The Endgame of Taste: Keats, Sartre, Beckett
[. . .] life is a thing of beauty, Gaber, and a joy for ever. He brought his face nearer mine. A joy for ever, he said, a thing of beauty, Moran, and a joy for ever.
Monsieur, at one time I ventured to think that the beautiful was only a question of taste. Are there not different rules for each epoch?
In the context of deciding what kind of weather was better fitted to his taste, Beckett's absurdist quest-hero Molloy decides that he has no taste, that he had lost it long ago. To be sure, modernism never wholly let go of the aesthetic legacy of taste, but by 1947 when Beckett was working on the first in his series of three novels, Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable, it had already experienced this legacy in the form of an existentialist nausea. For Molloy, as well as for Sartre's existential man in Nausea (1938), there could be no escape from the imperative to exercise taste, although there could be no actually doing so either. Both were born on the wrong side of Romanticism as to taste, for that is where taste as a means of aesthetic self-making begins to fail. Perhaps nowhere do we see this more clearly than in Keats's late fragmentary epic, Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion, where the metaphor of taste gives way to into an all-pervasive sickness seated in the stomach. While the starving speaker of The Fall of Hyperion fails to relish the stale banquet he is offered at the outset of the poem, the defeated gods of Hyperion suffer an existential queasiness that plays itself out in bodies that are "crampt and screw'd" (II.25). Even the eponymous hero Hyperion experiences a "nauseous feel" from the repulsive smells he is forced to consume. Critics since Walter Jackson Bate have noticed the proleptically existential tone of the Hyperion poems, the fact that they "anticipate much that we associate with existentialism (no other major nineteenth-century poem does this to the same extent)" (591). Here, I would like to pursue the possibility, evinced by Keats, that existentialism itself—and its dominant paradigms of nausea and disgust—constitute the philosophical aftermath of aesthetic taste.
The gesture is toward an extended literary history of the aesthetic in which the metaphor of taste does serious work in the philosophical field of subjectivity. Because the reach of such a gesture is potentially unbounded, the following pages will limit themselves to a consideration of the Romantic legacy of taste (particularly Keatsian taste) in key moments of Sartre's Nausea and Beckett's Molloy (1955). In the opening scene of Nausea, when Sartre's existential man stands on the shore feasting his eyes on the traditionally sublime landscape of the sea, he suddenly finds himself cloyed and disgusted, unable to stomach the raw existence that obtrudes upon him in the form of a nauseating stone. I read Beckett as revising this figurative trauma of taste by transforming Sartre's nauseating stone (galet) into a collection of absurdist "sucking stones" (pierres a sucer) that the vagabond Molloy collects from the shore and periodically sucks in a bravado display of connoisseurship. In this light, the existential stone takes on figurative significance in a tradition of iconic taste-objects extending back through the Century of Taste to Addison's tea-leaves in Spectator paper #409 ("On Taste") as testing ground for the so-called Man of Taste to prove his fine palate. In the end, however, Beckett's absurdist epicure finds that the more he sucks, the more he transforms the idealized subject of taste, turning him inside-out by way of his digestive tract. According to Beckett's revisionary aesthetic of disgust, which I discuss in the final two sections of this essay, the subject becomes constituted according to a "general economy" in which waste and taste lose all distinction. In order to understand how taste gets remade in Molloy, I wish to first consider the souring of taste in Hyperion as a paramount instance of what will become a modernist disgust. While literary texts prior to Hyperion (for example, Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus), have also been read as protoexistentialist, my particular concern with Keats's late epic poetry lies in its role as mediator between the two major intellectual fields of taste and existentialist nausea.
Christopher Ricks, in his foundational study of Keatsian taste and distaste, proposes that Sartre has produced "the best criticism of Keats ever written not about him" (139). When reversed, this trenchant insight also holds true: Keats has produced the best criticism of Sartre ever written not about him. In particular, the nausea portrayed by Keats in Hyperion suggests that this key emblem of Sartre's phenomenology originates in the eighteenth-century discourse of taste. This is not to say that Keats's nausea is equivalent to Sartre's fictional portrayal of nausea in his novel by that title, or that Sartre's nausea is equivalent to Molloy's disgust as modernist efforts to digest Romanticism. Rather, I wish to pursue how the nausea Keats describes follows philosophically from taste, and how this nausea hypostatizes certain elements of the existentialist condition. Let us keep in mind the figurative deployment of "taste" and "relish" by the Keatsian poet who "lives in gusto," an oral formulation whereby the poet tastes and relishes the world it perceives: "its relish of the dark side of things [. . .] its taste for the bright one" (Letters 1: 387). This poet is also described as a "camelion poet," a figure of endlessly negative capability who inhabits a world of "gusto"—a term derived from taste (gustus) and defined by William Hazlitt as an effect whereby the eye acquires "a taste or appetite for what it sees" (4: 78). As Keats knew from reading Hamlet, chameleons were not only capable of changing colors, but of dieting on airy nothings, or "the chameleon's dish [. . .] the air" (III.ii.95-96). As such, the chameleon was an ideal figure to enact the kind of ethereal feasting that Keats used to allegorize the process of aesthetic consumption and production. The poet gorges on beauty and gives it back as expression, or, in Keats's words, "sees Beauty on the wing, pounces upon it and gorges it to the producing his essential verse" (qtd. in Lau 142). Everything in this closed cycle of consumption circulates through the mouth as the place of both taste and expression, a more tasteful mode of emission than occurs at the other end of the digestive tract (in other words, excretion).
