Decadent Europe’s Islamist Dystopia

A great write up by Rick Searle on the decadent Eurocentric perspective on Islam…

Utopia or Dystopia


Sometimes I get the feeling that the West really is intellectually and spiritually bankrupt. I take my cue here not from watching Eurovision or anything like its American equivalent, but from the fact that, despite how radically different our circumstance is from our predecessors, we can’t seem to get beyond political ideas that have been banging around since the 19th century. Instead of coming up with genuine alternatives we rebrand antique ideas. After all, isn’t  “fully automated luxury communism” really just a technophilic version of communism which hopes to shed all association with breadlines or statues of strapping workers with hammers in their hands? Let’s just call the thing Marxism and get it the hell over with.

Yet perhaps nothing that’s in fact sclerotic and is trying to pass itself off as new is as bad as the so-called “alt-right” (personally I liked the term neo-reactionaries so much better)…

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Duns Scotus and William of Ockham: Realism, Nominalism, and Current Debates on Voluntarism


Dons Scotus is probably one of the more important philosophers you’ve never heard of (unless you’re an academic or specialist in the field of philosophy). Known as the  “the Subtle Doctor,” he left a mark on discussions of such disparate topics as the semantics of religious language, the problem of universals, divine illumination, and the nature of human freedom.

Scotus believed there are actual universals existing outside the mind and thereby can be called realist, and he opposed those who deny extra-mental universals and are called nominalists, and whose descendents in our time became the anti-realists of the postmodern turn. Of course there are gradations and battlelines to be drawn along the way in this sordid history. He also affirmed that natural law in the strict sense does not depend on God’s will. So from him we get all those thinkers who have reputiated the whole Augustinian tradition of Free Will. Of course he wasn’t alone in this, but he did bring much of this thought to a head and formulated the beginnings of a set of propositions, concepts, and thought that would shape the historical drift of philosophical speculation on Free Will and Universals up to our time.

Scotus quite self-consciously puts forward his understanding of freedom as an alternative to Aquinas’s. According to Aquinas, freedom comes in simply because the will is intellectual appetite rather than mere sense appetite. Intellectual appetite is aimed at objects as presented by the intellect and sense appetite at objects as presented by the senses. Sense appetite is not free because the senses provide only particulars as objects of appetite. But intellectual appetite is free because the intellect deals with universals, not particulars.

Aquinas held a eudaimonistic theory of ethics: the point of the moral life is happiness. That’s why Aquinas can understand the will as an intellectual appetite for happiness. Scotus rejects the idea that will is merely intellectual appetite, he is saying that there is something fundamentally wrong with eudaimonistic ethics. Morality is not tied to human flourishing at all. And just as Aquinas’s conception of the will was tailor-made to suit his eudaimonistic conception of morality, Scotus’s conception of the will is tailor-made to suit his anti-eudaimonistic conception of morality. It’s not merely that he thinks there can be no genuine freedom in mere intellectual appetite. It’s also that he rejects the idea that moral norms are intimately bound up with human nature and human happiness. So Scotus relegates concerns about happiness to the affectio commodi (affection advantage-profit) and assigns whatever is properly moral to the other affection, the affectio iustitiae (affection for justice).

There are many things we could reject in Scotus’s views on immortality, God, Christianity and other issues that are now dated and of little use for our current debates; yet, he is worthy of study for being one of those who decisively set the boundaries and earmarked many of the debates that would follow. I think he’ll be remembered because his thought affords us a view onto the division of philosophers into realists – who think there are real laws and universals – and nominalists – who think laws and universals are merely products of the mind – cuts across more familiar contrasts between rationalists and empiricists, naturalists and transcendentalists, and so affords a novel perspective on the philosophical tradition. In our time it is the battle between anti-realists of the social construction school of postmodernism, and those newer speculative realist positions that have cropped up recently across the Continental and Analytical spectrum.

