Thursday, October 10, 2013

Gluttony and Panpsychism

One of the unexpected and decidedly unwelcome attendants of my passage from youth to middle age has been the disintegration of the conceptual logic that used to undergird my ability to appreciate in the fullest sense—to be properly amused by--certain jokes and joke-like edifices.  In some cases, the disintegration seems to have been most efficiently caused by my personal biographical cursus; for example, as a twenty one-year-old college student I found hilarious K. the land surveyor’s unwilling assumption of the title and duties of a schoolroom janitor because I had not yet experienced any egregious discrepancy between the tasks I was habitually assigned and the tasks I had been trained to perform.  In high school I had been trained to write analytical essays on literary texts, and in college I was regularly being ordered to write such essays.  To be sure, I had already been officially employed in a capacity—viz. that of a supermarket bagging clerk—that had not required me to write anything about anything, but at the time of that employment I had lacked any sort of accrediting document that would have distinguished me from any other high school student.  Hence, however capable I may have been of doing however many other things, I was not qualified to do any of them, and the company that had hired me had been rationally within their rights to assign me to a position that could have been nearly equally competently filled by an illiterate non-English speaker.  But now, two decades later, that I have spent the best parts (that’s best as in longest, not as in most enjoyable) of my adult and working lives deriving the effective entirety of my income from a position (or “situation,” as Scrooge would put it) that (I say this in all modesty, as my coworkers and supervisors themselves very probably would attest) falls woefully short of both my abilities and my qualifications, and that is by many salient standards (yes even that of $) inferior to that of a high-school janitor; now, moreover, that I have witnessed chez numerous vocations what a shabby thing professional accreditation by and large is, how little it refines or augments one’s stock of self-obtained competencies, how admirably the proverbial trained monkey would indeed function in most so-called professional settings, I cannot even manage to summon up the ghost of a sympathetic smile in face of K.’s supposed plight.  Indeed, if anything, I am inclined to bestow on K. the quietly outraged scowl of the bloke who hired him.  “The confounded cheek of the fellow!—peremptorily demanding a gig as a land surveyor as a kind of civil right, and never even deigning to consider whether there is any demand for land surveyors at this time and in these parts.  He should count himself lucky to have a job at all.”  And so on.  In other cases, history proper and writ large seems to have brought the Godzilla foot down on the unfortunate little shack.  Consider (here I am entitled to use the imperative mood, as I am addressing an experience of a transparently non-individualized nature), consider, I say, the Monty Python sketch about the young trade-unionist (Terry Jones) and his father (Graham Chapman), a representative of the older generation of trade-unionists.  The son, dressed in a business suit and tie, and speaking unaffectedly in a middle-class Home Counties accent, wants to talk only of his efforts to organize a mining strike.  The father, dressed in overalls, and speaking in a broad working-class Yorkshire accent, turns out to be a playwright, and wants to talk only of his latest kitchen sink drama.  When the son begins making noises about the class-appropriateness of this topic, the father launches into a vituperative tirade to the effect that the son with his namby-pamby miners’ strikes has never known what it means have it really rough—to slave away at a play for months on end, develop writer’s cramp, and so on.  In the early old-Labour dominated 1970s, this sketch must have been a real schpincter-dilating hoot-inducer, and even in the mid-1980s, when I first saw it, it still seemed quite funny, despite the supposed cultural gulf (sic) supposedly interposed by the Pond.  After all, overalls and funny regional accents were then international signifiers of organized labor, and suits and ties and non-regional accents international signifiers of a middle-class, office-centered Dasein.  So the pairing of each set of signifiers with its catty-cornered signified was guaranteed to set off alarm bells of absurdism.   But since the election of Tony Blair way back in 1997, our de facto image of a Labourite has been a young man wearing a suit, talking in a Home Counties accent, and yet for all that still joined at the hip to the trade unions (as is attested by the recent kerfuffle over Ed Miliband’s over-cosiness with UNITE).  And today our de facto image of an old Labourite is more likely to be a “proletarian artist with a strong regional identity” than a coalminer, if only because playwrighting and painting have in the long run proved to be more sustainable—if hardly more lucrative—occupations than coalmining.  So that sketch isn’t funny anymore, however adequately distant from home and far enough away from the bone it may be.

Then there is the case of the so-called “dinner scene” from Luis Buñuel’s 1974 film The Phantom of Liberty, whose new incapacity to rouse my face into the faintest soupcon of souriscence I cannot even tentatively chalk up to either cause.  For those who have not seen the scene and cannot be bothered to look it up on Y** T***, I summarize it as follows.  In what appears to be a well-appointed dining room, a group of elegantly dressed people—two men, three women (one of whom is the lady of the house), and a little girl (her daughter)--convene around a table, identical to any other dinner table in any other “discretely charming bourgeois” household save that in place of chairs it is surrounded by freestanding toilets, complete with water tanks and flushing levers, and with seats unlidded and ready for use.  The “diners” all drop their trousers and/or knickers, seat themselves, and begin conversing.  One of the women asks one of the men how his recent holiday in Spain went.  The man replies that regrettably he was obliged to break it off because the entire city of Madrid was permeated by a “horrible stench [here he lowers his voice] of food.”  From the subject of food pollution in Madrid it is an easy transition to that of the increase in food pollution that will inevitably attend the increase in the world’s population over the next twenty years from four billion to seven billion (it incidentally comes as some relief to reflect that that figure ultimately was reached not in 1994 but in 2009), and thence to the (apparently less distasteful) subject of the consequent increase in the volume of human waste.  “If you want to get an idea of how quickly it accumulates,” the recent visitor to Spain says to the hostess while pointing at a fish tank in the foreground, “just try peeing in that aquarium for a week.”  At about this point, the girl groans “I’m so hungry!”  “Shh!” chides her mother: “You know you’re not supposed to use words like that at the table.”  Then the new Madridophobe flushes, resecures his trousers, rises, and excuses himself.  The camera follows him into a small room, where, after sitting down and shutting the door he sheepishly raises a small partition to reveal a bottle of wine, a wine glass, a set of cutlery, and a plate bearing a complete cooked bird (perhaps a small chicken), which he greedily tucks into.  Shortly afterwards, one of the women guests, having obtained ear-whispered directions to the “dining room” from the hostess (evidently the new Madridophobe is a friend of the family and did not need to ask), knocks on the door of the room the new Madridophobe has lately entered.  “Occupé! cries the gentleman from within, and through a mouthful of coq au vin.  End of episode.  

Now in all candor and frankness, DGR, I can hardly aver that this episode is now completely devoid of all power to amuse me.  But I can in all C&F aver that the bit of it that I now find most amusing has nothing to do with its cardinal conceit of making the classically private function of excretion into a social activity and the classically social activity of dining into a private function.  If eating really were as socially proscribed as pissing and shitting, if it really were something that one did simply because one had no choice but to do it, it presumably would not be attended by any of the elegancies associated with “fine dining,” and presumably something like a terrestrial version of the ultra-Spartan rations of astronauts (say, vegetable broth, fiber-enriched cookies, and vitamin-enriched water) would be the gustatory order of the day.  And yet the gentleman in Buñuel’s “dining room” is provided with cutlery, a complete cooked bird, and wine.  This part of the episode is extremely funny in much the same way and for much the same reason as the conclusion of the Kids in the Hall sketch “Girl Drink Drunk,” wherein a man who has become a raging alcoholic by way of his proclivity for fruity, gimmicky “girl drinks,” remembers to garnish his glass with a generically obligatory umbrella despite being intoxicated to the point of near-unconsciousness.  But as for the Buñuel picture episode’s central tableau, the scene around the dinner table—well, I really must confess I don’t any longer much see the humor in it, if I ever did (the terminus a quo of this “ever” is, incidentally much later than the one for the Kafka and Python episodes, as I saw the P of L for the first time no earlier than 2005—i.e., when I was 32 at the youngest).  Would it really, I wonder, be so distasteful, so revolting, so nauseating, to take my ease in such a setting?  Granted, the scene is mercifully devoid of any flatulatory sound effects a la those that grace the dinner scene in the Eddie Murphy version of The Nutty Professor or the bathroom stall scene in American Pie, such that one almost feels safe in assuming that Buñuel’s excretory convivium is a pure pissfest (a con-wee-wee-um, as it were)–and surely such concurrences of No. 1-only voidings are rarer than solar eclipses.

