Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Homeward Bound

At a certain point in a man's life, he begins to gaze covetously at the pages of furniture catalogues, to long for window boxes and small patches of grass he can call his own, and to yearn for the twin boons of equity and tax deductions. He grows weary of landlords who make half-assed repairs, drop in on Saturdays on little to no notice, and whose response to complaints of rodent infestation is "Hey, if you grew up on a farm..." He begins to spend his hours, both waking and sleeping, comparing school districts and crown molding, property taxes and accessibility to shopping and mass transit. It is at this time that he decides to buy a house.

Graduate students are doubly if not trebly screwed over by the impermanence of their own position. Not only do you spend five or more years of your life preparing for jobs nearly as scarce as those on professional sports teams -- and most of which are in the middle of nowhere -- you do it while earning a subsistence wage as people your own age with considerably less talent rake in the bucks, and begin buying houses, getting married, and starting their lives. Medical school is rough, but at least people need doctors -- nobody needs a literature professor. We're frankly lucky to have jobs at all.

So you mortgage away what other people take for granted: healthy social and personal lives, material prosperity, and happiness. When your future mother-in-law offers you a down payment in lieu of a wedding, you count yourself inestimably lucky -- even if she holds it over you and her wayward daughter, hems and haws whenever you need her to act, drastically changes the magnitude of her offer without warning, complains that your parents won't pay for half, and plots secretly to lure her daughter back home with the promise of cheap housing for the two of you in the South. You go through three realtors in as many weeks. You begin to think that living in a 600-square-foot house between a vacant lot and a shell across from a power plant is the best idea you've ever had. You listen patiently as your girlfriend creates wild scenarios that lead you out of the city to unknown vistas in Camden, New Jersey or Wilmington, Delaware. You nurse your growing ulcer until it knows you by name.

Your hair turns gray. You begin to cry for no reason. You throw the catalogues away and fish them out of the garbage the next day. You try to get the mortgage in your name, only to discover that your student loans count against your ability to pay and the nosebleed you had in college has ruined your credit rating. You give up and start again. You take pills to make you feel better. You make wild promises and tell wilder lies. You wonder why.

For the past month or so, I've been looking for a house in or around Philadelphia. We're still looking.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure

My short schrifts have been getting the short shrift this week, as I've been getting ready for a last-minute, pinch-hitting teaching assignment: an upper-level seminar in literary theory for undergraduates. One of my favorite profs recently fell ill and she, along with my department chair, asked me to fill in.

The first class was this afternoon: the first part of Ferdinand de Saussure's Cours de linguistique generale. Very few of the kids had taken any literary theory before, but for the most part they were into it. They asked good questions, and gave good answers. Sometimes I have to remind myself that the 19-year-olds I teach are still 19-year-old Ivy Leaguers: they know how to read a text, and what to do in a classroom. I used the chalkboard too much and got chalk dust all over my carefully selected, "cool prof" outfit, but after a three-year teaching hiatus, I was having fun again.

During a conversation with another Penn professor on Sunday, she and I agreed that not enough attention is paid to the fact that professors -- especially in the humanities -- are really paid to speak and write, not to think hard or rifle through archives doing research. Teaching crystallizes that: nowhere else do you have to put ideas into clearly defined and spoken action.

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Greenblatt's Shakespeare

I'm a little behind on this one, and sometimes it feels like all I do is recycle New Yorker articles and Arts & Letters Daily links in my Schrifts, but there are two first-rate articles on Shakespeare this week, one from Stephen Greenblatt's new book on W.S. (published in the NYT Magazine), and another by Adam Gopnik about Greenblatt's book in The New Yorker's review section.

Someday, I would like to be Stephen Greenblatt. Over his career, he's managed to combine historical erudition, theoretical sophistication, an acute and complex political sensibility, and a sharp eye for literary detail with a sharp, accessible style and a voice that's often disarmingly personal. He's a Harvard professor and onetime president of the MLA, but his books get reviewed by The New Yorker. Even more so than his colleague Louis Menand, he's managed to bridge academic culture with a sensitivity for the nonacademic public. While his writing isn't as good as Menand's (who's dying to be Edmund Wilson), for an academic, Greenblatt's prose is pretty damn sexy -- he's just dying to be Erich Auerbach, which is a different business altogether.

Saturday, September 11, 2004

Elections and the Political Imagination

From Snarkmarket's "Can I Be Secretary of Expectations?": Robin Sloan notes (following Matthew Yglesias) that political elections revolve around the gap between real and imaginary accomplishments, i.e., the difference between what someone has done and what they say they will do.

In an electoral democracy, this is in some sense inescapable: anytime you're considering a candidate who isn't the incumbent, all you can consider are their imaginary achievements, by projecting their political promises, personal character, and past actions in a different filed or position onto their potential future performance.

The incumbent's advantage is always that he or she already has the job. This is why elections -- especially presidential elections -- often turn out to be a referendum on the current office holder's performance -- or, referencing Louis Menand and myself, the performance of the country, or even that of the voter themselves. When things have been going badly, the principle of hope offered by a political challenger, especially hope for positive change, can be a very powerful (and positive) thing. Or you could put the Nazis into power; it works both ways.

