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crying girls

From the NPR story Songs That Make You Weep

As I’ve noted many times, philosophers take a dim view of the capacity of food and wine to evoke emotion. Here is Elizabeth Telfer in her book Food for Thought:

“A cook can cook as an act of love, as we have seen, or out of the joy of living. But whereas in music the emotion is somehow expressed in the product itself—the music can be sad or joyful, angry or despairing—in food the emotion is only the motive behind the product.” (pp. 59-60)

And here is Frank Sibley:

Perfumes and flavours, natural or artificial, are necessarily limited: unlike the major arts, they have no expressive connections with emotions, love or hate, grief, joy, terror, suffering, yearning, pity or sorrow—or with plot or character development. (in “Tastes, Smells, and Aesthetics”, p. 249)

You don’t have to be a philosopher to be cold to the charms of food and wine. Essayist William Deresivicz, writing in the NY Times, argues that food cannot express emotion because food does not exist as narrative:

But food, for all that, is not art. Both begin by addressing the senses, but that is where food stops. It is not narrative or representational, does not organize and express emotion. An apple is not a story, even if we can tell a story about it.

I think that Deresivicz is wrong that the flavors and textures of food and wine are not narratives. Traditions are narratives and food traditions are accessible via flavors. But let’s assume he is right about that for the sake of argument.

Where is it written that all art must rely on narrative? The main counter-example is music. Music expresses emotion even when there are no lyrics to provide narrative context.

It is a bit more complicated than this, but there are essentially two ways in which (non-narrative) music expresses emotion. Music can provide representations of emotion because we experience the tensions, releases, the rising and falling trajectory and intensity of music as analogous to similar patterns in various emotions. In that sense, music can, by analogy, be sad, joyful, angry, or despairing. But those emotions are not felt. I feel sad when listening to music only if the music is bad, despairing only if its really bad.

The second way in which music expresses emotion is to directly cause it in the listener. We can be startled, surprised, calmed, or excited by music. It influences our moods as well. The emotions we feel when listening to music are responses to sensations. I would argue, in fact, that sensuous beauty itself can provoke emotions such as wonder, intrigue, excitement, pensive meditation, joy, serenity, intensity, tenderness, etc.  not because beauty reminds us of these feelings, but because it directly causes them.

But then food and wine, if they also induce sensations of beauty, provoke similar emotions. Describing his visit to a Spanish “gastro-temple” Matt Goulding writes

The meal detonated an explosion of diverse emotions—
hushed reverence, brooding reflection, fits of wonder
and whimsy and piercing nostalgia—as only the very best
food can. In terms of a transcendent dining experience, dinner
for me at Can Roca lacked nothing. (Matt Goulding “Table for One”
Gastronomica)

The perception of beauty in wine too evokes wonder, mystery, brooding reflection, whimsy along with joy, anticipation, confusion, amusement, a sense of loss and impermanence, etc.

True, the emotions we experience via food and wine are different than those we experience via a narrative. But why assign “art” only to the expression of anger, sadness, or fear. Why privilege narratively-expressed emotions over emotions that are induced via sensation?

I doubt there is a good answer to that question.