I have concluded that my failure to be amused by the “Dinner Scene” in the P of L, insofar as it may be chalked up to any somatic cause chez moi, is attributable not to an increase in my tolerance for (0r of) the sights, sounds, and smells attending other people’s excretion, but rather a decrease in my tolerance for (or of) the sights, sounds, and smells attending other people’s ingestion; and that this decrease is attributable in turn to an increase in the frequency with which I am obliged to observe other people eating while not partaking of anything myself.  Part of this increase—calculating whether it is a minority or a majority, let alone its exact proportion is probably impossible—is undoubtedly due to a specific personal biographeme.  Since about 1999, I have religiously conformed not to a diet but to a gustatory regimen or routine of one meal a day (Those who gasp at the apparent biological impossibility would do well to remember that Immanuel Kant made it to his ninth decade on this very same regimen [Not that I  was inspired to adopt it by him]), partaken of usually at traditional suppertime or dinnertime, occasionally at lunchtime, and almost never at breakfastime (I note incidentally that of the three unbroken “time” terminating compound words I just typed, “breakfastime” alone received a red squiggly underscore from Mr. Gates, perhaps because the Solomon-worthy choice of whether to reduplicate or omit the ‘t’ has sent most would-be users of the word nose-diving into the safe and cozy cleavage of a hyphenated compound; but more likely because breakfast is the most overrated and least popular meal of the entire day!).  But for roughly the first decade of that sincedom, meaning through 2009 or 2010, I no less religiously supplemented my meal with a matutinal cup of coffee and some sort of  lowish-calorie mid-day snack, most often a bagel and cream cheese with a diet soda or unsweetened iced tea.  So for two of the three main mealtimes I was generally sheltered by my practice from assuming the position of a pure spectator on ingestion, and for the third I was sheltered by the happily accidental circumstance that at least during the workweek most Americans breakfast at home (if they breakfast at all [q.v.] {viz. the parenthesis of two sentences ago}).  But beginning in late 2009 or early 2010, my financial situation (essentially rising rent combined with a static income) mandated a modification of my routine, and more specifically a paring down of the midday snack into a midday draught—and not as in a belated generous English pint-sized installment of Pepys’s “morning draught” of strong beer, but as in a single one-dollar can of diet soda.  And with this dowparing came a deluvian dilation of the amount of time I was obliged to spend hearing, seeing, and smelling what Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck might call Die Verfressen der anderen—the “eating-in a-devouring, animalistic-sort-of-way of others.”  You see, DGR, in the genuinely good old days of the midday snack I effectively had no choice but to leave my place of employment in order to secure the snack.  To be sure, for the solid portion of the snack, I could have made do with a packet of jellbeans or dried meat fragments from the vending machine on the mezzanine, a mere seventy or so feet from my desk; but I didn’t much care for jellbeans or dried meat fragments, and besides, combined with a soda, they easily rivaled in price many a choice available only outside the building.  Consequently, I ended up spending much of the traditional lunchtime hour in cafés, delis, juke joints, and bistros, surrounded, to be sure, by other hominids wolfing down such conspicuously odorous genres of nourriture as burgers, cheesesteaks, gyros, and Buffalo wings, but absorbed as I was in the gustation of my sufficiently (if hardly flagrantly) toothsome bagel, I paid them no nose, let alone mind.  But with my switch to the super-econo, beverage-only lunch there came a radical change in my quotidian migratory pattern and consequently in my personal phenomenology of Verfressenderanderenannehmung.  The 12-oz. diet sodas on offer at the nearest (one block away) 7-11 you see, sold for $1.25, a full 25% more than those dispensable by the vending machine on the mezzanine.  To have hoofed it the extra 150 feet down and over to the 7-11 would have amounted to an embarrassing triumph of n**gardliness over convenience even in the counterfactual event that their 12-oz. diet sodas had gone for $.75, or 25% less, than those from the vending machine; in the actual event it would have seemed an act of institutionalization-worthy madness.  And so I now spend virtually the whole of virtually every lunch interval, barring the five minutes required by the round-trip to the mezzanine, at my desk, sipping my gustatorily almost entirely unengrossing soda, and reluctantly hearing, smelling, and occasionally even seeing the culinary and gustatory transactions of my coworkers.  Another phillip must be administered to the biographical mise-en-scene before I continue.  At my place of work there is no dedicated kitchen in a separate room, nor indeed very many of the indispensable accoutrements of a kitchen—most distressingly absent are a stove or anything remotely stove-like (e.g. a hotplate or Bunsen burner) and a sink (scandalously, all washing of cutlery and china must be taken care of in one of the three restrooms [men’s, women’s, and a third one that I have never ventured near and that is either a handicapped pissoir or some sort of ladies’ auxiliary]).  In toto the kitchen-manqué consists of a refrigerator, a set of cabinets, and (resting atop the cabinets) a microwave that would not be there had someone long ago not (alas!) thought to donate one from his or her personal collection.  The entire assemblage is sited a mere ten feet from my desk.  So each time the door of the refrigerator is opened, I get a dehumidified whiff of a hundred lunches in a hundred stages of putrefaction.  And each time the microwave is started I get a whiff of…well, I’d rather not say, DGR, in case you are eat--, pardon me!, make that micturating or defecating.  In all fairness I ought not to represent my micorondically induced disgust as strictly invariable or ever-recurring.  During the perhaps one out of thirty countdown-intervals in which I infer that the “nukee” is a pouch of popcorn, I often find myself succumbing to something approaching an actual craving in response to the vapors stirred up by the nukage.  But popcorn is mercifully devoid of most of the distasteful attributes of other foodstuffs; indeed, anyone who had never ingested it and was unaware of its name or history probably would never guess that it was meant to be eaten.  Unpopped, as a kernel, it can be used interchangeably, and in virtually any setting, with a similarly sized piece of glass or plastic.  (Think: grade-schoolers’ art projects.)  And in full-blown popped form it can be threaded on to a garland capable of scentlessly adorning a family’s Christmas trees for three or more generations.  Finally, it is surely not for nothing that those folklorically beloved polyurethane fragments used as padding in mailed packages are colloquially denominated “popcorn”; and I daresay that financial considerations alone have militated against the universal adoption of actual popcorn in their stead.  But alas, and as I have more or less already said, popcorn accounts for but three or four percent of the payloads committed to the interior of the microwave near my desk.  I do not know what in culinarily conventional terms accounts for the remaining 96 or 97 percent; I am utterly unable to provide a so-called breakdown of it along the lines of such terms; presumably it consists in more or less equal parts of a more or less equal mixture of supermarket-bought microwave-ready meals (risottos, meat and pasta combos, “pocket”-style sandwiches, and the like) and leftovers of meals prepared from relative scratch in the nuker’s home kitchen (casseroles, stews, fricassees and that like)—all I know is that I find the smell of the lot of it virtually unendurable to the point of extra-metaphorical nausea.  And to add alienation to dyspepsia, scarcely a single one of these sessions reaches its terminus or “ding-point” without my hearing the voice of some presumptively bathroom-bound or -quitted person uttering words to the effect of “Watcha cookin’?  It smells so good!” accompanied by some inarticulate series of grunts or moans expressive of boundless gustatory envy.  This moment invariably evokes a scene in a certain 1990s so-called action movie (here for once I’m not being coy—I actually can’t remember the title of it) in which Wesley Snipes lifts a manhole cover and before descending into the sanitary sewer no longer concealed thereby exclaims, “I love that smell!  Reminds me of biscuits and [or, rather, “‘n’”] gravy.”  I for my part loathe that other smell, the smell of cooking food, for it reminds me of shit and piss.