In the Hyperion poems, however, the same poet who "lives in gusto" enters a realm where taste devolves into disgust. When he first appears in Book I of Hyperion, Hyperion is attempting to taste the sweet smell of incense (we will return to this synaesthesia in a moment) that drifts up to him from the world below. Yet, his pleasure is blocked, and instead we are told that
when he would taste the spicy wreaths
Of incense, breath'd aloft from sacred hills,
Instead of sweets, his ample palate took
Savour of poisonous brass and metal sick:
I: 186-89; emphasis added
In this scene of frustrated pleasure, the "poisonous brass and metal sick" interferes with Hyperion's effort to taste as defined above. In fact, as Keats's manuscript of the poem makes clear, the final line of this passage did not originally begin with "Savour," or taste proper. It began instead with "A nausea" (Manuscript Poems 13). As Jonathan Bate narrates this revision, "Keats struggled with the final line in an attempt to convey the sickly sweet smell of incense. 'A nausea,' he begins. 'A nauseous feel,' he then tries, but 'feel' is heavily crossed out" (328). Whether Keats could not bring himself to admit explicitly the feeling of nausea, or whether he abandoned "Nausea" in favor of "Savour" (albeit a sickening savor), the holograph suggests how closely these two concepts were bound up together in the creation of the scene. Although I suspect that it is not the "sickly sweet" taste of the incense, as Bate suggests, but the repulsive concoction of "metal sick" that nauseates Hyperion, the lines register a trauma of taste: Hyperion's physiological failure to taste and express beauty by means of his "ample palate."
Technically, he is attempting to taste the sweet smell of incense. In medical discourse of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, taste and smell were linked as "chemical" as opposed to "mechanical" senses. However, smell was distinguished from taste as being more receptive to disgust than to pleasure. Kant ponders the implications of this distinction in his Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, where he observes that "when confronted with many dishes and bottles, one can choose that which suits his pleasure without forcing others to participate in that pleasure"; on the other hand, he observes: "Smell is, so to speak, taste at a distance, and other people are forced to share a scent whether they want to or not" (45). Smell in its sensual invasiveness leaves little room for idealization. This obtrusive quality of smell disturbs Kant again in the Critique of Aesthetic Judgment, where he considers the problem of a scented handkerchief. Even the sweet smell of perfume can be a source of disgust, he argues, especially in a crowd where it is forced upon us: "the man who pulls out his perfumed handkerchief from his pocket gives a treat to all around whether they like it or not, and compels them, if they want to breathe at all, to be parties to the enjoyment, and so the habit has gone out of fashion" (196). By the same token, he claims that objects "awaken nausea less through what is repulsive to eye and tongue than through the stench associated with it [. . .] this sense can pick up more objects of aversion than pleasure" (45-46). Given the emphasis on smell in Keats's text, when Hyperion consumes incense and "metal sick" through his "ample palate," he finds himself particularly vulnerable, not to pleasure so much as disgust.
Like Hyperion, the speaker of The Fall of Hyperion is immediately confronted with the task of attempting to taste. And here too the matter he is offered augurs nausea far more than delight. The picked-over banquet he discovers at the outset of the poem strikes him as rubbish, or "refuse of a meal/By angel tasted, or our mother Eve" (I.130-31). Everything seems parched and stale for this already sickened speaker, to whom the grape stalks appear not half full, but "half bare" (I.133). Far from bursting joy's grape against his palate fine like the speaker of Keats's "Ode on Melancholy," he can hardly stomach the sight of the grapes. Readers such as W. J. Bate, Harold Bloom, and Marjorie Levinson interpret this scene as an allegory of poetic belatedness, or the difficulty of assimilating literary tradition into original expression. Yet when viewed as a key moment in a literary history of aesthetic taste, the unpalatable meal in The Fall of Hyperion prefigures the more full-scale souring of taste into nausea that marks existentialism's point of departure. As the speaker digs in to the remnants of the unappetizing, and potentially nauseating, meal, he, like Hyperion, experiences a "nauseous feel."
At the time Keats was working on these poems, his own physical condition entailed digestive complications from an advanced state of tuberculosis, and the poet's nausea in the Hyperion poems has its relation to an all-too-real physiological nausea experienced upon the pulses. In his letters, Keats complained miserably of his prescribed diet of "pseudo-victuals," and his physician, James Clarke, properly guessed that "The chief part of his disease [. . . was] seated in his Stomach" (Letters 2: 271; Rollins 1: 172). Painfully describing Keats's final days, Joseph Severn was moved to exclaim: "his Stomach—not a single thing will digest—the torture he suffers all and every night—and the best part of the day—is dreadful in the extreme—the distended stomach keeps him in perpetual hunger or craving" (Rollins 177). Neither hunger nor a fevered condition were conducive to Keats's effort to distinguish himself through "matters of taste." On the eve of his annus mirabilis (31 December 1818), he declared that he had "not one opinion upon any matter except in matters of taste" (Letters 2: 19). Hunger was counterproductive to the experience of taste, and when viewed in light of Keats's ongoing efforts at aesthetic self-creation through taste, the queasiness and "nauseous feel" of his late poetry signal more than his own deteriorating physicality. They are symptomatic of the greater philosophical and cultural sickening of the Enlightenment subject of taste.
Keats's metaphorical encounters with taste may help us to think through more carefully the ways in which Sartre's portrayal of nausea, as both a fictional event of high modernism and a phenomenological symptom of subject-making, results from the oral schema defining the idealist subject of taste. In Nausea Sartre's protagonist, Antoine Roquentin, confronts a world that will no longer be assimilated by the idealist-turned-existentialist self. Sartre associated a digestive imagery with the Kantian mode of apperception, which he applied to the neo-Kantianism in vogue in France at the time: "We have all read Brunschvicg, Lalande and Meyerson, we have all believed that the [Kantian] Mind-Spider drew things into its web, covered them with white goo and slowly swallowed them, reducing them to its own substance" (qtd. in Stoekl 7). In Nausea this all-consuming idealist selfhood, which readily assimilates the world of objective reality, comes in for fictional critique. Such critique is part of Sartre's more overarching challenge to Romantic idealism, leveled in the years leading up to the novel in La Transcendence de l'ego (1936), where Sartre disputed Kant's notion of a "transcendent ego," and L'Imagination (1936), in which he separated perception from imagination as modes of consciousness-consumption. His novelistic depiction of nausea, in turn, is an explicit response to the idealist understanding of taste.
