Among the many interesting comments made in the discussion after my talk last week on food and meaning, one keeps reverberating and growing in stature the more I think about it.
The commenter was expressing skepticism that food could be art because, he argued, genuine art was inherently contemplative and meditative, drawing the viewer or listener into a deeper understanding of the meaning of life. By contrast the flavors in food inhibit contemplation and meditation. When flavors become the focus of attention we are less likely to find deeper significance in what we are eating.
I’m not persuaded that art and music are inherently contemplative or meditative. I don’t find Picasso’s Guernica or the music of Ellington, let alone Hendrix, to be contemplative or meditative. But I think with some minor tweaking, the objection has some force.
Great art, it seems to me, enters our consciousness and eventually achieves recognition, by being felt more than seen or grasped intellectually. A great novel, although perhaps lacking any distinct quality we can put a finger on, can nevertheless move us in subterranean fashion, drawing us subconsciously into the world of the narrative until it becomes hard to distinguish the imaginative world from the real one. Painting and music can have a similar epistemology. Aesthetic form can work its effects on us without our being aware, without critical judgment or the conscious acknowledgment of meaning. We get absorbed in the activity of reading, looking, or listening and the work draws us in.
Although it occurs less readily with painting because vision tends to keep the object of attention at a distance, music, narrative, and some paintings do tend to reduce the distance between subject and object. It is not unusual to feel “at one” with the music, so caught up in the rhythm or unfolding dynamic tensions of the music that we feel merged with it; or to feel so empathic toward a character in a story that we struggle to distinguish our own feelings from those we imagine are felt by the character.
It was this absorption in the work that the commenter was alluding to. The question is, does food and wine afford a similar experience or does flavor somehow interfere with this subterranean movement of the mind?
Of course, we have Proust’s encounter with the tea-soaked petites madeleines as evidence supporting the capacity of flavor to offer a similar absorbing experience.
No sooner had the warm liquid, and the crumbs with it, touched my palate, a shudder ran through my whole body, and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary changes that were taking place. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, but individual, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory–this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me, it was myself. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs. Whence did it come? What did it signify? How could I seize upon and define it?
Most of us who love wine have had comparable moments where we are so transfixed by the elegant cascade of flavors, textures, and aromas that we stand outside the practical concerns that preoccupy the self and revel in moments of joy and ecstasy. There is after all a reason for the legends of Dionysus. The best food writers report similar experiences.
No doubt flavors are capable of inducing these transformative experiences. Are such experiences rare and atypical—exceptions that prove the rule that food and wine lack the capacity to absorb us as music or narrative does?
Are such experiences more typical of art, music, and narrative than of food and wine? That has not been my experience, but as they say data is not the plural of anecdote. I’m not sure how rare such experiences are but if they are atypical that perhaps tells us more about us and our eating habits than it does about flavor and its possibilities.