But the change in my lunching habits is undoubtedly only part of the cause of my being an increasingly frequent unwilling witness to the Verfressenderanderen.  Undoubtedly a good part of the blame must be laid at the feet (or gullets) of the anderen themselves; undoubtedly my simplification, impoverishment, and attenuation of my own eating schedule has coincided with a complication, enrichment, and inspissation of other people’s.  For (in the first place) it is by no means no longer only or perhaps even mostly during traditional meal hours that I witness people succumbing to the Verfressendenjones.  Again, a typical workplace-set scenario: it’s roughly 4:15 p.m. or 16:15 EDT, an hour and fifteen minutes before my outclocking time and a mere quarter-hour before the average out-clocking time of my coworkers.  In a traditional, old-school, three-square centered gustatory dispensation, one expects people at 16:15 to have not quite recovered, as it were, from lunch, and to be allowing their tummies a bit of a respite before dinner, now looming a mere two or at most three hours ahead.  They would be wary, in other words, of “spoiling their appetites” (I put the phrase in quotes only in spineless deference to received opinion’s unwarranted stigmatization of it as a bit of meaningless 50’s-sitcom-mom’s argot) with a snack.  But it is at just this time of day, ca. 16:15, that I am most (i.e., extremely) likely to hear from a neighboring cubicle the telltale crepitation of digitated cellophane-coated paper, followed immediately by the smelltale mastication of something hard and crispy reeking of lard or vegetable oil lightly qualified by highlights of charbroiled turd.  “Well,” I unhappily reflected, the first quarter-dozen or so times I was greeted by this then-seemingly-unseasonable supervention (but only once my visceral loathing of the Vefressung had begun to yield place to my only slightly less visceral loathing of the Verfresser) “it looks as though Jenkins [or ‘Aronovich’ or ‘Caputo-Kawazawa’] is in for the long haul [or ‘going to be burning the twilight oil’] this afternoon-stroke-evening.  So much for my hopes of catching up on my [usual proprietary-name heavy round of workplace recreations] unmolested.”  But this reaction was very soon deprived of its Pavlovian fangs or leash—or perhaps a better metaphorical vehicle would be the release mechanism of a trap door, as the reaction was, as near as I can tell, one of the sort that people usually have in mind when they say or write “my heart sank.”  For on all or at least all but one of the first few of these occasions (along with all or at least all but a few of their successors) within a half-hour of finishing his sixteenses snack, in other words, within seventeen-60ths of an hour of the average out-clocking time (a fraction arrived at by generously allowing a full two minutes for the consumption of the snack itself), Jenkins autc. would shut down his or her computer and shuffle off the floor and presumably thence to home and the same generous 1,500-odd calorie, ca. 18:45-tucked into dinner that she would have tucked into at exactly the same time had she not partaken of a sixteenses snack at all.

But the most frequent, as well as the most disturbing, upsetting, and revolting, evidences of a more cluttered average eating schedule I have gathered only outside the office, on my way to and from work, in the streetcars and buses of the Maryland Transit Authority.  These streetcars and buses, I should explain up front, are officially food and drink-free zones; the consumption of any kind of food or drink on their premises is officially finable to the tune of something in the neighborhood of a cool half-grand (a.ka. ca. $500 or £350).  And for the first decade-and-a-half of my ridership of them, it seemed that the overwhelming majority of my fellow riders were either content or sufficiently fearful to heed the proscription.  A single, almost telegraphically (if not quite T*****resquely) brief anecdote dating from the early years of the last decade (a.k.a. the weest small years of the present millennium) will suffice to adumbrate the peremptoriness of the gustatory dispensation we Baltimore transit riders happily submitted to in those very good old days: passing on slippered feet through the cat shit-strewn kitchen of the so-called group house I then dwelt in, I happened to catch sight of a manifestly official document magnet-glued to the fridge.  Upon affixing my monocle to my right eye and scrutinizing this document, I found it to be a so-called ticket issued by the MTA transit police to one of my housemates, a young gentleman—or, as I prefer to call him now, scapegrace—who happened to work as a restaurant chef.   The infraction reported on the ticket was “CONSVMING FOOD ON LIGHT RAIL CAR,” the fine levied thereupon the aforementioned cool half-grand.   Whether I was surprised and appalled more by the enormity of the offense or by the modesty of the sum to be forfeited in consequence of it I would not venture to guess at this temporal distance.  Suffice it to say, the shock was violent enough to make me lose control of at least one set of muscles—the ones holding the monocle in place.  A scant six months later at the very latest, I moved out of that sewer of iniquity.  Were I to happen upon such a document—a document levying the same fine for the same offence on the same sort of person standing in the same sort of relation to myself—now, in 2013, I doubtless would once again lose control of my depressor supercilii and levator anguli oris, but I doubtless would do so in wonderment not at the transgression itself but rather at the fact that it had been prosecuted by the MTA at all.  For the consumption of food and drink is now as common and unheeded a sight in Baltimore’s vehicles of mass transit as the smoking of opium in a Victorian Chinatown basement.  Passengers now sip, masticate, and swallow with impunity, in the dozens per busload, as wantonly and complacently as they breathe.  That somebody in authority at the MTA has noticed and does not approve of such rampant onboard gustation, one may gather from the recent addition to the overhead aisle-side gallery of notices and warnings a sign whose left half is filled with a photograph of a hamburger within legally actionable resemblance to a double Whopper with cheese and all the so-called fixin’s, its right with the two quasi-sentences “That looks delicious.  But please wait until you leave the bus to enjoy it.”  (A second sign bears the same language but substitutes a bucket of fried chicken for the hamburger.) That this selfsame somebody is utterly bereft of even the vestigial remnants of what is only barely euphemistically known as a pair, one may gather from the non-occurrence so far of even a single remonstration by an MTA-uniformed person with a down-chowing passenger in the presence of the present writer.  Exactly when this all started, exactly when people in these parts started getting and putting into practice the idea that it was all fine and dandy to gorge themselves comatose during their mass-transit hosted commute, is almost impossible to say.  Certainly no person with the humblest pretensions to civilization has ever (or at least since 1994, when I moved here) been able to survive in a town of Baltimore’s demographic constitution without each week expunging from his private memory the analogue of an entire film vault shelf documenting the bad behavior of the city’s organic[1] populace.  And certainly gluttony in public spaces not designed for dining has always figured in the organic Baltimoreans’ collective repertoire of inappropriatisms.  Indeed, among the milliard or so reasons that I cannot bring myself to spectate on ten minutes in succession of that god-awful David Simon-spawned television series that as a cultural shibboleth has so stratospherically exceeded the most pie-in-the-sky dreams of the devisers of the Harvard five-foot shelf that in outing myself as a non-fan of the show I have doubtless secured to my inbox the delivery of an endless stream of spamvertisements centering on the depiction of the rear view of a pig and an arrow pointing to a spot just below the animal’s tail and bearing the legend “YOUR TONGUE OR MALE MEMBER HERE,” no. 1,454,000 at the lowest must be my incredulity at a mise en scène in which two or more supposedly organic Baltimoreans are routinely juxtaposed in a space ostensibly no wider than the front room of a two-up-two-down row house, while gesturing with hands bereft of chicken wings, half-eaten hamburgers, or the like and talking intelligibly through mouths manifestly unoccluded by food and undistracted by chewing.  To a certain extent, then, my impression of a sharp upswing in the amount of unpunished on-bus downchowing may be owing to a sharp enfeeblement of my powers and skills as a memory-editor, an enfeeblement acting in cooperation with a transit-police eye that perhaps has only ever been trained but purblindly on the infractions of a substantial proportion of the ridership.  But to a perhaps equal or even greater extent, it must be founded in reality, and to a decidedly horrifying slice thereof that cannot be much more than three years old.  For it has only been since then that I have grown accustomed to seeing people who, in the vulgar phraseology of the demagogues of so-called progressive American politics, “look like me” eating and drinking on the bus—people who clearly were not born here (or, in a very unlikely pinch, born in one of the town’s three or four sole respectable ZIP codes), people who dress decently enough by the sub-Polynesian standards of our time, people who appear to be traveling in some other capacity than that of a ward of the State, people who weigh under fifteen stone or 127 kilograms.  Why, just the other day (i.e., at most eighteen weeks ago), I found myself seated opposite (hence thankfully not next to) a to-all-outward-appearances highly respectable gentleman, aged about fifty, balding, with a face lined with wrinkles that appeared to have been occasioned by much thoughtful frowning and that in any case were at the moment I caught sight of him—i.e., just after the two of us had claimed our seats—being enlisted in the service of an apparently very thoughtful frown; and clad in a soberly color-schemed polo shirt, a pair of knee-length beige or khaki so-called cargo shorts (baggy and with extra pockets on the legs), and very practical-looking tennis or running shoes.  If I had been asked to name the man’s vocation and present business, I should have replied “tenured university professor on his way home from the gym” like a shot.  But no sooner had he fully settled into his semi-banquette, and long before the bus began moving, than he produced from out of a plastic carrier bag one of those cigar-box sized white flimsy cardboard containers that in these parts can contain only one genre of thing—viz. a warm helping of fast food fresh from the brazier of a convenience store of the Royal Farms brand name—and extracted therefrom a hefty deep-fried chicken breast, which he immediately proceeded to tuck into with all the cutlery-less so-called finger-lickin’ lack of delicacy that tradition enjoins and the absence of any sort of table practically enforces.  He attacked it no so much like a predatory beast falling on its prey as like a gyro chef falling on a piece of processed lamb meat in a vertical spit: for all the while he rotated it above his face and just within reach of his incisors, sending huge shavings of shorn and battered chicken skin cascading on to his knees and thence to the floor beneath, and gradually impregnating the already sufficiently oppressively muggy piss-and-sweat soaked atmosphere of the midsummer bus interior with the unholy aroma of superheated vegetable oil and dead chicken fat.  In thinking back on this episode, and attempting verbally to reconstitute it, I now suddenly wonder whether it would not after all have been better if I had been seated right next to the former-seeming-gentleman, in the other semi-banquette, than across the aisle from him.  For at such hyper-close quarters the egregiousness of his gourmandise surely would have sufficed to push me over the edge for the first time, in other words, to impel me to mutter to him in a discreet undertone, and to the accompaniment of an equally discreet aiming of my index finger, “Excuse me, sir: have you seen the sign?”  