Derrida has shown how in Kant's third critique the aesthetic subject is organized around the Os, or all-consuming mouth. According to the restricted cycle of consumption that defines aesthetic taste, everything passes through the mouth: the socially acceptable end of the digestive tract and gateway to aesthetic subjectivity. A classic example of the consuming orality that characterizes the post-Kantian subject of taste is the Wordsworthian mind that feeds upon infinity in the final book of The Prelude. Romantic scholars such as Geoffrey Hartman and Alan Liu recognize the philosophical correlative of this scene to be the all-devouring Hegelian subject from the Phenomenology of Spirit (1807). Earlier in his Philosophy of Nature, Hegel describes this subject in physiological terms as an organism which relates to the external world through the medium of its assimilating skin. This interface with objective reality is conceived as an expanded orifice, which when it "turns back on itself towards the organism's interior in addition to being a general orifice, it is now a single orifice, the mouth, and organic nature is seized and ingested as an individual thing" (2: 372). In an extensive study of Hegel's digestive imagery, Werner Hamacher has shown how Hegel's "sucking mouth, enjoys more than one specific location in the system of spirit, for this [. . .] is what systematizes body and spirit, what joins them together and articulates their unity" (241). As body and spirit are unified through the circular economy of the "sucking mouth," the resulting totality becomes an idealist culmination of the Kantian subject of taste. I wish to suggest that Molloy's "sucking stones" demonstrate the absurdity of the aesthetically sucking mouth. But in order to do so, let us first consider the Sartrean stone from Nausea as the modernist taste-object tout court.
Groping for words to express the feeling provoked by the touch (etymologically, taste) of the stone in the opening scene of the novel, Sartre's existentialist man describes it as a "sweetish sickness" (d'écoeurement douceâtre). "Now I see," he observes, "I recall better what I felt the other day at the seashore when I held the pebble. It was a sort of sweetish sickness. How unpleasant it was! It came from the stone, I'm sure of it, it passed from the stone to my hand. Yes, that's it, that's just it—a sort of nausea in the hands" (10). A similar sickly-sweetish sensation keeps Hyperion from experiencing pleasure, and there too the "sweetish sickness" is akin to "a nausea." Sartre's existential man explicitly recognizes this "sweetish sickness" as "the disgust of existing [. . .]. My saliva is sugary, my body warm: I feel neutral" (100). The stone that prompts Roquentin's initial wave of nausea presents itself as an unconsumable lump of external reality. As he gags on the unpalatable taste-object, he becomes uncomfortably aware of the salivary interface between self and world—his organ of taste turns literal.
Roquentin becomes a self-conscious literalization of the aesthetic organism who tastes and relishes the world, and he begins to perceive the mouths of others (an increasing obsession throughout the novel) as not only a means of expression, but an opening to a disgusting, even monstrous reality. In one typical nightmare vision, he imagines himself as he "goes to the mirror, opens his mouth: and his tongue is an enormous, live centipede, rubbing its legs together and scraping his palate. He'd like to spit it out, but the centipede is part of him and he will have to tear it out with his own hands" (159). In place of a proper self-effacement in the activities of tasting and expressing (for which the tongue achieves privileged status in the idealist subject of taste), the tongue of Sartre's existential man obtrudes itself as an unwelcome reality. Everywhere he looks he sees smiles revealing the horror of rotting teeth, mouths opening as dark passages into a digestive tract, which traditionally runs in the opposite direction from taste. Simultaneously the eyes, which since classical times have represented the ideal mode of aesthetic intake, become occluded with their own materiality: "His eyes are glassy, I see a dark pink mass rolling in his mouth" (116). For Sartre's existential quest-hero seeking a way out of contingent existence, the eyes are no longer the window to the soul, nor is the tongue a path to aesthetic existence. Rather, as his bodily "white goo"—saliva as an analogue for semen (another appetitive discharge)—intrudes upon the act of aesthetic perception, the one sure route left to freedom, it sickens the self-forming subject of taste.
In Nausea the organ of taste itself is slimy, and it telling that when Ricks cites Sartre as the final word on Keatsian taste, he quotes from Sartre's extended meditation upon le visqueux—both slime and the slimy—in Being and Nothingness (1943). For Sartre, the slimy resists the standard categorizations of solidity and liquidity, maintaining itself in a disgusting physical condition somewhere between the two: "Slime is the agony of water. It presents itself as a phenomenon in the process of becoming; it does not have the permanence within change that water has but on the contrary represents an accomplished break in a change of state. This fixed instability in the slimy discourages possession" (774). The slimy presents an existence that will not qualify it for (as Bataille would say) the world of things, and so it cannot be perceived as object. It will not circulate through the restricted economy of aesthetic perception, to be converted into expression, and the inevitable result is nausea. As a mucous substance that collects in the mouth, Sartre's phenomenological concept of le visqueux enters the metaphorical world of Nausea, where, disgusted by his own slimy tongue, Roquentin struggles to maintain the consistency necessary to exist as a subject in the world of things. When he finds himself devolving into a gelatinous pool of fat, he struggles to pull himself together, to feel his "body harden and the nausea vanish." Yet as the act of aesthetic perception yields to the aftertaste of existence, the existential man is blocked from tasting his way into a higher ideal of selfhood.
