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Copyright and Eating

Adam Gopnik’s current piece in The New Yorker, on food and food criticism, includes this meditation on metaphor that I have to suspect has some application to writing and thinking about copyright and its objects:

Gigante [Denise Gigante, the author of the new Taste: A Literary History] is surely right that eating, along with seeing, provides the most universal of all metaphors of value: along with the sensations of light and dark, which properly belong to painting, the perception of sweet and bitter is the most natural of all natural metaphors. . . . The metaphors of taste are so basic that they imbue and infiltrate our entire experience, and we no longer think of them as metaphors.

With no other crafted thing is the line between sensation and meaning quite so quickly crossed, quite so easily extended from something felt to something known, as with food. The tongue has no sooner said “Sweet” than the heart says “Home!” All art, it has been said, aspires to the condition of music. But we want some of our art to aspire to the condition of background music. What makes Mozart, Vivaldi, the Beatles essential to our lives? Is it the hours we spend, scores on knees, listening in the dark? Or the hours and hours and hours we spend with them just on, wrapped around our lives—giving them some emotion to organize that they, miraculously, do? What makes Piero’s pillars or van Gogh’s stars and cypresses or Botticelli’s faces so dear to our existence: the minutes we spend footsore, staring at them on a once-in-a-lifetime trip, or the glimpses on posters and in books and postcards that fill the corners of our eyes and lives? Good cooking is beloved because, when it is good enough, it gives more immediate pleasure and then recedes more rapidly, more gracefully, into the metaphoric middle distance than any other cultural thing, letting us arrange our lives, at least for one night, around it.

The metaphors of food are so closely tied to our sensations that they must be elevated to ring out. That would explain why good food writing, by cook or critic, has been so expansive in theme. All animals eat. An animal that eats and thinks must think big about what it is eating not to be taken for an animal. This largeness of vision (“I write of hunger,” Fisher said flatly, when tasked with writing about food) seems to have become harder to achieve, perhaps because the subject has become so specialized.

There is too much food in most food writing now—too much food and too little that goes further. When Liebling and Fisher wrote, they gestured from plate and glass to something bigger, outside the dining room—to France, or to appetite itself—and the gesture carried instantly, because there was little else in the room to absorb it. These days, the old twin circles (the family around the table, the cosmos beyond) have been supplemented by so many other circles of attitude that the writer points from the plate to—another writer. Like so many other subjects, food writing is constricted within these ever-tighter circles of opinion, when what we want from it is ever-broadening metaphors of common life. Metaphor is social and shares the table with the objects it intertwines and the attitudes it reconciles. Opinion, like the Michelin inspector, dines alone.