Tuesday, October 07, 2003

Hysteron Proteron

I’m a great believer in progression in the service of the Id, but civilization and morality can’t be understood as complicated ways of fulfilling the purposes of Nature and not simply because Nature with a capital N is a theological rather than a scientific concept. Our persistence implies that our behavior hasn’t yet proven fatal to our species, but that’s all it implies. The biological reality principle is apparently a pretty loose constraint on the consistent perversity that defines our humanity. Nobody doubts that the desire for food, sex, or power were originally adaptive; but we have long since made the old means into new goals. Moralists have bewailed this reversal for a very long time, but the cultivation of virtue and the love of God are just as artificial as gastronomy or the art of love. In every case, to state the matter in an old fashioned way, the signifiers—taste, pleasure, self-righteousness, hatred, piety, ecstasy—have displaced the things signified and become ends in themselves. For good or ill, we make up our purposes as we go along, and our history is a mass of postdated checks.

The inversion of means and ends occurs in small things as well as large. There is a considerable body of evidence that common spices such as red and black pepper, mustard, garlic, horseradish, many others have a bacteriostatic effect. It has also been established that the use of these condiments correlates with latitude. The warmer the climate, the hotter the food, presumably because spoilage and food poisoning are a bigger problem in India than Lapland. People have to learn how to like the bitterness, sharpness, and pungency that betoken the hygienic effects of these substances—children certainly don’t like them—but it is also possible to come to love them for their own sake even in a world of refrigerators and expiration dates. Indeed, modern world cooking is utterly dependent on them—these days they eat Szechwan in Stockholm and rijsttabel in Reykjavik. For details, see Sherman/Flaxman, American Scientist March-April 2000.

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