An Emotional History of Chocolate

- | 2

The world faces an impending chocolate shortage. Simply put, global demand is rapidly outpacing the capacity of cocoa farmers to produce the good. It’s a troubling state of affairs: The chocolate makers, Mars, Inc. and Barry Callebaut, have warned consumers that all bets will be off by 2020. Meanwhile, researchers in Central Africa are feverishly at work on trees that could produce seven times the amount of beans as a traditional cocoa tree. But even if cocoa’s foremost thought leaders rise to the challenge of the chocolate famine, chocolate will never be the same: Quantity, experts warn, will come at the cost of quality.

It’s a difficult reality to wrap one’s mind around. Like the ocean closing over Manhattan or countrywide droughts, a world where chocolate is entirely rare — or entirely mediocre — is a dystopia the likes of which we can scarcely conceive, no matter how the charts bear it out. The prospect has turned me toward reflection and, more still, that age-old propensity to set down in writing whatever is certain to vanish. So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, / So long lives this, and this gives life to thee. etc., etc. What follows here are notes on chocolate, an emotional history, if you will.

When I was 16, my family hosted two French girls for the summer, eager for their first taste of the all-American life. One afternoon, we took them to an old-fashioned ice cream parlor on the main street of St. Michael’s, a provincial town by the Chesapeake Bay. Its shops sell beach accessories and nautical paraphernalia and its street signs are oversized, with old-time cursive lettering. Beyond the brick-lined roads and the modest steeple of St. Michael’s historic church, the fields of former plantations stretch to the sea.

The ice cream parlor was a cramped, quaint shop. You could take only a few steps inside before running up against the ice cream bar, with its vast array of flavors preserved behind the refrigerated glass. It was mostly a pastel display: bing cherry and mint chocolate chip, rum raisin, peach sorbet, and butter pecan. Patrons stood worshipfully before the bar, their lips moving silently as they read the labels. Overwhelmed by the exoticism of options, the French girls both ordered a single vanilla scoop. Vanille. I hesitated between dark chocolate fudge chunk and Dutch chocolate ripple with marshmellow. Oh! Decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse!

Watching the ice cream boy scoop from the insipid vanilla batch, my father scoffed, “Might as well order water!” There wasn’t so much as a trace of social embarrassment in his derision. He scoffed loudly and unrepentantly, his contempt as pure as his perfect cone of unadulterated milk chocolate. Like Dante for Beatrice, like Petrarch for Laura, my father has eyes only for chocolate. It can be one flavor among three at a street-side vendor or one of 30 in the finest gelato emporium: It makes no difference. He is a chocolate man, and though generous in most of his judgments, he stands fast on the subject of sweets. Even Godiva’s boxes of assorted chocolates fall short of the mark, with their fruity fillings and nut-laden liquors: The “surprise” they offer isn’t a delight for him but an underhanded deception, a base, personal offense. (Fortunately, the French girls’ English was mediocre enough that they missed the callous jab at their ice cream choice.)

The origins of taste remain a matter of some scientific and philosophical debate. Can a chocolate predilection be reduced to some sensitized and highly specialized modification in the taste buds’ G protein receptors? It seems a bit like reducing the soul to the arbitrary soup of hormones in the brain. Is it better, then, to say that a cultural inundation in childhood conditions us toward certain preferences? That’s a poor improvement, analogous to asserting that the individual is merely the product of a series of circumstances — manufactured, contingent, the thing made rather than the thing that makes. I must believe — I need to believe — that I have chosen chocolate, not by the fate of biology nor by casual happenstance (indeed, there is nothing casual about this passion) but through the willful force of personality that finds amidst the assorted confections of this world its singular culinary expression.

Most important in this catalog of unanswerable queries: Can we trust the judgment of anyone who chooses another candy or flavor over chocolate? The truth is that I’ve inherited my father’s chocophilia — as well as the tendency, which David Hume well understood, to “call barbarous whatever departs widely from our own taste and apprehension.” For while I hold my relationship to chocolate matchless, few things are so grossly incomprehensible to me as a fellow human who dislikes chocolate.

