The Old Man of the Mountain/XI
In the town where the extravagant counsellor Helbach lived, there was a great feast at which all the epicures famous for their love of good eating and their knowledge of good dishes were assembled. The counsellor himself was the soul of such parties: his word was law in them; and he it was that had managed the present banquet.
The dinner was nearly over; some of the guests, who had business to call them away, were gone: the company had grown quieter; and it was only at the upper end of the table, where the counsellor and some of the scientific eaters were sitting, that the conversation was carried on with any spirit.
— Believe me, my friends, said the counsellor with great earnestness, the art of eating, the skill men may attain in it, has its epochs, its classical ages, and its decline, corruption, and dark ages, just as much as every other art; and it seems to me that we are now again verging to a kind of barbarism in it. Luxury, profusion, rarities, new dishes, overpeppering, overspicing, all these, my good sirs, are the artifices now commonly made use of to obtain admiration for a dinner; and yet these are the very things from which a thinking eater will turn away with contemptuous slight. In the whole of this department indeed much still remains to be done; and the stories we read of the old gormandizer, Heliogabalus, and others who lived during the decrepitude of the Roman empire, stories at which many men stare with stupid astonishment, ought only to excite our pity.
— It must always be difficult, no doubt, said one of the guests, to frame any distinct conception of the dishes and the delicacies of a former age. If we dress them by such receits as remain, the result will always have something absurd in it, like the dinner which Smollett describes so humourously in his Peregrine Pickle.
— That tact on which after all everything depends, answered the counsellor, is sure to be wanting, that nice knowledge of the exact limit between too much and too little which nothing but instinct can bestow; and even this instinct must be cultivated by studying the properties of fire, the culinary powers of which can never be described, and which a cook can only make himself master of by long experience, judgement, and observation, nor even then unless he was born a cook. The main point however is, that our tongue and palate have been trained and fashioned from our childhood to particular tastes, likings, and antipathies; so that often the very best, most judicious, and admirable thing, if it come across us on a sudden as a novelty, as something we have never set tooth on, and thus give a shock to all our prepossessions, will be disregarded and abused; until at length in course of time on our becoming familiar with the stranger's merits, he is naturalized: and then the new knowledge we have acquired will often exercise the most salutary influence and throw much light on other dishes, both old and lately invented ones, so that our palate is as it were strung with a new chord, which sends forth a variety of delicious notes. Moreover the ages that are gone and the ideas that prevailed among our forefathers are still acting upon this tastature of mankind, as a race made to relish, to discern, and to enjoy; and as in philosophy and science, in politics and government, so here too there is an unbroken chain; the accumulated experience of centuries moulded us to be just such as we are; and this state of our taste can and must only be modified by degrees; nor could anything be more ruinous than a sudden revolution which should throw everything topsy turvy. In every field of human action history is man's best master.
— You yourself, said the guest, should write a history of the articles of food, the art of eating, and the progress of the human mind in it.
— When one is oneself a practical artist, answered the counsellor, and so devoted a one as I am, so diligent in working at my art, and so ready to try every new experiment in it, one must leave such matters to people of an idler and more contemplative turn. If you aim at doing everything, you will never do anything well and thoroughly.
— Why, resumed the other, do we hear this perpetual abuse of sensuality? why will men so seldom confess, and even then but reluctantly, the pleasure they take in eating and drinking?
— Because, said counsellor Helbach, they never know what they are really at. It has always struck me as very remarkable and singular that, in the little round box in which all our finer senses are ranged and stored up, and in the top of which moreover our thinking powers, and all the noblest intellectual products of our soul are deposited, we should find that red-lined drawer close beneath, with the delicate little bosses set like jewels over the tremulous vocal tongue and palate, garnisht in front with teeth that toil and cut, and closed by the graceful mouth. Eating is only another mode of thinking. Thus this box is a coppel in which the essences of all created things, the finest and the grossest, vapours and juices, the soft soothing oils, the bitternesses and tartnesses which at first seem grating, the flavour which evaporates in a momentary enjoyment, are put to the test. First the teeth begin chopping and grinding; the tongue, at other times so talkative, silently and busily rolls about and makes much of the morsels it receives, presses them affectionately and benevolently against the palate, to double its pleasure by sharing it; and when this tender dalliance has been sufficiently indulged in, at length pushes them back almost unwillingly to its friend that swallows them down, and that indeed has the real enjoyment of them, the highest of all, though but for a moment, and then with heroic self-sacrifice makes them over to another power. Straightway the same game is repeated a second, a third, a thousandth time. I never yet heard it said that any self-tormenting anchoret had courage enough altogether to forgo the pleasure of eating, even though he stinted himself to bread. Indeed kind Nature has taken such good care of her children, that it is next to impossible.
— A very just and profound remark! exclaimed his neighbour.