Roquentin's name relates him to the stone—or rock (roc)—and just as le visqueux coats his organ of taste, it coats the untasteable stone. While scholars have recognized the iconic status of the stone within existentialism, it is significant that Roquentin's nausea began with the touch of a stone that had grown slimy from extended contact with the sea. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the original meaning of slime is "Alluvial ooze; viscous matter deposited on stones, etc." Often, the stone is thought of as a smooth round object of contingent existence, but when Roquentin describes it, he describes its slimy underside: "I saw something which disgusted me, but I no longer know whether it was the sea or the stone. The stone was flat and dry, especially on one side, damp and muddy on the other. I held it by the edges with my fingers wide apart so as not to get them dirty" (2). This metaphysically disturbing underside of the stone is damp and muddy (humide et boueux), or, in a vocabulary that will become more significant for Sartre, slimy. Roquentin himself holds it gingerly with his fingers in order to avoid contact with its repulsive coating—a dark underside that has yet to come to light in critical accounts.
According to Sartre, the paramount fear provoked by the slimy is that of "being sucked into the body of the slimy substance," and despite his best efforts to avoid contagion, the slimy stone (roc) sticks to Sartre's existential man. As if recalling his experience in Nausea, he writes in Being and Nothingness: "I cannot slide on the slime, all its suction cups hold me back; it can not slide over me, it clings to me like a leech" (776). Roquentin finds it impossible to let go of the slimy stone throughout the remainder of the novel. As he reflects upon his experience, what stands out is his inability to throw, or otherwise detach the stone, or "pebble," from himself: "I was going to throw that pebble, I looked at it and then it all began: I felt that it existed. Then after that there were other Nauseas; from time to time objects start existing in your hand" (123). As Sartre's latter-day Man of Taste stands by the sea holding the "pebble" in his hand, unable to free himself from it, he becomes acutely aware of its mucous touch. For in a novel founded on an oral schema whereby everything passes through the mouth, all perception is metaphorized as consumption.
After his initial nauseating contact with the stone, Roquentin's orifices of aesthetic perception all become blocked. Everywhere he looks, existence rises up to choke him: "I'm suffocating: existence penetrates me everywhere, through the eyes, the nose, the mouth" (126). Aesthetic taste is founded on a clean cycle of consumption whereby the subject tastes and expresses, and nausea inevitably occurs when an object of external reality refuses to pass smoothly from substance into expression, obtruding itself in-itself. Such objects, stubbornly resisting being broken down and assimilated into a subjective system of meaning, get stuck and disrupt the circular economy of taste. In Nausea the encounter with the stone recurs in the form of other taste-objects that get stuck, as it were, in the gullet. The climax occurs when Sartre's existential man finds himself gagging on the sight of an immense black chestnut-tree root: "the black stump did not move, it stayed there, in my eyes, as a lump of food sticks in the windpipe. I could neither accept nor refuse it" (131). The fact that the root gets stuck in his "eyes," just as food gets stuck in the windpipe, causing one to gag or spit it out it, suggests the degree to which it is being visually consumed as taste-object. Dominick LaCapra refers to this scene as "one of the more lapidary philosophical interludes in the text," cleverly associating it with the opening scene (207). Roquentin's experience with the root registers on a grand scale the existential sickness prompted by the stone: his nausea is a phenomenological reminder of his own existence, his saliva a physiological barrier between himself and the world of aesthetically consumable reality.
Like Keats's nauseated epic hero and Sartre's protagonist, Beckett's Molloy experiences an existential sickness which hinges on an anxious relation to taste. The earliest critical responses to the novel intuited that his bodily activities entailed powerful metaphysical statements. Maurice Blanchot argues that Molloy brings about the death of the author through a brutal self-deconstruction, while Bataille extends this eschatological vision to encompass the end of subjectivity as such. I agree that Molloy is misunderstood if his appetites and aversions are read as merely contingent, mired in the body, stripped of philosophical import. The consistently abstract use of the term "taste" in the novel suggests that his pleasures and perversions (experienced by means of his ample palate) remain accountable to the civilizing project of taste. At the point that he would declare his independence from taste ("I had neither taste nor humour, I lost them early on"), the narrative perspective pulls back, in a rare moment abandoning the first person, to portray him not as tasteless, or free from the imperative to exercise taste, but as an inside-out version of the chameleon poet, tasteless in a way that Keats would never have shown: "Chameleon in spite of himself, there you have Molloy, viewed from a certain angle" (39). As descended from Keats's idealized creature of taste, Beckett's "Chameleon in spite of himself" would also live in gusto. Yet Molloy is not capable of feeding on the ethereal food of beauty and turning all substance into expression. He is obsessed not with the "relish of the dark side of things" but the dark side of relish—the physiological realities of ingestion, digestion, and excretion—and his gusto is ultimately in the service of disgust.
Should a relation between these two seemingly antithetical chameleons, Keats's ethereal poet and Beckett's rudely appetitive, even scatological, anti-hero seem hard to swallow, one need only recall the climactic line from Molloy, "life is a thing of beauty [. . .] and a joy for ever." This line, derived from Keats, occurs at the point in the novel when Molloy's alter-ego, Moran, finally learns the nonsensical reason for his nonsensical quest. In reaction to his stunned disbelief, the line is again repeated: "A joy for ever, he said, a thing of beauty, Moran, and a joy for ever" (226). Keats himself set the terms for the reception of this maxim in his preface to Endymion, when he offered up the poem as more cloying than tasteful, productive of disgust rather than pleasure. As a result, the poem along with its opening line ("A thing of beauty is a joy for ever") became associated with what Keats had called that "mawkishness, and all the thousand bitters" that readers "must necessarily taste" in going over the romance. For nineteenth-century readers, the poem came to represent, as Keats's friend John Woodhouse put it, "that sugar & butter sentiment, that cloys & disgusts" (qtd. in Keats, Letters 2: 161). Moran is unable to swallow Keats's line on beauty, which in addition to being ridiculously out of place, is freighted with the same nauseous associations as its Romantic prototype.