There are always certain individuals crassly eager to announce their aversion — as though it’s some mark of their uniqueness: “I don’t like chocolate. I don’t know, I just never have.” Instinctively, I’m overcome with disgust, amplified by a profound disbelief in their lack of common decency. Surely, people should keep such indelicate opinions to themselves. “Who are you?” I want to ask (and sometimes do). They think I’m joking, but the humor is only a mask for the fundamental existential anxieties: Can I have anything to say or share with this alien creature, this charlatan masquerading as a member of my own species? What common ground could we possibly find if we diverge on so basic a tenet? I’m jolted all over again by the violence of difference and of subjectivity. And though I strive to remind myself that he or she is a person too, it seems inevitable: We have come to the end of the road together.

Chocolate carries the weight of a moral standard in my family. We stock up well in advance of major chocolate holidays — Halloween, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter, pretexts all of them for the worship of the central god. During dry spells, my mother maintains a personal cache of chocolate bars, which she is compelled to move to new hiding places whenever she suspects detection on the part of her children. It’s a covert operation, chronically marked by secrecy, accusation, and betrayal. We protest vehemently against her allegations of theft. To do otherwise is unthinkable; there is no forgiveness. Unable to prove our guilt — and we are consistently guilty — she continues to suspect us, cultivating a precious resentment.

But though chocolate threatens at times to tear us asunder, it also draws us together against an intolerable outside — an outside of Pop Rocks, Smarties, Pixie Stix, and Starburst. Cotton candy, Swedish Fish, Skittles, Twizzlers, jelly beans, gummy worms, Warheads, gobstoppers: Oceans of sugary dross. Dessert without chocolate is also a bad joke. We don’t deal in key lime pie or carrot cake. If fruit is served, there’s grumbling among the ranks until chocolate is brought out to ease the blight.

On one particularly ill-starred Thanksgiving, my aunt tried to make pumpkin mousse in the spirit of introducing something more seasonally appropriate to the meal. (The classic dessert, for some years, had been my mother’s chocolate mousse.) The pumpkin mousse was widely understood as an act of aggression. Rumor of its preparation began circulating among the children some days in advance. Word of the mounting dissension eventually reached a cousin in Vietnam; he deliberated on the turn of events via Skype.

When the mousse was finally presented (watery, vomit-colored), a few “good sports” among the adults made a show of serving themselves a representative helping. (My father, naturally, was not one of them.) Some attempts at false praise were made and quickly dropped: The dishonesty was too flagrant to sustain. There was a renewed rush of gratitude for the chocolate mousse, which my mother had persisted in making despite (and because) of the pumpkin mousse’s unseemly arrival. But there can be no doubt, feelings were bruised, old rivalries rekindled: Chocolate versus pumpkin, mother versus aunt. Everyone did their best to look away as the pumpkin mousse was returned to the kitchen in quiet disgrace.

Another year, a Toblerone bar of white chocolate sat untouched for weeks in a kitchen cupboard. No one was sure where it had come from — it appeared on our doorstep, so to speak, like a stray cat (wan, pitiful) — and no one ate it. But no one felt comfortable getting rid of it either. It was chocolate, after all, or sort of, its bastardized, de-cocoaized second cousin. We would rummage through the cupboard whenever a craving struck, and even if the white chocolate bar was the only remaining sweet in the house, we would leave it on its shelf, lonely and unwanted. The shelf, I remember thinking, actually looked more desolate with that lone white chocolate bar than if it had been completely bare.

Even within our harmonious-seeming chocolate kingdom, however, there are tribes and divisions. My little sister has a soft spot for Nutella, with its smooth hazelnut flavoring. She was once discovered pacing the kitchen at 3 a.m. with the Nutella jar and a large spoon in hand. No questions were asked. My mother prefers dark chocolate. My father, ever the milk chocolate purist, dutifully buys it for her every birthday though he can’t help qualifying the gift with expressions of incredulity: “I don’t understand the dark chocolate. It does nothing for me.”

Meanwhile, an uncle goes in for chocolate with caramel, which — I think it’s fair to say — is a case of playing at the limits. Chocolate with caramel raises questions we’d rather not raise, like, Is the caramel just an embellishment, a sticky, saccharine garnish, for the chocolate? Or is the caramel in fact the main event and the chocolate merely its profane casing? No one asks this outright for fear of the answer, but it hangs uncomfortably in the air. Glances are exchanged. Someone quickly moves the conversation along. Despite the suspicions, my uncle has managed to keep his secret quiet for decades, but in a private conversation, which I won’t soon forget, he confessed to me that he’s never really liked chocolate, that he’s always preferred caramel. He takes this, I believe, to be one of the signature marks of his difference from the rest of the family.

