Casey Lange

Taste and Swallow


Read afterthoughts to this piece from Sadie Lansdale.

1. Prelude: An occasion when I would have badly liked a muffin

I eat when I’m nervous. One day about a year ago I rode the train out to some neighborhood in Queens where there’s a shopping mall and a highway and then some nice Dutch-looking subdivisions. I came out of the subway at about 1pm. My appointment was at 1pm. Punctual folks in the audience are probably starting to get nervous here. I was nervous too: it would take at least who knows how many minutes to walk to the residence where I was wanted, and this was the sort of thing you were supposed to be punctual for. I feared and viscerally imagined the embarrassment of arriving, facing those people and—what? getting sheepishly straight to business without explaining myself? making some excuse about train delays while they looked into my lying face? (They would be too polite to call me out, I knew, but seeing them hide their mixture of annoyance and pity would be as bad or worse as any sort of direct accusation.) The truth was of course out of the question. I thought about calling to cancel. Minutes passed while I thought about it, and I thought of those minutes passing, and how each one was amplifying my eventual shame. I told myself, knowing I was lying, that I just needed to calm down for a moment (having tacitly to myself given up the prospect of actually meeting the client, and now preparing for and putting off the lesser—but itself also amplifying—confrontation of the cancellation call) and looked for a bench. I found a bench, and sat down. I sat and sat, occasionally fingering my phone in my pocket, becoming less and less able to draw it out. I became convinced I was paralyzed. My mind swelled and blankened, the trees and cars around me took on a dreamlike sharpness and saturation, and I was elsewhere, outside of time, outside of the world. Purpose emptied out of things: my toes were cold but this was merely an interesting fact. I noted the configuration of a soda can and a crumpled paper on the sidewalk as I would the blots and streaks in a Kandinsky, wondering at the choice of putting the concrete at a forty-five degree angle to my gaze rather than some other. Eventually the decision was made that I would not go, the decision was accepted; I dialed the number prepared to listlessly apologize and malinger, maybe reschedule. There was no answer. I left a message and left it at that. Done. Nothing to do about it now. Detachedly wonder what would happen if I ever had to show up on time for anything with consequences. Wonder if I’ll die of this or something like this.

I suppose there had been no bakery in sight—or my surroundings did not seem to be the kind of citystuff such as to yield one—or else I probably, somewhere between the subway and the bench, would have diverted myself with the satisfyingly satisfiable short-term goal of acquiring and consuming some soft sugary pastry of sufficient mass and fluff and density (a muffin being ideal, a donut or a soft cookie reasonably adequate, a bagel with cream cheese doing in a pinch) as to yield a particularly pleasing consistency when chewed and swallowed.

There is a distinct pleasure of its own in swallowing, and this should be distinguished from the sense and pleasure of taste proper. Swallowing is tactile and something more. It consists particularly in the stretching and friction in the throat and gullet, followed shortly by a swelling fullness at the top of the stomach, a pillowy, reassuring weight. This latter is key when I am distraught: I feel centered, anchored.

2. Pity the Gobblers

Our oatmeal was extravagant. Butter, peanut butter, real honey driven from Portland, almonds, flax seeds, maybe there were some dried cranberries or something too. Suitable for a joyous breakfast of sleptover, hungover, reunited friends. We were chowing down, not saying much, peaceful, and “Don’t forget to eat with your eyes closed,” one friend said. I was struck by the wisdom of this, the way one is struck by things one thought one knew but actually always forgets in the concrete course of applied life. Since then any time I’ve been at a communal meal and catch myself or my ingestive companions gobbling with seemingly no regard for the taste of their food, I try to gently, good-spiritedly reprimand us all: “Don’t forget to eat with your eyes closed! :-)” I certainly hope that the amalgamation of ghosts in my head that does not quite call itself God the Judge judges my words and not my heart on these occasions, because the reflex that makes me speak does not seem to me wholly friendly: it has strong flavors of pity, disgust, contempt, moralistic judgmentality. A twofold pity: pity one for the person not getting the most out of life, and pity two for the life (this most basic element of life, the sensory morsel) that is not getting the most made of it! But I just want the best for my friends, don’t I? I’ve known well the shame of swallowing fair quantities (mere quantities, as far as the gobbler is concerned) of food and only later realizing the offense I’ve done to my sensing self and to the swallowed. Granted, maybe my companions aren’t ashamed of that, but only because they don’t yet know they are doing something shameful; the shameful act is still there, harming them.

For compare, to the dull mushy pleasures of the tactile throat, the more refined and delicate pleasures of tongue-taste and nose-smell. Most people know from middle-school science class or other word of mouth that what we think of as the flavor of food is actually mostly smell. And smell is of course the most immaterial and therefore spiritual of the senses: witness the widespread preference among deities for inhaling their sacrificial meat as smoke rather than ingesting it in solid form. Now one might be tempted to say that taste (by which I’ll mean this total sense, including olfaction), being more immaterial, less immediate, is therefore more abstract and less real. That it is just the sort of faculty you’d expect to be lauded by some fool ascetic, corrupted by dusty religions and hyperintellectualism, distracted from the sensual world by colorless thoughts, who doesn’t know he has a body and wants to be “closer to God” but does not know that God has a body too. But I would argue that it is touch (which provides the sensations of swallowing) that is for the sensually dull and distracted. Remember that touch always occurs at some definite point of contact between one’s own body and a foreign body, at some definite location on the surface between one’s body and the world. Taste, on the other hand, veritably penetrates and permeates all consciousness. It is bigger and more difficult, demands greater presence. It is paradoxically harder to give attention to something that fills your whole mind, compared to something you can pin down right there on some tissue.

3. Cognition and Discrimination

A roommate of mine had a theory of what a rabbit’s consciousness is like. It was also why he thought a rabbit would be the best apartment pet. Look at a cat or a dog, and you can imagine it having an inner life not so different from ours: they seem to have interests and desires and emotions and respond to their environment in purposive ways. For people who like cats and dogs, that’s a big part of why they are nice to have around. But a rabbit, Max would say, a rabbit just sits there. It doesn’t have thoughts. You can basically imagine its consciousness as a uniform tone (“…uuuuuuuuuuuuuh…”). Add some amount of stimulation, turn on the light for example, and the tone would rise accordingly—“…uuuuu-uuuuuuuuuh…”. Someone pets it, maybe: “…uuuuuu-UUUUUUUUH …”

Fine for a rabbit. But I relate that minor parable to point to the fact that for us humans, sensations are not potentially pleasurable, but qualitatively distinct and information-rich. And tasting, compared to swallowing, is much more cognitively fruitful. Chewing and swallowing and stomach-filling all provide basically the same pleasurable sensation (unless of course you are overfull). It all becomes the same stuff, as any five-year-old will gladly say Ahhh and show you—volume and mass and moisture. Taste allows us to make distinctions between kinds of matter, to appreciate particular foods in their particularity and resolve homogeneous matter into distinct substances. And in the longer view this serves a dual purpose: One, it allows us to distinguish one sensory experience from another, that is, one moment of time from another. Two, it allows one experience to recall another. It gives us a vocabulary, trains us in sensory language.

Moreover, the ability to distinguish and categorize is the precondition of the ability to discriminate and evaluate, of “good taste.” And this does not consist only in the categorization and ranking of the objects of the known world. Most of us, who have learned to know and like what is good, who have more or less learned the canon, are pretty capable of that. But show us something new and, straining too hard to examine it, crudely looking for similarities to things we like, we might well misjudge it, or simply not know what to think (suspend our judgment). But the remarkable and distinguishing feature of the “person of taste” is her ability to identify and evaluate new sensations and pleasures, to know something is good even if she has never encountered anything quite like it before. She can find her aesthetic feet even in unfamiliar environs (and hopefully, if we are paying attention, pick a path that we can plod along behind).1

4. A Person of Good Swallow

You’ve probably caught me in a lie. That is, it should be quite obvious from what I said above about my desire for a pastry that one can be quite particular in one’s desire for something to swallow. If those who know what to taste and under what circumstances are said to have good taste, then what about people “of good swallow”? What do they know? A basic answer: they have a good sense of their own digestion, their own constitution. They know when they are too full to eat more. If their stomach is unsettled, they know what to eat or drink to settle it.

Illustration by Ellis Calvin

I said that one factor in the crudeness of touch compared to other senses is that they are so easily locatable to some part of the surface of the body. This was precisely what I would have hoped to find in a lump of sweet dough that midday in Queens: locatability. Whether my self was immaterial and diffuse somewhere I couldn’t have said, but it certainly wasn’t there with me. I would have liked to pin myself down in some manageably limited world, intermediate somewhere between the all-too-expansive and stimulating universe, at the one extreme, and the catatonic dimensionless sensory room extending no further than the tips of my nerve-endings, at the other.

So to be more precise, we could say that while the person of good taste is good at maximizing and heightening sensory pleasure, the person of good swallow excels at eliminating excess sensory disturbance.2 Where good tasting fosters beneficial expansion of one’s sensory world, good swallowing serves to shrink the world to no larger than one wants it to be. The good swallower sets firm constraints on her sensory vocabulary, sensibly forgets her capacity to learn and expand, neglects the overwhelming variety and potential value of yet-undiscovered things. She thus relieves herself, when it would not serve her, of the obligation to describe, to note, to remember, to suss, to judge. Note well: this cannot be a matter of self-awarely “suspending” judgment, for that could be felt as a retreat, as a cowardly shrinking from the opportunity and duty to learn, enjoy, flourish. One must take the objects that the world presents to be simpler, poorer, shallower, dumber than they othertimes are.

1On this topic see also David Hume’s classic “Of the Standard of Taste.”

2It’s worth remembering that the ancient Epicureans stressed the importance of moderation in one’s pleasures, and generally talked about the good life in terms of freedom from psychic disturbance rather than a pursuit of intensities and intoxications.