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Really to Taste


I bought Tamara the book Eat Pray Love as a stocking stuffer and took a moment to read a bit from it. I found this passage, which is so well-written that it needs to be said:

Luigi Barzini, in his 1964 masterwork The Italians (written when he had finally grown tired of foreigners writing about Italy and either loving it or hating it too much) tried to set the record straight on his own culture. He tried to answer the question of why the Italians have produced the greatest artistic, political, and scientific minds of the ages, but have never become a major world power. Why are they the planet's masters of verbal diplomacy, yet still so inept at home government? Why are they so individually valiant, yet so collectively unsuccessful as an army? How can they be such shrewd merchants on the personal level, yet such inefficient capitalists as a nation?

His answers to these questions are more complex than I can fairly encapsulate here, but have much to do with a sad Italian history of corruption by local leaders and exploitation by foreign dominators, all of which has generally led Italians to draw the seemingly accurate conclusion that nobody and nothing in this world can be trusted. Because the world is so corrupted, misspoken, unstable, exaggerated, and unfair, one should trust only what one can experience with one's own senses, and this makes the senses stronger in Italy than anywhere in Europe.

This is why, Barzini says, Italians will tolerate hideously incompetent generals, presidents, tyrants, professors, bureaucrats, journalists, and captains of industry, but will never tolerate incompetent "opera singers, conductors, ballerinas, courtesans, actors, film directors, cooks, tailors..." In a world of disorder and disaster and fraud, sometimes only beauty can be trusted. Only artistic excellence is incorruptible. Pleasure cannot be bargained down. And sometimes the meal is the only currency that is real.

To devote yourself to the creation and enjoyment of beauty, then, can be a serious business - not always necessarily a means of escaping reality, but sometimes a means of holding on to the real when everything else is flaking away into... rhetoric and plot. Not too long ago, authorities arrested a brotherhood of Catholic monks in Sicily who were in tight conspiracy with the Mafia, so who can you trust? What can you believe? The world is unkind and unfair. Speak up against this unfairness, and in Sicily at least, you'll end up as the foundation of an ugly new building. What can you do in such an environment to hold a sense of your individual human dignity? Maybe nothing. Maybe nothing except, perhaps, to pride yourself on the fact that you alway fillet your fish with perfection, or you make the lightest ricotta in the whole town?

What a great way to show how to enjoy incompetence. The clowning of others, such as politicians, could be a spectator's sport to be savored, and what we can really expect in terms of excellence lies in our own hands in the small things that we do for ourselves. Like watching Tamara dice vegetables. Nobody dices vegetables like she does... with such precision and care. There is love in every move of her knife. It's amazing. Or like when I pick up a paintbrush and agonize over colors and details... I put such time into it and want to capture this elusive feeling in my art...

We all have a few tasks we do that we perform with great attention to every detail because, for us, it matters. It's totally within our control.

There is a moment in Amelie (my favorite movie) where Dominique Bretodeau eats chicken. He has no moment but that one, and his delight of chicken is all that he knows in this world.

As William Saroyan said: "Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell. And when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough."

God bless the Italians. And for that matter, the French.


by Brett Rogers, 1/14/2008 10:30:42 PM


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