Taste: A Literary Historyby Denise Gigante
What does eating have to do with aesthetic taste? While most accounts of aesthetic history avoid the gustatory aspects of taste, this book rewrites standard history to uncover the constitutive and dramatic tension between appetite and aesthetics at the heart of British literary tradition. From Milton through the Romantics, the metaphor of taste serves to mediate… See more details below
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What does eating have to do with aesthetic taste? While most accounts of aesthetic history avoid the gustatory aspects of taste, this book rewrites standard history to uncover the constitutive and dramatic tension between appetite and aesthetics at the heart of British literary tradition. From Milton through the Romantics, the metaphor of taste serves to mediate aesthetic judgment and consumerism, gusto and snobbery, gastronomes and gluttons, vampires and vegetarians, as well as the philosophy and physiology of food.
The author advances a theory of taste based on Milton’s model of the human as consumer (and digester) of food, words, and other commoditiesa consumer whose tasteful, subliminal self remains haunted by its own corporeality. Radically rereading Wordsworth’s feeding mind, Lamb’s gastronomical essays, Byron’s cannibals and other deviant diners, and Kantian nausea, Taste resituates Romanticism as a period that naturally saw the rise of the restaurant and the pleasures of the table as a cultural field for the practice of aesthetics.
“Highly original, immensely learned, and utterly sound. Milton, Wordsworth, Charles Lamb, Byron, and Keats are marvelously illuminated by her fresh perspectives.”—Harold Bloom
“This is a true history of tastes. It demonstrates, as no other work I know, the literal and metaphoric levels of taste and, by extension, of literary judgment and cultural fashions. The new interpretations of individual authors such as Milton, Wordsworth, Byron, Lamb, and Keats offer a fresh angle of vision on each writer examined.”James Engell, Harvard University
"Highly original, immensely learned, and utterly sound. Milton, Wordsworth, Charles Lamb, Byron, and Keats are marvelously illuminated by her fresh perspectives."—Harold Bloom
"This is a true history of tastes. It demonstrates, as no other work I know, the literal and metaphoric levels of taste and, by extension, of literary judgment and cultural fashions. The new interpretations of individual authors such as Milton, Wordsworth, Byron, Lamb, and Keats offer a fresh angle of vision on each writer examined."—James Engell, Harvard University
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TasteA LITERARY HISTORY
By DENISE GIGANTE
Yale University PressCopyright © 2005 Yale University
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAesthetics and Appetite: An Introduction
As soon as an edible body has been put into the mouth, it is seized upon, gases, moisture, and all, without possibility of retreat. Lips stop whatever might try to escape; the teeth bite and break it; saliva drenches it; the tongue mashes and churns it; a breathlike sucking pushes it toward the gullet; the tongue lifts up to make it slide and slip; the sense of smell appreciates it as it passes the nasal channel, and it is pulled down into the stomach to be submitted to sundry baser transformations without, in this whole metamorphosis, a single atom or drop or particle having been missed by the powers of appreciation of the taste sense. -Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste (1826)
Romantic gastronomers, self-proclaimed professors of taste, considered the profoundly physical pleasures of the palate to be the pinnacle of aesthetic appreciation. Various "committees of taste" established in early nineteenth-century Britain elevated food to the status of the fine arts, adopting the same juridical language andconcern with philosophical principles that defined the eighteenth-century discourse of aesthetics. Just as the Enlightenment Man of Taste worked hard to distinguish specific qualities of beauty and to pronounce exact judgments of taste, the Romantic gourmand worked with equal aesthetic imperative to distinguish among different flavors of food. Yet food had never been far from the concept of mental discrimination, and from the earliest instantiations of British empiricist aesthetics at the outset of the eighteenth century its vocabulary was invoked in relation to the concept of taste. Taste, call it gustus, gusto, or goût (the Continent, after all, got there before the English), was an apt metaphor for a kind of pleasure that does not submit to objective laws: de gustibus non est disputandum; chacun à son goût; sobre los gustos, no hai disputa; or, there is no disputing about taste. While most accounts of aesthetic history avoid the gustatory aspect of taste, this book offers a literary history of taste in all its full-bodied flavor. What writers in this history discover is the creative power of taste as a trope for aesthetic judgment and its essential role in generating our very sense of self.
Unlike classical aesthetics, which were primarily linked to the higher senses of sight and hearing, modern aesthetics as evolved from the concept of taste involves pleasure, and pleasure is its own way of knowing. Genealogies that trace modern aesthetic theory back through British empiricism to the mid-seventeenth-century European concern with goût and gusto skip over a source much closer to home. For at roughly the same time that "taste" was gaining currency as a term for aesthetic experience, Milton was struggling to represent the gustatory metaphor in Paradise Lost and Regained. Satan conjures appetite, manipulating consumer desire and turning the fruit into more than a common apple, or dietary container of nutriments. Eve does not give into temptation to taste the fruit because she is hungry, any more than Christ resists the luscious feasts of Paradise Regained because he has no hunger. As these works suggest, the Miltonic fall involves more than epistemological or moral errors of judgment: it also involves a kind of judgment inextricable from pleasure. That taste involves pleasure is a lesson the Romantics learn from Milton and that we learn from Romanticism-and the literary history presented here reroutes aesthetic history from its origins in European neoclassicism, or British moral-sense philosophy, to the forgotten ground of its metaphorical genesis in Milton.