Anyway, the unmistakable principal facts of the case, even after one has corrected for all potential personal Swiftian bias (or, if you prefer, “insanity”) against gustation tout court on my part, are these: over the past half-decade people in general have become accustomed to eating more frequently, and they have also become less self-conscious about eating in the presence of people who are not eating.  And getting back to the dinner scene from The Phantom of Liberty: I think I am safe in concluding (though I have yet to ask anybody) that my inability to be amused by it is as much a feature of the age as of my character.  We (in the non-royal sense, meaning not only I but also you) must concede that that film and that scene hail from another era, an era when all dining was done either in complete solitude or in the company of other diners, and when hence the notion that the figure of the diner could ever be an intrusive and repulsive presence was as yet unknown.  The humor in that scene has gone the way of the scandalousness of Rhett Butler’s “I don’t give a damn” and Eliza Doolittle’s “Not bloody likely”: we may sympathize with or even admire the people who reacted to it in the intended way, but we dare not attempt to clamber up the sides of a horse high enough to raise us to their level.  All this having been granted, we must still deal with the far more horrifying reflection that the “us” who are repelled by the spectacle of watching others eat (and into whose numbers I now belatedly but unregretfully see I have conscripted you, DGR, willy-nilly, by default, as a consequence of neglecting to push the “off” button on the “we” alarm) must be outnumbered to the tune of a hundred to one by a “them” composed of those who are not likewise thereupon repelled.  And in the face of this reflection there asserts itself for the first time in this essay the classic Russian revolutionist’s question, Shto delyat?—What Is to Be Done?  Certainly merely publicly acknowledging our disgust tout court will get us nowhere, in that such an acknowledgment will be instantly challengeable by a countercharge of disgust chez each person who has disgusted us.  “Oh, you find my lapping of this particularly runny helping of scrapple bisque up with my unassisted tongue disgusting, Milord Viscount Moneybags?  Well, I happen to find your wearing of full-length non-denim trousers and a long-sleeved shirt after Memorial Day and before Labor Day equally degoutant.”  Of course he or she will have felt no such disgust—opportunistic imbecile that he is, he will have mistaken resentment for disgust—but we will have no way of proving this to a so-called third party: it will perforce be our word against the savage’s.  Even more surely hopeless will be any effort to remonstrate with these sub-varlets on the grounds that they are being uncivil or impolite, for the charge of incivility in the present invariably bases itself on a norm of civility that happened to be more widely adhered to in the past, and therefore lays its spread-eagled buttocks open to a countercharge from the challenged churl that one is trying to revive some supposedly contemporaneously no-less-than-normative violation of some supposedly inalienable supposed human right.  “You know,” one says to the churl, after screening to him the PoL’s dinner scene, “in the days when this movie was made, people didn’t think it was very nice to eat in front of other people who were not eating.”  “Yeah,” rejoins the churl, “but back in them days only white men with proper’y could vote and run for president and shit like that, innit?”  (Though by default I opt for an American context, I impersonate an English churl out of genuine dread of the indictment on hate crime charges that would doubtless ensue if I attempted an anthropologically accurate representation of the grammar and diction of an American churl.)  This is always the churl’s first line of defense: by default he attributes the most “reactionary” (so-called) human rights profile to the period in question and retrenches only on being challenged by his antagonist—as he rarely is, on account of all the deprivation and whatnot he’s suffered, dontcherknow/innit?.  “But,” the interlocutor sufficiently hard-hearted not to cut the churl any epistemological slack gently points out, “in the middle 1970s women and minorities were allowed to vote and run for the top political post in all the countries of the West [with the possible exception of Switzerland, but who cares about the Swiss?].”  Then begins the retrenchment: “But surely interracial marriage was still outlawed then.” “No.”  “But surely abortion was still illegal then.”  Well, The Phantom of Liberty was released in 1974, a full year after Roe versus Wade, so no.  “Then it was still illegal for gay people to have sex with each other.”  And so on, until he is lucky enough to hit upon some satisfaction that was indeed beyond legal reach of some demographic segment of the population of most Western countries at the time of the filming of the FoL: “But surely not absolutely every public building was wheelchair-accessible then.”  “All right, you win-stroke-got me there: the Americans with Disabilities Act was indeed signed into law only in 1990.”  And at that point you will have been soundly and irrevocably trounced.  Don’t bother trying to show him how he has fallen prey to the old schoolman’s post hoc, propter hoc fallacy: in matters depending on historical fact the churl is impervious to any logic but that of the carelessly unwashed tar-brush, the spontaneously exploded ballpoint pen, the clot of chewed gum on the sidewalk or wet toilet paper on the bathroom floor.  That something desirable has coincided with something (supposedly) undesirable is enough, in the churl’s mind, to establish a duck’s ass-tight connection, linking the desirable thing as an inevitable effect to the cause that (supposedly) is the (supposedly) undesirable one.  Therefore, so long as we continue to live in a churl-fellate-churl world (and the only other sorts of worlds there is any plausible prospect of our living in are, unimaginable as this may seem, even worse than the CFC one), and as long as we have nothing better than historical precedent to fall back on by way of a corrective, we shall be forced for the alleged sakes of women, minorities, et al., to commute, promenade, and so forth, in the company of hordes of morbidly obese tarts and yobbos in fluorescent chartreuse Brazilian-flaunting thong onesikinis and fluorescent vermillion-thonged flip-flops wolfing down burgers, pizza slices, chip kebabs, poutine, haggis--you name it!—by the container liner-load.  No: the only hope the would-be civilized person has any right to dream of cherishing in this matter is one founded in the sorts of arguments that do carry weight with the savages, churls, tarts, and yobbos, which is to say arguments that are transparently and categorically moral in purport and sentimental, and more specifically, pathetic in tone.  We cannot dream of hoping to persuade them to stop eating in front of us on the grounds that doing so will make life pleasanter (or less unpleasant), for anyone—even themselves—because the merely pleasant (or unpleasant) is not a sufficiently stimulating tonic to their organisms, which are after all on the whole rather bulky and slow-moving contraptions whose nearest mechanical analogue is probably those football-field footprinted vehicles that used to transport the space shuttles from the hangar to the launching pad at the rate of about a half a mile per day.  We must, rather, persuade them that eating in front of others is wrong, which effectively means exploitative of or detrimental to the (supposedly) weak and innocent.  To put this necessity in more concrete and evocative terms: you know, DGR, how the churls are in the habit of qualifying their merciless and long-winded kvetchfests about those supposedly nearest and dearest to them—kvetchfests that would indeed be interminable were it not for their tri-hourly snack breaks (their tri-daily pee and poo breaks, thanks to the miracle of the mobile phone, do not constitute such efficient causes of interruption)—with the epic-kenning like formula “not that he or she is a Hitler” (or “a serial killer” or “a child molester”)?  Cor knows what they do it—for surely a far tidier way of showing that a person is no Hitler (or child molester or serial killer) is to refrain from inveighing against him or her as extensively as a lawyer for the prosecution at the Nuremburg Trials (or the trial of a child molester or serial killer).  But anyway, the point is that we have got to convince the churl that in eating in front of others he is a kind of Hitler figure, that eating in front of others is morally tantamount to genocide.  And in all candor and frankness, DGR, it is not merely the churl but also ourselves whom we must convince of this moral atrociousness.  For if, “after Auschwitz it is barbaric to write poetry,” it is surely no less barbaric after Auschwitz to write prose taking others to task for crimes less egregious than Auschwitz.

