The Magician (1952) by Rene Magritte where the fantasy of a human with four arms navigating table to mouth contains a question for our senses–is taste, along with our other senses, a fantasy, an illusion? This steak may not be a steak.
We are familiar with questions about the veracity of our senses. They’ve been with us from the first moment of deception–the stick broken in two when we look at it half-submerged in water; an echo reverberating around us and hiding its source; the perfume which turns us because our memory whispers someone we know is nearby, and yet they’re not, we only see a stranger or empty air; our touch of surface and skin, and yet we never really know what or who is on the other side. Consider this lovely conversation between Socrates and Simmias in Plato’s Phaedo.
[65e] Is their true nature contemplated by means of the body? Is it not rather the case that he who prepares himself most carefully to understand the true essence of each thing that he examines would come nearest to the knowledge of it?”
“Would not that man do this most perfectly who approaches each thing, so far as possible, with the reason alone, not introducing sight into his reasoning nor dragging in [66a] any of the other senses along with his thinking, but who employs pure, absolute reason in his attempt to search out the pure, absolute essence of things, and who removes himself, so far as possible, from eyes and ears, and, in a word, from his whole body, because he feels that its companionship disturbs the soul and hinders it from attaining truth and wisdom? Is not this the man, Simmias, if anyone, to attain to the knowledge of reality?”
“That is true as true can be, Socrates,” said Simmias.
Is it possible to chase reality through reason without the senses, to apprehend the world without sensing it, or is this a deception of our rational mind attempting to take control of our whole apparatus and lead us into a disaster of logical fallacies and disembodied mumbling? To pursue the knowledge of reality, I ordered an aged 30 day bone in Rib Eye at Ritual in Houston, which of course they brought out to my table the first time to see the cut before its transformation through fire and shadow; which soon after, they again brought to my table . . . now changed, changed utterly.
The glistening of colors, thickness of fat, the faint aroma of blood and flesh, the sound of delight around me as waiters took orders, as customers in glee applauded their plates. I’m aware. I’m fully in the present. Is this not what the Buddha would ask for? Is this not what Marcus Aurelius would call for? Well, maybe not the meat, but that which opens us to where, when, what and how we are in the present. Fire and shadow. A transformation that reveals a fuller sense of the world.
The rib-eye and I have metamorphosed–the meat has been cooked in an outside “stomach” of flame [one way to think of any one, pit, grill, pot, and so on] to make it edible for a human being, and as a human being my body and mind respond–mouth salivating, thoughts anticipating the first taste, and further, a feeding of pleasure, of an enriched moment.
Is this not reality? Now Socrates and this time Cebes in Plato’s Phaedo, take us back to the questioning of the senses, and focus further upon our sensory realm as a labyrinth of deception.
“Now we have also been saying for a long time, have we not, that, when the soul makes use of the body for any inquiry, either through seeing or hearing or any of the other senses—for inquiry through the body means inquiry through the senses,—then it is dragged by the body to things which never remain the same, and it wanders about and is confused and dizzy like a drunken man because it lays hold upon such things?”
“But when the soul[79d] inquires alone by itself, it departs into the realm of the pure, the everlasting, the immortal and the changeless, and being akin to these it dwells always with them whenever it is by itself and is not hindered, and it has rest from its wanderings and remains always the same and unchanging with the changeless, since it is in communion therewith. And this state of the soul is called wisdom. Is it not so?”
“Socrates,” said he, “what you say is perfectly right and true.”
Let me pause here for a moment and drink a small swallow of a three dark-skinned grape wine from southern France at The Livingroom at Livingston’s in Linlithgow, Scotland. Yes, this line of thinking, this metaphysical journey discarding the physical, this attempt to commune with the “Forms,” is exactly what Cypher has turned away from in The Matrix, this voyage free of the neural wiring grounded in flesh and aimed toward what consciousness without form alone reveals to the soul. One labyrinth has been refused for another labyrinth, and therein lies the mistake.
Let me pause again for a quaff of wine, this time at home with one of my favorite grapes, the Nero d’Avola from Terre Siciliane. I am certainly more of Cypher’s camp rather than Plato and Socrates, though I would not call this the “bliss of ignorance.” Rather, the intense experience of the steak and wine (and cigar) in Cypher’s experience unlocks a contemplation, a musing on the art of living. It is not by avoiding the body that we may glimpse the ineffable, but it is by going down into it, by allowing food to be our Hermes, our Virgil guiding us into greater realizations via mouth and stomach. Which, yes, may be an illusion, a delusion, but where else would the “pure” be anyway. Remember, Heraclitus’ dictum–“nature loves to hide.”
This may not be an exquisite 12 year old El Dorado Rum, this might not be a Crowned Heads Jericho Hill cigar with all its rich, dark smoke, and this might not be the first volume of Mircea Eliadae’s A History of Religious Ideas; however, if appearances offer paths to Plato’s “pure and deathless,” I choose this moment to be lived through and contemplated within and without over and over again.
And of course, I don’t have to be a delighted spectator then eater to this alchemical process, yes I can bring home cuts of red meat from Revival Market to our kitchen counter, salt them, and then through fire and shadow, transform them and myself into other beings.
Consider Harold McGee’s wise words in On Food and Cooking concerning surface browning of meat at a high temperature.
Roasted, boiled, and fried meats develop a crust that is much more intensely flavored, because the meat surface dries out and gets hot enough to trigger the Maillard or browning reactions. Meat aromas generated in the browning reactions are generally small rings of carbon atoms with additions of nitrogen, oxygen, and sulfur. Many of these have a generic “roasted” character, but some are grassy, floral, oniony or spicy, and earthy. Several hundred aromatic compounds have been found in roasted meats! (148)
So this “Cypher moment” also leads to scientific insight as to what we are putting in our mouth. And doesn’t the possibility of all that fire offers begin human civilization? From Hesiod’s Theogony with its citing of Prometheus theft,
But the noble son of Iapetus outwitted him and stole the far-seen gleam of unwearying fire in a hollow fennel stalk. And Zeus who thunders on high was stung in spirit, and his dear heart was angered when he saw amongst men the far-seen ray of fire.
to Heraclitus’ claim as in this fragment,
This world-order [the same of all] did none of gods or men make, but it always was and is and shall be: an everlasting fire, kindling in measures and going out in measures.
Which means we can have our steak and eat it too, for if the fire which cooks the meat is and always shall be, than what Socrates seeks is most assuredly within Cypher’s mouth as he reverently chews his steak, drinks his wine, and smokes his cigar. Cypher, and of course the next generation of the clan of Harvey eating the darkened, bleeding red goodness at Pax Americana. Bon Appétit!