Strange Gourmets: Sophistication, Theory, and the Novel

Strange Gourmets: Sophistication, Theory, and the Novel

by Joseph Litvak

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Theoretically sophisticated: How often has this term been used to distinguish a work of contemporary criticism and what, exactly, does it mean? In Strange Gourmets, Joseph Litvak does the risky business of providing the theoretical underpinnings of sophistication itself. Showing how the politics of sophistication pervades contemporary culture both in the mainstream…  See more details below


Theoretically sophisticated: How often has this term been used to distinguish a work of contemporary criticism and what, exactly, does it mean? In Strange Gourmets, Joseph Litvak does the risky business of providing the theoretical underpinnings of sophistication itself. Showing how the politics of sophistication pervades contemporary culture both in the mainstream and at the academic margins, Litvak reclaims sophistication from its negative connotations and turns the spotlight on those who, even as they demonize sophistication, surreptitiously and extensively use it.

Though commonly thought of as a kind of worldliness at its best and an elitist snobbery at its worst, sophistication, Litvak reminds us, remains tied to its earlier, if forgotten, meaning of "perversion"-a perversion whose avatars are the homosexual and the intellectual. Proceeding with his investigations from a specifically gay academic perspective, Litvak presents thoroughly inventive readings of novels by Austen, Thackeray, and Proust, and of theoretical works by Adorno and Barthes, each text epitomizing sophistication in one of its more familiar modes. Among the issues he explores are the ways in which these texts teach sophistication, the embarrassment that sophistication causes the sophisticated, and how the class politics of sophistication are inseparable from its sexual politics.

Helping gay, queer, feminist, and other provocative critics to make the most of their bad publicity, Litvak mindfully celebrates sophistication's economy of taste and pleasure. His strategy is to reveal culture as a contest of sophistications in which the winners are often those who best disguise their sophistication. In the process, Strange Gourmets links the history of the novel, aesthetic theory, sociology of culture, and the state of contemporary academic writing, while turning literary criticism, cultural studies, and queer theory into contexts for each other.

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Editorial Reviews

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“Litvak has taken taste out of the closet and shows us why so many—especially those who consider themselves to be centered in cultural studies—do not like the taste of taste. This book is as smart as it is strangely delicious.”—Carol Mavor, author of Pleasures Taken

"One can hardly call Strange Gourmets a sophisticated book, since on the embarrassing subject of itself sophistication has always been too cool for words. No, one must call it a wildly sophisticated book, uncultivated enough, for all its fine intelligence, to speak whereof it knows. Like some brilliant chef who incorporates weeds into highly composed salads, the author means not to disown, but to parade the intimacy between sophistication (his own included) and rawer forms of taste, disgust, perversity. If his richly inventive cookery is more satisfying than sociological unmaskings that are as endless as they are futile, this is not least because, unlike them, it accords sophistication the respect owed to an appetite."—D. A. Miller

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Strange Gourmets

Sophistication, Theory, and the Novel

By Joseph Litvak

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9823-3


Delicacy and Disgust, Mourning and Melancholia, Privilege and Perversity: Pride and Prejudice

Let it be understood in all senses that what the word disgusting denominates is what one cannot resign oneself to mourn. —Jacques Derrida

In a well-known passage from one of her letters to her sister Cassandra, Jane Austen records her own response to Pride and Prejudice (1813):

I had some fits of disgust.... The work is rather too light, and bright, and sparkling; it wants shade; it wants to be stretched out here and there with a long chapter of sense, if it could be had; if not, of solemn specious nonsense, about something unconnected with the story; an essay on writing, a critique on Walter Scott, or the history of Buonaparté [sic], or anything that would form a contrast, and bring the reader with increased delight to the playfulness and epigrammatism of the general style.

That Austen can be driven to disgust, not just by her own writing, but by its very refinement, by what is most "light, and bright, and sparkling" in it, comes as no surprise: the hyperfastidiousness she evinces here conforms perfectly with the venerable stereotype of gentle Jane, where the gentleness or gentility in question easily assumes a pathological or ideologically suspect character. Of course, what disgusts Austen is not so much her novel's "general style" itself as the lack of a "contrast" that would "bring the reader with increased delight to [its] playfulness and epigrammatism." In its belated wish to interpolate a certain differential heaviness, however, Austen's acute calculation of rhetorical effects bespeaks the characteristic work of an aesthetic of distinction. Gagging on the stylistic consistency— the over consistency—of Pride and Prejudice, getting sick from what amounts to too much of a good thing, Austen thus presents herself as her novel's ideal reader. For reading Pride and Prejudice—reading any Austen novel — means submitting, consciously or not, to a rigorous aesthetic discipline, undergoing subtle but incessant schooling in the ever-finer classifications, discriminations, and aversions that maintain Austen's exacting (because never quite explicit) norms of good Manners and good Taste, of "rectitude and delicacy," according to which anyone, even a distinguished hero or a delightful heroine, or anything, even an unrelieved "playfulness and epigrammatism," can fall under the dreaded rubric of the disgusting.