— We see too, continued the dissertator, what high importance nature has attacht to these processes of devouring, eating, chewing, and swallowing, and how in every sphere of existence they have been her main end and aim. What would become of all the animals upon the earth, of all the birds that roam through the air, and all the swarms of greater and lesser creatures that people the waters and the sea, unless every one of them had received a bill, payable at sight, upon his neighbour. What would they live on, if they did not live on one another? or where forsooth would they find room to live? Is not the world perpetually oscillating between the two great works of producing and of devouring? The king of the creation, man, stands at the summit, as the crown and the final object of all these multiform guests. Those his subalterns, who have an assignment either one upon the other, or upon the vegetable world, look up to him with reverential awe: for it is not merely one thing or another, not merely beasts or vegetables, not merely fishes or birds, no, almost everything without exception he turns into food, making all classes of his subjects the sources of his happiness. It is only from his own kind, and from a few which serve him as his immediate vassals, or the flesh of which, whether from prejudice or in reality, does not taste agreeably, that he abstains. By means of fire, that performs his bidding, out of strong essences, butter, oil, and spices, vegetables and flesh, all artfully mingled and chemically prepared, he concocts the most extraordinary combinations to please his palate. While the eye is weeping at top, and the brain above it is brooding over touching thoughts, or kindling itself and the heart with inspiring ones, while the nose inhaling hyacinthine odours awakens visions of sweet desire in the imagination, the mouth below is already lusting and licking its lips after the venison or the liver pasty that is carried by. The sentimental young lady feeds her pigeons with pathetical grace; and the very mouth which lisps the prettiest verses and most moving idyls to them, will swallow the same innocent creatures by and by with exquisite relish. Could animals make observations as we do, and were a poet some day to rise up amongst them, in what strange colours would he represent man!
— Truly, said his friend, such a jest, thus retorted upon mankind, would be extremely amusing.
— We are fond of boasting of our universality, counsellor Helbach went on, and yet in the very art in which Nature herself has so manifestly intended us to be universal, I mean in that of eating, many people scorn to become so, and fancy it is more dignified to treat this whole branch of knowledge with contempt. And yet the flocks of birds of passage, the shoals of wandering fishes, come from distant regions, flying and swimming into our nets, for the mere pleasure of our palates; and the fruits of every climate, of every soil, of every quarter of the globe, blend into enjoyment within us. Who does not perceive in an oyster, if at least he is gifted with a true sense for it, the might and the freshness of the sea! O asparagus, he that has not the wit to enjoy thee, can know nothing of the mysteries which the dreaming world of plants reveals to us! Can one understand anything of the history of the world or of poetry, if one is a stranger to all these natural elementary feelings, and incapable of doing justice to the worth of a snipe, or even of a turbot?
The other guests had already retired; the dinner was quite over; and only counsellor Helbach and his two nearest and most intimate friends were still sitting engaged in this and the like conversation.
— I am quite surprised, one of them began, at the buoyant youthful spirit which you still retain, at your jovial animation, your lively poetical playfulness. All the rest of us have grown so old, and the weight of years presses so heavily upon us, while you are still jesting, and pleasure has lost none of its freshness or charms with you.
— We are all alone now, said the counsellor, and I may therefore speak more from my heart to such old friends. It is true, this sensual enjoyment gives me pleasure, and will console me at times for the want of much: but I am not the frivolous person you take me for, perhaps never was so. Almost everybody has a mask; and this is mine. I move about in it lightly and with ease, and so most people take it for my real character. My youth was a very sad one: my parents displayed all their weaknesses, their extravagance and ostentation, so glaringly to me and to all the world, that I could not look upon them with esteem; and this to a young man is of all feelings the most terrible. Poverty and distress, privations of every kind may be borne much more easily: but a calamity like mine crushes the heart before it is yet grown up. I had to play the part of a rich man, to squander money, to give myself airs. When one puts on the semblance of anything for a time, it will soon become a portion of our nature. Imitate a stutterer for a while, and you will have to keep diligent watch over yourself not to stammer in earnest. I fell in love, and was on the point of changing into a totally different person; for my passion was sincere and ardent. But new distress. The noble being who soon became my wife, could never give me her heart. The strongest passion must die away when it finds no return; and in such a case a man has done enough, if this finest feeling of his nature do not turn into hatred and malice. For myself I was thrown back by this into my apparent frivolity: and not to make a show of my unhappiness, like my wife, who, though otherwise admirable, gave way too much to this weakness, I abandoned myself to riotous conviviality, turbulent pleasures, and unprofitable society. There is often a spirit of defiance in us, having something of nobleness in it, and not utterly condemnable, which withholds strong characters from reforming and improving, notwithstanding all the admonitions of conscience. The more unhappy I felt myself, the more I acted happiness. After my son was born, my wife began to shun me altogether, and would often wilfully misunderstand me. She devoted all her affection and care to her child, lived only for him, and brought him up to be so capricious and headstrong, that she herself was the greatest sufferer by his faults, and yet had not strength of mind enough to eradicate the fatal perverseness, which she herself had first fostered in him. My advice was not listened to: it had been taken for granted that I could no more love the child, than appreciate and esteem the mother. My heart bled; and yet I could not interfere authoritatively, unless I would consent to be regarded by her and by the whole world as a monster, being already called a tyrant, unfeeling, and frivolous, and having been so long wont to give up the point that I often lookt on myself as such. Thus my son was bred up as a stranger to me, with all his feelings purposely and studiously alienated from me: but his over-weak, too passionately fond mother was no gainer thereby; for she likewise lost his depraved heart, over which, when the boy was grown up, she had not the slightest influence. How reckless and unmanageable he has been, you well know; how wretched his mother has become, is notorious; but my life too, my friends, is a lost one.
A servant came hastily in, and told the counsellor he must go home immediately: for something of great importance had happened.