On Not Thrashing M.F.K. Either

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:24

    Porn, Pastoral, Etc.

    The development that followed Mitchell's demise and made it possible to see the old fellow as anything other than a genteel schnorrer was Tina Brown's revitalization of The New Yorker, which let you view the pre-Brown magazine from an improving distance, to forget how dull the old thing could be and to consign the magazine's former smugness and quiescence?of which Mitchell at his worst was a weary Episcopalian symbol, like an old pig in a blanket or a gin and tonic that's been left out too long?to the realm of the safe, quaint and acceptable past.

    It was the food revolution that made Fisher a cultural icon. Fisher, who was conveniently photogenic, has become the presiding saint of the lifestyle magazine editor; of the well-heeled middle-aged wine-country Aquarian; of the boomer with his Dockers, ability to distinguish between strains of olive oil and enthusiasm for world music; of Peter Mayle enthusiasts who yearn for Provençal hostelries, copper pots and the presence in their cucina of picturesque and good-natured Tuscan crones straight out of the background of some syrupy contemporary Italian movie. Fisher's become the patroness, in other words, of the Lifestyle Industry as it's congealed in the 1990s, her face leering with too much pop-eyed enthusiasm in the photos taken late in her life, as if she were aware of the absurdity that inhered in her role as nurturing mother hen to lifestyle aspirants. The foodie culture that that gastronomic revolution produced entered its sterile mannerist phase long ago, at least in New York, and Fisher will either have to answer for that or be absolved of responsibility for it. But that's a matter for another column.

    The point here, though, is that as irritating as Fisher's ubiquitousness and sanctification have become, the critical thrashing that it would be satisfying to watch her suffer, just out of contrariness, is going to be difficult to administer. Because much of what she wrote was actually good?and good in part because it was often so twisted, which is why it's absurd that she's become the benign lodestar of travel-and-leisure fetishists. If only these people knew what she was up to?if only they'd read her more carefully, and perceive how disturbing she could be. I've been rereading Fisher's 1983 essay collection As They Were (Alfred A. Knopf, 1983) lately, and I'm struck again by the darkness and morbidity that courses through portions of it. Did Fisher occasionally write like the old woman she happened to be for a significant portion of her life? Sure. But anybody's who's ever tried to write about food is bound to forgive her occasional precious slitherings, because he'll know how difficult it can be to write about food?about dainties and sweetmeats and stuffed pumpkins and wee pickled herrings and such?without sounding like an old woman. Obsessing about food historically is a pastime for old women, in fact, an activity that coexists with sewing, coupon-clipping, interior decoration, bridge socials and breastfeeding in the canon of huswifery. Anxiety about that fact haunts every installation of this, a food column that exerts itself every two weeks to discuss depression, fat girls, vermin, Russian literature, the quality of the West Side's light, Gulf Coast beauty contests, Mexican water, the Slavic diaspora and dirt?anything except food.

    But here's the thing that Fisher, to her credit, understood: Obsessing about food might be kind of queer on one level. But food also has something to do with sadness and morbidity, even with death. Anxiety, loneliness, pain?they hum underneath the surface of Fisher's writing like drones, informing every measure, insinuating themselves into your consciousness even when you're grooving on the gay details of, say, Fisher's French itineraries. Take, for example, the well-known essay "I Was Really Very Hungry" (and speaking of postmenopausal preciousness, what a terrible title that is), in which Fisher describes being detained in a Burgundian inn by an obsessed waitress who forces delicacies and dishes upon her until Fisher's past the point of comfort, wants nothing more than to get out of there and the situation becomes creepy. The short essay resonates with a number of queasy themes: hysteria, isolation, loneliness, morbidly thwarted energy, repressed lesbian sexuality?themes that belong more properly to the gothic novel than to the usually intellectually vapid genre of food writing. The waitress tortures Fisher?she imposes physical pain and anxiety on her.

