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

  • Peter Melville

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  • Peter Melville
    University of Winnipeg

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 …

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