If beauty and its aesthetic pleasures are failing Molloy and Moran, the dual protagonists of Molloy, it is in large part due to the fact that they continue to hold themselves accountable to the paradigm of tasteful subjectivity. At the outset of the novel, Molloy defensively remarks,
if I have always behaved like a pig, the fault lies not with me but with my superiors, who corrected me only on points of detail instead of showing me the essence of the system, after the manner of the great English schools, and the guiding principles of good manners, and how to proceed, without going wrong, from the former to the latter, and how to trace back to its ultimate source a given comportment.
Molloy recognizes that he is a product of a cultural system whose principles elude him (as they in fact eluded all the Enlightenment philosophers of taste). Yet, unlike eighteenth-century taste theorists, who recognized the difficulty of establishing rules for what was supposed to be an inherent faculty while proceeding to pin down its slippery principles nonetheless, Molloy responds to the inaccessibility of the system by turning his back upon it. He disclaims all responsibility to the ideal of tasteful selfhood, plunging headlong into the antithetical realm of the appetitive. His bold and randomly directed desires, whether physical or psychological, are such that he claims to "swallow everything, greedily" (15). Yet his excessive appetite is overdetermined by the modernist nature of the text, and his desire constitutes more than a merely physical desire directed at food. Molloy postdates the extended worrying over human identity that generated the various paradigms of sensibility, sentiment, and taste which were deployed throughout the eighteenth century, and thus his appetites are also directed against all his efforts to taste.
Not only is Molloy separated from the Century of Taste by Romanticism, but he is even further removed from the pre-Enlightenment vision of the human being as a creature driven by appetite. Hobbes's materialist vision of appetitive man in Leviathan (1651) helped to motivate the entire Enlightenment culture of taste and its favorite fiction of selfhood, the Man of Taste. For Hobbes, human beings were organized not around the mouth (the site of tasting and expressing), but the stomach, spurred by a drive which "when it is toward something which causes it, is called APPETITE, or DESIRE; the later, being the generall name; and the other, often-times restrayned to signifie the Desire of Food, namely Hunger and Thirst. And when the Endeavour is fromward something, it is generally called AVERSION" (31). This Hobbesian creature of "APPETITE" and "AVERSION," located on the other side of the Century of Taste from Molloy, does not confront the same cultural and metaphysical anxieties of the palate that the latter inherits from Romanticism. As a result, when Molloy describes his eating habits, they are revealed as contradictory—they are calculated to confound the various distinctions between taste and appetite, aesthetic pleasure and bodily enjoyment, which define the eighteenth-century discourse of taste.
Molloy, for instance, eats little and casually, as if he were guided more by distinction than appetite. Yet he describes this toothless eating (a version of sucking) as uncontrolled:
I ate like a thrush. But the little I did eat I devoured with a voracity usually attributed to heavy eaters, and wrongly, for heavy eaters as a rule eat ponderously and with method, that follows from the very notion of heavy eating. Whereas I flung myself at the mess, gulped down the half or the quarter of it in two mouthfuls without chewing (with what would I have chewed?), then pushed it from me with loathing.
Impossibly vacillating between two oppositional modes, hunger and aesthetic disinterestedness, Molloy at once gives in to his appetite and maintains the disinterestedness necessary to taste. As Kant makes plain in his third critique, hunger disqualifies a person from taste: "Hunger is the best sauce; and people with a healthy appetite relish everything, so long as it is something they can eat. Such delight, consequently, gives no indication of taste having anything to say to the choice. Only when men have got all they want can we tell who among the crowd has taste or not" (49-50). Since Molloy is perpetually hungry, he maintains an uneasy relationship to his own status as connoisseur. His paradoxical displays of appetite always entail a presumed touch of indifference. According to this same logic, Malone, who is likewise toothless and who has also struggled all his life against the menace of starvation, exercises a decided indifference (or discrimination, the distinction again unclear) toward the institutional soup he is offered: "I eat it one time out of two, out of three, on an average. When my chamber-pot is full I put it on the table, beside the dish" (Malone Dies 7). The chamber-pot beside the dish suggests general-economic confusion in which Beckett implicates aesthetic taste, and the possibility that a coprophagic scenario will come to replace the connoisseur's taste-test.
Yet like Sartre's existential quest-hero, randomly seeking a way out of a nauseous existence, Beckett's vagabond protagonist is compelled to imagine himself as something more than a creature of appetite. His desire not to eat in part can be seen as a frantic reaction to the hunger that disqualifies him from taste. Shortly after the above bravado display of culinary disinterestedness, Molloy describes himself as "bent double over a heap of muck, in the hope of finding something to disgust me for ever with eating" (77). In this light, any description of Beckett's protagonist as Rabelaisian proves instructive in its insufficiency. Rabelais's giant who "shat, pissed, vomited, belched, farted, yawned, spat, coughed, sighed, sneezed, and blew his nose abundantly" experiences a far greater freedom than Beckett's anti-hero from the cultural constraints of taste (50). The former has been described by Mikhail Bakhtin as a porous creature whose orifices, clotted with waste, represent unregulated exchange between self and world. If this exchange can be considered triumphant, as Bakhtin argues, productive both of sociality and commensality, it is owing to the fact that it occurs prior to the time when the Enlightenment had imposed the lasting distinction between bodily enjoyment and aesthetic pleasure. Insofar as the physiological pleasures described by Rabelais had not yet been conscripted into the sociopolitical project of taste, in other words, they cannot be compared to Molloy's. Molloy himself is aware of this distinction, and his displays of greedy gorging, absurdly mixed up with his finicky preferences, suggest the dialectic relation to taste in which his appetites are always already involved.
