A four-mile walk from Nacka to Kungsträdgården, brings me face to face with Joachim Beuckelaer’s Kitchen Scene With Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1565) in the Nationalmuseum. Words are exchanged between us and a conversation about the metaphysics of food ensues.
Examining the fundamental nature of reality, the relationship between mind and matter, substance and attribute centers any dialogue between a human being and the art a human being shapes. As if for both of us, being constantly present in dream and reality at the same time leads to a questioning of anything that is and is not before our eyes.
And though the drunk couple and the girl with skewered poultry appear to look at us looking at them, by the “eyes of the painting” I mean more a metaphor suggesting that any voyeur in an art museum stands before a presence they acknowledge and know seems to make a demand on them to register and explore its being by looking longer, even taking a step closer, and asking of the wood, oil and image . . . what are you saying to me, what are you dreaming?
In the Gospel According to Luke, a pairing of spirit and work suggests a metaphysical pondering.
38 Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. 40 But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; 42 there is need of only one thing.[a] Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
When is a task a matter of matter and when is it a matter of the spirit? What is the work of the kitchen and what is the work of the soul? And do the two ever conjoin? Mary listens to Jesus’ teachings, quite possibly parables, which use reality as a way to posit spiritual understanding as the Parable of the Good Samaritan that in this gospel precedes the visit with the sisters.
Deep in the background, we may interpret that Mary sits at the feet of Jesus, while distinctly in the foreground, Martha and another woman tend to poultry, game and joints of lamb. Certainly a sensual and tactile display with terracotta crocks, plucked fowl’s smooth skin, vibrant feathers of a hanging pheasant, and proudly presented glistening meat–all displayed with a depth and range of color.
A mediation between life and death occurs as lamb and pheasant, creatures in their own right, transform through slaughter into “food” for other creatures sustaining themselves with not only nourishment but also the very human art of cuisine. Martha has recipes at hand, knives and pans for a cooking which is as much about region and culture as meat and root. Always an alchemy in the kitchen, always a metaphysics.
Which brings us to Baruch Spinoza, who in his Ethics (1677) treats of the substance of Being, of the Cosmos, the Universe or God (your choice) as that which is everywhere and always, and all flora and fauna, including us, exist within. Something like, as scientists at NASA have suggested with”buckyballs” an “unearthly gelatin” or jello in all directions.
Which, of course, considering our discussion, posits that the existence and essence of the universal substance are one and the same, natura naturans meaning nature naturing, doing what nature does, and natura naturata, that which nature natures. In other words, the universal substance of nature cooks and eats of itself what it cooks–nature cooks and eats itself. Brilliant, nothing wanted and nothing wasted. And humans, not having a dominion of their own, but living fully within the dominion of nature, as Spinoza posits, would eat what they are, the very stuff of animals and plants; and yes, jello.
And so, we come to the inevitable ouroboros here presented as part of an alchemical tract, the dragon devouring itself, tail first. As Carl Jung writes of this fascinating figure in Psychology and Alchemy, this particular dragon is “the world-creating spirit concealed or imprisoned in matter,” also known as the “one and the all” (293). One might say in the natural philosophy of Ancient Greece (as with Heraclitus, Parmenides and Thales)–physis embracing physis, nature embracing nature.
This spirit was eventually interpreted as the Holy Ghost in accordance with the ancient tradition of the Nous swallowed up by the darkness while in the embrace of Physis–with this difference, however, that it is not the supreme feminine principle, earth who is the devourer, but Nous in the form of Mercurius or the tail-eating Uroboros. In other words, the devourer is a sort of material earth-spirit, an hermaphrodite possessing a masculine-spiritual and feminine corporeal aspect. The original Gnostic myth has undergone a strange transformation: Nous and Physis are indistinguishably one in the prima materia and have become a natura abscondita. (345)
Ah yes, remember your Heraclitus–phusis kruptesthai philei—nature loves to hide—natura abscondita. Spinoza will separate mind and nature, or thought and extension, within the Universal All, yet he has them together functioning in the Cosmos, Nature as it is–thought tends to thought, and body tends to body but each with the other at the exact same place and time.
Have we lost the path? Where is the food? Consider the aphorisms in The Physiology of Taste (1825) by Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin.
The world is nothing without life, and all that lives takes nourishment.
The fate of nations depends on the way we eat.
Tell me what you eat: I will tell you what you are.
The pleasures of the table belong to all times and all ages, to every country and every day; they go hand in hand with all our other pleasures, outlast them, and remain to console us for their loss.
Yes, the pleasures of the table return us to Beuckelaer’s still life. The hare, the wild turkey, fruit and olives present different stages of life from ripening to death, and all are nourishment. Brillat-Savarin’s statement has something of Spinoza’s geometrical method in his reasoning. This aphorism posits an ongoing striving, an ongoing perseverance as Spinoza writes in Book III of his Ethics.
Each thing, as far as it can by its own power, strives to persevere in its being.
The striving by which each thing strives to persevere in its being is nothing the the actual essence of the thing. (75)
For Brillat-Savarin, this essence is nourishment, this striving to persevere is what and how we eat. Of course, it is cooking; it is transformation. And at the heart of it all, beats an aesthetic pleasure. We persevere and preserve by the joy of cooking, the camaraderie of kitchen and table, and by also stepping back and looking at colors in paint asking us to contemplate pleasure from within pleasure. Aesthetics is our essence, is the essence of nature, of the Cosmos and God. And in that essence and existence, breathes a consolation for all the pleasures we lose, that in the act of striving to continue to be what we are . . . we eat, and yes, are eaten.
Addendum: And take note, early in the 19th century Brillat-Savarin already has an idea of sustainability–The fate of nations depends on the way we eat.
And here is your food song for the day. You’re welcome.