on taste

Gracian’s first book to acquire a European reputation was The Hero. It was translated into English in the seventeenth century, and into French in the early 18th century by a translator who remarked on Gracian’s resemblance to La Bruyere. A book with such a title, one might expect, is an essay on heroes that one finds in history or literature. But this isn’t so – the book is in a sense a how to book about how to become a hero, or great man. Gracian worked in the field of worldly wisdom – his distant heirs now retail banalities about “leadership science”. The heirs are writing for an audience of essentially uneducated businessmen, and are often as lacking in education themselves, and make up for this last point by being ardent collectors of the inspirational sayings of the famous. Context, of course, isn’t the point – leadership disdains context, which is full of obstacles and other people’s objections, and marches proudly into war, or a higher ROI, with the conviction that the long term will simply be taken up with collecting various sayings of the leadership that did it, to inspire others, and will pay no attention to the blood and guts on the field, the fired help, the long term disasters born out of intoxicating short term gains.
Leadership, in other words, is a royal screwing.
But we can’t blame Gracian for this sad state of affairs, since he was evidently intent on giving advice on how to become a universal man (suitably Catholicized). One of the properties of the hero that Gracian promoted was what his English 17th century translator called “gusto” – evidently, taste had not yet grown out of its vulgar accountrements of tongue and appetite at this point:
EVery great capacitie is ever hard to be pleased: The Gusto must as well be improv'd as the wit. Both rais'd and improv'd are like Twinns begotten by capacity and coheirs of excellency: Ne|ver sublime wit yet bred a flat or abject Gusto. There are perfections like the sun, others like light. The Eagle makes love to the sun. The poor frozen fly destroyes her self in the flames of a Candle. The height of a Capacity is best taken by the elevation of a Gusto.”

Gracian’s Gusto operates though the logic of praise and dispraise. The taste of the hero is perfect in as much as its praise and its scorn are appropriate to the object – and there’s the rub. There’s a crooked line under the skin of the culture that leads from Gusto to fandom, or from the universal man to the fan. The world of like and dislike – our ultimate buttons – have simplified and rationalized Gusto until it works for anything. Until, I think, it gets in front of everything.

For years, I was a book reviewer. I am not exaggerating when I say I’ve reviewed more than 500 books – mostly in small reviews for Publishers Weekly, but in bigger reviews for various newspapers and mags. And in the course of reviewing, I began to seriously hate like and dislike. It seemed to me that my like and dislike were not really at stake in reviewing a book. True, it was hard to give a “good” review to a book I disliked, and vice versa. Still, I tried to make my reviews struggles with what the books were doing. I tried to make them diagnostic, exploratory, a way of getting a good surgeon’s grasp on the innards of the book. This, I must say, didn’t go down well with editors, who would often send me emails commenting, what did you think of the book? Meaning, did you like it? And usually I had to throw in a few words of praise or dispraise. Mostly, though, I tried to so subordinate the like the like or dislike moment in the review to the more interesting business of, well, thinking of the book, thinking about it, thinking with it, thinking through it.