I consider myself progressively tolerant when it comes to chocolate discriminations. I can allow the merits of a raspberry chocolate; I can, on occasion, entertain a caramel; but I dream in chocolate ganache and espresso praline cream.

Chocolate, I’m compelled to conclude, retains its individualizing quality after all. Familial loyalties and customs play some generalizing role in the cultivation of the passion, but in the end chocolate calls to the individual — and calls to each in different ways. I can’t rid myself of the idea that the answer lies somewhere near the origin: Was there a primal chocolate scene, buried amidst my earliest memories, that sent me chasing that first gustatory ecstasy forever more, like a heroine addict in destructive and futile pursuit of his original, inimitable high? A dropped M&M, the first taste of birthday cake, a spoonful of ice cream proffered from my mother’s bowl? Untraceable now, whatever it was.

I know only this: There was chocolate. There will be chocolate.

Image Credit: Unsplash/Vie Studio.

Beckett’s Bilingual Oeuvre: Style, Sin, and the Psychology of Literary Influence

- | 6

This year marks the 60th anniversary of Waiting for Godot’s English publication — Beckett’s self-translation of his original French play, En Attendant Godot, back into his native language. Godot was not Beckett’s first attempt at French composition; he had begun writing poetry in French as early as 1938 and translated Murphy into French in 1939. But Waiting for Godot was Beckett’s major foray into what would become his career-long routine of composing in French and self-translating into English. In the curious underworld of Beckettian translation studies, it’s a vexed topic. Some critics consider the doubled nature of Beckett’s oeuvre its distinguishing quality. Certainly, Beckett’s eccentric writing practice makes his bilingual corpus unique in the history of literature. But how do you classify self-translated texts? They eschew traditional categories, dwelling in some foggy realm between translation, revision, and authorial re-interpretation.

Then there’s the matter of priority: which text — French or English — emerges as the authoritative version? The English “translations,” written in Beckett’s native tongue, throw into question the “originality” of the original French texts. After all, don’t the French originals already imply the work of translation? Most scholars agree that the two versions of Godot should be studied side-by-side. In this way, any notion of priority is annulled, and the possibility of locating an “original” text, so central to our conceptions of artistic production, is all but swallowed by this black hole of textual duality.

The key concern, though, is the question of motivation: Why did Beckett, an Irishman, choose to write in French and why, after achieving considerable success in that language, did he insist time and again on returning his work to the language of his homeland? Beckett himself provided a string of reflections on the issue. In a 1937 letter to his friend Axel Kaun, he explained,

It is becoming more and more difficult, even senseless, for me to write an official English. And more and more my own language appears to me like a veil that must be torn apart in order to get at the things (or the Nothing-ness) behind it. Grammar and Style. To me they seem to have become as irrelevant as a Victorian bathing suit or the imperturbability of a true gentleman. A mask…Is there any reason why that terrible materiality of the word surface should not be capable of being dissolved?

Here Beckett expresses a desire to rid himself of the baggage of traditional English. Only by divesting himself of the “irrelevancies” of grammar and style, he thought, could he approach something like the truth beneath the “mask.” Since Beckett held such excessiveness and irrelevance of language to be endemic to English, he began experimenting with French, a language in which he claimed, “It is easier to write without style…[French] had the right weakening effect.”

This rejection of style figures, in a letter dated later that same year, as a sort of violence against language: “From time to time I have the consolation, as now [Beckett is writing in German], of sinning willy-nilly against a foreign language, as I should love to do with full knowledge and intent against my own — and as I shall do — Deo juvante.” What’s remarkable in these passages is the sense of desperation — indeed, of fervent compulsion — that drove Beckett to abandon his mother tongue. That English seemed to him “senseless” and “irrelevant,” a sort of falsity or façade that he felt compelled to “tear apart” and, finally, to “sin against,” throws Beckett’s bilingualism into a considerably darkened sphere. He wasn’t just playing around with language when he switched to French; the change marks neither an indulgence in the sport of interlingual word play, nor the disciplined resolve of a man fashioning himself a sort of writing exercise. Rather, the move from English to French was motivated by a fundamental necessity. It is as if Beckett required French for his very survival as a writer. Given the caliber of his early (English) work, it does not seem unreasonable, after all, to suggest that his status as literary genius is closely linked to his adoption of the French language.

