Plebeian Gourmet

You are a gourmet, sir, a plebeian gourmet, a peasant with taste.

What I have said is not abuse: I am merely stating the formula, the quite simple psychological formula of your simple, aesthetically quite uninteresting personality.

So Detlev Spinell writes to Anton Klöterjahn, the husband of Gabriele Klöterjahn in Thomas Mann’s short story “Tristan.” The letter and its setup are farcical; the story takes place in a sanatorium where Frau Klöterjahn is recovering and where Spinell lives. When this letter is written, Herr Klöterjahn happens to be visiting, so envelope returns straightaway to the institution and provokes an immediate confrontation that does not suit Spinell’s strengths.

The story is ethereal and sad, even in its somewhat cliched presentation of an artistic spirit that gravitates to an older style of building now reserved for sick people. Unlike the other patients, Spinell doesn’t suffer from a particular illness or defect, but he likes the decor and the solitude, though not to write for publication since his only production are of letters. On the one hand this description of a wastrel litterateur struck too close to home, but, on the other, the presentation of separate spheres is, even accounting for the date, too much a caricature.

Nevertheless, this particular passage had me laughing aloud, all the while being fixated on the term “plebeian gourmet.” It is evocative, dismissive of the man’s origins and complimentary of his taste. In general one might look at “gourmet” as applying to food, although the letter makes clear that Spinell uses the term more broadly to mean taste in all things, and, particularly, in choosing his wife. Plebeian also evokes a range of meanings: lower class, healthy and robust, of a non-aristocratic family, uneducated. These are phrases that are equally applicable in Europe or America, but in the latter the racial politics of class structure are more pronounced than in the setting of the story.

What sent me down this path was thinking what such a phrase would imply in twenty-first century America. The lack of a traditionally-titled aristocracy per se feeds into an American vision where we are all plebeian, particularly because technology has unmasked a great deal of the mystique of individuals who might have otherwise qualified. Some people have more money than others, but their foibles are exposed for the world to see, too. Some of these same technological innovations have leveled the playing field in terms of platform for people who aspire to participation in the cultural discussion and opened access to the “gourmet,” whether of clothes, essays, books, food, drink, etc. [Taste in people is something else, and I’ll leave that out since both parties have agency.] Certainly not everyone has access to the gourmet, and others choose deprivation from for reasons from philosophical to practical. In other cases, individuals of one temperament condescend those of another, for picayune reasons. The point is that, for most, “plebeian” is a baseline and the “gourmet” is an aspiration. In other words, “plebeian gourmet” is an archaic description, but not an antiquated one.

There are plenty of issues I’ve ignored here, from exploitation of labor in developing countries, to rape of the environment and the temptations of junk food. Spinell certainly sees himself (and Frau Klöterjahn, hence the tension of the story) as being better than other people on the virtue of their artistic sensibilities. The same fissures exist in the average high school, but if one were to hurl “plebeian gourmet” at another, even if actually believed, would be an affectation.

Let me confess to you, sir, that I hate you…You are the stronger man. In our struggle I have only one thing to turn against you, the sublime avenging weapon of the weak: intellect and the power of words. Today I have used this weapon. For this letter–here too let me make an honest admission–is nothing but an act of revenge; and if it contains even a single phrase that is biting and brilliant and beautiful enough to strike home, to make you aware of an alien force, to shake your robust equanimity even for one moment, then I shall exult in that discomfiture.

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