An incumbent, then, especially in difficult times, needs to conquer the imaginative space of the electorate. This is the best way of outflanking the challenge posed by an incumbent -- any incumbent. When tough times hit California, Gray Davis responded in a practical, no-nonsense fashion, raising taxes and cutting spending. Voters wanted someone, anyone else, and wound up picking the candidate who (to put it nicely) had the most to offer the imagination.

This is the mistake pundits made when trying to generalize the California recall to the 2004 presidential election. When times are tough, people don't turn to Republicans or throw out the incumbent. They pick the candidate who appeals to their imagination, to their hope that tomorrow might be a better day. They pick Reagan over Carter, Clinton over George H.W. Bush, and (probably) W over Kerry. For the Democrats, picking Kerry over Dean or Edwards was an isolated blip, a moment of self-doubt and misguided Puritan moderation. In the name of electability, they picked a man who lacked the imaginative appeal to ever be elected.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Nota Bene, Pt. 2

I finally finished The New Yorker's Food Issue, and like any good meal, its finish lived up to the promise of its start. My early diagnosis of literary-fabulism-masquerading-as-food-writing also held up, especially with Jerry Adler's essay on Lacerba, a restaurant in Milan specializing in Futurist cuisine.

Yes, apparently the unparalleled poet, theorist, and general brick-through-the-window leader of Italy's most famous avant-garde movement Filippo Marinetti also wrote a cookbook, "La Cucina Futurista." Many of its recipes are clearly inedible -- for example, chicken stuffed with ball bearings, "meant not to be eaten but to flavor the meat with the fortifying taste of steel" -- and it infamously (and for an Italian, insanely) calls for a ban on pasta, but it's more about making a revolutionary gesture than a gastronomical revolution. As Adler writes:

The food of the future, as Marinetti envisaged it, would ban spaghetti but include smoked camel meat, raw-onion ice cream, and fried trout stuffed with nuts and wrapped in liver. It marked a whole new way of thinking about food: the cuisine of the absurd.

From there we go to Bill Buford's equally excellent article on homemade Italian pasta. Here Burford triangulates a small, traditional trattoria in the countryside near Parma, classic Italian cookbooks from the Renaissance to the twentieth century, and working at the pasta station at Mario Batali's famous restaurant Babbo in NYC. Of course, he's completely taken in by all of this, from the course behind-the-scenes curses and jargon of the station to the simple poetry of shaping pasta by hand: "I was being educated in texture: how you handle a long sheet of pasta like a piece of favric, how it interacts with the air, the ways you can stretch it and the ways you can't... Postage stamps, little moons, half-moons, and belly buttons. I feel compelled to pause for a moment and ask: What other culture has a tradition of serving up its national cuisine in the form of little toys? There seems never to have been a time when Italians weren't playing with their food." The comfort of pasta, Buford argues, is almost always at least partially the comfort of childhood. It's a fine, warm-hearted defense of the food Marinetti would have had done away with by his countrymen.

Perhaps the most beautiful and thoughtful essay in the collection, however, is Malcolm Gladwell's on ketchup. Ketchup is our most popular condiment and one of the few foods for which there is no real gourmet market: there has been essentially one kind of ketchup, the whole-tomato-and-vinegar formula perfected by Heinz, with only a few competing brands, for more than a century. Grey Poupon shattered French's hold on the mustard market with a gourmet product made with brown mustard seeds and white wine instead of white seeds and vinegar, and Prego did the same thing with its multiple varieties of extra-chunky tomato sauce in the early 1990s.

Prego's breakthrough was engineered by a man named Howard Moskowitz, a physicist and statistician who changed the way food products were developed and marketed with his notion of "sensory segmentation" -- basically, the seemingly common-sense notion that not everybody prefers the same things made exactly the same way, but that if you give people a number of choices, everyone can find something they like. Gladwell writes:

It may be hard today, fifteen years later -- when every brand seems to come in multiple varieties -- to appreciate how much of a breakthrough this was. In those years, people in the food industry carried around in their heads the notion of a platonic dish -- the version of a dish that looked and tasted absolutely right. At Ragu and Prego, they had been striving for the platonic spaghetti sauce, and the platonic spaghetti sauce was thin and blended because that's the way they, thought it was done in Italy. Cooking, on the industrial level, was consumed with the search for human universals. Once you start looking for the sources of human variability, though, the old orthodoxy goes out the window. Howard Moskowitz stood up to the Platonists and said there are no universals.