As Percy Bysshe Shelley remarks in A Defence of Poetry, poetic "language is vitally metaphorical; that is, it marks the before unapprehended relations of things" (SPP 482), and most theorists of metaphor agree that rather than operating by reference to external reality or truth, it has a "world-generating" capacity. Writers in the literary history of taste wield the gustatory metaphor of taste to project and reveal a number of worlds, from Milton's alimentary cosmology, to Wordsworth's transcendentally feeding (and digesting) mind, to Keats's experience of epic nausea. Confronting the metaphor of consumption in the field of representation, as this book will show, these writers perform their own critique of the Romantic ideology (conceived as a transcendence of history by aesthetics) in a manner that anticipates the kind of literary criticism that presumes to displace it. Other disciplinary communities, including historians, anthropologists, economists, and sociologists, have recognized that the enormous cultural changes that came into being during the Romantic era were the result not only of an Industrial Revolution, but of a Consumer Revolution as well. Unlike the social structures of production, consumption is considered a matter of individual choice, and the so-called Man of Taste had to navigate an increasing tide of consumables, seeking distinction through the exercise of discrimination. An overdetermined, multivalenced concept, consumption is grounded in the power of metaphor, and it is time for literary history to examine rigorously its related subsets of taste and appetite. By the turn of the nineteenth century, the dialectical counterpart to taste was not only bodily appetite but also the wider sphere of material desires fed by consumer culture. Romantic writers deployed the gustatory metaphor of taste in the full awareness that by this point in the extended culture of taste, its subsets were not only taste and appetite but also a commingled version of the two in consumerism. When mapped against its philosophical and physiological background in the long eighteenth century, the literary history of taste described by the chapters of this book reveals the complex relations between aesthetic taste and the more substantial phenomena of appetite.
The Philosophy of Taste Taste has always ranked low on the philosophical hierarchy of the senses as a means of ingress to the mind. Whereas sight and hearing allow for a proper representative distance from the object of contemplation (hence for the regulating principles of consciousness and morality), taste, like its closest cousin smell, is bound up with the chemical physiology of the body. The two are thought to convey immediate pleasure or disgust, serving to mediate discrete individuals (if at all) based on bodily instinct without reference to shared ideals. Not only is taste bound up with the unruly flesh; traditionally, it is associated with too intense bodily pleasure and the consequent dangers of excess. While the exertion of the higher senses theoretically leads to more mind, the exercise of the lower senses of taste and smell can result in too much body and its various forms of sensuousness: to indulge the most basic human appetites is to risk becoming a glutton, a drunkard, or a voluptuary. All the major Enlightenment philosophers of taste were involved in the civilizing process of sublimating the tasteful essence of selfhood from its own matter and motions, appetites and aversions, passions and physical sensibilities. Above all, what the culture of taste energetically resisted was the idea that human beings were propelled not by natural cravings for virtue, beauty, and truth but by appetites that could not be civilized or distinguished from those of brutes.
Human beings may be taxonomized as Homo sapiens, but in the eighteenth century the man of reason was really only half the story of the embodied Man of Taste, whose other half was the man of sensibility and feeling. John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), a source for the many paradoxes of identity that centered on the concept of the self in this period, fused the related binaries of the man of sense and the man of sensibility, the private citizen and the civic individual, the self-made man and the passive product of circumstantial experience. By doing away with the concept of innate ideas, Locke made identity (no longer "identity" or assumed oneness) into a more complex social construct of selfhood dependent on how human beings process experience through the senses. Once the flesh was involved in the formation of selfhood, identity could not be explained away on Cartesian principles as a disembodied thinking spirit. As Hume and other British empiricist philosophers discovered, a gap had opened up between the mind and the world of sensory reality, mediated only by the senses, which were themselves highly unreliable. How could one tell, for instance, whether the sense impressions conveyed to the mind were an accurate representation of the world outside? The result was a highly unstable human subject whose doubts were epistemological bleeding into the ontological.
Locke himself did not worry too much about extrapolating a higher selfhood from human substance. While he did insist that something like a soul must exist (if only not to clash directly with scholastic Christian tradition), he never pinned down the exact relation of this soul to matter, or of the soul to mind, or to the thing he calls identity. Rather, the metaphysical question of what it means to be human-or more than an assemblage of animal anatomy-was a bone he tossed to the theologians or "those, who have better thought of that matter." The empirical tradition that grew up in his wake of course had much more (if not better) thought on the matter. Ernst Cassirer argues that the central project of Enlightenment humanism was to characterize the essence of the human and that in devoting itself to this central problem philosophy extended past the limited terrain of metaphysics. By this logic, ventures in political philosophy attempting to determine the social nature of humanity through the State of Nature were naturally consubstantial with efforts of comparative anatomists to distinguish the animal economy of humans from that of other organisms. This wide-ranging effort to sublimate the human from the physiological ground of its lived experience was simultaneously an effort to sublimate the social body into something more than the sum of its parts.