Despite his driving appetite, Molloy cultivates a refined palate through his habit of sucking stones. Much like Sartre's indigestible stone, these "sucking-stones" are absurdist taste-objects which bring the tension between taste and appetite into relief. From the first, Molloy acknowledges that his habit of sucking stones is a defense against hunger: "I thought of the food I had refused. I took a pebble from my pocket and sucked it. It was smooth, from having been sucked so long, by me, and beaten by the storm. A little pebble in your mouth, round and smooth, appeases, soothes, makes you forget your hunger, forget your thirst" (33). These stones, first introduced as pebbles (caillou) and later renamed "sucking-stones" (pierres a sucer), divert Molloy from a hunger that would disqualify him from taste. Stones would seem a poor substitute for food, yet Molloy is extremely picky about his stones preferring to suck nothing than an unsatisfactory stone. When he loses his original sucking-stone, he refuses to allow a servant to fetch him another from the garden: "I deemed it wiser to say nothing about it, all the more so as he would have been capable, after an hour's argument, of going and fetching me from the garden a completely unsuckable stone" (59-60). Molloy is, after all, a connoisseur of stones, and to be a connoisseur of anything one must maintain a disinterested attitude. Even though he does achieve or perform (one never knows quite which) the disinterestedness necessary to exercise taste, Molloy boasts of his lack of distinction: "And now I come to think of it, my attempts at taste were scarcely more fortunate, I smelt and tasted without knowing exactly what, nor whether it was good, nor whether it was bad, and seldom twice running the same thing" (67). At the same time, where there is no taste, there is only taste for Molloy. Just as he fails to distinguish between tastes and smells that do exist, he makes fine distinctions among stones that (he admits) have no taste.
Shortly after his haughty dismissal of the unsuckable stone, he embarks on an extended meditation about his sucking-stones. This episode, in part a critique of an Enlightenment faith in ratiocination, establishes these sucking-stones as a specific conundrum of taste. The question that preoccupies him in this scene is how to suck sixteen stones, which he carries in his pockets, in such a way as never to suck the same stone twice in a row. Any possibility that he might suck his stones out of order threatens to destroy all aesthetic delight. He proceeds to devise a complicated system of circulating the stones throughout his four pockets, which as another one of Beckett's permutation games, serves as an allegory for the restricted circulation of taste. He decides, "as I sucked a given stone, to move on the fifteen others, each to the next pocket, a delicate business admittedly, but within my power, and to call always on the same pocket when I felt like a suck. This would have freed me from all anxiety" (99). The "anxiety" Molloy speaks of here is the angst of a connoisseur devoted to a pleasure that theoretically cannot exist. From this perspective, taste winds up in a place its own principles would never allow: the scene of a hunger which is no hunger, the paradoxical pleasure of sucking tasteless stones.
A radical contingency governs Molloy's most exacting discrimination, and at the height of the crisis he is forced to admit: "deep down it was all the same to me whether I sucked a different stone each time or always the same stone, until the end of time. For they all tasted exactly the same." The only solution for this absurdly sucking mouth is to somehow break it of the habit. Just as he had formerly abandoned the "guiding principles of good manners," Molloy concludes his experiment of taste with sudden indifference: "And the solution to which I rallied in the end was to throw away all the stones but one, which I kept now in one pocket, now in another, and which of course I soon lost, or threw away, or gave away, or swallowed" (100). The only solution to the futile attempt to taste is, in the end, to swallow. Consuming that which he prefers only to suck, or process according to the restricted economy of taste, Molloy sucks taste back into the body. In doing so, he returns this iconic existentialist taste-object back to the unconscious realm of enjoyment.
Eventually, the wider economy in which Molloy's sucking involves him turns the mouth, qua portal to aesthetic subjectivity, into the other physiological end of the digestive tract. Whereas aesthetic taste (in Derrida's words) "prohibits the substitution of any non-oral analogue," such substitution is precisely what Molloy's absurdist, inside-out mode of consumption manages to do. When Moran sees a face that "vaguely resembled" his own, he focuses on the "thin red mouth that looked as if it was raw from trying to shit its tongue" (206). Such physiognomy stands as an embodied critique of the all-consuming idealist subject, which gives priority to the mouth in the role of philosophical becoming. Novalis nicely sums up this oral, self-constituting model of selfhood when he writes that "If an organ serves another then it is, as it were, its tongue—its throat, its mouth. The instrument that serves spirit most willingly and is most readily capable of manifold modifications, is above all its linguistic instrument" (qtd. in Krell 38). Against this idealist model, Molloy drags the organ of taste through the dark channels of the digestive tract and out the other end, turning the aesthetic subject of taste upside-down and inside-out. Simultaneously, he invests the one orifice that traditionally has nothing to do with taste with a subjective (and subject-making) capacity: "We underestimate this little hole, it seems to me, we call it the arse-hole and affect to despise it. But is it not rather the true portal of our being and the celebrated mouth no more than the kitchen-door" (107). Demoting the "celebrated mouth" to a kitchen door (an escape route as well as means of ingress for servants, raw meat, trash, and other distasteful elements), Molloy refigures the "arse-hole" as "the true portal of our being." He finds it no paradox to speak—literally and metaphorically—of his "First taste of the shit" (20). And rather than expressing himself into spirit, Beckett's perverse "Chameleon in spite of himself" speaks of excreting (or "shitting out") his organ of speech. His physiognomy is adapted to the absurdist subject who no longer "lives in gusto," but who inhabits in a world of disgust.