This is more than just good copy -- it's really thoughtful, interesting stuff. But what's genius about the article is that after Gladwell convincingly makes the anti-Platonist argument on behalf of food diversity, he equally backtracks on behalf of ketchup. The article is titled "The Ketchup Conundrum," and with good reason: Heinz tomato ketchup is the single greatest success story of the food industry's Platonists, combining and perfectly blending aspects of all five fundamental tastes in the human palate: salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami ("the proteiny, full-bodied taste of chicken soup, or cured meat, or fish stock, or aged cheese, or mother's milk, or soy sauce, or mushrooms, or seaweed, or cooked tomato"). Ketchup's appeal to us is in some sense elemental, which is partly why children love ketchup so much. Gladwell astutely notes that this also has something to do with the fact that condiments are really the only part of a meal a child has some control over themselves, but his picture of ketchup's appeal is powerful, even to someone like myself who can't stand the stuff:

Small children tend to be neophobic: once they hit two or three, they shrink from new tastes. That makes sense, evolutionarily, because through much of human history that is the age at which children would have first begun to gather and forage for themselves, and those who strayed from what was known and trusted would never have survived. There the three-year-old was, confronted with something strange on his plate -- tuna fish, perhaps, or Brussels sprouts -- and he wanted to alter his food in some way that made the unfamiliar familiar. He wanted to subdue the contents of his plate. And so he turned to ketchup, because, alone among the condiments on the table, ketchup could deliver sweet and sour and salty and bitter and umami, all at once.

I don't know if Gladwell realizes that this is an argument about Platonic recollection couched in Darwinian terms, but it works all the same. As Buford and Adler had already shown, there is something about food that suggests both the effort to conquer the new and the strange and the return to familiarity, each of which characterize both childhood and adulthood. "The terrible twos" are better called "the first adolescence," since the acquisition of language and the development of better motor skills make independence and agency possible for the first time. In your second adolescence, from 11 to 21, you forget about food, when dining or preparing food becomes an occasion for other things -- a chance to work outside the home, a place to meet with your friends. It's only in childhood and on reaching maturity that you begin to discover and rediscover the simple, wondrous pleasures of food.

Sunday, September 05, 2004

Nota Bene

Maybe it's only because I finally have time to read it in its entirety, but this week's issue of the New Yorker is simply delightful, albeit in unexpected ways.

Titled "The Food Issue," there's more than just good food writing here. The first piece that really caught my attention was James Surowiecki's fine and timely essay on conventions and other megaevents: specifically, why cities like Boston, New York, and Athens, spend tremendous time, money, and other resources to attract big-name conventions when there's little in the way of dollar-for-dollar payoff. (I recently had a chance to watch Michael Moore's Roger and Me -- some of the saddest moments in Flint's history came when it unbelievably and unsuccessfully tried, after crippling GM layoffs, to reinvent itself as a tourist and convention destination.)

The food essays, however, really shine, especially as they very nearly toe the line between ordinary food writing and full-blown, abstract literary fabulism. When Jim Harrison writes of a 37 course lunch he enjoyed with fellow gourmands in the French countryside, complete with late-Renaissance recipes like delicately poached pig snouts and other various and sundry animal parts cooked in other animal's organs, the effect is less Nigella Lawson than Jorge Luis Borges -- or better yet, Poe. Calvin Trillin's terrific essay on snoek (a herring-like fish eaten by black South Africans) has a similar pulling-your-leg quality: I found that I frequently asked myself, Does this fish even exist?

Here food is less the ineradicable content of than the occasion for writing: despite (or perhaps because of) the lush details and descriptive acumen on display in the essays, the food itself is a cipher, a placeholder: it doesn't exist. Or at least it doesn't matter whether it exists or not. Madame Bovary has nothing on good food writing: its author knows that while food presents perhaps the ultimate satisfaction for desire, desire itself is better served by its object's absence than its presence. And what could we want more than the prolongation of desire itself?

Friday, September 03, 2004

Nuisance Value

Arts & Letters Daily is always a mixed bag -- sometimes obnoxious, sometimes helpful, on rare occasions illuminating -- but every so often, it pays off with a cleverly crafted piece that one could never have discovered on one's own. In this case, it's an essay in The Threepenny Review by Adam Phillips, editor of the marvelous new Penguin edition of Freud's works.

In "Nuisance Value," Phillips uses the idea of a nuisance to show off -- to ride an eclectic mix of some of the twentieth century's most interesting thinkers. He begins and ends with Richard Rorty, but in between, his meditation manages to spark clever readings of Freud, Orwell, and even the pediatrician D. W. Winnicott. Mostly, however, is Phillips's own thoughtful, meandering exploration of what it means to be a nuisance, or for something to be a nuisance to one. A typical Phillips sentence reads:

If nuisance is need insufficiently transformed—the bad art of wanting—if nuisance, like many repetitions, is the sign of something thwarted or blocked or stalled, then it would be worth wondering what would have to happen for someone to never need to be a nuisance, or, perhaps more interestingly, for them never to experience someone or something else as a nuisance.

But whenever this kind of talk gets to be -- well, a nuisance -- Phillips's writing becomes refreshingly concrete, without losing any of its provocative force:

The beggar who makes a profitable nuisance of himself is Orwell's representative modern person. In this exchange, the beggar gives the nuisance he has made, of himself, for money. It is as though a nuisance is the most minimal thing one can make of oneself. The starkest gift. At the raw end of the spectrum there is being a nuisance; at the cooked end there is being a nuisance without seeming to be one. Criminals, Orwell seems to imply in the book, are the people we punish for being a nuisance; artists are the people we reward for being a nuisance; successful businessmen are criminals disguised as artists.

In short, a fun read on a somewhat drab day.