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Denise Gigante. Taste: A Literary History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. ISBN 0-300-10652-1. Price: US$35.

  • Peter Melville

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  • Peter Melville
    University of Winnipeg

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In Taste: A Literary History, a highly original and illuminating contribution to the critical hatchling known as “diet studies,” Denise Gigante reminds us that eighteenth-century writers hoping to advance the project of Enlightenment humanism quickly realized that the question of defining the essence of the human animal required probing well beyond the “limited terrain of metaphysics” (4). No longer strictly conceived as the categorical origin of “man’s” distinction in the animal world, rationality was made to compete as one characteristic trait among many. Gigante recalls, for instance, that in his response to Benjamin Franklin’s pragmatic insistence that “man” was best understood as a “tool-making animal,” James Boswell boasted that he, for one, was rather a “Cooking Animal” (5). Ever the finicky gourmand, Boswell yields to the non-human animal the capacity to remember, to experience passion, and even to judge, but never the wherewithal to prepare its own food: industriousness is one thing, and so for that matter is rationality, “but no beast is a cook” (Boswell 177n). Gigante’s remarkable study takes Boswell’s seemingly offhand, though considerably obstinate, definition of “man as homo culinarius” quite seriously, since it represents a popular sentiment of the so-called “Century of Taste” that continues to circulate to this day: “symbolically regulated, discretionary dining” is a seasoning exclusive to the human meal (Gigante 5). Modernity’s invention of the metaphor of aesthetic taste, argues Gigante, played a crucial rule in categorically raising “man” above the animals on whom “he” chooses–or chooses not–to dine: if humans are not the only social beings in the natural world, then the cultivation of “man” as homo socialis (in Godwin, for instance) could be further enhanced by the study of the social meal, at which a person arrives a member of the community but leaves a fuller, more cultivated “Man of Taste.”

Gigante’s unique contribution to aesthetic history consists partly of her refusal to avoid what she calls the “gustatory aspects” of taste, those physiological remainders that persistently upset even the most rigorous digesters of Enlightenment thinking, not the least among whom we can count Immanuel Kant. Irritated by a thought that he could not seem to pass, Kant could be heard groaning from the margins of his Anthropology (1798): “How might it have happened that the modern languages particularly have chose to name the aesthetic faculty of judgement with an expression (gustus, sapor) which merely refers to a certain sense-organ (the inside of the mouth), and that the discrimination as well as the choice of palatable things is determined by it?” (144). The physical sensation of the tongue that stubbornly ties itself to the experience of aesthetic appreciation was less revolting to writers like the Romantics (Keats’ nausea notwithstanding), a group whose willingness to confront the metaphor of consumption “in the field of representation” enabled them to perform what Gigante calls “their own critique of Romantic ideology (conceived as transcendence of history by aesthetics) in a manner that anticipates the kind of literary criticism that presumes to displace it” (3).

Equally important to the significance of Gigante’s book, then, is its brazen turn to literary considerations of taste and to the cultural conditions that enable such considerations. As her title anticipates, Gigante offers an impressive, and timely, “literary history” that accounts not only for “the creative power of taste as a trope for aesthetic judgment,” but also for “its essential role in generating our very sense of self” (2). She points out that since modern aesthetic theory links aesthetic judgment with the pleasure of the tongue (as opposed to a classical interest in the eye and ear), historians of modern aesthetics generally credit a mid-seventeenth-century European preoccupation with goût and gusto as the most likely source for metaphors of taste that circulate throughout the British empiricist tradition. With their eyes fixed on the continent, British historians of taste overlook what Gigante calls a source “much closer to home,” namely, a literary production of the gustatory metaphor that begins in and around Milton and that finds its way to us through the circuit of Romantic literary discourse. Taste: A Literary History does not overwrite the history of modern aesthetic history so much as it reroutes that history in order to recover and explore the “forgotten ground” of its metaphorical genesis in texts like Paradise Lost and Regained. Gigante’s fusion-inspired methodology enables her, without overpowering the distinctive literary flavor of her analysis, to pursue this forgotten ground via the insights and hindsight of a number of established and developing critical discourses within Romantic studies: one cup Romantic anatomy, two ounces life sciences, a dash of empire, a pinch of gender studies, anxieties over agricultural production (to taste). Gigante’s recipe yields what I believe is one of her most intriguing and provocative proposition: “[r]evisiting central moments of British literary history through the metaphorical lens of consumption may help to initiate a dialogue among these diverse fields of research and recall the power of literary history as a methodology for grounding such disciplinary diversity within literary studies” (21).

