14 August, 2008

You Want to Make It Yourself, or Have It Delivered?

“Can you imagine old age? Of course you can’t. I didn’t. I couldn’t. I had no idea what it was like. Not even a false image. No image. Nobody wants anything else. Nobody wants to face any of this before he has to. How is it all going to turn out? Obtuseness is de rigueur.”

Philip Roth writing as David Kepesh in The Dying Animal
A few months ago I wrote an essay about stalking game fish and wild fungi. Although my conscious focus at the time was on patience and to some degree the election to suffering in order that the very best of things can learn of the sincerity of our interest in them, at the same time I less consciously eluded to the possibility of a relationship between myself and my delicately elusive quarry.

Much of that relationship and the messy excellence of it was predicated of the time devoted to it, specifically when the goal of my elaborate efforts (to eat fish and mushrooms) was deferred, when my ultimate reward still lay before me, when the going was the toughest. Merely eating fish and mushrooms could have much more easily been satisfied by a stop at Fred Meyer (sprouting all over the West these days like a mushroom itself, usually in the shittiest of circumstances), or easier still by occupying a booth in a Bennigan's or TGI Friday's until a Brobdingnagian combo platter of beer battered "fish nuggets" and 'shrooms heaved into view.

After all, some things are available just for the asking (and $9.99), so it's perhaps interesting to ask what the non-obvious qualitative differences are between my time-consuming and labor-intensive approach to a quantitatively small (but intense) payoff, and the passive, leisurely route to rafts of fishrooms. In terms of the biological necessity of getting calories into my body the latter would seem to have much to recommend it. What is it about foraging that should be so persuasive when the biological essentialist in me can simply open my wallet and fill my hole?

Perhaps it has something to do with adding a little more time and effort to my pleasures to make them not merely meaningful, but more obviously substantial. Eating food used to be a central tenant of life, and the quality of one's life varied dramatically depending on what, if anything, was to be found in the fields, wood or crosshairs. Our senses used to be acutely geared toward determining ripeness or rot - hard to do when your lettuce is barricaded in a blister pack, or your peaches have been dipped in a chemical agent to stall their ripening.

There is a relationship one has with food, or can have with food, that is fundamentally life-giving and life affirming. Anyone who has traveled in France or Italy invariably takes strong note of the cuisine and the culture surrounding it, and of the (concomitant) sexiness of the people, their joie de vivre, as it were. Ever notice how one does not jump to such conclusions so readily in Germany or England?

Relating to the foodstuffs marketed by industrial outfits is kind of the equivalent of having a relationship with Internet porn. One can have a relationship to porn, and we all by necessity have a relationship to food, but it's impossible to have a relationship with porn because it's not the real thing. Permit the suggestion that a relationship with industrial foodstuffs is an equally dubious proposition - one does not have a relationship with food through the intellectual exercise of reading the nutrient labeling. One eats. One, however, is not obliged to eat the real thing.

There are certainly pleasures to be found in paid procurement, as I'm sure Eliot Spitzer would agree. I myself tremble in lust before Ben and Jerry's Chunky Monkey. But prostituted goods are not what our better natures crave, they are not what we get to the end of our lives wishing we had not missed.

At the center of what will have been a life well-lived is how much of it we gave to surrendering ourselves to forces we thought were not us - other people, nature, eroticism, etc. In this sense a relationship is only the entry point to the really important stuff - the surrendering. The ultimate surrender is given ("Most things may never happen: this one will." - Philip Larkin). In the end it will pay to have gotten good at surrendering while you were able, that is, unless one finds a dreadful exit somehow attractive. Death won't care one way or the other. Good examples of surrender come to you daily by way of what you put into your body, and claiming the life of the plant, or better still, the animal that is headed for your dinner table is to understand the nature of having a relationship with something. I can relate to killing - lots of fish have met their ends at my hands, and if I were a better shot I might also have had relationships with a few deer.

I should think that if something is inevitable and there's a option to have it at least tolerable, maybe even enlightening, that'd be the choice I'd like to make. That's possible when relating, which in order to be worthy of the word requires vulnerability, access, risk - in a word, surrender.

But, that means: Relating! - not the sort of thing that happens when what sustains you shows up for a few bucks on demand, like so much fried fish. Such cheapness casts the erotic (and food, for that matter) as entertainment - no risk, no edification, no surrender possible... a pastime and detour many pervert into a way of life. Food, sex and life itself become art when we have discovered ourselves opened in a kind of voluptuous, abandoned and carefree way, fearless of the entailments, final and otherwise, loving the moment and knowing that we're in it... in a relationship with it.

You'll know you're in it, of course. It'll be very close, too close for comfort, really, it'll be very difficult...

...and, unless it's death, it will not be delivered.

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