Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin – The Physiology of Taste (1825)

Split into two parts: Gastronomical Meditations, containing eclectic observations on everything from digestion, the science of the tongue, diet, the end of the world, dreams and portraits of model gourmands; and Miscellanea, containing much of the same but more heavily autobiographical and anecdotal. Though the division between two sections is called attention to incessantly, the first section, which aspires to raise gastronomy to a science, can scarcely rid itself of the anecdotal quality that is supposed to characterize the second, shorter section. The entire volume is therefore marked by the very dilettantism that Brillat-Savarin is at once attempting to avoid and preserve. Formally, the work becomes a justification of the anecdotal as a mode of presentation. That this form matches the content–TASTE–is implied. “Tasting” is rigorously disambiguated from gluttony and excess; at the same time, the quantitative “restraint” that is inherent to “tasting” is raised to the level of a physiological necessity. Accompanying the praise of enjoyment–he frequently lauds dinners that last all day, pre-Revolutionary Chevaliers that could eat 24 DOZEN oysters–is an insistence that rest and restraint is necessary for the proper upkeep of the body, the necessary condition for any sort of gastronomical experience.In short, we can read Brillat-Savarin as marking out a space between mere dilettantism and strict utilitarianism: a space of pleasure (in the Kantian sense) that is no disinterested but nevertheless aesthetic. [Connect this with Nietzsche’s critique of Kant in Beyond Good and Evil.]

The description of the tasting organ (the mouth, not just the tongue) offers a curious analog to the description given in Hegel’ Philosophy of Nature (1821-30). B-S’s account:

    As soon as an esculent substance is introduced into the mouth, it is confiscated, gas and juice, beyond recall.
The lips cut off its retreat; the teeth seize it and crush it; it is soaked with saliva; the tongue needs ot and turns it overl an intake of breath pushes it forward to the gullet; the tongue lifts to help it on its way; its fragrance is enjoyed by the sense of smell as it goes by, and down it plunges into the stomach, there to undergo further transformations; and throughout the whole operation not one particle, not one drop, not one atom has escaped the attention of the apparatus of taste. (47)

Three things to notice: the haptic quality of this “apparatus of taste,” not confined to the senses of taste and smell, but to touch, thus granting a phenomenological quality to the zone of maximal contact between the subject and the outside world; the definitive temporarlity of this process, which (over) determines the directionality of taste from outside to inside; the tongue is figured as one among many organs involved in tasting, and its functions are not sensual, but muscular, connected to the necessity of nutrition.Draw contrast with Deleuze (and Merleau-Ponty, Levinas), where the body becomes a articulated “tasting” organ that can move in all directions: the subject-object exchange is not strictly determined along temporal and spatial coordinates.

The concept of waste is linked to the definition of appetite: “movement and life are the cause of a continuous wastage of substance in every living body,” the device meant to warn man that “its strength is no longer equal to its means” is nothing other than appetite. Thus appetite is rendered as a negative affect: a languor that precedes desire for food. Yet in B-S, appetite does not determine the directionality or object of desire–the proliferation of means to satisfy desire far exceeds the simple need that sparks the initial desire. Indeed, what separates man from animals is the capacity to desire beyond the lack produced by appetite. [Connect to Bataille’s general economy of the body, the production of non-recuperable waste, luxury, etc.] Indeed, B-S adumbrates Bataille by including sexual desire as a sixth “sense”:

If taste, whose purpose is the preservation of the individual, is indisputably one of the senses, the same title must surely be given to those organs whose function is the preservation of the species. (29)

Both, in B-S’s terms, are “organs through which man communicates with external objects.” The curious move here is the leveling of the playing field of desire, which runs contrary to the hierarchy of the senses imported by Hegel and Kant. The operations of taste, desire, and self-preservation, are all linked.

The discourse of revolution and modernization, which verges on the apophatic, makes an interesting subtext. He decries the evacuation of the abbés and the chevaliers, the last true gourmands. But he also praises the recent developments in culinary “science,” characterized mostly by the globalization of cuisine made possible by trade. He positively revels in the number of foreign foods now available to the post-Revolutionary bourgeoisie (curry, Schiraz wine, Welsh rarebit, pickled herring, vanilla, etc. (275)). Further, restaurants have increased the accessibility of gourmet dishes to everyone of meager means. However, he mourns the inclination towards individualization, the breakdown of the community that once formed around the table:

But what is far more dangerous to the social order is the fact that solitary reflection breeds egoism, by accustoming the individual to consider no one by himself, to hold aloof from his surroundings, and to show no consideration for others; and from their behavior before, during, and after meals, it is an easy matter, in ordinary society, to single out form a party of guests those who normally eat in restaurants. (271)

Even here there is adumbration of twentieth century sociology (Bourdieu, Baudriallard, de Certeau) that mourns the loss of food’s vital connection to community building. The accessories that cluster around the restaurant table can be explicitly linked to Bourdieu’s critique of the highly-structured meal, or Pierre Mayol’s indictment of the bourgeoisie obsessed with cleanliness, order and restraint. B-S calls table-side ablution “useless, indecent and disgusting,” the result of a “pretentious affectation of cleanliness” (311). The intersection with aesthetic theory, which increasingly focused on the “I” as the subject of any aesthetic experience is also crucial. Link this to Luc Ferry’s work the tasting subject’s positioning with the “Democratic Age.”

Finally, there is clear distinction made between foods eaten by the rich and by the poor. Without exception, those eaten by the rich tend towards the dainty and the transparent (aspic), while the rustic tends toward the hearty and obscure (pot-au-feu).




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