Like their Romantic prototype in The Fall of Hyperion, Molloy and Moran are both sickened, rapidly decomposing creatures involved in senseless quests. Moran's description of his counterpart Molloy could apply equally well to the Keatsian poet: "He hastened incessantly on, as if in despair, towards extremely close objectives" (154). Yet whereas in Keats's poem the speaker wastes away after several frustrated efforts to taste, Moran (the protagonist of the second half of Molloy) finds himself "succumbing to other affections, that is not the word, intestinal for the most part," and vows: "I would get there on all fours shitting out my entrails and chanting maledictions" (228). As he gropes his way forward in despair, he ends up trailing not clouds of glory but entrails and the rest of his physical interiority. We increasingly become privy to the details of his digestive problems as his exterior becomes caked with his own physiological excess, his breeches having "rotted, from constant contact with my incontinences" (234). And whereas Keats's speaker is propelled forward in order not to starve, or have his flesh "parch for lack of nutriment" (Fall I.110), both Molloy and Moran treat their hunger with indifference. Moran for one recognizes his hunger to result from an inability to digest: "For several days I had eaten nothing. I could probably have found blackberries and mushrooms, but I had no wish for them [. . .]. And though suffering a little from wind and cramps in the stomach I felt extraordinarily content, content with myself, almost elated, enchanted with my performance" (223). Moran is rotting, falling apart like the chameleon-poet of The Fall of Hyperion, but he remakes himself according to a general-economic schema which (to borrow Raphael's pun from Paradise Lost) turns all nourishment to wind. His performance is a perverse form of expression on the part of his absurd, reformulated Os.
In reimagining the idealist subject of taste, a creature capable of turning everything into ideality or expression rather than excretion, Beckett goes further than Sartre to transform taste into a modernist aesthetic. Although Sartre reorients the subject in a world of nausea, he has often been accused of returning to the same idealism his novel had seemed written to oppose. At the end of Nausea, his existentialist man seeks "to drive existence out of [himself], to rid the passing moments of their fat, to twist them, dry them, purify myself, harden myself, to give back at last the sharp, precise sound of a saxophone note" (175). His existentialist quest (really nothing more than a senseless wandering around the provincial French town of Bouville) ends on the distinct possibility of finding a way out of the contingent existence that was choking him through all his orifices of aesthetic perception. Allan Stoekl speaks for those who find themselves dissatisfied with the conclusion when he claims that "Roquentin, then, may be not only a jerk, but the final savior of neo-Kantianism" (14). For many readers, Roquentin's status as existential man is compromised by this final urge to raise himself out of his existence into a higher subjectivity. At the height of his nausea, he declares that "If you existed, you had to exist all the way, as far as mouldiness, bloatedness, obscenity were concerned" (128). But whereas Roquentin finally turns back from the obscenity of full-blown existence, Molloy goes all the way, winding up in the ditch of his own excreted materiality.
Beckett's eponymous quest-hero finally attains an identity as the expelled. From the beginning of his senseless wanderings, he had been preoccupied with his mother, or "her who brought me into the world, through the hole in her arse if my memory is correct" (20). We are never told where he set out from, and he himself does not know where he is going, but if he has any goal at all it is to find his way back to this ur-site: the maternal arse-hole. Similarly, the first-person narrator of The Unnameable, presumably a deteriorated version of Molloy, delights in imagining himself as an excrementum: "I like to fancy, even if it is not true, that it was in mother's entrails I spent the last days of my long voyage, and set out on the next" (50). Like the narrator of Beckett's "The Expelled" (1967), Molloy is a scatological creature self-identified through the "other" end of the digestive tract. Both are products of creation-via-purgation, and like Molloy after his formative expulsion, the title character of "The Expelled" also claims to have "dragged on with burning and stinking between my little thighs, or sticking to my bottom, the result of my incontinence" (Stories and Texts 14). Rather than seeking his way back through the usual channels to the proverbial womb, he directs himself toward the site of his original expulsion. The Expelled explicitly refers to this expulsion as a "fall," drawing upon the esoteric notion of creation as a fall into materiality. I would submit that Molloy's expulsion from his mother can also be understood as a metaphysical fall into matter. Just as "The Expelled" winds up in the gutter (a place of refuse, drainage and waste), Molloy winds up in a ditch. Malone perhaps puts it best of all when he says: "In any case here I am back in the shit" (Malone Dies 98).
A certain strain of Beckett criticism locates him in a tradition of Irish satire extending back through the Century of Taste to Jonathan Swift, and the ditch at the end of Molloy bears too close a resemblance to the metaphysical ditch at the end of Swift's A Discourse Concerning the Mechanical Operation of the Spirit to go unremarked in conclusion here. Bloom for one proposes that "Swift, had he read and tolerated Schopenhauer, might have turned into Beckett" (1). Swift's scatological satire was directed in part against the developing Enlightenment culture of taste, and the volume that contained his Mechanical Operation of Spirit also contained A Tale of a Tub; Written for the Universal Improvement of Mankind (1704). In the preface to both Swift explicitly distances himself from Anthony Ashley Cooper, third Earl of Shaftesbury, the prototype for the eighteenth-century Man of Taste. The premise of his intentionally distasteful Discourse is that all subjective pretensions to spirit can be reduced to the mechanical operations of the body, whose various expressions and emissions are shown to have a material basis. In the final paragraph, Swift's narrator remarks: "Too intense a contemplation is not the business of flesh and blood; it must by the necessary course of things, in a little time let go its hold and fall into matter [. . .] a perfect moral to the story of that philosopher who, while his thoughts and eyes were fixed upon the constellations, found himself seduced by his lower parts into a ditch." (141; initial emphasis added). When Molloy falls into a ditch, he falls metaphorically out of the world of spirit (for the sucking Molloy, aesthetic subjectivity) and into an excremental place where the "lower parts" find relief. As he relates: "The forest ended in a ditch, I don't know why, and it was in this ditch that I became aware of what had happened to me. I suppose it was the fall into the ditch that opened my eyes, for why would they have opened otherwise?" (122-23). Metaphorically, we might read Molloy's "fall into the ditch" as what Swift refers to as a philosophical "fall into matter." Molloy is Beckett's remade creature of taste, and his fall is also a fall out of himself and into his own excreted materiality, or the absurdity of general-economic existence. The orifice which orients this space is no longer the Kantian Os, but what Derrida would call its unthinkable analogue. Ironically, it is Molloy's self-expression through this Os—an absurdist inversion of the ideally sucking mouth—that finally opens his eyes.