William of Ockham: The Progenitor of the Anti-Realist Tradition

The enemy of Duns Scotus, is of course the other great philosopher of that era William of Ockham – nominalist and advocate of Free Will. In Ockham’s world of absolute singulars there could be nothing like the composition resulting from the formal intelligibilities of Scotistic realism. Scotus had proposed such Formalitates to insure an objective ground for the universal concepts produced by the intellect. Ockham saw only a latent Platonism here and restricted all such formal distinctions to the mind as it viewed the existing singular from various aspects. Whatever exists is singular, totally so, and any composition would result in a singular being composed of many singulars. Neither could there be any relations between such singulars seen as really distinct from the singular objects involved. Such relations would themselves be singulars, and there could be no end to such a process. It was another way for Ockham to dispense with any necessity in a created order and to insure that creation was totally dependent on both the absolute and ordinary power of God.

One need only read a few of his general propositions to understand why his enemies saw in him a dark course for the future of philosophy:

Article 2. That intuitive knowledge of a creature considered as such does not necessarily concern the creature’s existence or non-existence, nor does it look toward existence rather than non-existence.
Article 5. When predicating wisdom or existence of God, the predication is not about God Himself but only a certain concept (of God).
Article 10. That intelligence and will which are predicated of God are not God; just as no attribute is the same as the Divine Essence.
Article 30. That nothing is known or understood of any substance; science is only of concepts.
Article 38. That there is no relation of reason of God to creatures.
Article 41. That genus is not intrinsic to the thing of which it is the genus.
Article 54. That a proposition such as “God is wisdom, goodness, life” is not intelligible.1

Above we see those tendencies toward obscurantism, relativism, and the anti-realist gap between language/reality etc. hinted at in brief that would work themselves out across the next few hundred years as those who follow Scotus and Ockham would play out the battles into our time.

Against Universals

In the case of universal entities, Ockham’s nominalism is not based on his Razor, his principle of parsimony. That is, Ockham does not hold merely that there is no good reason for affirming universals, so that we should refrain from doing so in the absence of further evidence. No, he holds that theories of universals, or at least the theories he considers, are outright incoherent; they either are self-contradictory or at least violate certain other things we know are true in virtue of the three sources just cited. For Ockham, the only universal entities it makes sense to talk about are universal concepts, and derivative on them, universal terms in spoken and written language. Metaphysically, these “universal” concepts are singular entities like all others; they are “universal” only in the sense of being “predicable of many.”

With respect to the exact ontological status of such conceptual entities, however, Ockham changed his view over the course of his career. To begin with, he adopted what is known as the fictum-theory, a theory according to which universals have no “real” existence at all in the Aristotelian categories, but instead are purely “intentional objects” with a special mode of existence; they have only a kind of “thought”-reality. Eventually, however, Ockham came to think this intentional realm of “fictive” entities was not needed, and by the time of his Summa of Logic and the Quodlibets adopts instead a so called intellectio-theory, according to which a universal concept is just the act of thinking about several objects at once; metaphysically such an “act” is a singular quality of an individual mind, and is “universal” only in the sense of being a mental sign of several things at once and being predicable of them in mental propositions.2

For Ockham, as for Aristotle and Aquinas, I can choose the means to achieve my ultimate good. But in addition, for Ockham unlike Aristotle and Aquinas, I can choose whether to will that ultimate good. The natural orientation and tendency toward that good is built in; I cannot do anything about that. But I can choose whether or not to to act to achieve that good. I might choose, for example, to do nothing at all, and I might choose this knowing full well what I am doing. But more: I can choose to act knowingly directly against my ultimate good, to thwart it. I can choose evil as evil. (ibid.)

For Ockham, this is required if I am going to be morally responsible for my actions. If I could not help but will to act to achieve my ultimate good, then it would not be morally praiseworthy of me to do so; moral “sins of omission” would be impossible (although of course I could be mistaken in the means I adopt). By the same token, moral “sins of commission” would be impossible if I could not knowingly act against my ultimate good. But for Ockham these conclusions are not just required by theory; they are confirmed by experience. (ibid.)

