Goose Liver and Creativity

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The dietetics of literature is an open field of research, but the link between writing and cooking has been made by various authors, past and present. Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche argued more than once that mind and nutrition are inextricably connected. Creativity is a matter of stomach. In Ecce homo he relates the consumption of food directly to intellectual development, not just of the individual, but of a nation as a whole. He blames poor cookery for the mental sloppiness of his German countrymen. Soup before the meal (known as ‘alla tedesca’ in early Venetian cooking books); an addiction to meat; vegetables cooked with fat and flower; the degeneration of pastries into paperweights; the bestial drinking habits – all that, Nietzsche argues, reinforces the notion that the nation’s thinking took its origin in disordered intestines. The philosopher is just as critical about the English kitchen. A diet of beef and pasties constitute to him a ‘return to nature’, that is to say, to cannibalism. Intellectually, to Nietzsche, the most inspiring kitchen is that of Piedmont, an area famously known for its ‘risotto al tartufo’, fine cheeses, and excellent wines such as Barbera and Barolo.

 

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To the booklover Holbrook Jackson’s Anatomy of Bibliomania remains indispensable reading. With great learning and wit, the author comments on why we read, where we take our books, and what happens to us when we get lost in literature. Part nine of the study is dedicated to ‘bibliophagi’ or book-eaters. The miracle of books is one of nourishment. Literature is a banquet. Books are food served out for distinguishing palates. Bibliophiles are gastronomes and epicures. They taste, chew, masticate, nibble, devour, gorge, and cram. They are subject to appetite and repletion. They may also be subject to over-eating. Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary and Croatia, built one of the largest libraries in Europe (second only to the Vatican Library). To some observers he was but a mere glutton of books with an indiscriminate appetite. Books are good wines. Readers relish their literary vintages. In his 1750 pamphlet ‘A New Project for the Destruction of Printing and Bookselling; for the Benefit of the Learned World’ (published anonymously), John Swift put forward the bold proposal for the liquefaction of literature. He advised to barrel and bottle books, thus making them more accessible and easier to consume. A cellar of books would be more invitingly absorbable than a library. Scottish poet Francis Bennoch summarized the experience of drinking books in the opening lines of his poem ‘My books’ which is included in his 1877 collection of Poems, Lyrics, Songs, and Sonnets: ‘I love my books as drinkers love their wine; / The more I drink, the more they seem divine’.

 

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Book historians and bibliophiles have made ample use of gastronomic metaphors to indicate the delight of reading. One early example has survived in a rather spectacular form. Queen Elizabeth was particularly keen on her copy of Laurence Thomson’s 1582 version of the New Testament (printed by Christopher Barker: the book is held in the Bodleian, Oxford), which she bound in a covering of her own make with various motto’s. The words in her own handwriting are written on the fly-leaf of the volume: ‘I walke manie times into the pleasant fieldes of the Holye Scriptures, where I plucke up in the goodlie greene herbes of sentences by pruning, eate them by reading, chawe them up musing, and laie them up at length in the hie seate of memorie by gathering them together; that so hauing tasted thy sweeteness I may the lesse perceave the bitterness of this miserable life’. The gastronomic metaphors collected and presented by Holbrook Jackson all refer to the consumption and digesting of foodstuff, not to the preparation of the dish. He is concerned with the reading and collecting of books, not with the process of creating them. The critic stays at the table without inspecting the kitchen. There is however a close affinity between cooking and creating.

Horace Walpole, youngest son of Sir Robert Walpole, the first Prime Minister, was an odd character. Educated at Eton and Cambridge, he became MP for Callington (Cornwall) in 1743, held the seat for thirteen years, but never set foot in the place. A confirmed bachelor, he drew about him a circle of cultured ‘dear friends’, a semi-erotic camaraderie of sensitive aesthetes. His biographers have described Walpole as an effeminate, asexual, or passively homosexual character. As an author, he is remembered for his Gothic novel The Castle of Otranto and for his extensive correspondence which is of significant political and social interest (a handbook of contemporary gossip). Literary critics such as Isaac D’Israeli and William Hazlitt rejected Walpole’s work as that of a frivolous dilettante, an image that survived well into the twentieth century. Historian and critic Thomas Babbington Macaulay was admired as a brilliant prose stylist in his day. He applied an intriguing gastronomic metaphor in reference to Walpole’s literary output.

Strasbourg pies or paté de foie gras are expensive pasties for which the city of that name was once famous. They are prepared from the livers of geese, which have been tied down for three or four weeks to prevent them from moving. During that period the animals are forced to eat fattening food. In an extraordinary review of Walpole’s two volumes of letters to Sir Horace Mann, British Envoy at the Court of Tuscany, published in the Edinburgh Review (October 1833), Macaulay compared the processing of the Strasbourg pie to the chemistry of the creative process. He describes Horace Walpole, Earl of Orford, as the most eccentric, the most artificial, the most fastidious, and the most capricious of men. His mind is a bundle of whims and affectations; his features are covered by mask within mask making the real man invisible. The overall critical evaluation of Walpole’s writing is expressed in the following manner: ‘His writings, it is true, rank as high among the delicacies of intellectual epicures as the Strasburg pies among the dishes described in the Almanach des Gourmands. But, as the pâté-de-foie-gras owes its excellence to the diseases of the wretched animal that furnishes it, and would be good for nothing if it were not made of livers preternaturally swollen; so, none but an unhealthy and disorganized mind could have produced such literary luxuries as the works of Walpole’.

Historically, food has been part of the never-ending exchange of insults between Britain and France. The surname of John Bull is reminiscent of the English fondness for beef. This is reflected in the French nickname for English people, ‘les rosbifs’. Jean Crapaud is an English jocose name given to a Frenchman. The word ‘crapaud’ is French for a toad (rather than frog). It is a reference to the ancient heraldic device of the kings of France, consisting of ‘three toads erect, saltant’. Yet, frogs, froggies, and frog-eaters have all become terms associated with the French. The Bull – Crapaud antagonism incorporates a variety of elements of patriotic hostility such as English robustness versus French refinement, ruddy health versus decadence, beef versus frog, beer versus wine and, after 1815, Wellington versus Napoleon. According to Macaulay, Walpole’s writings rank as high among the delicacies of intellectual epicures as Strasburg pies. Pâté-de-foie-gras owes its fine taste to the unnaturally swollen liver of the poor animal that furnishes it. Similarly, only an unhealthy and disorganized mind would be capable of producing such stylistic niceties as those of Walpole. It is impossible to guess which of the author’s ‘literary luxuries’ justifies such a comparison, but critical analysis allows for two different interpretations. The metaphor either supplies an illuminating insight into the chemistry of the creative process itself, or, alternatively, it is a playful ploy of restating what is an old stereotype. If the suggestion is correct that Walpole’s style of writing is the product of an unhealthy or unstable mind, then by implication every imaginative work of art may be judged similarly. In the interpretation of Macaulay the creative artist is an unhappy goose. A plateful of pre-Freud – but with a different flavouring. The alternative reading however is the more likely one. The luxurious refinement of the author’s writing is like that of a French gastronomic delicacy – tasty maybe, but unhealthy and decadent. In that sense, Macaulay has contributed an amusing metaphor to the good old tradition of Anglo-French gastronomic ding-dong.

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