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"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"

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Wednesday, 28 June 2006
Comfort Food and the Absence of Place
Topic: The Culture

Comfort Food and the Absence of Place

When the political becomes overwhelming - things really are a mess here and around the world - you can always turn the television to the Food Channel, where no one talks about the war or George Bush or the latest madness in congress. There's no talk of whether, in an open democracy like ours, the government should tell that newspaper up in Manhattan that there are certain things they just shouldn't print, because a free press is responsible and doesn't print what the government says it shouldn't, or like the White House press secretary at the time of the 2001 attacks famously said, people should watch what they say these days, and not express the wrong opinions. Whatever. On television someone is explaining crab cakes. That'll do. Did the Israeli army just arrest the entire government of Palestine as part of the new massive invasion into Gaza to get back that one soldier who had been captured? Seems so, but then there are these things you can do with both basil and rosemary when preparing a chopped garlic crust for those lamb chops.

That doesn't interest you? Scoot over to the Travel Channel and there's Samantha Brown providing one more tour of a fancy hotel you could never afford in a place you'd never go, or there will be one of those insider guides to Las Vegas - the real scoop on where the Rat Pack hung out in the early sixties or some such thing. But Frank and Sammy and the rest are all dead, and that town has changed. It's rather awful now, and the fake Paris in the desert is more than disorienting - it's existentially depressing, and deeply so. It's hard to explain, but imagine walking in off the street, where it's a hundred ten sun-blasted degrees, into a massively chilled casino, dark but with rank after rank of jangling slot machines being massaged by hopeful Asian grandmothers in their seventies, with fake Paris streets leading off from the edges, each with oddly exaggerated forced perspective, and a stylized painted blue sunshine sky twelve feet over your head. It's very odd - no Paris rain, no cigarette smoke anywhere (nor the diesel fumes you remember), and no one speaking French of course. Ah well, people love it.

Everyone, now and then, needs to escape. You have to take a break from the heavy stuff. Some like the fake Paris.

You could just go to McDonalds, of course, anywhere in the world - really. Well, you could, as Rolf Potts explains in Slumming the Golden Arches. That's where he suggests you'll find a completely culturally neutral place - a refuge. Although he doesn't mention it, what we have here is the contemporary equivalent of Hemingway's "clean, well-lighted place" - an odd safe harbor of sorts, a place that for a moment neutralizes the world and its woes. That's deep.

But the place is so American. Or is it?

This is the month for student travel in Europe and, as he points out, at any given moment, continental McDonalds will be filled with all those of American undergraduates, a little embarrassed but claiming they're there for "the clean restrooms, the air conditioning, the fact that it's the only place open during festivals or siesta." Maybe so, but in 1997 on a rainy night in Clichy, not far from the Moulin Rouge, it was just curiosity - was it really there? (It was.)

So why are all those people there now? Try this -
European onlookers will tell you (with a slight sneer) that these peripatetic Yanks are simply seeking the dull, familiar comforts American culture. And this explanation might be devastatingly conclusive were it not for the fact that European McDonald's also happen to be crammed this time of year with travelers from Japan, Brazil, Israel, New Zealand, Argentina, Korea, Canada, India, Taiwan, Australia, Mexico, South Africa, and - yes - neighboring European countries.
So what's up with that? They can't all be homesick for the McDonalds on McKnight Road in Pittsburgh or the one here in Hollywood at the base of Laurel Canyon on the Sunset Strip. That makes no sense.

No, something else is going on, and here's his odd thesis -
McDonald's has come to function as an ecumenical refuge for travelers of all stripes. This is not because McDonald's creates an American sense of place and culture, but because it creates a smoothly standardized absence of place and culture - a neutral environment that allows travelers to take a psychic time-out from the din of their real surroundings. This phenomenon is roundly international: I've witnessed Japanese taking this psychic breather in the McDonald's of Santiago de Chile; Chileans seeking refuge in the McDonald's of Venice; and Italians lolling blissfully in the McDonald's of Tokyo.
So it's that Hemingway thing - life itself will drain you, and flatten you so you just cannot feel anymore. He finds his "clean, well-lighted place" in Paris or wherever, but now McDonalds have made such places available to everyone.

You don't think so? Rolf Potts offers his evidence -
Before I traveled overseas, I never knew McDonald's could serve as a postmodern sanctum, and - save for the occasional Taco Bell burrito - I rarely ate fast food. This all changed when I moved to Pusan, South Korea, ten years ago to teach English. Overwhelmed by the onslaught of new sights, sounds and smells my first week in-country, I retreated to a McDonald's near my school, where I was able to stretch a Big Mac Meal into three hours of Zen-like oblivion. The appeal of this environment came not from the telltale icons of franchise culture (which I'd always found annoying), but in the simple opportunity to put the over-stimulation of urban Korea on pause. Once I ended my Pusan stint and started traveling across Asia, I retained this habit of occasionally seeking out McDonald's in times of mental exhaustion.
McDonalds "as a postmodern sanctum" for a Zen-like step outside the karma is a new one, but it does make some sense. When you're there you truly are nowhere, in so many ways.

And he says he'd "wager that the contempt sophisticated travelers hold for McDonald's has less to do with ethical principle than the fact that fast-food franchises ruin the fantasies of otherness that are an inherent part of travel. The aesthetic enjoyment of the Taj Mahal or the Jardin des Tuileries can feel compromised when the Golden Arches are just a few blocks away."

Yes, in the midst of the culturally specific, and intimidating and hyper-famous (you read all about these places in school, and were told they were significant in ways you, being a provincial hick, probably never fully understand), the meaninglessly general just down the street is unsettling. It's not exactly the jolt of carefully reading "Being and Nothingness" - but it will do. It's the real life Cliff Notes version.

