The Logos of Cheese
Can you stand one more post from me gassing on about food and France? I can’t quite bring myself to get back into the Sturm und Drang of the daily news cycle because it feels so good to roll around in all the good memories of the vacation I just took, and to eat what’s left of the things I brought back. Like those two cheeses above, photographed before they disappeared down the goozlepipes of me and my guests last night. The one on the left is a raw-milk Camembert, which tastes like no Camembert you’ve ever had in this country, and the other is a fourme d’Ambert, a mild blue cheese from the Auvergne.
It is ridiculous how happy good cheese can make me. Marcel Pagnol said, “Such is the life of a man. Moments of joy, obliterated by unforgettable sadness. There’s no need to tell the children that.” Me, I think it’s the other way around. Such is the life of a man: unforgettable sadness, obliterated by moments of joy. Obliterated, at least, in the moment, and if you reach the proper philosophical perspective, perhaps even redeemed. The taste of good French cheese will in no way compensate for the sorrows of life, but to me, it provides a certain perspective. The theologian David Bentley Hart writes, “To see the world as it should be seen, and so to see the true glory of God reflected in it, requires the cultivation of charity, of an eye rendered limpid by love.” Hart wrote that in “The Doors of the Sea,” a serious work of theodicy, in which he reflects on how to reconcile the existence of an all-good and all-powerful God with events like the 2004 tsunami. Hart rejects easy theological answers, and trite optimism. Rather, he says, to confront reality as a Christian requires cultivating a kind of double vision:
Maximus the Confessor taught that it is only when one has learned to look upon the world with selfless charity that one sees the true inner essence — the logos — of any created thing, and sees how that thing shines with the light of the one divine Logos that gives it being. But what the Christian should see, then, is not simply one reality: neither the elaborate, benign, elegantly calibrated machine of the deists, smoothly and efficiently accomplishing whatever goods a beneficent God and the intractable potentialities of finitude can produce between them; nor a sacred or divine commerce between life and death; nor certainly “nature” in the modern, mechanistic acceptation of that world. Rather, the Christian should see two realities at once, one world (as it were) within another: one the world as we all know it, in all its beauty and terror, grandeur and dreariness, delight and anguish; and the other the world it its first and ultimate truth, not simply “nature” but “creation,” an endless sea of glory, radiant with the beauty of God in very part, innocent of all violence. To see in this way is to rejoice and mourn at once, to regard the world as a mirror of infinite beauty, but s glimpsed through the veil of death; it is to see creation in chains, but beautifully as in the beginning of days.
I’m not sure I fully understand what he’s getting at here, but I think I intuit it when I ponder how much I enjoy food, and how happy good food makes me. (France, of course, is an excellent place to open oneself to such thoughts). Some people wrongly make an idol of food, or of art, or of sport, or such things. This we must avoid, but we also must avoid the opposite thing, which is to denigrate the body and the material world by assuming that all pleasure derived from the enjoyment of creation is illicit, or at least suspect. When I taste a good cheese, for example, it makes me not only happy, but joyful. The happiness comes from this thought: “How delicious this is!” The joy comes from this thought: “How wonderful to live in a world where such happiness can come from such simple things!” For Christians who see the world through a sacramental lens, the divine expresses itself in part through matter. For those with eyes to see, the cheeses in the picture are radiant with the glory of God. For me, when I taste something extraordinarily good, my first impulse is to say a prayer of thanksgiving. I know not everyone is like this, but for me, moments like this are theophanies — a sudden disclosure of God’s presence in the world, and a reminder that however much boredom and pain we have to bear, God is still present with us, and will disclose Himself in His creation, if we are open to it, and grateful for it. The sadness may be unforgettable, but contra M. Pagnol, so are the moments of joy.
Ever see “Babette’s Feast”? That. “An artist is never poor,” said the chef Babette. One who cultivates an artistic sensibility, especially within the sacramental Christian vision, is never hopeless, or so it seems to me.