- Feeding the Transcendent Body
To eat is to appropriate by destruction; it is at the same time to be filled up with a certain being.... When we eat we do not limit ourselves to knowing certain qualities of this being through taste; by tasting them we appropriate them. Taste is assimilation.... The synthetic intuition of food is in itself an assimilative destruction. It reveals to me the being which I am going to make my flesh. Henceforth, what I accept or what I reject with disgust is the very being of that existent....
It is not a matter of indifference whether we like oysters or clams, snails or shrimp, if only we know how to unravel the existential signification of these foods. Generally speaking there is no irreducible taste or inclination. They all represent a certain appropriate choice of being.Jean-Paul Sartre1
At first glance, it seems unlikely that contemporary U.S. culture can offer a gastrosophy to match that of other civilizations. Brillat-Savarin’s (and Feuerbach’s) adage, “You are what you eat,” does not throb today with metaphysical significance as it did scarcely two generations ago for Sartre. In the United States, it is indeed a matter of indifference “whether we like oysters or clams, snails or shrimp”; much of the lower priced seafood today is made from other processed fish. Consequently, the differences between particular foods are less important; what really matters is taste itself, laboratory produced flavor. Food as substance gives way to the simulacrum of flavor, which is something that “science” recombines in ever new ways to seduce us to this or that convenience food. As synthetic food replaces Sartre’s “synthetic intuition of food,” we find it impossible to transcend the brute “facticity” of eating, which is ironically as fake as it is real. We eat substances (the “real”) yet we do not know them as such but as simulations (the “fake”).
The portrait I’ve drawn here obviously calls for a reference to Baudrillard, which will come in due time. First, however, it is necessary to reflect a bit more on the changes wrought by the transition to simulation in our (seemingly) most immediate experience: eating. Anthropologists have explained in great detail how entire civilizations defined themselves allegorically through their eating practices. Inclusion or exclusion, symbolic and material exchange, body boundaries, gender, and other identity factors are systematically and most deeply inscribed in the members of a given group through eating practices. Consequently, the metaphysics of most groups is conveyed by these practices. This inscription conditions, for example, how people understand divinity. For the Greeks of Hesiod’s Theogony, the rituals of sacrificial cooking and eating, paralleled in agricultural, funereal and nuptial practices, establish a communication between mortals and immortals which paradoxically expresses their incommensurability. In contrast, the Orphic anthropogony makes possible the mystical transcendence of the barrier between gods and humans by rejecting the sacrifice of the official religion.
By refusing this sacrifice, by forbidding the bloodshed of any animal, by turning away from fleshy food to dedicate themselves to a totally “pure” ascetic life—a life also completely alien to the social and religious norms of the city—men would shed all the Titanic elements of their nature. In Dionysus they would be able to restore that part of themselves that is divine.2
Since mystical transcendence usually involves some relation to eating—or not eating, as in the Orphic cult—it is interesting to ask what are the possibilities of such transcendence in an age of fake fat and microwavable synthetic meals. The mystic engages in a struggle whose reward is nourishing grace. As Saint Teresa says, the soul “finds everything cooked and eaten for it; it has only to enjoy its nourishment.”3 In our consumer culture, however, such convenience food comes to most of us without the struggle. Unlike the mystic—who is “like a man who has had no schooling...and [yet] finds himself, without any study, in possession of all living knowledge”—we are not graced by any special knowledge. Without negativity—Sartre’s “appropria[tion] by destruction”— there is no transcendence. And negativity is precisely what gives the Orphics and...