But then, why was English unequal to Beckett’s aims? Part of the answer may lie in his relationship to James Joyce. Critics have cited their close friendship and Beckett’s perception of Joyce’s unparalleled achievements as the source of his need to escape English — to emerge from beneath Joyce’s shadow. There’s little doubt that Joyce’s legacy haunted; Beckett’s early work reveals an apish simulation of his mentor. A 1934 review of More Pricks than Kicks maintained, for instance, that Beckett “imitated everything in James Joyce — except the verbal magic and the inspiration…the whole book is a frank pastiche of the lighter, more satirical passages in Ulysses.” Beckett’s biographer, James Knowlson, also noted that Beckett’s 1932 novel, Dream of Fair to Middling Women, was “very Joycean in its ambition and its accumulative technique.” During this period, Beckett even mimicked Joyce’s research style, using dictionaries and reference books and weaving into his novel hundreds of quotations from other works of literature, philosophy, and theology. That his early style so closely resembled Joyce’s is hardly surprising; Beckett called Joyce’s work a “heroic achievement…that’s what it was, epic, heroic, what he achieved.”

Still, this seems a somewhat simple assessment. Joyce’s elaborate use of language stands in opposition to the minimalism Beckett sought, but Joycean prose can hardly be considered the language of traditional, highly-stylized English. In fact, disparate as their styles seem, Beckett and Joyce might be said to unite, in a manner, on the level of their reworking of the English language. If Beckett reached English through French, Joyce introduced the mother tongue to French, German, Italian, Latin, and other languages besides. In short, if Beckett’s reworking of English contrives to escape Joyce, it is an escape that simultaneously mimics him, for Joyce had already endeavored a great escape of sorts.

The genteel “gentleman’s” English that Beckett despised was more closely embodied by someone like Samuel Johnson, a literary figure of special interest to Beckett. He made a pilgrimage to Dr. Johnson’s birthplace, scrupulously perused the pages of Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, and filled his journals with notes on Johnson from which to compose a play. Though Beckett was fascinated by the man, he probably received his work somewhat differently: Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language and reputation as the authority on English letters easily rendered his name synonymous with the brand of English Beckett struggled to shake off. Of course, if English in Beckett’s mind was the language of Johnson, it was also the language, however refashioned, of Joyce. Sitting down to write in English, Beckett inevitably composed a Joycean English.

Beckett’s relation to his literary forefathers and to the English language — his near-violent desperation to do away with English and simultaneous adoration for Joyce’s work — is a case study in the complexities of literary influence. Harold Bloom (in The Anxiety of Influence) famously tried to de-idealize our notion of how one writer forms another — to refute the idea of literary creation as a carefree experience of muse-dappled inspiration and present it instead as an arduous, anxious, even diseased process: “Influence is influenza — an astral disease. If influence were health, who could write a poem? Health is stasis.” At once enraptured by his forefather’s work and nauseated by its effect on his own stunted writing, Beckett fled into a foreign tongue.

His is an unusual and extreme instance of poetic anxiety. Beckett didn’t just try to “get outside” his literary forefathers, which is how Bloom thinks most great writers produce original work. He tried to get outside even the language in which they wrote. In his adoption of French, Beckett may have recalled Joyce but he also rejected him. It wasn’t possible for him to innovate within the confines of the English tradition. He needed to rid himself of the language entirely — its echoes and associations — in order to open himself up to the potential for original artistic production. Beckett’s French texts — and, by extension, their English translations — are the result of this radical attempt to “get outside,” the anxiety of a writer infected not merely at the level of his forefather’s work, but at the level of the very language he employs.

Writing in French, Beckett adopted a new literary personality — a French life, a French set of texts, a French identity and reputation. It was his attempt to make a fresh start. But there is no clean slate on which to write, no mind wiped blank of history and influence — only the accumulation of voices, the last of which was his own. In En Attendant Godot and his other French texts, Beckett “sinned” (as he longed to do) against English and his literary forefathers. In Waiting for Godot and his English texts, he brought the sin home, facing down English — the language, the canon, Joyce, everything that had exiled him from his native tongue. Working through French, Beckett succeeded, finally, in writing himself into the English literary tradition.