For a long time I waited and searched in vain for a logically, philosophically cogent argument that met those exacting specifications.  “You were waiting, in other words, for an argument that would put you and your fellow unwilling chowfest spectators on the same moral level as those starved and gassed in the Nazi death camps, that would make unwilling spectatorship on downchowing the equivalent of death by poisonous gas.”  Well, by default, I suppose I was.  You make it sound so awful, though.  “And rightly so.  I can’t believe I inhabit the same universe as a monster like you.  Why, you ought to be ga—”  Aha!-stroke-Gotcha!  It’s not as easy as it seems not to metamorphose into a Nazi.  In any case, you must bear in mind that I always had ready to hand a towel to throw in to the churls’ corner at that increasingly seemingly inevitable moment when I would have to concede a la a sort of Robert Pattison figure that while exhibitionistic gourmandizing might not be the most edifying practice in the world, it would have to be accepted along with rock ’n’ roll, fast cars, and high school as an inevitable appenage of the sort of society that I as a native-born American was organically unqualified to reject.  And I was just on the point of throwing in that towel, when I happened upon a certain audio document—one that might be described either as an interview or as a viva-voce revival of the genre of the Platonic dialogue—that radically transformed my conception of the entire matter.  The document was a so-called podcast in the Philosophy Bites series hosted by David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton.  The premise of the show is both elegantly simple and, as I have already hinted, well founded in philosophical tradition: one of the presenters and a certain philosopher shoot the shit, as they say, about a certain topic for a quarter or so of an hour.  The guest in the conception-transforming installment was the famous English philosopher Galen Strawson, son of the equally famous English philosopher Peter Strawson, and the topic was something called panpsychism.  Panpsychism, according to Strawson the Younger, was and is the belief that all matter is capable of experience and indeed very probably does continually experience something.  Just as there must be something that it is “like” to be a human, said Strawson to Warburton, so there must be something that it is “like” to be a subatomic particle—say, an electron.  The logic underlying this assertion is both elegantly simple (yes, just like the premise of Philosophy Bites) and irrefutable: we humans are material entities and have experiences; therefore, none of us has any just reason to assume that any other material entity does not likewise have experiences, and every just reason to assume that all other material entities do have experiences.  The only three conceivable alternatives (said Strawson to Warburton) are all more complicated and less plausible.  Either one is a dualist, a believer in the familiar mind/body (or soul/body or mind/matter) distinction, a distinction between one kind of stuff that experiences things and another kind of stuff that does not, and one gets involved in “all sorts of problems that haven’t been solved and aren’t going to be solved”—chiefly (to expand Strawson’s exasperated shorthand by referring to the two main problems that actual dualists have actually encountered over the ages), those of how (and where) the interaction between the experiential and the non-experiential occurs, and of what experience completely divorced from a material medium might actually be and feel like.  Or one is a “physics-ist”  (Strawson will not allow people of this second sort to call themselves ‘physicalists” or “realists” [a.k.a., presumably, “materialists”] because he identifies physicalism/realism with his own position) and believes that in a certain genre of organization and at a certain level of complexity (e.g., basically, those of the neurological systems of vertebrate animals) initially non-experiencing matter suddenly acquires the capacity to experience ex nihilo.  As for the third alternative, the possibility that (in Warburton’s words) “maybe we don’t really have experience; maybe it just seems that we do,” it is (in Strawson’s words) “the silliest view that anyone has ever held in the whole history of humanity,” because, “if there’s one thing we know, it’s the reality of consciousness, the reality of conscious experience.”  “So what Strawson is saying,” you, DGR, say, “is that even the most trivial material object, say a bit of paper, has some proto-experiential aspect to it.”  Actually, it was Warburton who said those words (from “say” onwards) in description of Strawson’s position, but as Strawson did not contest them, he might as well have said them himself, and so the answer to your question might as well be “yes.”  “OK, it sounds completely nutty, but never mind that; let us for the sake of argument, as they say, assume that bits of paper think and dream and fall in love and so forth.  What difference to the Chinese tea-price that is your hope of making exhibitionistic downchowing into a war crime do these thinking, &c. bits of paper make?  After all, before hearing this (so-called) podcast you already knew that you, the alleged victim of this alleged crime, were capable of having experiences (inter alia, the experience of being horrified or disgusted by watching other people eat).”  But that’s just it you see: it is not myself whom I now regard as the victim of this crime (at least not the principal victim thereof).  You, half in stitches, half aghast: “You surely can’t believe that it’s the f-f-f—” That’s right, DGR: I believe that it is the food that is being victimized by the exhibitionistic downchower.  “You can’t be serious.”  I have seldom been more serious in my life.  “Do you seriously mean to say that you believe that when a person sinks his teeth into, say, a submarine sandwich, the sandwich feels the very same sensation, the same rush of agonizing pain, that, say, a human infant would feel on having a bite of the same force and origin administered to his or her arm?”  Not quite: I’m saying that we have every reason to assume that the sandwich feels something of some sort when it is bitten into, and that in the absence of access to the sandwich’s private world, we are only being fair to the sandwich in assuming that that something is unpleasant.  It might be only very mildly unpleasant, like a very slight and very transient itch, or it might be very highly unpleasant, like the feeling of having the contents of a full bottle of rubbing alcohol poured on to a large, deep open wound.  We just can’t know.  “I see. So what are we supposed to do in the light of this uncertainty—starve to death en masse so that the ten milliard or so already-prepared submarine sandwiches can painlessly rot in their transparent plastic sarcophagi?”  You are getting way ahead of me DGR—or, rather, way aside of me, because that is not even the direction in which my argument is about to be vectored.  I shall take it as a given that life is an ethically privileged state and that therefore 1) any given living human—even if that living human is an habitually exhibitionistic downchower—merits more ethical consideration than any given piece of non-living matter—even if that piece of non-living matter is a submarine sandwich the size of Eurasia; and 2) any given living human has the right to consume any piece of nonliving matter if refraining from doing so would plausibly eventuate in his or her death.  I shall take it as a given, in other words, that we have a right to eat in order to survive.  But from this bare given on its own it by no means follows that the consumption of non-living matter as food by the living is of no ethical significance, that we should feel free to eat as much non-living matter as we like as often as we like in as many settings as we like.  For if we accept that non-living matter is experiential, we must accept that any assault on the integrity of a piece of such matter is an act of violence, and hence by its very nature regrettable. And that just as while there may be occasions on which violence against living matter is right, appropriate, and necessary towards the attaining of a certain morally legitimate purpose, the moment one exerts more than the amount of violence needed , one crosses the line into cruelty, sadism, and gratuitousness; so it is possible to be cruel to lifeless matter by exerting gratuitous violence on it.  “I beg you to allow me to point out one odd aspect of this vector before it becomes unmanageably eccentric.”  By all means, do point it out.  “It seems to presuppose that everyone—which is to say/at any rate, every living human—is already a convinced believer in panpsychism.  For surely in order to be cruel to someone or something, in other words knowingly cause it pain, I have to believe that it is capable of suffering.  If I sink my teeth into a submarine sandwich believing—in other words, thinking that I know—that it is incapable of feeling pain, I am surely being no more murderously cruel to it than I was, say, being maternally kind to it ten minutes ago when I laid it ever so gently in the passenger’s seat of my car en route from the delicatessen to my dining-room table.”  That is a very cogent point.  And the truth is that I do believe all we living humans are all either explicit or tacit believers in panpsychism, and inasmuch as Strawson (as far as I know) has argued no such thing, by this point the vector of my argument has ceased to be explicitly Strawsonian.  Mind you, I suspect that Strawson either has already come to the same conclusion as I or would come thereto if presented with the argument that is to follow–I suspect this not on the evidence of any intrinsic part of his argument in favor of panpsychism but because he concluded his side of the Philosophy Bites interview with a quotation from Schopenhauer[2] (on whose contribution to the grand panpsychistic tradition more will be said in its proper place).  To be sure, the official zeitgeistial party line is obdurately physics-ist in orientation; to be sure, whenever nowadays some callow, lily-livered, bleeding-heart straddler of the fence between absolute and partial vegetarianism starts wringing his hands over whether it is morally acceptable to eat gastropods, fish, and (more rarely) insects, some doughty physics-ist is always ready to spring to the rescue like a caped superhero and inform the hapless sap that “of course it’s OK to eat ants, because their literally pinhead-sized brains contain only as many neurological connections as the microprocessor of a Macintosh LC computer [and Moore’s law will suggest to you what a lowly analogue to insentient primordial ooze that machine was],” or, “of course it’s OK to eat snails and fish because science hath apodictically shewn that their literally pen-head sized brains function without the participation of certain neurotransmitters in the absence of which (as science hath likewise apodictically shewn) pain and pleasure are not merely figuratively unthinkable.”  But the very irruption of such quandaries of conscience into the collective ethoscape suggests that the physics-ist argument is fundamentally unconvincing, that it cuts stridently against the grain of a certain so-called basic human tendency, viz. the tendency to presuppose somatic sensation in things that in response to certain stimuli behave even vaguely as we would do in response to identical or analogous stimuli.  You may tell me, Mr. Physics-ist, that the convulsive about-floppings of the fish I just caught are wholly dispassionate reflexive muscular contractions, but to me they will always testify to my piscine friend’s experiencing of the same sort of all orifices-dilating panic I should feel if I (non-swimmer that I am) were suddenly tossed headfirst and without a lifejacket into the middle of the Atlantic (or Pacific or Indian) Ocean.  And what of the dying house-spider that as a child I saw suspended upside-down from a single filament of its own web, round which its upturned legs were clutched like the fingers of an octo-digital hand or the petals of a budding flower: from time to time—that is to say, every ten seconds or so—one of these legs would dissociate itself from its fellows and slowly extend itself in an arc terminating at a full right angle to the main body, only to resume its original place in a single spasmodic bound.  Was I mad to be moved by this scene?  And from being moved by the torments of such lower-order animate assemblages of animate matter is it not an easy transition to being moved by the torments of higher-order assemblages of inanimate matter?  Is our sorrow in sight of some magnificent construction of human art succumbing to the elements—a sandcastle being washed away by the tide, a wedding cake collapsing in a rainstorm—attributable entirely to the labor-hours objectified in it, to the fact that “it took so long to build or bake it,” or do we not feel at least a twinge of sadness for the sake of the object itself?  And complementarily, is not the pleasure we take in inflicting violence on inanimate objects often of a piece with the pleasure we take in inflicting violence on living things; is it not often equally worthy of being decried as “sadistic,” inasmuch as it likewise arises from an imputation of subjective properties to the subjected object?  Is it not basically all the same to the spiteful child armed with a magnifying glass if the “victim” of his pyromaniacal pranks is an ant or a book of matches?  Does he not derive equal and consubstantial pleasure from seeing the one or the other writhing and being reduced to ashes?  And is not Basil Fawlty’s elaborate administration of corporal punishment to his stalled car merely a comical exaggeration of the retributive kicks, thumps, and punches that all of us routinely visit upon uncooperative televisions, soda vending machines, clothes dryers, and the like?  And, finally, must we not concede that the satisfaction we derive from sinking our teeth into a piece of food is owing at least in part to a triumphal feeling of lording our subjectivity over an unresisting presumptive fellow subject, a someone rather a something, a feeling of always literally cutting him, her, or it down to size (a much smaller size), of showing him, her, or it who’s boss, of settling (sometimes literally) his, her, or its hash, etc.?

