The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of our Nature By Leon R. Kass
Free Press. 248 pp. $24.95
Dr. Kass begins: “Be forewarned: You have picked up a strange book.” He is correct; it is strange. It is a book about eating, but not once will your mouth water as you read it. It’s about eating, but not about food. In his account, food is desired, is grown, is gathered, is hunted, killed, and dressed, is cooked and put on the table-but is never described, especially not in the kind of loving phrases to be found in restaurant reviews. Entries for only five foods can be found in the index (not including Bacon, Francis and Ham [Noah’s son]), and three more along the lines of “Pig, dietary laws against eating.”
I suspect that more than one would-be reader has bought this book for its seductive title, expecting food lore plus a little pop psychology, including a few pointers for self-improvement. There is a certain amount of food lore here-a few interesting pages about the mental processes involved in turning “certain harvestable and storable but inedible” seeds into flour and then into bread, “even more than meat . . . the human food”; a passage on the aesthetic value of salt, “the first spice of life”; and the views of Plato and Socrates on wine- drinking. Kass himself is clearly ambivalent on this latter subject. While he admits that “in moderate amounts [wine] inspires and encourages,” he adds in a footnote that “real friends do not need wine to attain and enjoy friendship.” That’s about as much pop psychology as can be found in this book. There are a few pointers for self- improvement, though. “[E]ating on the street . . . betokens enslavement to the belly . . . . This doglike feeding, if one must engage in it, ought to be kept from public view where, even if we feel no shame, others are compelled to witness our shameful behavior.” And “the virtues of graciousness and moderation . . . [are] best summarized in the maxim, No involuntary participation in another’s digestion.”
It is Dr. Kass’s intention to go far beyond food lore and simple psychologizing. Rather, he has written a philosophical treatise he describes as a “full-course inquiry into how we differ from other animals.” He begins with a vivid description of the bleak emptiness into which the scientific view of the world has led contemporary man, stranding him befuddled on the stage of life, barely able to remember the name of the drama he is acting in, much less its meaning or its purpose, and unable to consult the dead playwright as to his original intention. But alienated and distressed in spirit as he may be, man still craves love and intimacy, dignity, understanding and openness to the divine. Deprived of the nourishment found in traditional mores and forms, his soul is hungry. Kass asks: “How does one truly nourish the hungry human soul?”
This question leads him to an extended philosophical inquiry into the subject of eating. He examines the nature of food and feeding in animals. He identifies “the great paradox of eating, namely that to preserve their life and form living forms necessarily destroy life and form.” He considers man’s omniverousness and the conventions it gives rise to, the manners that transform feeding into eating, or rather, dining, and-reflecting a “true understanding of the nature of nature and of man’s place within it”-that lead to a celebration of the mysterious source of the “formed and multiform world and its generous hospitality in providing food, both for life and for thought.”
The author states that he finds in the subject of eating “a perfect vehicle for attempting . . . a more natural science and for building a bridge between the scientific and humanistic ways of looking at the world.” As he develops the progression from feeding to feasting, the distinction between animals and humans is refined. Our upright posture puts us face to face with the world in a new way and “orients us toward the beautiful, the good, the true, and the holy.” Our omniverousness leads us to place limitations on what (or whom) we eat, restraining ourselves with laws-the beginning of ethics. From our awareness of the needs of others grow customs of hospitality. Through eating with others we grow more civil; the family table becomes a school for life:
[I]ncivility, insensitivity, and ingratitude learned at the family table can infect all other aspects of one’s life. Conversely, good habits and thoughtful attitudes regarding food and eating will have far-reaching benefits. Self-restraint and self-command, consideration for others, politeness, fairness, generosity, tact, discernment, good taste, and the art of friendly conversation-all learnable and practiced at the table-enrich and ennoble all of human life.
Human eating reaches its highest point in the experience of transcendence, the sanctification of eating.