    Or there's the piece "Young Hunger," about the voraciousness of youthful appetites, and particularly of the teenage Fisher's appetite when she'd visit her elderly godparents?who were sadistically innocent of the fact that they were starving the poor girl with their stingy old-person portions of food. The urbane, witty veneer of Fisher's writing obscures that you're reading here a story about adolescent disorientation, about interfamilial and intergenerational estrangement?and more crucially about trapped children isolated and silent in their misery. In "About Looking Alone At a Place," a grownup Fisher spends Christmas in Arles...alone, of course. "In Arles there were no porters," the piece begins, evoking a world of expatriate melancholia, and...

    ...And so on. We could sit here all day racking up examples. (You want more, contact me and I'll fax you footnotes. How fun.) But I'm more interested in why this morbid undercurrent exists in Fisher, in what it's doing there. Is it moralism? Probably in part. It's inevitably got to have something to do with the hoary idea that sensual pleasures must result in either literal or spiritual death, or else both. But maybe it's not just moralism?not just a suspicion of the pleasures of the flesh, a vestige of Fisher's Midwestern roots, maybe, or whatever?that's going on in Fisher, but something weirder and more disquieting and more interesting, something I don't completely understand.

    That is, I wonder if this undercurrent of morbidity, of anxiety, of darkness, isn't connected in some way to the recognition that eating is a base and disgusting act. Eating's allied with excretion; the kitchen and the dining room are just stagecoach stops along the endlessly reiterated journey to the reeking outhouse. (If you think about it, the dinner table's status as a locus of sociality is a bit off-putting.) Eating's something we do in common with worms, with swine. It leads to the production of night soil and implicates us?superior and spiritual animals that we consider ourselves?in gross organic processes, in which we participate with rats, germs, sand fleas, cows, maggots and fish. So eating's a reminder of our nasty and inexorable and stinking physicality, of the fact that our holy souls might be less definitive of our quiddity than our foul digestive tracts. Eating's a reminder of everything that doesn't distinguish us from the more common run of existence.

    It's not that Fisher was depressed and morbid, a sicko. What she was, rather, was an honest artist, who knew that to endlessly evoke uncomplicated and too easily earned physical pleasures?like consuming truite au bleu with vintage Chablis in a Burgundian inn, which is part of what she does in "I Was Really Very Hungry," and the like?is to traffic in pornography. As an honest artist?an artist who, unlike most "lifestyle" writers, aspired to more than peddling her audience masturbatory satisfactions?she kept herself in check by floating clouds across the blue Epicurean clouds she evoked. The subtle and occasional glimpses of the skull beneath the skin that Fisher shows you are what distinguish her from a pornographer like Peter Mayle. Fisher kept it real, like other good writers in the pastoral tradition, which is remarkably full of authors undercutting the idyllic charm of their work with dollops of morbidity and anxiety and death, so as to keep their writings from devolving into mere decadent evocations of rural bucks humping lissome maids under arbors. I'm thinking of Andrew Marvell, actually, who wrote those great pastoral "mower" and "garden" poems that they slip past you in 10th grade but that are actually some of the most fascinatingly dark poems ever written: poems in which idyllic landscapes turn morbid, in which superficially charming gardens reveal themselves as dead zones characterized by sickly languor and the buzzing of flies, in which languid groves reveal themselves as sticky, overgrown locations abuzz with flies and conducive to a narcotic lassitude?groves in which it becomes clear that every sweet fruit hovers on the edge of decay. The pastoral world as arena of drugged annihilation.

    But I'm way off track. The point is that all of this food stuff might be more complicated than is apparent, more complicated than most people who write about it are capable of making clear?deeper in its resonances and evocations. And it doesn't only have to be deeper in a dark way. I don't only mean that every time you walk into Le Cirque 2000?or some other establishment where the experience of dining's geared to convince you that life's a carnival of easily purchased sensuous pleasures?you should be seeing skulls on those well-suited shoulders, see everyone shoveling food into gaping skeletal holes. It could swing the other way, too, in a brighter direction. At any rate, with a couple of exceptions, nobody's writing about food with anything approaching the subtly or literary weight with which Fisher did, which is a good reason not to shatter her icon, at least for now.