He isn’t, in the end, strictly a writer or strictly a translator in any single work. Instead, Beckett’s texts collapse those identities, suggesting that authorship is always a matter of translation — the translation of experience into thought and thought into writing. His point in persistently translating his own work seems to have been to confuse us, to complicate the distinction between original and translation so that we are compelled to understand language generally as a kind of translation — and original texts as the consequence of texts that have come before: a vast lineage of influence and interpretation. Beckett just added a further leg to the journey, creating along the way twinned masterpieces in French and English.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

How to be James Joyce, or the Habits of Great Writers

- | 9

Eudora Welty edited her writing with scissors in hand to cut out and re-pin sections of text. Truman Capote fancied himself a horizontal writer: he would only work lying down, with a glass of sherry close at hand. Anthony Trollope maintained a rather more industrial regimen, beginning his day promptly at 5:30 a.m. and pacing himself with a watch to write 250 words every 15 minutes. Then there’s Friedrich Schiller, who occupies an idiosyncratic camp all his own. Schiller kept a drawer full of rotten apples in his desk. When Goethe found them, Charlotte Schiller explained that her husband couldn’t write without the putrid aroma wafting through his study.

In Odd Type Writers: From Joyce and Dickens to Wharton and Welty, the Obsessive Habits and Quirky Techniques of Great Authors, Celia Blue Johnson details the secret formulas and sources of creative inspiration. These bizarre minutiae of the writing process are an attempt at answering the age-old questions about artistic creation: where does inspiration come from? What conditions make masterpieces possible? How do great minds work? The ancients explained poetry and art in terms of the muses, which was not an explanation so much as an affirmation of the sacred mystery. In the age of how-to guides and do-it-yourself manuals, we’re eager to shed light on the intricacies of practice and method, to find the patterns in the big data. The irony of these juicy anecdotes is that in their attempt to get behind the mystery, they end up re-mythologizing the creative process all over again.

To be sure, there are some useful lessons to extract. For instance, a surprising number of writers took vigorous daily walks long before science had connected exercise to productivity and creative output. Some walked to get away from work, to clear the mind of words and embrace direct experience; others, to ruminate on their scribbled pages and return to the pen with renewed vigor. Wallace Stevens actually wrote while walking, composing poetry on slips of paper. Daily word quotas are also popular (1,000 for Jack London; 3,000 for Norman Mailer; and 1,800 for Thomas Wolfe), as are pets. Edgar Allan Poe granted his tabby, Catterina, the status of literary guardian, while Flannery O’Connor kept the company of domestic poultry and Colette studied the fur of her French bulldog, Souci, until she felt ready to write.

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work charts the schedules of visionaries from Mozart to Milton and Thomas Mann in order to figure how they found time to “do it all.” (The underlying promise is that by studying their schedules, maybe you can figure out how to do it all too.) Many worked for brief but intense blocks of time, either in the morning or late evening. Coffee seems to have been a popular creative stimulant, but so was alcohol and tobacco. In other words, our creative heroes did many of the same things that non-geniuses do. Artistic production is marked in equal parts by idiosyncrasy and mundane routine, but neither perspective gets much closer than the Greeks did to answering the question. If anything, the attempt to unveil THE PROCESS shows how fascinatingly—almost theologically—opaque the origins of art really are.

The close cousin of the great minds exposé is the artist’s self-help book—books like Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit or Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. They, too, are interested in process and how to cultivate the habits that make inspiration possible.

Tharp, a world-famous choreographer, tries to bust the myth of genius by insisting on practice and hard work, while Cameron, writer and ex-wife of Martin Scorsese, offers a comprehensive twelve-week program to recover your creativity. The books mean well, no doubt, but they’re made profane by their resemblance to, say, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. And they’re fraught with tension—the tension between discipline and creativity, between outlining a formula for artistic success and highlighting the many eccentricities of the successful.

Why try to engineer masterpieces anyway? The idea smacks of our tendency to make a science out of every imaginable pursuit—to break down creation into actionable insights, to imitate—with the help of models and charts—what is, by definition, inimitable.  The Greeks got something right when they neglected to explain inspiration. They let art be art—the divine in man, not the data-crunching.