamation of a means with its end. This fastens the whole force of desire as firmly on the method as a leech on a leg. Success henceforth requires not only the enjoyment of the end but the use of one path to it. When I want the bananas only if they have been stick-struck; when I want money, power, and the love of women only because I’m the heavyweight champ; when I want my julep in a silver cup; it’s clear that I’ve proposed a new goal for myself, a goal which possesses more than the character of an object of lust, pride, or hunger, but an additional character, a ritual one. My desire has become precise in its object and concrete in its method until the method and the object have merged. And as soon as there is a new object, there is, of course, a new desire. The process of amalgamation, although I have treated it here as if it occurred after the process of precision, is contemporaneous with it and begins, indeed, when desire begins, it is so nearly automatic.

A child often fails to distinguish means from ends in any situation, so that Christmas, for example, isn’t Christmas without a tree or without a certain cake or a visit to grandmother. The child, who is forever a stylist, identifies the celebration with selected ways of celebrating, and the child may feel, as the primitive man was supposed to, that any kind of success can be guaranteed only by repeating, and by repeating exactly, everything that was done the first time. The aim is good luck and the method is magic, for the actual cause lies unknown in the welter of surrounding conditions. The result is the security that proceeds from repetition, so that if the feeling sought is lost or if the prize is not forthcoming, something in the total order of the acts was wrong—some gesture, some item of clothing, some fragment of the sacred initial occasion left out.

This new end, while a unity, can be mapped. There is an order to its realization. And as each new end, with its corresponding desire, undergoes again the process of precision, it devours further means and swells inside itself until it is constituted by a series of ritual acts. The end is no longer merely had, it is traversed. It is enacted. Each step displaces further the new desire from its natural base. The gourmet’s wants become not only precise as to food, but as to service. He envisions glimmering crystal, snowy damask, brilliant talk. Dividing these into ends and means, though it may serve an analytical purpose, is like approximating a curved line by a series of straight ones. The force of the original desire, flowing now through differently ordered channels, animates the whole, and fixes itself successively to various means with all the loyalty of the original desire for its original object.

We should realize that the initial means-ends relation has now been entirely altered. Both have become parts of an active whole in which the former end functions as the final part, like dessert or the eighteenth hole, and the moment the diner takes one bite simply so he may take another, the original amalgamation has been shattered, and dining, as an art, has ceased.

It is necessary to notice, also, that when difficult means are deliberately chosen, and these means ritualized within the end, the end is enriched. The distance at which the pursuer is at first kept encourages contemplation. But all of this supposes an initial ground of satisfaction so that the cat will find it feasible, for example, to play with its food and not swallow it all at once.

Everyone is familiar with the caveman of the popular cartoon who, overcome by desire, goes straight to his object, strikes her over the head with his club and drags her to his cave by the hair. Imagine that we interpose, between the caveman and the object of his lust, a series of formalities: a visit to the father, certain gifts and payments, a gay parade or a ceremonial chase. The object must be contemplated through these difficulties. Admirable points have their chance to be observed. Finally it is forbidden to gain one’s bride in the earlier way, and the formalities become essential to the end, an intrinsic part of it. Melodies are strummed under windows, lust is fittingly arrayed, and the woman becomes a lady; she is elevated to a new and more important place. So courtship creates its object, becoming the art of pursuit as running to hounds becomes that of hunting, and love the stylization of carnal desire; while civilized dining, the whole of high cuisine, becomes a transformation of one more vulgar human need into an art.

The amalgamation of means and ends, because it makes for a new aim, clearly shifts the original desire still further from its natural base. The fact that the straight expression of desire is hindered, not by want of objects but by increasing scrupulosity concerning means, makes contemplation possible, and this contemplation discovers what the object is, beyond its mere utility. There is an accompanying rise in value as well as an altered attitude and a changed emotion. Standards, at the same time, make their appearance, for before the only measurements were speed, economy, and success. Now, in addition, there are all those added forms and ceremonies, and judgment frequently turns on them: this gesture has not been made, that rite has been ignored; this sauce employs poor brandy, that caress is crude.

Hunting, having tea, making love, arranging flowers, like so many other minor arts, like gardening, bullfighting, and keeping the Sabbath holy, embody ends which might be realized in countless ways. It is often thought, therefore, that those means finally hit upon and combined with the end, so as really to define its nature, have a special affinity the others do not have, some suitability or fittingness, as though the form of the sonnet were somehow metaphysically in harmony with love; and sometimes this is true, and there are what one would normally regard as “good” reasons for the choice of one means rather than another: one is simpler, easier, more economical, cooperates with other customs and with other aims more than another, and so on; but I want to insist that it does not matter. The choices may be whimsical, arbitrary, neurotic, the result of sheerest chance, often like the course a child pursues to school; yet these choices just as thoroughly inform their end with order as any others do.

Indeed you often find an artist placing obstacles in his own path out of braggadocio, to show what he can do, or out of self-mortification, because he feels that nothing in the world ought to be easy for him, he is so unworthy. From such a motive is born the penitential style, like the late style of Joyce, and there are many other kinds.

I have been speaking, so far, as if stylization went on in a vacuum, and of course it does not. The gourmet’s dinner brings together and satisfies a number of ends in one series of ritual acts, and each of these acts tends to take on a symbolic significance as the art of dining develops. The final limit is reached when the whole performance is so thoroughly conceptualized that the diner (or the hunter or the lover or the keeper of the Sabbath, each in their separate ways) takes this food not because he is hungry and requires it for life, or because he wishes to indulge himself in certain flavors, but because he wishes, by and through eating, to signify something: safety or social position or breeding or love of neighbor.

