Friday, January 4, 2013

'Wretched excess', biography and the intensity of friendship

A few things out in the world today.

First, my last Herald column, on foodies, was mentioned in New York magazine's food blog yesterday.

In 'Wretched Excess: More Writers Complaining About the ‘Tyranny’ of Fine Dining', Sierra Tishgart writes:
"The argument that food is merely about stale. Cooking is a creative outlet through which we socialize, learn about other cultures, and connect. It can certainly be an art form."
This is true, though not quite a reply to my argument. (Perhaps Tishgart was only replying to Vanity Fair's Corby Kummer.) I'm not suggesting that food cannot be art (of a sort). Quite the opposite: it is because food is something like art that so much foodie verbiage fails.

Gastronanists are not giving the food sustained, sensitive attention--they are playing with words, and salivating over their own imaginary impressions.

Not 'arty' enough, in other words.

(Photo: Jacques Lameloise)


Ovid, by Signorelli
Next, my usual ABC column is up today, 'Biographical daydreaming': on the value of lives in text. I'm arguing that biographies can sharpen our sense of what's valuable in life. A sample:
Biographical daydreams are not as indolent as they seem. Instead of simply consoling or amusing, they can illuminate the labour of lives lived well; or lived so clumsily that they serve as warnings. They reveal Seneca struggling with the burdens of wealth and the philosophical profession; Ovid bitterly coming to terms with exile; Proust questioning his proposed career in law. These stories are replies to the same unspoken question: What kind of life do I want, and I how can I best live it? 
In offering these answers, the ghosts of biography are not distractions. They are quite the opposite: partners in emancipation.

Orhan Pamuk and... Orhan Pamuk
I also have a new column in the Canberra Times today, 'Intensity of friendships reveals a reflection of our true selves'.

Prompted by summer catch-ups, and Orhan Pamuk's intriguing novel The White Castle, I'm discussing the intensity and anxiety of intimacy. A sample:
The French essayist Montaigne spoke of his friendship with Etienne de la Boetie as the most perfect, in which strangers became one soul in two bodies - ''the seam which has joined them,'' he wrote, ''is effaced and disappears.'' Why? ''Because it was he, because it was I,'' wrote Montaigne. No rationale was needed, for this rare love was a world of its own - no ''I'', no ''you'', just a mystical ''we''. 
What The White Castle reveals is the violence and terror of this coalescence. The intensity of friendship is often too much - they seek diversions at court, or become childishly brutal. Hoja is aggressive and cruel, and the Italian is petty and manipulative. 
Perhaps Montaigne's experience was rare in its ease and joy, or perhaps he was glossing over its ills. In either case, what Pamuk's tale suggests is that even the most tightly knitted friendships have friction and resistance. It takes extraordinary fervour to give one's consciousness over to another. 
Having one's own mind probed and penetrated can be violating and exhausting. And then there are the duties, favours, promises and confessions. Genuine friendships, romantic or platonic, are hard work: worrying, baffling, tiring. And yet, the reward is precisely as Pamuk evokes, and Montaigne explains: the enrichment and expansion of our world, and a heightened awareness of life.
(Photo: Fairfax)

1 comment:

aquaduck said...

The fish tank in the restaurant is different to the fish tank in the dentist. KFC & Macca’s offer me hospitality & delight, newspapers & MTV to add to the experience.

The dentist’s assistant places a napkin on my chest & appears to give a kindly reassuring smile as Monet’s fishing boats wallpaper a complete wall…my visit does not hold the expectations of a lovely meal, after my visit I no longer contemplate food in the same manner. Another set of priorities takes over…

There are times when just the waft of a dish coming from the neighbourhood will fill my memory of meals gone by, good company, and good times. But no matter how hard I try I can’t reinvent that moment but only cherish it for what it was, something special. Something more than the background sounds & environment, something so much more…at that moment the water was incomparable to many glasses of good wine, it was even good to stand together at the sink to wash & wipe up, feeling the warm glass through the tea towel, there are far better things than food, but each has their place. The smell of the detergent & cleanly wiped sink with its old drain played just as much importance as the meal itself. All has been put in readiness for another occasion.

The scissors, paper & rock of high end culinary culture can’t really deliver gladness of heart, no matter the quality & expertise engaged. Sacrifice & love go a long way to making a meal complete.