Voluntarism in Duns Scotus and William of Ockham

Voluntarism is the theory that God or the ultimate nature of reality is to be conceived as some form of will (or conation). This theory is contrasted to intellectualism, which gives primacy to God’s reason. The voluntarism/intellectualism distinction was intimately tied to medieval and modern theories of natural law; if we grant that moral or physical laws issue from God, it next needs to be answered whether they issue from God’s will or God’s reason. 3

In medieval philosophy, voluntarism was championed by Avicebron, Duns Scotus, and William of Ockham. Intellectualism, on the other hand, is found in Averroes, Aquinas, and Eckhart. The opposing theories were applied to the human psychology, the nature of God, ethics, and the heaven. According to intellectualism, choices of the will result from that which the intellect recognizes as good; the will itself is determined. For voluntarism, by contrast, it is the will which determines which objects are good, and the will itself is indetermined.

Concerning the nature of heaven, intellectualists followed Aristotle’s lead by seeing the final state of happiness as a state of contemplation. Voluntarism, by contrast, maintains that final happiness is an activity, specifically that of love. The conceptions of theology itself were polarized between these two views. According to intellectualism, theology should be an essential speculative science; according to voluntarism, it is a practical science aimed at controlling life, but not necessarily aimed at comprehending philosophic truth. In the modern period Spinoza advocates intellectualism insofar as desire is an indication of imperfection, and the passions are a source of human bondage.

When all things are seen purely in rational relations, desire is stilled, the mind is freed from the passions and we experience the intellectual love of God, which is the ideal happiness. According to Leibniz, Spinoza’s interpretation of the world as rational and logical left no place for the individual, or for the conception of ends or purposes as a determining factor in reality. Voluntarism is seen in Leibniz’s view of the laws which govern monads (individual units of which all reality is composed) in so far as they are the laws of the conscious realization of ends.

In some passages Duns Scotus seems to endorse a thoroughgoing voluntarism, holding not merely that the moral law is established entirely by God’s will, but even that there is no reason why God wills in one way rather than another.  In other passages, however, Scotus insists that reason plays an important role in morality—that right reason is an essential element in the moral goodness of an action, and that moral truth is accessible to natural reason.

Sadly, surveying Scotus’s works one comes to the conclusion the conclusion dreaded by some interpreters— namely, that for Scotus the moral law is not accessible to natural reason (leading to obscurantist notions of God’s Will).  Scotus recognizes the existence of contingent truths that are immediate, that is, not derived from any logically prior truths.  Indeed, he insists that there must be such truths: “otherwise there would be an infinite regress in contingent truths, or else something contingent would follow from a necessary cause—either of which is impossible.”  Now we need to distinguish here between two sorts of immediate contingent truths.  I shall call them metaphysically immediate and epistemically immediate.  Metaphysically immediate contingent truths are those for which there is no further explanation at all; they are the sorts of truths we might be inclined to call “brute facts”—not merely brute relative to other facts, but absolutely brute, as we might say.  Scotus’s favorite examples of such truths are, not surprisingly, facts about the divine will.

Thus Scotus’s understanding of the role of reason in morality is explicitly tailored so as to go hand in hand with his voluntarism; there is no conflict at all between the two views.  Since God created us with the ability to regulate our actions in accordance with our own knowledge of the moral law, our actions are not fully morally good unless they involve an exercise of our own reason.  But since we cannot come to know discursively what God has freely and contingently willed concerning the moral law, God has granted us an immediate knowledge of the moral law.

Natural reason thus knows the moral law immediately and not by argument.  Right reason is the correct application of such knowledge to specific circumstances.  And action on the basis of a complete dictate of right reason is fully morally good.  In this way, any agent who makes proper use of reason can easily elicit morally good acts without ever having the slightest thought about God’s will, even though in fact it is God’s sovereign will that freely established the moral facts that the agent is correctly discerning and following.