I wish to thank Christopher Ricks and Christopher Rovee for their intellectual generosity and help with the essay, also forthcoming in Eating Romanticism: Cultures of Taste/Theories of Appetite, edited by Timothy Morton, forthcoming from Palgrave/St. Martin's Press.
"I had neither taste nor humour, I lost them early on" (Molloy 39); Beckett's translation of Molloy (1951), which he began in collaboration and completed on his own, will here be treated as an original. The final two volumes of the trilogy, Malone Meurt (1951) and L'Innommable (1953), were translated by Beckett himself as Malone Dies (1958) and The Unnamable (1960).
I borrow the useful phrase, the "Century of Taste," from Dickie.
Bataille's distinction between "restricted" and "general" economies, explicated most fully in The Accursed Share, is the basis for Derrida's reading of Kantian taste as an economy of consumption in "Economimesis," continued in The Truth in Painting. Plotnitsky helps to unravel the various economies informing the philosophical account of taste.
I offer a fuller account of this episode in "Keats's Nausea."
All of these readings take their cue from Keats, who stood his guard against Milton (Letters 2: 167, 212).
A comprehensive cultural history of the nineteenth-century dissolution of taste remains to be written; such a study would provide a useful supplement to Brewer's history of the culture of taste in the eighteenth century.
Rajan also studies how Hegelian metaphors of digestion in the Philosophy of Nature are used to expound his philosophical system in Phenomenology of Spirit.
Prendergast also notices the metaphoric importance of the stone in modernist French thought.
"OF. tast touching, touch, = It. tasto feeling, a touch, a trial [. . .]" Oxford English Dictionary.
Nausea 22; As Kamber recognizes, "Roquentin's ultimate vision of the world as an undifferentiated gelatinous mess finds a home in Sartre's examination of 'le visqueux' as a natural symbol for the living-death of consciousness" (1282). This "living-death of consciousness," defined in phenomenological terms, is the absorption of the for-itself (pour-soi) by the in-itself (en-soi). As Leak points out, it is "as the expression of philosophical truth in literary form that Nausea has most often been viewed" (61).
"Il y avait quelche chose que j'ai vu et qui m'a dégoûté, mais je ne sais plus si je regardais la mer ou le galet. Le galet était plat, sec sur tout un côté, humide et boueux sur l'autre. Je le tenais par les bords, avec les doigts très écartes, pour éviter de me salir" (Sartre, La nausée 10).
"J'allais lancer ce galet, je l'ai regardé et c'est alors que tout a commencé: j'ai senti qu'il existanit. Et puis après ca, il y a eu d'autres Nausées; de temps en temps les objets se mettent à vous exister dans la main" (Sartre, La nausée 174).
Fletcher notes a similarity between Roquentin and Molloy stemming from "the central nub of the plot––how a man suffered a kind of metaphysical concussion, and, slowly coming round, then saw life in a new light [. . .] (like Beckett's somewhat similar story, Molloy)" (13).
For a situation of these philosophical responses within the wider context of Beckett criticism, see Birkett and Ince; cf. Begam.
The term "taste" occurs nine times in Beckett's trilogy, each time as an instance of what the eighteenth century would call "mental taste" (Barale and Rabinovitz 2: 919).
I do not wish to oversimplify the relation between Molloy and Moran, but some shorthand is necessary here and the term "alter-ego" seems justified within the series Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnameable. The "me" behind all three novels manifests itself narratologically in a series of characters whose names start with "M." The voice of The Unnameable remarks: "All those Murphys, Molloys, and Malones do not fool me. They have made me waste my time, suffer for nothing, speak of them when, in order to stop speaking, I should have spoken of me and of me alone" (21).
Later, Malone recurs to the same tension between hunger and taste: "I would gladly eat a little soup, if there was any left. No, even if there was some left I would not eat it. So there. It is some days now since my soup was renewed, did I mention that?" (80).
Bakhtin's optimistic reading of Rabelasian orality has invited substantial critique, for example, Marcus; and Stallybrass and White. Bourdieu would push the demarcation between taste and bodily enjoyment forward, to Kant's third critique.
That the mathematical obsession of Beckett's protagonists is somehow bound up with taste is suggested by Malone: "In the old days I used to count up to three hundred, four hundred, and with other things too, the showers, the bells, the chatter of the sparrows at dawn, or with nothing, for no reason, for the sake of counting, and then I divided, by sixty. That passed the time, I was time, I devoured the world" (Malone Dies 26).
"Economimesis" 25; I borrow the emphasis on "anal" from Plotnitsky 102. Derrida argues that "the mouth may have analogues in the body at each of the orifices, higher or lower than itself, but is not simply exchangeable with them," since it organizes the system around itself (19).
See Raphael's speech to Adam on intemperance (Paradise Lost VII.130).
Lloyd discusses Beckett's speaker in "First Love," who also finds an identity as the expelled (78).
Specifically, Swift denies authorship of Shaftesbury's Letter on Enthusiasm, published the previous year (3).
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|Auteur :||Denise Gigante|
|Titre :||The Endgame of Taste: Keats, Sartre, Beckett|
|Revue :||, Numéro 24, novembre 2001|
Copyright © Michael Eberle-Sinatra