But then Potts notes McDonalds really are specific, or quasi-specific -
In India, for example, a McDonald's serves chicken "Maharaja Macs" instead of Big Macs (due to Hindu and Muslim taboos against beef and pork), and a door-greeter is often available to assist the middle-class clientele. Moreover, as any Pulp Fiction fan will note, Paris McDonald's offer the option of ordering a frothy beer with le Big Mac.

At times, an international McDonald's franchise can serve as a kind of measuring stick for cultural nuance. In China, where familial identity is a core virtue (and where a sexually ambiguous bachelor-clown mascot might seem a little weird), Ronald McDonald is known as Uncle McDonald, and he has a wife, Aunt McDonald. In parts of Bangkok, where the laid-back Thai concept of sanuk (lightheartedness) threatens fast-food efficiency, McDonald's staff members use James Bond-style digital countdown clocks to ensure the food arrives in a timely manner. In Cairo, I witnessed young, middle-class Muslim couples going on chaperoned first-dates in a McDonald's; in Tel Aviv, the teenage staff got so flustered when I ordered non-kosher cheese on my Big Mac that they forgot to add the beef patties.
But these are minor frills and flourishes, as the core of the experience is that when you're at McDonald you're really nowhere, or everywhere. It's very Zen.

And Potts proves with his final remarks -
... it can be interesting to learn how the simplest experiences overseas can affect the way you see things when you come home. I recall how, after returning from my first year in Korea, the understated calm of a Great Plains Christmas left me with a severe case of reverse culture shock.

My solution? I headed over to the west 13th Street McDonald's in Wichita, where my sense of place melted away the moment I walked through the front door. Indeed, as I ate that Kansas Big Mac Meal, I may have as well have been back in Asia.
Ah yes, nowhere and everywhere. Bliss. Satori, and all that.

But if you think this sort of discussion of the philosophical and cultural implications of what McDonalds has created in this word - "a postmodern sanctum" for a Zen-like step outside the karma of the everydayness of this life and its world of illusions - is reading a bit too much into grabbing a Big Mac with cheese and a side of fries, then you will be flummoxed by Thus Ate Zarathustra, Woody Allen's new piece in the latest New Yorker. Who would have thought that "Friedrich Nietzsche's Diet Book" existed?

Well, it doesn't. But he pretends he found a copy, and he puts it in context -
Fat itself is a substance or essence of a substance or mode of that essence. The big problem sets in when it accumulates on your hips. Among the pre-Socratics, it was Zeno who held that weight was an illusion and that no matter how much a man ate he would always be only half as fat as the man who never does push-ups. The quest for an ideal body obsessed the Athenians, and in a lost play by Aeschylus Clytemnestra breaks her vow never to snack between meals and tears out her eyes when she realizes she no longer fits into her bathing suit.

It took the mind of Aristotle to put the weight problem in scientific terms, and in an early fragment of the Ethics he states that the circumference of any man is equal to his girth multiplied by pi. This sufficed until the Middle Ages, when Aquinas translated a number of menus into Latin and the first really good oyster bars opened. Dining out was still frowned upon by the Church, and valet parking was a venal sin.

As we know, for centuries Rome regarded the Open Hot Turkey Sandwich as the height of licentiousness; many sandwiches were forced to stay closed and only reopened after the Reformation. Fourteenth-century religious paintings first depicted scenes of damnation in which the overweight wandered Hell, condemned to salads and yogurt. The Spaniards were particularly cruel, and during the Inquisition a man could be put to death for stuffing an avocado with crabmeat.

No philosopher came close to solving the problem of guilt and weight until Descartes divided mind and body in two, so that the body could gorge itself while the mind thought, Who cares, it's not me. The great question of philosophy remains: If life is meaningless, what can be done about alphabet soup? It was Leibniz who first said that fat consisted of monads. Leibniz dieted and exercised but never did get rid of his monads - at least, not the ones that adhered to his thighs. Spinoza, on the other hand, dined sparingly because he believed that God existed in everything and it's intimidating to wolf down a knish if you think you're ladling mustard onto the First Cause of All Things.
And on it goes.

Allan says the diet book contains things like this -

Steak or sausages
Hash-brown potatoes
Lobster thermidor
Ice cream with whipped cream or layer cake

This is a meal for the Superman. Let those who are riddled with angst over high triglycerides and trans fats eat to please their pastor or nutritionist, but the Superman knows that marbleized meat and creamy cheeses with rich desserts and, oh, yes, lots of fried stuff is what Dionysus would eat - if it weren't for his reflux problem.
Yeah, whatever. Allen can be tiresome. But he does offer this "found" aphorism - "Epistemology renders dieting moot. If nothing exists except in my mind, not only can I order anything; the service will be impeccable."

So it's off to McDonalds now. It's nowhere, and everywhere, and down on the corner - Sunset and Laurel Canyon.

Perhaps satori awaits, but then there's this -
The Zen Buddhist experience commonly recognizes enlightenment as a transitory thing in life, almost synonymous with the English term epiphany, and satori is the realization of a state of epiphanic enlightenment. Because all things are transitory according to Zen philosophy, however, the transitory nature of satori is not regarded as limiting in the way that a transitory epiphany would be in Western understandings of enlightenment.

The transitory nature of satori, as opposed to the more enduring Nirvana that is sought in the Buddhist traditions of India, owes much to Taoist influences on Chén Buddhism in China, from which Zen Buddhism of Japan evolved. Taoism is a mystical philosophy that emphasizes the purity of the moment, whereas the Hindu roots of Indian Buddhism lend a longer view toward escaping the Karmic prison of perpetual reincarnation in the material world.
Oh. You want fries with that?

Posted by Alan at 21:30 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Thursday, 29 June 2006 06:06 PDT home

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