If you concede that the answer to all these questions is “No,” DGR (e.g. qua i.e., that I was not mad to be moved by the dying spider and that Basil Fawlty’s car-thwacking is merely a comical exaggeration of our TV-thumping &c.), you must also concede that exhibitionsistic downchowing is blameworthy for more than one reason, and at more than one degree of opprobriousness and circumstantial rigor.  At one resolution, the exhibitionistic downchower is no guiltier than any other human eater in any other scene of ingestion: he is taking a kind of pleasure that none of us can avoid taking if we wish to continue living; it is a sinful pleasure, to be sure, but the sin is an original one, a sin to which all living human flesh is heir.  Even so, it very much is a sin, and as such ought to be an object of shame, something one ought to wish to conceal from others.  Of course, by outward signs alone we can never be sure that a given exhibitionistic downchower is not positively racked by such shame, that he or she is eating in front of us not in the wanton absence of such shame but in the most reluctant and guilt-ridden spite of it; we cannot be sure that he or she is not one of the rare genuine sufferers (as against the corresponding ten-thousand or so malingering pretenders thereunto) from some condition like hypoglycemia that mandates—on pain of his or her forthwith collapsing into an incontinent pile of disjoined limbs—say, the guzzling of a full six-pack of chocolate Jello pudding straight from the cups.  But in judging the mass of exhibitionistic downchowers en bloc, we are obviously safe in assuming that its behavior is not motivated by such exigency, that it could easily restrain itself if it wished to and therefore does not feel the shame that it behooves it to feel—or, at any rate, does not feel it with sufficient force.  And when we ponder the typical genres of setting in which it inflicts its wantonness on us, an even more damning conjecture about this mass suggests itself.  One of these typical genres, as I have already remarked, is the intra-metropolitan bus commute.  My own very average-length such commute lasts on average about twenty minutes; the very longest such commute, transfers included, cannot last much longer than three-quarters of an hour.  We may therefore safely conclude that the sort of person who routinely downchows during an intra-metropolitan bus commute is the sort of person who cannot stand to go without eating for longer than forty-five minutes at a stretch.  If the food-units consumed during such sessions tended to be calorically insubstantial—a pinch of sunflower seeds here, a dollop of cream cheese there, and so on—we might be inclined to extend to the downchowers the benefit of the doubt, to leave open the possibility of their affiliation with the sub-tribe of health food nuts who apportion their daily caloric allotment (and no more than that) among some thirty repasts of some seventy calories apiece.  But given that these units--whole candy bars, chicken breasts, twenty-piece orders of western fries, and so on—weigh in at a median 500 calories, one cannot but conclude that the average downchowing intra-metropolitan commuter has, upon tucking into his snack of choice, long since met his daily caloric quota and that hence from a purely nutritional point of view this snack is—even if it does not contain so much as a microgram of animal fat—pure gravy.  Whence we may further conclude that any pleasure he derives from such snackage is perforce completely different in kind from that preeminently and inalienably associated with the satisfaction of appetite; that it must be a pleasure of a sort that survives the death of this satisfaction, and in the absence of any other plausible contenders, we must further further conclude that this pleasure consists solely of the anti-inanimate sadism whose phenomenal essence I have already glossed.  “What you meantersay, then, is that these people who are wolfing down Snickers bars, chicken breasts, and the like, on their way home on the bus are effectively throwing their own private S&M party, a party in which the bar or the breast is the chained and gagged victim and they themselves are the dominatrix?”  Essentially, yes; although of course the tortures sufferable therein are much more severe than those induced by a few whip-lashes or boot-kicks, and the “victim” is hardly the willing accomplice that we associate with the “M” in “S&M.”  “Not for the first time, albeit in inaugurally unique phrasing, I have to say that this sounds like complete codswallop.  Surely apart from appetite-slaking and sadism there are any number of empirically demonstrable reasons for which people have found it opportune or handy to stuff their respective faces.”  Surely, indeed?  Well, then, name one such reason.  “Depression.”  My, but you are an unsophisticated little question-beggar, aren’t you?  After all, depression in itself is hardly a reason or motive.  One is, after all, and whatever the neuroscientists may say to the pseudo-contrary (to attribute true contrariness to their utterance would be grossly to overrate its intelligibility and arc of deviation from pure nonsense), always depressed about something.  And if forced to wager doughnuts to dollars (sic for two or more reasons), I should hazard that the most common thing to be depressed about is one’s lack of control over one’s life, one’s lack of participation in that quality that the famous French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas called “mastery” and held to be the human subject’s principal impetus to getting out of the proverbial bed in the proverbial morning.  Consider, if you will, the locus classicus of the depression-motivated overeater: the romantically unsuccessful perimenopausal bachelor or spinster.  Having been denied all access to the principal arenas of mastery afforded by our so-called society—viz., marriage and parenthood—he or she must somehow contrive to get his or her power-mongering rocks off elsewhere.  If his or her position of remunerative employment places subordinates at his or her mercy, he or she can always cultivate the persona of the so-called ball-busting bastard or bitch of a boss, a la that Ferguson bloke’s character in The Drew Carey Show or Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada.  But there are sharp and strait limits to the amount and intensity of workplace bullying one can get up to in the era of OSHA and workman’s comp (and, let us not forget, the Americans with Disabilities Act), and in any case, our schlub or schlubess is more than likely much closer to the bottom of the so-called totem pole than to the top.  To be sure, if he or she has a pet cat or dog (as most schlubs and schlubesses do), he or she can ventilate a bit by cussing the poor puss or pooch out for some real or fabricated offense against the rules of the house, and perhaps even giving him, her, or it a light kick in his, her, or its wee bottom or ribs—but absolutely nothing beyond that, for cruelty to animals is (like smoking in elevators) a crime, punishable by six to eight years (or is it only months?) in prison or a fine not to exceed…well, whatever the figure is.  And so our schlub or schlubess takes his retributive anger at his or her world out on the sole bit of that world that is guaranteed to submit to his or her will unconditionally and (from a legal point of view at least) inconsequentially–viz., whatever still-integral unit of food is ready to gob or readily summonable into such gobbial-proximity: he or she breaks the seal on that five-hundred piece box of chocolate truffles, or hops on the blower to order an extra-extra large pizza pie festooned with every kind of meat, vegetable, herb, spice, and cheese imaginable.  “But,” you, DGR, will surely demur at this point, “you must remember that your so-called shlub or schlubess is turning to food as a means of self-medication.”  Indeed, DGR, I concur; but what, I bid you to ask yourself, exact make or model of condition is it that he or she is medicating against?  You must remember or consider for the first time, DGR, that all the usual biochemical-cum-biophysical medicinal suspects (endorphins, triptophene, and so forth) associated with appetitive gustation have been delivered to their principal jonesee hours, weeks, months, or perhaps even years ago—whenever it was that our schlub or schlubess last breakfasted, dined, supped, or snacked on a stomach that was less than half-full (or more than half-empty).  What, then, can he or she be medicating if not a perverse, pathological fetiishization of the sanguinary brutality of mastication, voration, and digestion?  And in what light are we to regard the compulsive overeater, if not that of an unregenerate bully who is too cowardly, too abject, to pick on creatures capable of putting up the feeblest token of immediate resistance?