But what if, instead of merely providing evidence of how well Austen has learned her own lessons, her "fits of disgust" signified a protest against that discipline? There is more than one way, after all, of being disgusted by Pride and Prejudice—indeed, by the very aesthetic properties that would seem to make it irresistibly appetizing. For if the novel functions discreetly and thus all the more efficaciously as a kind of conduct book, the good manners and good taste it works to implant operate in the service of a eugenic teleology of good breeding: that is, of the marriage plot, whereby the traditional novel idealizes heterosexuality and its reproduction. Much of the most adventurous recent Austen criticism has concentrated on uncovering just this ideological labor in her fiction. As a result, it has become possible not only to see how her novels serve up what D. A. Miller calls "social prescriptions that readers are palatably, even deliciously made to swallow," but also to begin to resist such dubious nourishment, spitting out—even spitting up—what no longer tastes quite so delicious. In expressing her disgust on reading Pride and Prejudice, Austen may be doing something other than just voicing her fear of dulling (or offending) our palates with too much brilliance: she may in fact be seen as at once authorizing and enacting an ill-mannered reading of her own text.

If Pride and Prejudice is disgusting because it is "too light, and bright, and sparkling," its seductive surface does not so much conceal a disciplinary core as constitute and convey a new and improved discipline of its own. The lightness of the style, I would argue, functions much like that of today's lighter, leaner cuisine, which, as we are constantly reminded not just by doctors and dietitians but, even more dishearteningly, by restaurant critics and cookbook authors as well, is both what we want and what's good for us. Pride and Prejudice, whose low-fat, low-cholesterol language positively makes our mouths water, begins to seem uncannily "modern," a prescient fictional precursor of our own food and drug administration.

But the stylish askesis the novel purveys is not merely a question of style. In thematizing its écriture minceur, it articulates the strict moral regimen enforced by and on what it would project as a whole interpretive community of weight watchers. The "easy playfulness" (p. 70) of Elizabeth Bennet's manners is matched, not surprisingly, by her "light and pleasing" (p. 70) figure, and she therefore serves as a fitting embodiment of the verbal ethos of the novel in which she stars. Thus streamlined, moreover, she can figure over and against characters like Mr. Collins, whose "heavy looking" (p. 109) body almost automatically convicts him of the "stupidity" (p. 163) with which he is soon charged and that accounts for most of the rare morsels of "solemn specious nonsense" to be found in the text; or like the "indolent" (p. 81) Mr. Hurst, whose vice is confirmed, and whose character irreversibly discredited, in the summary observation that, "when he found [Elizabeth to] prefer a plain dish to a ragout, [he] had nothing to say to her" (p. 81). If we haven't yet internalized the precept that less is more, those of us unfortunate enough to share Mr. Hurst's taste are reminded that the only appropriate response to a ragout is dégoût.

Even more telling, of course, is Elizabeth's moral superiority to the novel's various comically aberrant female characters, all of whom, in different ways, betray both an excessive appetite and an inability or an unwillingness to control it: Mrs. Bennet, who has never learned how to "hold her tongue" (p. 305); Lydia Bennet, who has inherited not only her mother's shameless garrulity but also her none-too-discriminating taste for soldiers; Miss Bingley, who, with her invidious sarcasm, repeatedly and haplessly bites off more than she can chew; Lady Catherine de Bourgh, whose similarly self-subverting freedom in "delivering her opinion" (p. 198) more efficiently delivers proof of her "ill breeding" (p. 207). Reduced—or, rather, expanded—to comic types, these characters, paradoxically, can never really "grow": they can only repeat themselves. Even the notoriously "fast" Lydia is stuck in a one-joke role. Along with Collins, these "literary fat ladies," as Patricia Parker would call them, indeed provide whatever precious textual padding remains amid the general svelte-ness. Modeled against the static backdrop that they compose, the self-disciplined Elizabeth should seem to move even more sleekly through the novel's marriage plot, which, although it places obstacles in her path, does so, apparently, in order that we may marvel at the "liveliness" and general lightheartedness with which she negotiates them.

