Lost in the Cosmos, French Cuisine Today, and Leaving Academia
In an interview published yesterday, the novelist Colson Whitehead said we should stop talking about outer space and attend instead to our “Inner Space”: “What’s all this talk about going to Mars? The cosmic radiation will kill us. According to the European Space Agency (ESA), an astronaut traveling to and from the Red Planet would receive 60 percent of their career dose of radiation on the trip. ‘[The particles] rip through you like you’re cellophane,’ says one scientist. That’s why we must devote our energies to exploring the true Final Frontier—Inner Space.”
Kudos to Whitehead for his willingness to be corny (if he is doing it on purpose) while also making a serious point. He’s right that going to Mars won’t do us much good. Wherever you go, there you are, and you bring your problems with you. Walker Percy said nearly the same thing over 30 years ago in Lost in the Cosmos. How is it possible, Percy writes, “for the man who designed Voyager 19, which arrived at Titania, a satellite of Uranus, three seconds off schedule and a hundred yards off course after a flight of six years, to be one of the most screwed-up creatures in California—or the Cosmos”?
The only difference is that Percy knew exploring “Inner Space,” as Whitehead calls it, could be even more dangerous than travelling to Mars. It’s always a life-or-death trip. You may discover that you live “in a deranged age—more deranged than usual, because despite great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing” and find yourself considering “not the usual therapeutic” solution—therapy, anti-depressants, a “change of wife or husband”—“but a more ancient and honorable alternative, the Roman option.”
“Who is secular man, and why is he so unhappy?” Jay Tolson asks in a review of Roberto Calasso’s The Unnamable Present: “Chairman of Italy’s distinguished literary house Adelphi Edizione, Calasso is too good a historian to say that Homo saecularis emerged only in recent centuries. The lineaments of the type have existed since Paleolithic times, present as what Calasso calls a ‘perpetual shadow.’ The shadow has been cast by the figure dominating most of the human record, Homo religiosus, defined by the sociologist Mircea Eliade as one who ‘always believes there is an absolute reality, the sacred, which transcends this world but manifests itself in the world, thereby sanctifying it and making it real.’ What has changed dramatically in recent centuries, Calasso writes, is that ‘the shadow has been transformed into normal man, who finds himself a solitary, hapless protagonist at the center of the stage.’”
The insect drawings of Joris Hoefnagel: “The attention paid to insects in the early modern period was in inverse relation to their size. These tiny teeming things evaded comprehension. They were thought to be imperfect animals, lacking internal organs and born by spontaneous generation, produced by the putrefaction of matter like meat, mud, or cheese. Yet in the tiny frame of these ‘narrow engines’, as Sir Thomas Browne called them, was a bewitching intricacy of form.”
The “bent” pyramid of Sneferu is now open to the public: “Egypt has opened King Sneferu’s 4,600-year-old ‘bent’ pyramid to the public. The 101m-high structure, in the Dahshur royal necropolis, just south of Cairo, is one of two built for Sneferu, the pharaoh who founded the Fourth Dynasty. Tourists will be allowed inside the ancient structure after archaeologists found ‘hidden tombs’ containing mummies, masks and tools.”
Philip Connors reviews a new book on the exploring duo of Silvestre Vélez de Escalante and Francisco Atanasio Domínguez, who led a 1,700-mile expedition through the Southwest: “Domínguez and Escalante failed to reach Monterey, and their journey is less well known than it ought to be, overshadowed by those of fellow wanderers like Lewis and Clark. The group could as easily have starved or drowned crossing a river as lived. Escalante in fact would not live long, dying within a few years of his return to Santa Fe, likely of a urinary ailment (prostate or bladder cancer, some have surmised). Yet no man in his party was lost, and no hostilities arose in meetings with aboriginal people along the way, despite the padres’ incessant proselytizing for the one true Lord. Those two facts alone make it an exceedingly rare story of its kind.”
I remember reading Tony Tost’s first collection of poetry, Invisible Bride, when it was first published in 2004. I wasn’t impressed, but I have been impressed with what Tost has done since—write for AMC’s Longmire and create Damnation. He talks about his time in academia and why he left it for Hollywood at Quillette: “This is an extreme example, but at my first department function at Duke after being accepted as a doctoral student, a prominent professor asked me where I went to undergrad. I told him Green River Community College and College of the Ozarks. He looked me up and down, then turned away and simply didn’t speak to me again my entire six years in the program. That wasn’t typical. But it did feel a bit symptomatic. I didn’t interact with everyone in my program and I’m sure I have my own issues and blindspots, but compared to the largely working class artists and musicians and writers I’d been surrounded by up to then, very few Duke grad students seemed to be intoxicated by books or ideas or art. Many, however, seemed to be experts at positioning themselves within the newest intellectual trends.”
Essay of the Day:
In The Guardian, Wendell Steavenson takes stock of French cuisine today. Is it still the best in the world?
“In 2006, after years reporting in the Middle East, I moved to Paris. It was an accidental choice, the serendipity of a sublet through a friend of a friend. It was meant to be temporary; at the time I was just looking for somewhere to hole up and finish a book. My friends all said: ‘Oh Paris, how lovely! You must be eating well.’ They were surprised to hear me complain that Parisian menus were dull and repetitive. ‘Paté followed by nothing but entrecôte, entrecôte, entrecôte. Occasionally roast lamb, duck breast. No vegetables to speak of,’ I told them. ‘It’s a tyranny of meat-in-brown-sauce.’ As the rest of the world had begun to (re)discover their own cuisines and innovate, the French restaurant seemed to be stagnating in a pool of congealing demi-glace.
“Elsewhere, places such as Balthazar in New York and the Wolseley in London seemed to be doing the French restaurant better than the French. In France, the old guard of critics and restaurateurs remained convinced that French cuisine was still the best in the world and a point of national pride. The bistros cleaved to the traditional red-and-white checked table cloths and chalked-up menus even as they were microwaving pre-prepared boeuf bourguignon in the back. In 2010, when the French restaurant meal was added to Unesco’s list of the world’s ‘intangible cultural heritage’, it felt as if the French restaurant had become a museum piece, and a parody of itself.
“The perceived excellence of their cuisine and restaurants has long represented a vital part of French national identity. It was too easy to ascribe this decline to a certain national conservatism, complacency and parochialism – facile Anglo-Saxon taunts. The real story is more complicated. The restaurant business always has been subject to changes in society and economic circumstances. Food – what we eat and how we go out to eat it – is constantly evolving, according to trend and time.
“I left France for four years between 2010 and 2014. When I returned to Paris, things had changed. Australians had established Italian coffee bars and you could finally get a decent cappuccino. New cocktail bars had appeared and trendy cafes were making mojitos with real lime juice. Le Hamburger was all the rage. Parisians had embraced Asian food in a big way – ramen counters proliferated, a cover article last year for Le Monde Magazine’s gastronomy special was entitled L’Asie Majeure, which can be roughly translated as ‘the Asian wave’. Even the white-haired doge of French chefs, the great Alain Ducasse, admitted that his ideal lunch was cold soba noodles. New flavours and a new informality to dining were taking hold, but at the same time, more than 200 years of restaurant culture is a formidable and loved institution. The question is how to manage tradition: what to keep and what to update?”Read the rest.
Photo: Ville haute de Saint-Flour
Poem: Michael R. Burch, “A Possible Argument for Mercy”
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