As one might expect, such an effort resulted in a proliferating set of definitions of what it meant to be human. If "man" was no longer a thinking animal, what kind of an animal was he? Benjamin Franklin proposed "a tool-making animal," to which James Boswell replied that he was rather "a Cooking Animal": "The beasts have memory, judgment, and all the faculties and passions of our mind, in a certain degree; but no beast is a cook," he claimed. "The trick of the monkey using the cat's paw to roast a chestnut, is only a piece of shrewd malice in that turpissima bestia, which humbles us so sadly by its similarity to us." Boswell's definition of man as homo culinarius, the seeming offhand remark of an urban bon vivant, is offered here in conversation with Burke at a time when contending definitions of civic humanism (the condition of our existence in civil society) were jostling for cultural dominance.
Man was an industrious animal, a culinary animal, and, more broadly, "a social animal," as the philosopher William Godwin remarked in An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793). As a social animal, man doesn't just eat: he dines. Anthropologists today confirm that while human beings have much in common with beasts, only humans develop what are called cuisines: "Humans are virtually the only creatures in the world that observe rules about what is eaten, how it is prepared, and with whom it is to be eaten. The only other animals that do anything remotely approximate are the Japanese macaque monkeys, among which strong food preferences have developed." Whether the Japanese macaque monkeys are to be identified with Boswell's turpissima bestia I am unqualified to determine, but the idea that symbolically regulated, discretionary dining is unique to human beings recurs throughout the Century of Taste. Combined with an evolving etiquette and a social imperative for commensality, dining in civilized society involved a range of food preferences through which the individual could establish claims to distinction. Romantic epicureans and aesthetic philosophers alike stressed the importance of taste, which governed the cultural politics of food and commensality as well as the metaphysical implications of eating.
The emergent public sphere made possible through commercialism entailed a belief that people were held together volitionally through bonds of shared feeling, rather than squashed together through external authority into the shape of a political body. In a very real sense, the Enlightenment culture of taste was a reaction against Hobbes's "Leviathan," depicted in the 1651 frontispiece to the work of that title as a gigantic human torso crammed full of tiny anonymous citizens and presided over by a monarchical Stuart head. For Hobbes, society was a clash of individual appetites, and his political treatise defined all human activity as the result of appetite or aversion: a mental instinct toward or away from an object, regulated by external control. His portrait of the state as an aggregation of appetites only gained sway after Locke raised the stakes of bodily experience for human identity. Once the body itself could think, the Hobbesian image of the state was especially threatening.
Like other early modern theorists, Hobbes gave appetite the serious philosophical attention that taste would provoke in the eighteenth-century discourse of aesthetics. Contemporary physiology identified three distinct categories of appetite, including the "natural," the "animal," and the "voluntary" (or "intellective"). As J. B. Bamborough explains, natural appetite was "the tendency of things to move according to their nature," and "Sensitive or Animal Appetite was the power which controlled the vital functions common to man and beast, such as breathing, digestion and the circulation of the blood." However, the appetites to which the most meaning could be ascribed-and with which philosophers like Hobbes were most concerned-were the voluntary appetites for pleasure and their counterpart, an aversion to pain. These voluntary appetites ere further divided into "concupiscible" or "coveting" appetites, which perceived pleasure and pain apart from circumstance, and "irascible" or "invading" appetites, which were stimulated by obstruction. In Leviathan, Hobbes defined these twin voluntary drives as a mental propulsion or endeavor that "when it is toward something which causes it, is called APPETITE, or DESIRE; the later, being the generall name; and the other, often-times restrayned to signifie the Desire of Food, namely Hunger and Thirst"; by contrast, "when the Endeavour is fromward something, it is generally called AVERSION." Of these mental cravings driving human behavior, the most powerful was an appetite for (or aversion to) food. Physical motion could be accounted for by means of nerves and muscles, but it was far more difficult to explain the mechanism of mental activity. Hobbes wrote that "the Schooles find in meere Appetite to go, or move, no actuall Motion at all: but because some Motion they must acknowledge, they call it Metaphoricall Motion; which is but an absurd speech: for though Words may be called metaphoricall; Bodies, and Motions cannot." Appetite regulated a Hobbesian world in which life was nasty, brutish, and short with no room for metaphorical motion. The Enlightenment culture of taste, by contrast, would train this appetite into a metaphorical endeavor-a taste for this or that.
Excerpted from Taste by DENISE GIGANTE Copyright © 2005 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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Denise Gigante is assistant professor of English at Stanford University.
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