As Austen anticipated, however, the novel may not be sufficiently "stretched out" or larded to make us consume it with such "increased delight." Not every reader, at any rate, will choose to join the "admiring multitude" whom the marriage of Elizabeth and Darcy is destined to "teach ... what connubial felicity really was" (p. 325). What one hears as a certain sarcasm in this very phrasing may even bespeak Austen's distaste for the ideological project in which she finds herself enlisted. In carrying out this project, she is hardly unique among eighteenth- or nineteenth-century English novelists, and Pride and Prejudice is hardly the only one of her novels in which the exigencies of the marriage plot ultimately take precedence over every other claim for narrative interest. What makes Pride and Prejudice unusually hard to swallow, I have been suggesting, is not so much the marriage plot per se as the particular ideologico-aesthetic ruse that is supposed to make it go down so easily. For no matter how the novel's distinctive lightness (liteness?) gets glamorized, it remains a fetish in a symbolic economy of privation: indeed, it has to be turned into an object of desire precisely insofar as it represents —and requires—the systematic denial of pleasure.

For all its "Mozartean perfection," in short, Pride and Prejudice seems to me the least enjoyable of all of Austen's novels. Where the other novels offer us various juicy tidbits to sink our teeth into on the way to the wedding, Pride and Prejudice, although not entirely fat free, generally exercises an almost stingy restraint in dispensing preclosural gratifications, withholding any that might tempt us to stray too far or too unproductively from its foreordained linear trajectory, catering only to those tastes whose indulgence will leave us, like the heroine, lithe and trim enough to be put through our paces.

Novels such as Sense and Sensibility and Emma obviously have to conduct their heroines (and their readers) toward the triumphant genital hetero-sexuality enshrined in the institution of marriage, but, as critics have shown, the very plotting of that development through a progression of proto-Freudian "phases" at least affords their heroines (and their readers) various perversely "pregenital" and/or nonprocreative excitations. Faced with Pride and Prejudice, however, the reader who is not especially tantalized by the prospect of a wedding feast is going to be left feeling more than a little hungry.

In this situation, is there anything to do with one's mouth besides complain? As I have suggested, one way of resisting the heterosexist teleology of Austen's master plot is to cultivate—indeed, to savor—whatever perverse reader relations that plot may permit, if only so as, precisely, to master them. To tease out the kinkiness of the interaction between Emma and Knightley, for example, or to play up the seductive theatricality of Mary and Henry Crawford, is fantasmatically to perpetuate a relation with a lost or occluded object: in the first example, a perversity between characters, which the normalizing narrative has to cover up; in the second, an energy more visibly located within characters themselves, who must therefore be dealt with more punitively, expelled from the text in a climactic paroxysm of moral revulsion. Instead of reenacting that expulsion, instead of casting the Crawfords out, as one is expected to do, an ill-mannered reader of Mansfield Park may try to keep them in, guarding them, perversely, in what French Freudian theory has helped us picture as a crypt within—or on—one's own reading body.

In other words, if the disgusting "is what one cannot resign oneself to mourn," purgation is not the only response to it; what has been theorized as the fantasy of incorporation suggests an alternative form of nonmourn-ing. The fantasy of incorporation promotes what Freud calls the work of melancholia, where the refusal to mourn signals a refusal of loss. Neither a mere throwing up and casting out nor, as in mourning, an idealizing, metaphoric introjection of the lost object, incorporation, as Derrida has suggested in his commentary on the work of Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, "involves eating the object... in order not to introject it, in order to vomit it, in a way, into the inside, into the pocket of a cyst." Insisting on a certain literalization of the object, at once killing it and keeping it alive, incorporation is a fantasy not only of eating one's cake and having it but also of becoming one's cake, of identifying oneself with it and thus of denying its absence, which the metaphoric substitutions characteristic of mourning would implicitly acknowledge.

In view of what I've said about the slim pickings presented by Pride and Prejudice, however, the question would seem to be, How can one perpetuate a fantasmatic relation with something one never had in the first place? One possible answer might begin by recalling that, under the novel's terroristic regime of good taste, no one, not even Elizabeth Bennet, is immune from the charge of vulgarity. For example, Elizabeth's very athleticism?the clearest demonstration that hers is a disciplined body?provokes Miss Bingley's disgusted censure when, in a burst of unladylike impetuosity, Elizabeth undertakes the walk to Netherfield to visit her sister Jane and shows up in a dirty petticoat. If Miss Bingley's sneering assertion that this behavior displays "a most country town indifference to decorum" (p. 82) testifies more damningly to her own bad moral taste, there might nonetheless be some advantages to not sanitizing Elizabeth too quickly, to keeping her dirtiness in view, allowing it to reveal a weight and density comparable to those enjoyed by the incorporated object in the work of melancholia.