There is no lack of Don Juans, either, at the dinner table. There are those, moreover, as we know, who substitute one activity for another and court by cooking; their sensuality sauces the fish; instead of bestowing kisses, they pass a plate of cookies.

The gestures of the actors, the objects in the rite, constitute in this way a language, just as there is, for the composer of flowers, a language of them and their placement. These formalities do not deny the artist any freedom, indeed, they make him eloquent, for they are no more confining than any language, and there is always room for an individual use of the given tongue. When such a highly formal language is at large, it makes the most inarticulate and shallow members of society sensitive and expressive, much as the ceremonial rending of clothes and scattering of ashes, for example, gives form and graciousness to what might otherwise be an inelegant spray of feeling.

The final stage in the stylization of desire is reached when the force of the original desire, snipped, as it were, from its natural root, is made to serve another, more elaborate end, an end which only barely contains the original as its final part. The trick, and it is a trick, a process of covering up, of masking and deception, is to retain the force of the original desire without retaining its identity. The danger, and I speak purely from the point of view of the process itself, is that the original end, the culminating act of what has become a rather lengthy activity, may be pushed out altogether, the initial purpose forgotten entirely, and the whole form emptied of significance.

Sterility and confusion of focus—these are the ills which attack style from within, and they are encouraged by the fact that one’s attention is naturally directed to the step just ahead, not to the final one, and this becomes more and more the case the further away, by heavy stylization, the end is put. The wooer, delighted by the chase, can forget to possess what at last he’s won, and the same mechanism of style that can elevate “woman” from an object of priapic fury to a companion and a wife, can lift her also to a pre-Raphaelite cloud, a woman to be pursued and worshipped, and in a sense desired, but never touched—a woman who is always depicted with the reptilian neck of a swan.

Amos reports to us the attitude of God: I spit upon your sacrifices. The Jews, the prophets complained, were merely going through ritual motions; not only had they lost sight of the original aims of these rites, they had made of them ends in themselves.

It is the habit of stylistic formulas to proliferate, new ones appearing upon the backs of others like the famous fleas, until the weight of the whole becomes intolerable. It is impossible to speak, to eat, to love or to worship, under such circumstances; there is too much to be gone through. The style cannot be called sterile in such a case. It is simply not taken on. It may be abbreviated. The wooer may become a professional slayer of dragons, and it is very likely that hunting, considered as an art, was once a fragment of a larger action that had feasting as its end rather than death or capture or photography. Generally, however, the style is abandoned, and the old end is pursued again in cruder, more direct, more successful ways. Then the process of stylization begins again.

Institutions stress correctness, proper etiquette, righteousness by rule. The revolutionaries are said not to know how to draw, or it is claimed that what they have written are not poems, or that they have made noise not music; they are ill-mannered boors; they have lost respect for the past, for tradition, hallowed ways; they are, in fact, immoral—objects of scorn and derision, causes of anxiety and apprehension.

While there have always been many individual artists who have seen the danger in an overweight of preparation, ceremony, and ordeal, and have themselves drawn back from it, nevertheless, the form, as if it harbored deadly wishes against itself, goes on to its demise. Artists, on the other hand, can fail a style. Sometimes they lack the wit to grasp the form—a frequent failing; sometimes they cannot keep their will to its work, desire proves the stronger and takes an easier way; sometimes they have too little energy and are discouraged by any obstacle.

And the traditionalist is right: the rebel does flounder; he is a fool; he does take pride in his ignorance, make a virtue of chaos and disruption, and suppose that he is less a hypocrite for being vulgar; he admires spontaneity and despises effort, thinks sincerity will substitute for skill, allows heat to consume patience, and imagines that his simple presence in the world is cause enough for rejoicing—he need only be, and the world will be better. Yet the rebel is right, too. A style can strangle.

We can make an art of anything, but this does not automatically mean it is worth doing. Some arts, like that of dining well, however much they may be a pleasant part of the good life, must remain minor because they have too difficult a struggle to gain the level of concept where really subtle and complicated stylization is possible. A Balinese dance, though it may seem exceptionally mannered to the on-looker, has its every sign writ large, comparatively speaking, giving this impression, while its actual speech is thick, impoverished, and short of breath.

Many of these minor arts have the advantage of a physical concreteness that is close to the desire itself, love and dancing, for instance, eating and the continuance of life; but they have the fatal disadvantage of conceptual inflexibility. The bull is certainly an admirable physical token for a sign of death and love—the noises men make when they make words are not a twelfth as interesting, a lack that poetry always so desperately, by every trick it knows, attempts to overcome—but there is very little you can get a charging bull to say. And this is a disadvantage, not because an art somehow must become symbolic, but because becoming symbolic helps it so much as an art, so immeasurably increases its expressive potentialities.

Finally, I should like to say that while every ethic involves and specifies a style, stylization alone makes nothing moral. Cruelty can be immensely refined. It can be, in this way, removed from its natural base. It can be associated, as eating is, with accidental qualities, and its general object, marvelously split in pieces and precise. Torture can become a ceremony of length and gravity, and of considerable significance for its audience, but however set off from its foundation, however stylized, it must have its victim at last, and for its victim, pleasure in its pain. There is, perhaps, an indirect relation, and it may be this: that such a process as I have here described does the best that can be done with the human nature that it’s given, and in that sense, at least, may be, if not the content, at any rate the shape of civilization.

Copyright © 1971 by William H. Gass.

This Issue

February 25, 1971