This talk of “immediate resistance” puts me within groping distance of the above-mentioned proper place for addressing Schopenhauer’s contribution to the grand panpsychistic tradition.  Schopenhauer, you may recall—depending on how much you know or have heard about him—held that everything that went on in the natural world was a manifestation of a principle that he called Will, not merely because he wished to be on familiar terms with it but also because it was directed to desiring or wishing to get things done.  Everything in nature, according to Schopenhauer, was trying to assert his, her, or, its will in relation to everything else in nature—the higher and more complex things at the expense of the lower and less complex ones, and the lower and less complex ones in resistance to being incorporated into the schemes of the higher and more complex:

Thus the arm falls which for a while, overcoming gravity, we have held stretched out; thus the pleasing sensation of health, which proclaims the victory of the Idea of the self-conscious organism over the physical and chemical laws, which originally governed the humours of the body, is so often interrupted, and is indeed always accompanied by greater or less discomfort, which arises from the resistance of these forces, and on account of which the vegetative part of our life is constantly attended by slight pain. Thus also digestion weakens all the animal functions, because it requires the whole vital force to overcome the chemical forces of nature by assimilation. Hence also in general the burden of physical life, the necessity of sleep, and, finally, of death; for at last these subdued forces of nature, assisted by circumstances, win back from the organism, wearied even by the constant victory, the matter it took from them, and attain to an unimpeded expression of their being.  We may therefore say that every organism expresses the Idea of which it is the image, only after we have subtracted the part of its force which is expended in subduing the lower Ideas that strive with it for matter. This seems to have been running in the mind of Jacob Böhm [Who he?] when he says somewhere that all the bodies of men and animals, and even all plants, are really half dead. According as the subjection in the organism of these forces of nature, which express the lower grades of the objectification of will, is more or less successful, the more or the less completely does it attain to the expression of its Idea; that is to say, the nearer it is to the ideal or the further from it—the ideal of beauty in its species.      