Peppered with rhetorical gracefulness and remarkable wit, the chapters of Taste chart the bio-political processes by which the Century of Taste produced and transformed individuals from “tasting organisms” to tasteful subjects. Those familiar with Gigante’s dazzling analyses of moral taste in Milton (Diacritics [2000]) and nausea in Keats (Studies in Romanticism [2001]), will find in Taste equally satisfying morsels on Shaftesbury, Hume, Burke, Wordsworth, Byron, and (quite delicious) England’s Regent Prince and future king, George IV. Were I to choose a favorite, it would have to be the chapter on Charles Lamb, a writer whose “metaphoric preoccupation with taste” was forever marked by a “day of horrors” on which his sister Mary assaulted their parents (killing the mother and wounding the father) with a knife and fork (Gigante 90). Gigante argues that Lamb eschews the “pure” transcendental diet of, say, Wordsworthian aesthetic subjectivity in favor of a meatier kind of “low-Urban taste,” through which Lamb openly, even masochistically, revels in the “epicurean cruelty” of the “arts of carving, cookery, and culinary animal tortures” (90). This is especially true of Lamb’s “Dissertation Upon Roast Pig,” which Gigante describes as possibly “the finest fictional critique of taste in the Romantic era” (90). One of The Essays of Elia (1822), “Dissertation Upon Roast Pig” features Elia ruminating over the anthropological significance of his favorite delicacy, roast pig, the culinary preparation of which he knows is particularly distasteful to some. Negotiating the vexed terrain of nature versus culture, the raw versus the cooked (as Gigante puts it), Elia relates a kind of gastronomic origin myth involving a young Chinese boy who, reaching into the charred remains of the paternal hut he has purposely razed to the ground, burns his finger on a smoldering bit of pig carcass and instinctively shoves the appendage in his mouth to cool it down. According to Elia, “Some of the crumbs of the scorched [pig] skin had come away with [the boy’s] fingers, and for the first time in his life (in the world’s life indeed, for before him no man had known it) he tasted – crackling!” (Lamb 2:121). The boy begins wildly to devour his pig-become-pork when his father returns ready to bludgeon the son for his treachery. The betrayal is soon forgotten, however, as the boy petitions his father to consider the more important matter at hand: “Eat, eat, eat the burnt pig, father, only taste – O lord” (Lamb 2:122). Gigante claims that while most readers understand Elia’s narrative as a version of the fall from “nature” into “culture,” she sees Lamb as representing “flesh-eating as an advance in civilization”: Elia, she insists, displays no “sympathetic disgust,” only “mouth-watering desire” at the thought of roasted pig crispy to the touch and bubbling with succulent, fatty juices (105). For Gigante, Lamb’s “low-urban taste,” with its unapologetic celebration of, and hunger for, the blood and guts of consumption, sets itself against, if only to satirize and critique (in a word, to roast), the high-urban sensibility of various brands of Romantic idealism. The pig roasted live on the spit, in other words, becomes a metaphor for a nineteenth-century poetics in which “idealism was no longer an option” (116), in which “middle-class standards of taste practiced as conspicuous consumption” were forever upset by the indigestible remainder of Lambian gusto, that “floating signifier” for “a kind of cruel, yet tasteful desire” (109).

Ringing with endorsements from Harold Bloom and James Engell, Taste: A Literary History will no doubt confirm Gigante’s reputation as being among the strongest and most original critical voices of her generation. Leaving this gluttonous reader wanting seconds, Gigante’s book joins the ranks of other important works on Romantic food, including Timothy Morton’s Cultures of Taste/Theories of Appetite: Eating Romanticism, confidently forming the backbone of what promises to be an exciting field of Romantic diet studies. Perhaps Gigante’s anthology, Gusto: Essential Writings in Nineteenth-Century Gastronomy (published by Routledge in September 2005), will satisfy that hunger for more.

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