Denis Donoghue, has penned a nice review of Denise Gigante’s book, “Taste: A Literary History,” in February’s Harpers. Donoghue considers the concrete sense, first – a sense that lies the tongue which is, as he felicitously puts it, “like a kingdom divided into principalities according to sensory talent” – for our bitter and sweet, our sour and salty are found in different areas of the tongue, the chemistry of the alien bodies we put in the mouth turned into its synaptic commentary by means of differently grouped sensors.
Gigante begins, too, with a primal scene of appetite and taste, this one taken from Paradise Lost:
“Gigante's point of departure is Milton's Paradise Lost. In Book 5, God sends the archangel Raphael to warn Adam that Satan is on the loose and determined to harm God's new creation, the human race. Adam doesn't seem especially perturbed; he is more interested in learning from Raphael what it's like to be an angel. He invites him to sit and share the sumptuous meal that Eve has prepared. Raphael accepts the invitation. This leads him to talk about food and to describe the angelic state. There is no reference to excretion; instead of evacuation, the angelic form of life has expression and eloquence. Raphael distinguishes angels from men and women, but he nonetheless says that a "time may come when men/With Angels may participate" and find
Later on, Raphael tells Adam that angels "live throughout/Vital in every part, not as frail man/In Entrails, Heart or Head, Liver or Reins." This suggests that angels are not dependent on mouths, tongues, and kidneys, even though they can assume human senses and choose whatever size, shape, and color they like.
Gigante notes that these passages in Paradise Lost were in the minds of the eighteenth-century philosophers of Taste and were constantly alluded to. After the divisiveness of the British Civil War, the end of the Stuart monarchy, the Bill of Rights (1689), and the Act of Settlement (1701), it was widely felt in Britain that soothing images of national unity were needed. The first of these was the True-Born Englishman, who might be Whig or Tory but was ultimately an Englishman. Another image, companionable to the first, was the Man of Taste, an exemplar of moderation, politeness, and refinement.”
LI has long ago fallen from aus der Engel Ordnungen, and is no longer really a man of taste or a true born American – which might explain why we got such a cruel kick from this article in the Washington Post. Like any other People or Vanity Fair reader, we do love a good murder. Besides which, we used to play tennis almost every day in the old, dead teen years, and so witnessed the phenomenon of the brow beating tennis parent, the one with the little kids who were being taught to play a fun game with the ruthlessness with which you teach a puppy to pee on the paper. In the person of Christophe Fauviau this apparently found its logical conclusion:
“Christophe Fauviau, a self-described obsessive tennis dad, was a fixture at amateur matches throughout France in which his son and daughter competed. He often appeared at the start of sets with bottled water or cups of Coca-Cola for his children, as well as their rivals.
Sometimes those rivals became ill during the match. They complained they were seeing double; some passed out or collapsed. One fell asleep at the wheel of his car on the way home from a match he had forfeited to Fauviau's son because of sickness.”
Christophe, it appears, is a true narcissist for our time. A duly medicated French yuppie – tranqs follow income as surely as magnets attract iron – it was Fauviau’s habit to give his darling Valentine and Maxime that foot up by doping the waterbottles of their opponents with Temesta. Here’s what the trick felt like, to one of Maxime’s opponents:
“During the match, he suddenly began feeling dizzy. "I was seeing two balls coming at me," he recalled. He said Maxime's father asked him if his head was okay. After the game, Tauziede said, he collapsed in the shower. His parents took him to a hospital where he remained for two days. Doctors were unable to diagnose his illness, he said.”
All of which led to this:
“Fauviau's undoing began in 2003. On July 3 that year, a 25-year-old elementary school teacher, Alexandre Lagardere, played Maxime Fauviau in what was considered a friendly local match. The prize was a ham. Lagardere fell ill while they were playing and dropped out. He drove to a friend's house and went to sleep on a couch, abandoning plans for a night out.
Two hours later he awoke and tried to drive home. He crashed his car when he apparently fell asleep at the wheel and died of his injuries. An autopsy found traces of Temesta in his system. Fauviau became a suspect when witnesses reported seeing him fiddling with Lagardere's water bottle just before the match.”
Once caught, however, our hero knew exactly what to do: blame his actions on his virtues. The virtue currently most worshipped in the world – ask our Rebel in Chief –is a high opinion of oneself. Given enough of this high opinion, you even have some to spend on other people. Yes, love love love – that is, of oneself, through other people:
“Fauviau, a slightly built man with a receding hairline and a pinched-looking face, testified in court, "When my children were playing, I was suffering. It was as if I were playing myself. I felt I was my child. I felt something crying inside me."
He said he arrived at his plan "little by little -- it was not sudden."”
Fauviau, after serving some tiresome sentence, should surely take his message to CEO retreats and think tanks, for there is an aching message there, a universal message… I think we can all sympathize with his agonies.
Which brings me back around to the man of taste. Surely it was this straw figure that De Quincey was mocking in the best essay ever written about homicide, Murder considered as one of the fine arts. It consists of a rather wild and wooly address given to a typical tasteful club: “The Society of Connoisseurs in Murder.” Actually, Fauviau’s crime might be sneered at by De Quincey, since it lacks some of the characteristics of the great murders:
“People begin to see that something more goes to the composition of a fine murder than two blockheads to kill and be killed--a knife--a purse--and a dark lane. Design, gentlemen, grouping, light and shade, poetry, sentiment, are now deemed indispensable to attempts of this nature.”
I for one would stick up for the poetry and sentiment, but it must be admitted that the grouping and design are rather poor.
De Quincey’s lecturer is given to great digressions that are so satiric that they almost don’t seem satiric, like a stain that fades into a fabric of the same color. So, of course, first he has to establish the moral boundaries, here:
Before I begin, let me say a word or two to certain prigs, who affect to speak of our society as if it were in some degree immoral in its tendency. Immoral! God bless my soul, gentlemen, what is it that people mean? I am for morality, and always shall be, and for virtue and all that; and I do affirm, and always shall, (let what will come of it,) that murder is an improper line of conduct, highly improper; and I do not stick to assert, that any man who deals in murder, must have very incorrect ways of thinking, and truly inaccurate principles; and so far from aiding and abetting him by pointing out his victim's hiding-place, as a great moralist of Germany declared it to be every good man's duty to do, I would subscribe one shilling and sixpense to have him apprehended, which is more by eighteen-pence than the most eminent moralists have subscribed for that purpose. But what then? Everything in this world has two handles. Murder, for instance, may be laid hold of by its moral handle, (as it generally is in the pulpit, and at the Old Bailey;) and _that_, I confess, is its weak side; or it may also be treated _æsthetically_, as the Germans call it, that is, in relation to good taste.”
After more of this, our lecturer gets down to brass tacks, and as with any connoisseur, glances over the progress made by homicide over the ages, from the crude artistry of Cain to the more ingenious murders and assassinations of Christian times. Assassinations of statesmen and kings are rather boring, but there is a more delicate prey, and here De Quincey’s lecturer fixes, so to speak, his monocle:
But there is another class of assassinations, which has prevailed from an early period of the seventeenth century, that really _does_ surprise me; I mean the assassination of philosophers. For, gentlemen, it is a fact, that every philosopher of eminence for the two last centuries has either been murdered, or, at the least, been very near it; insomuch, that if a man calls himself a philosopher, and never had his life attempted, rest assured there is nothing in him; and against Locke's philosophy in particular, I think it an unanswerable objection (if we needed any), that, although he carried his throat about with him in this world for seventy-two years, no man ever condescended to cut it. As these cases of philosophers are not much known, and are generally good and well composed in their circumstances, I shall here read an excursus on that subject, chiefly by way of showing my own learning.”
Truly, I can’t plead that my murderer, Fauviau, is a philosopher – but certainly I can claim that he is a murderer for the age of therapy, and a damn good one too.
Anyway, I could quote De Quincey's essay for ever -- it is one of my favorite pieces. If you haven't read it, dear reader, do.
PS -- A shout out to my readers in the Chicago area. If you aren't sick of my longwindedness yet, you can catch me in today's Sunday Chicago Sun Times book section opining about Kevin Brockmeier's new novel.