From this passage one may derive compelling, comprehensive medical and ethical counter-prescriptions to compulsive overeating, to gluttony.  Digestion, Schopenhauer tells us here, is in the first place not a neutral biological process; it is not something that simply happens and results in a permanent net gain for the digestor; to the contrary, it is always a struggle between the digestor and the digestee, a struggle from which the digestor emerges as a merely provisional victor and the digestee as a merely provisional vanquished who is always rationally entitled to exclaim “You haven’t seen the last of me!”  Indeed and moreover, Schopenhauer implies, the more often one puts one’s organism through the paces of digestion and the larger the representative chunks of “the chemical forces of nature” that one obliges it to “subdue” (i.e., the longer and larger one’s meals are), the sooner these forces will “attain an unimpeded expression of their being,” by first inducing its death and then reducing it to their more primitive level of organization through the catalytic process of decomposition.  The compellingness of the position summarized in the sentence- before-last should be obvious to anyone who has ever suffered a case of heartburn after a spell of gustatory overindulgence—for example, the fellow in the old TV commercial for a leading antacid who ruefully averred, “I like knackwurst,” (or some comparably recalcitrant sort of food), “but it doesn’t like me.”  Indeed it doesn’t, and why should it when it is quite happy to remain a shapely, rock-solid link of sausage and you are forcing it to become a shapeless puree of glutinous goo?  And as for the compellingness of the position summarized in the sentence after that—well it should be obvious to anybody who has a genuine and high regard for “the Idea of the self-conscious organism” and wishes to see it reach its maximum life expectancy.  In explaining why I may have to give a distorting Kantian or even Platonic twist to Schopenhauer’s argument, and even more fatally seem to turn the tables on the entire pan-psychistic argument that I have been building up (yes, like a sandcastle or wedding cake) for so many pages now, but so be it.  Our self-consciousness may be thoroughly parasitic on un-self-conscious [though presumably still conscious!] matter, and may ultimately be doomed as a consequence, but it is perhaps beyond our power to think of it as such, to give up on the idea of a self-sustaining purely spiritual self-consciousness—not a cold, Spockian-cum-HAL-9000-ish purely instrumental logic-driven self-consciousness, but a warm, emotionally vital self-consciousness that is no less passionate than reflective, yet at the same time uncorrupted by the ordure and dreck and offal and runoff and excreta and effluent of the lower-order organic (!) material world.  And is this not the kind of self-consciousness that we may just be able legitimately to flatter ourselves that we embody during those rare and precious hours (I call these episodes “hours” advisedly, as they indeed hardly ever last much longer than 60 minutes) when we are virtually unencumbered by the importunate exigencies of the alimentary canal?  And do we not postpone to an ever-more-remote point of time the day when such moments must once and for ever cease—at least as far as our individual self-consciousness is concerned—the less often we compel them to be interrupted by the aforementioned importunate exigencies; i.e., by eating less often and in smaller quantities?  Qua expressions of the ideal idea of beauty in our species, do we not stand in relation to the food that we consume roughly as the gentleman proprietor of an extensive eighteenth-century English estate did in relation to his tenants and domestic servants?  If we are to retain the regard of our equals and ourselves, we must on the one hand treat those whose labor supports us humanely and (in a certain sense) respectfully, and on the other refrain from fraternizing with them too frequently or too intimately; we must not seek out pretexts for flogging them, but we must also refrain from inviting them to join us for a rubber of cribbage.  We must neither tear into our cheesesteak submarine sandwiches and Martian artichoke canapés like priapic hussars, nor chummily invent nicknames for the various textures of turd into which these foodemes are ultimately transformed.  Our food should be the butt, focus, or center of neither our negative, malevolent, destructive passions nor our positive, benevolent, “creative” ones; and the nearer it approaches such a Ziel, such a Mittelpunkt, the more richly entitled our fellow self-conscious beings are to dismiss our utterances and statements on non-gustatory matters as so much hot air, the antipodal complement to the bovine quantities of flatus our cibocentric modus vivendi will oblige us to emit almost uninterruptedly from our respective recta.  In proffering an example of such an orotund windbag, I shall not flinch from naming a certain name—viz., that of Michael Moore.  Mr. Moore has been severely criticized even by many of his fellow so-called liberals for his cavalier attitude to facts and statistics, his unsubtle exposition of argument, and his bumptiously intrusive method of securing interviews and film footage.  But nobody as far as I know has publicly taken Mr. Moore to task for his most egregious fault, in whose absence all his other transgressions would be eminently forgivable and juxtaposed with which they appear infinitesimally minuscule–viz. his brazenly unapologetic fatness.  “How,” he whingingly blusters, “can these billionaire cutthroat CEOs complacently ride around in their stretch limos with built-in Jacuzzis when their, poor, defenseless, utterly innocuous employees are forced to make do with compact pickup trucks and backyard inflatable pools?”  Yet he himself presumably cannot suffer a poor, defenseless, utterly innocuous pizza or cheeseburger or carton of ice cream to continue to be itself in his presence.  How, then, dare he call into question the compassionateness, the considerateness, of anyone—be he or she ever so rich—who is a micrometer skinnier than himself?  In general, one is one well advised to counterpoise each and every guilt trip laid on one by the so-called environmentalist so-called movement with the dictum “True altruism begins at home, and home begins at one’s own corporeal person.”  Before fretting and fuming (and consequently making a beeline for the fridge) about the square-inchage of other people’s carbon footprints, these prigs would do well to check the square-acreage of their (respective) adiposal assprints.

In summary, I am adjuring the reader to adopt an ethical disposition based on or in the prescription implied by Pascal’s famous dictum “Tout le malheur des hommes vient d’une seule chose, qui est de ne savoir pas demeurer en repos dans une chambre.” (“All of man’s myffortune fpryngeth from but one thynge: hys ynabilitie to fit ftill in a roome.”).  Naturally, a perverse, Jesuitical shag will point out that it is eminently possible to sit perfectly still in a room (or, indeed, in virtually any other sort of place) while feasting on a pig compote the size (and shape) of a king-sized bed mattress.  But any reasonable and decent person will have to concede that Pascal was really thinking not so much of the stillness as such as of the absence of any sort of outward manifestation of dissatisfaction, and that gustatory incontinence constitutes a manifest instance of such a manifestation.  Our default disposition to the world ought to be one of quiescence, of, yes, living and letting live vis-à-vis the portion of this world that is by conventional biological criteria alive, but also of being and experiencing and letting be and experience vis-à-vis that portion thereof that is not.  When we are in no immediate danger of losing what makes us us, why should we wish to deprive any other entity of what makes him, her, or it him, her, or it, if not out of a childish dissatisfaction with the finitude of our own entitiyhood, with the impossibility of our encompassing and subsuming all other entities for the duration of existence’s natural?  Why, the very idea of entertaining such a wish, let alone indulging it, seems positively parvenu—regardless of whether the victim of our subjective overlording is a spouse, a co-worker, a child, a pet, or—indeed—a submarine sandwich or link of knackwurst.  In the common theological literature of the Abrahmic religions, humanity is held to occupy a position somewhere between the beasts and the angels, and enjoined to embrace the angelic part of its nature and abjure the bestial part thereof; and what, next to the ability to fly, is more signally characteristic of an angel than his existential independence of food?  Angels are classically depicted holding harps, torches, and swords; and what more comically incongruous alternatives to these seraphic props can one imagine than chicken drumsticks, ice cream cones, and pizza slices?  What more risibly atypical act can one imagine the archangel Gabriel engaging in than digging into a heaping plate of spaghetti and meatballs?[3]  Angels have no desire for food because they are content to be what they are, subordinate powers in a divine spiritual hierarchy.  But chez an angel contentment does not manifest itself, as it would do chez a biological organism, in mere prostrate or supine inertia.  For the angel is endlessly purposively active, engaging in all sorts of worthwhile activities, from dispatching divine messages, to singing hosannas, to playing the harp, to sounding tuckets and sennets on his trumpet, and so on.  It is to such an angelic combination of contentment and purposive industriousness, however intermittently achieved, that humanity owes all—not just some but all—its great achievements.  And however tenaciously the god-awful evolutionary biologists in their spiteful frowardness try to persuade us that we will never be anything better than power-crazed, implacably omnivorous shit-flinging gorillas, and however brazenly the exhibitionistic downchowers embrace the biologists’ argument, it is solely to the ever-dwindling minority of us who acknowledge the angelic remit that this selfsame humanity owes its ever-shrinking remnant of a justification for its continuing existence.

[1] I use “organic” here in the classic Gramscian sense, as a back-formation from “organicism,” which in turn denotes a class-specific union with one’s environment and the tools of one’s trade (e.g., plough, loom, lathe, chicken wing, or crack pipe) that is of an inalienability and intimacy utterly beyond the comprehension of such an idle, filthy-rich bourgeois phony as the present writer ineluctably will have been assumed to be.  Equally ineluctable will be the reader’s assumption that the organics to whom I refer are all black: in vain would I attempt to convince him or her that many of my worst organic bêtes n…erm, make that bugab…., erm, sod it,  just make it many of the organic people I loathe the most—in vain, I say, would I aver to him or her that many of these people are nigh-albinically pale Caucasians, and that for confirmation of this averral he or she need only travel with me on the Number 11 bus during regular commuting hours.      
[2] “I like to quote Schopenhauer who said, “Philosophy is world-wisdom: its problem is the world.’”
[3] Milton’s cumbersome scholastic explanation of the archangel Raphael’s willingness and capacity to ingest material food (Paradise Lost, V.440-443) only goes to prove that seventeenth-century Christendom thought of angels as non-ingesting by default.  And in any case, Milton certainly softened the blow by confining the contents of R.’s repast to fruits and vegetables.  In a similar vein, one may note that the cake we call “angel’s food” is signalized by its spongy texture—i.e., by the fact that it is prevailingly composed of the classically spiritual substance known as air.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I found my way here from your translation of Hoffmann's Don Juan story, by way of "John Aubrey" which was an extraordinary surprise. Splendid!