Although, Lydia's worthy efforts notwithstanding, the novel as a whole may not satisfy one's appetite for certain perverse pleasures, Miss Bingley's ill-advised mudslinging, like Lady Catherine's later judgment that Elizabeth's marriage to Darcy constitutes a "pollution" (p. 396) of the woods of Pemberley, has the oddly appealing effect of stigmatizing the heroine as not only a transgressor of class distinctions but also a sexual threat. However transparent a betrayal of her own jealousy, snobbishness, and sheer mean-spiritedness—however disgusting in its own right—Miss Bingley's disgust suggests one way of cathecting what we might otherwise pass up as an excessively wholesome text: by recognizing that, through the very plotting of its heroine's upward mobility, of her inevitable ascent toward marriage, it affords us a way of articulating sex with class —specifically, of eliciting from it a certain social perversity, in which the older sense of vulgarity as social offense already anticipates or implies the newer one of vulgarity as sexual offense.

In fact, far from being adventitious or merely occasional, Elizabeth Bennet's implication in the disgusting to a great extent defines her. It is tiiis very stance, moreover, that she takes (rather self-congratulatorily) to define herself. What she shares with her father, and what qualifies the two of them to figure as the novel's most conspicuous author surrogates, is a sophisticated "delight... in any thing ridiculous" (p. 59). Self-styled connoisseurs of the stupid and the vulgar, bemused practitioners of the art of treating the disgusting as a delicacy, these two characters demonstrate the classic middleclass technique, recently delineated by John Kucich, of making oneself look classier than the rest of the middle class. But this raises a potentially unsettling question: To what extent are they therefore not only author surrogates but critic surrogates as well?

One reason for retaining a certain psychoanalytic frame of reference is that, inflected by an awareness of the politics of sophistication, it can help us not only resituate the "easy" ironic "playfulness" that informs this lightest and liveliest of Austen's novels but also rethink our own way of consuming it. If the interesting characters in Austen's novels usually fall into two asymmetrical categories —the category inhabited primarily by the heroines, who can (or must) do the essentially interiorizing work of mourning, and the category of those who, endowed (or afflicted) with no such interiority, live exclusively in the nauseating vicariousness that, for Austen, virtually is die social—if, in short, the characters can be classified as either elegiac or emetic, what makes the jaunty Elizabeth Bennet differently interesting is that, oddly like the melancholic, she marks out a liminal zone between the interior and the exterior. While she dwells exclusively neither among the disgusting nor among the mournfully refined, she effects a certain commerce between these two realms. As a refined consumer of die disgusting, she may have tastes more like those of an oppositional critic than we might imagine and more to teach us about our own refractory middle-class fantasies of incorporation than we already know.

That is, if Pride and Prejudice, more saliently than any of Austen's other novels, mobilizes the marriage plot in such a way as to legitimate the nascent social conjunction that has been called a "middle-class aristocracy," the concomitant middle-class sophistication embodied by Elizabeth Bennet has the capacity to signify more than just a binding of potentially unruly social energies: its overdetermination can provide an instructive context for the contestatory projects of recent bourgeois academic criticism. It is an irony worth remarking, in other words, that the discursive strategy impelling Elizabeth's success story—in which what really succeeds, more balefully, seems to be ideological containment itself —looks a lot like the discursive strategy whereby latter-day middle-class sophisticates would disrupt the very ideology in whose interest Elizabeth fares so well.

Much of the appeal of Pride and Prejudice, in any case, consists in its fulfillment of the wish that middle-class readers can be sophisticated. While the middle-class heroine of Northanger Abbey can only aspire to the sophistication epitomized by her socially superior husband, Elizabeth Bennet not only possesses sophistication before the novel has even begun but proves herself more charming than Prince Charming himself—more charming, more clever, more witty than all the aristocratic Darcys and Bingleys and Hursts and de Bourghs put together. But what exactly is this middle-class sophistication that makes Elizabeth, according to her author, "as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print"? Just what is it in Elizabeth's "general style" that enables her not only to win Darcy but, in so doing, to outclass and infuriate snobs like Miss Bingley and bullies like Lady Catherine, making her the prototype of all those wisecracking comic heroines of literature and film, those avengers of their class against its supercilious would-be oppressors?


Excerpted from Strange Gourmets by Joseph Litvak. Copyright © 1997 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Joseph Litvak is Professor of English at Bowdoin College.

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