Ultimately from William of Ockham’s thought would come all those traditions of voluntarism and utilitarian ethics.  Voluntary agents, free-will, along with notions of teleology (final causation) would encompass his thought. Although he is very suspicious of the notion of final causality (teleology) in general, he thinks it is quite appropriate for intelligent, voluntary agents such as human beings. Thus the frequent charge that Ockham severs ethics from metaphysics by denying teleology seems wrong. Nevertheless, while Ockham grants that human beings have a natural orientation, a tendency toward their own ultimate good, he does not think this restricts their choices. This erroneous notion of an innate telos toward the good, and free-will would be hotly debated for hundreds of years, and seems to be almost a violent aspect of current scientific and philosophical debates in our day.

Ockham’s greatest task he’d set himself as a defense, both philosophically and theologically, of the divine freedom and omnipotence of God. Those who oppose his philosophy would see in  Ockham someone who critically attacked the great theological systems of the earlier days and substituted for them a logical nominalism and philosophical fideism.*

Kant and Schopenhauer in later times: Rational and Irrational Will and Voluntarism

19th century voluntarism has its origin in Kant, particularly his doctrine of the “primacy of the practical over the pure reason.” Intellectually, humans are incapable of knowing ultimate reality, but this need not and must not interfere with the duty of acting as though the spiritual character of this reality were certain. Freedom cannot be demonstrated speculatively, but whenever a person acts under a motive supplied by reason, he is thereby exhibiting the practical efficiency of reason, and thus showing its reality in a practical sense. Following Kant, two distinct lines of voluntarism have proceeded which may be called rational and irrational voluntarism respectively. (ibid.)

For Fichte, the originator of rational voluntarism, the ethical is primary both in the sphere of conduct and in the sphere of knowledge. The whole nature of consciousness can be understood only from the point of view of ends which are set up by the self. The actual world, with all the activity that it has, is only to be understood as material for the activity of the practical reason, as the means through which the will achieves complete freedom and complete moral realization.

“The genius of love and the genius of hunger, those twin brothers, are the two moving forces behind all living things. All living things set themselves in motion to feed and to reproduce. Love and hunger share the same purpose. Life must never cease; life must be sustained and must create.”

– Turgenev, Little poems in prose, XXIII 

Schopenhauer’s irrational voluntarism asserts a more radical opposition between the will and intellect. For him, the will is by its very nature irrational. It manifests itself in various stages in the world of nature as physical, chemical, magnetic, and vital force, pre-eminently, however, in the animal kingdom in the form of “the will to live,” which means the tendency to assert itself in the struggle for means of existence and for reproduction of the species. This activity is all of it blind, so far as the individual agent is concerned, although the power and existence of the will are thereby asserted continually.


Nominalism is a metaphysical view in philosophy according to which general or abstract terms and predicates exist, while universals or abstract objects, which are sometimes thought to correspond to these terms, do not exist. There are at least two main versions of nominalism.

Fideism is an epistemological theory which maintains that faith is independent of reason, or that reason and faith are hostile to each other and faith is superior at arriving at particular truths (see natural theology). The word fideism comes from fides, the Latin word for faith, and literally means “faith-ism.”

  1. Recherches de Théologie Ancienne et Médiévale, vol. 7, pp. 353-380, J. Koch
  2. Spade, Paul Vincent and Panaccio, Claude, “William of Ockham”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;.
  3. see: Voluntarism –


For a general introduction see: John Duns Scotus (1266–1308) and William of Ockham ( 1287–1347)


Gastronomique Comedia: Rabelais and Bataille – Anti-Philosophy of Laughter

“Seeing how sorrow eats you, defeats you.
I’d rather write about laughing than crying,
For laughter makes men human, and courageous.”

― François Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel 

“The genius of love and the genius of hunger, those twin brothers, are the two moving forces behind all living things. All living things set themselves in motion to feed and to reproduce. Love and hunger share the same purpose. Life must never cease; life must be sustained and must create.”

– Turgenev, Little poems in prose, XXIII 

Gastronomique Comedia

François Rabelais was born at the end of the fifteenth century. A Franciscan monk turned Benedictine, he abandoned the cloister in 1530 and began to study medicine at Montpellier. Two years later he wrote his first work, