The eminently sensible British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips once observed that we in the West currently have little idea of what constitutes the good life. We lack a philosophical sense of how to be, what to do. We seem to have settled instead, I would suggest, for the enviable life. Out with the good life, in with the life others can wish they had—painfully wish they had. When we incite envy, we at least show that our life has some meaning, meaning that comes from our ability to evoke the jealousy of others: I wish I had that! I wish I were going there! I wish I had achieved such heights!
In few places is the pursuit of the enviable life more pronounced than in the world of food. Privileged people vie with each other for dining supremacy. They compete to go to the best restaurants, eat the fare of the foremost chefs, sit at well-placed tables, then photograph the results and post them here and there. Cooking is an art now on par with composing lyric poetry, and eating is a mode of appreciation that has become a bit of a subsidiary art in itself. Food, literary scholar William Deresiewicz says, “has developed, of late, an elaborate cultural apparatus that parallels the one that exists for art, a whole literature of criticism, journalism, appreciation, memoir, and theoretical debate. It has its awards, its maestros, its televised performances. It has become a matter of local and national pride.”11xWilliam Deresiewicz, “A Matter of Taste?,” New York Times, October 28, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/28/opinion/sunday/how-food-replaced-art-as-high-culture.html?_r=0.
Today, one seeks the enviable meal. One works to draw the admiration, maybe the awe, and certainly the jealousy of others. Food, Deresiewicz continues, is now “a vehicle of status aspiration and competition, an ever-present occasion for snobbery, one-upmanship and social aggression.”
But is it possible to conceive of the good meal, rather than the enviable one? If so, what would the good meal—or the good meals—be like?
The Dinner of Comity and Compassion
One of the best good meals I ever had was memorable not for the provenance of the wine, the subtlety of the viands, or the understated charm of the ambience. The meal wasn’t centered on the quality of the menu, the strength of the wine list, or the renown of the chef. The meal was centered on a pot.
The pot was not easy to get to. There was a muddy road, rain and more rain, then a place where we abandoned the car to walk, then ford, then walk some more. A long while more.
Over the river and through the woods we went. Then came more rivers, more woods, more rain, and the stream that needed to be crossed hand in hand. There were three of us adults and two kids; adults hand in hand across the rain-fattened stream, kids on the backs of their mom and dad, and me helping and holding on and getting water through my worn hiking boots.
We got to a cabin in the woods that seemed from the outside too precarious to be even a cabin. It looked more like a door set into a ramshackle arrangement of trees and scrap lumber. It looked like “the lonely house long held the witches’ home,” to borrow a line from Coleridge.
The door opened without our knocking, and the light and warmth from the candles and two fires drew us in. At the center of the table we saw the pot. There was salad on one side and steaming bread on the other, but all honor went to the pot. It was bubbling and popping, almost singing with pleasure at being what it was. The substance inside was red and rich and smelled of faraway lands, a warm retreat against the cold and the rain outside. The contents were humble: A vegetarian chili is what I recall. But the taste was the taste of the house, welcoming and hearty. You could have all you wanted. You used the ladle, or you dipped in your bowl. You sat on the floor or a ragged couch or a soft, yielding chair.
There were children and twenty-somethings, and there were husbands and wives of all genders. And there were old people who sat on the floor or half-lay like fat cats on the couches. The kids ran and hollered and bothered no one; the old people talked and talked; the young people listened and talked and proceeded with the business of laughing flirtation through which, in that indirect way it has of happening, the world is in time repopulated.
People told you their names and you told them yours, and you were quickly talking. You talked about the rain and the wind and the hard road to the house, and it soon became a more general story about hard roads that arrived somewhere worth going, places where they took you in and were glad to do so.
After the eating, songs were sung and a few stories told by very old and very young, and a prayer or two or three were said, and a moment of silence was observed for those who were no longer with us but really still were. And when, the sky going subtly dawn-bright, we went out into the sprinkling rain, we carried the warmth with us, the warmth of the fire and the people and the kids and the old ones and the old songs and the new.
At the center of that meal was the pot: Serve yourself, enough for everyone, a community, not a crowd; a group, not a collection of me and me and me. For a while all were equal, all happy, all warm. Love, kindness, equality—that is the menu here. Those who partake will go out into the world to look after one another—and others. This is the dinner of comity and compassion, the meal of equals and of friends.
The Philosophers’ Dinner
At the center of the second good meal there is no pot but, instead, a flagon or a bottle: red wine, red, red wine. Day to day, week to week, we do wine and the wine god Bacchus an unthinking disservice. Or so, at least, the ancient Greeks would tell us. For we have made a potential sacrament into something blandly habitual. The drink at the end of the workday. The beverage that accompanies dinner. The nightcap. Through such quotidian indulgences, have we not shut the door to something beyond our usual selves?
In our second meal, wine is sacramental. It opens a portal to another world, the world of intellectual give and take. In vino veritas, we say—in wine there is truth. By that we usually mean that drunks let you know how they really feel. No doubt that’s sometimes so. But in the ancient world, wine, carefully blended with water, judiciously served, was thought to lead to another sort of truth: not the truth of bluntly aggressive opinion, but truth about matters we might agree to call higher.
Bacchus often ushers another god into the room, Mercury. This deity is the god of conversation (among his other domains). When Mercury is present, people speak with an eloquence and clarity they usually don’t possess. The intensity and warmth of the conversation lift the thoughts of the participants higher, and so does the wine. The men and women on hand say things they wouldn’t be capable of saying, think thoughts they wouldn’t be capable of thinking, without the company and (of course) without the wine. They sometimes argue. They sometimes strain to refute each other. They are willing to struggle and strive. But no one minds. No offense is taken. All are in pursuit of the same goal; all are seeking the truth.
This is the symposium of the philosophers, the seekers after wisdom. Unlike the collation in the forest, the ceremony of the circle and the pot, this is an exclusive feast, though not in any usual sense. One man is dressed modestly, another approaches ostentation, while others simply give no thought to what they’re wearing. Some are old and some young, some male, some female. They are there because they are interested in the pursuit of truth. They believe that they can contribute to the overall greater quest.
This is not a solemn dinner. There are jokes and asides and anecdotes and calls for more wine (and sometimes calls for less, in the best interest of a too-far-gone participant). But when a subject arises, all give themselves to the game. All listen well; all summarize what they have heard (in the fashion of the Iroquois sachems, who were not allowed to contribute to the powwow until they had given an overview of what had come before), and all deliver their best. All are friends, but all jostle with one another, if not like foes then like competitors, for they believe that truth often arises from contention. The main feeling here is love and respect, along with gratitude, but sometimes the proceedings resemble an athletic contest, albeit a contest of minds. Still, the desire is ultimately not to outshine the others but to know by collective effort how it really is, to get at what is true (an effort that may not prevent one member of the circle from stealing a kiss, or maybe two, from another).
How blessed life is if one encounters such a circle once or twice or three times, though one might experience something close it in the late-night dormitory rap sessions that give such meaning to our undergraduate years. In my recollections of the dinner symposiums I’ve been fortunate to attend, one figure looms large: the philosopher, or anti-philosopher, Richard Rorty, who became my colleague and, in time, my friend. Where he sat was always the head of the table. But as the evening progressed (and after some wine), all tried to displace Dick. Hit and shed, bull in the ring: Those were the football drills that came to mind when, sometimes almost against his will, Dick was holding court. He was the standard-bearer for pragmatism, pragmatism after what he called the linguistic turn, and he had many questions to answer. He was held tightly to account. So you’re a relativist? So you don’t believe in any exterior reality at all? So nihilism is the name of your game? (No, any idea isn’t as good as any other. No, pragmatism isn’t radical idealism. C’mon, pragmatists have values, maybe too many of them. Look at John Dewey.) He was like Ted Williams at batting practice. We pitched, and he hit it out of the park or off the wall. Sometimes he swung and whiffed.
There was wine, to be sure. Wine unzipped Dick a fraction at a time. And there was not quite the collaboration in play that I had enjoyed in my dorm sessions, or that Plato reports to have savored that night in Athens when Socrates told the world what Diotima had said about love. There was more hierarchy when Dick was on the scene—but he had earned his exalted place on the corner stool that was also a throne. After a night of such exchange, you could say to yourself that you had said things, had sustained thoughts, that you never could have on your own. Bacchus had been there, tipsy and wreathed, and Mercury had slid into the room, giving everyone what my Irish grandmother liked to call the gift of the gab.
Another round! Another round! So tell me, Professor Rorty: What, truly, is truth? Where is wisdom to be found?
The Hero’s Banquet
And the third meal? Call it the hero’s banquet. When the hero enters the room, everyone stands. (Sure, people stand for the general and the colonel and the lieutenant, too, but that is protocol, informed by rules and guidelines. You salute the uniform, they say in the army, and not the one who wears it.) When the hero walks into the room, everyone stands almost involuntarily: They simply do it. They stand in admiration of the man or woman who risks life or limb to do what must be done. Heroes have a quality that virtually all other men and women lack: The hero is always ready to die for a cause. The hero is brave.
When the warrior-hero walks in the room, the aura is upon him. He radiates what the Scots called the glam, from which comes our word glamour, now conferred on pop stars and CEOs, people who are mere shadows of the hero, but now have in some places usurped the hero’s prerogatives.
At the warrior’s banquet, the hero eats first not because he pushes his way to the front of the line or bangs his cup against the board. No, the others simply make way. They will not eat until the hero has been served. To go before him to the table is a form of sacrilege. A businessman or professor might foolishly step up before the fighter, but a fellow warrior could not imagine doing so.
Sometimes, in his lordly, kindly way, the hero cuts the meat: He cuts and he dispenses with grace and ease. But he does so in strict accordance with the rules: You approach him in the order of your importance. That is, you approach in order of the courage you have exhibited and that has been recorded and affirmed by your fellows. Those who are closest to him in prowess step forward first. At the dinner of Achilles, Odysseus stands at the fore and receives the choice bits of cooked meat. The misshapen Thersites stands outside. This is a meal for the brave only. It is smooth and easy and decorous, but beneath the ease there is a fierce hierarchy that no one present bucks. This is the dinner of warriors.
You see its shadow, maybe its pale shadow, when a sports team shares a meal. There is the star, the alpha, the playmaker, and everything radiates from him or her that individual. All want to sit close by; all want to listen to the hero’s stories. All wants to be close enough to catch the glow of the aura, and maybe possess some of it too. Maybe they can learn how it is done. Hierarchy is not experienced as oppression. It is a pleasure, a joy, to perceive the highest excellence and to bathe in its light and to aspire one day to possess it.
I’ve sat among athletes, being a sort of athlete in aspiration myself, and have felt a version of the pleasure radiated by the warriors’ meal—indeed, by all three meals of the ideal sort. To put it in simple terms, this is the pleasure of achieved meaning. The diners know what life is about, at least for them. It’s about compassion or courage or the quest for wisdom.
The pleasure of seeking to achieve a certain sort of meaning is a difficult pleasure, to be sure, but the pleasure is all the deeper for that difficulty. Something goes on at the genuine dinner that passes beyond the consumption of food and drink; something happens that is more significant than the most refined connoisseur’s enjoyment. In the three ideal dinners, the meal is a celebration and affirmation. There one partakes in the affirmation that fortitude and kindness and thought truly count in the world. Even if those who affirm such ideals are a minority, they come together to assert that they are right to do as they do, and that the world of celebrity chefs and haute cuisine—and the envy such a world may arouse—is not, for them, the world that finally matters.