Kass believes we truly nourish the hungry human soul through the humanization of eating:
With the rise of intelligence the hungry soul seeks satisfaction in activities animated also by wonder, ambition, affection, curiosity, and awe. We human beings delight in beauty and order, art and action, sociability and friendship, insight and understanding, song and worship. And, as self-conscious beings, we especially crave self- understanding and knowledge of our place in the larger whole. All these appetites of the hungry soul can in fact be satisfied at the table, provided that we approach it in the proper spirit. The meal taken at table is the cultural form that enables us to respond simultaneously to all the dominant features of our world: Inner need, natural plenitude, freedom and reason, human community, and the mysterious source of it all. In humanized eating, we can nourish our souls even while we feed our bodies.
In his analysis of the problem of modern man and in his solution to that problem, Kass places a heavy burden on his chosen theme. It must always be dangerous to tease out a single strand from the complex web of human life and hang on it the entire weight of civilization’s problems and achievements. It is hard not to wonder why anyone would court what can be only a very partial success. The book is a balancing act, with fascinating bits of information and an impressive collection of interesting quotations, both in and out of footnotes, conjoined with slow-moving arguments that read like passages from a Philosophy 101 textbook. Paragraphs filled with moral fervor alternate with flavorless descriptions of festive occasions.
Kass wishes to avoid traditional philosophic jargon, relying instead on the language of shared experience. However, where he follows the forms of a traditional philosophical essay he is forced to invent his own jargon (complete with etymologies and italicized, multiply-hyphenated words) as he laboriously builds a case for points that could be more concisely and convincingly made by direct statement fortified with example. Rarely do his abstractions communicate his points as well as his concrete examples and explanations. It is refreshing to read, after an abstract discussion of animal forms and how they are recognized, “In . . . ordinary speech [when we acknowledge the “species character of animal form by the use of such general names as ‘lion,’ ‘tiger,’ etc.”] we do no more than acknowledge what any healthy rabbit recognizes . . . when it flees from all hounds, finds all carrots to its taste, and mates only with other rabbits.”
One of Kass’s preoccupations is with what he calls the “problematic character of eating: the paradoxical and problematic relationship between any living being and the rest of the world; for in eating, each living form homogenizes other forms and denies other life, appropriating them solely for its own use . . . .” The morally neutral animal, whether herbivore or carnivore, consumes his chosen food without awareness of the problematic nature of what he is doing and unburdened by the author’s negative judgment. When man takes his place in the food chain, however, Kass reveals to us his image of the human omnivore, who is “by his inborn nature der grosse Fresser -the great devourer and glutton-who stuffs his face and gorges his belly with the widest variety of fodder.” It is odd to designate as “problematic” an activity engaged in by all living creatures, one indeed that is necessary to the continuation of life. The natural order or progression of eating patterns could be more accurately described as “hierarchical” without disturbing Kass’s argument that man, at the top of the hierarchy, “if he is not to become the worst of the animals . . . must be restrained by law and justice.”
The most serious shortcoming of this book is the author’s decision to use a detailed analysis of Jewish dietary laws as found in Leviticus as the sole significant illustration of man’s acknowledgment of the holy in his relation to eating. Kass declares that the “the dietary laws of Leviticus commemorate the Creation and the Creator and beckon us toward holiness.” His analysis here is long and labored, and the laws seem very far removed from the shared experience Kass says he wishes to use as the ground of his argument.
Far more eloquent would be some recognition of the ways in which people do habitually express their reverence for the holiness of eating. Common expressions of such reverence in our culture would be saying grace before meals, celebrating great religious occasions by feasting, the establishment of a ritual meal such as the Seder, and most especially, the Christian Eucharist, in which the consumption of a meal becomes the central act of worship. Participating in the Eucharist, at once incorporating the holy into one’s self by eating and sharing this union with the entire human community, is believed by a large portion of the audience Kass is addressing to be the culmination of the realization that man is different from animals and aware of the symbolic significance to which eating can rise. In ignoring this feast of feasts, Dr. Kass has significantly diminished the power of his book.
Molly Finn is a writer living in New York City.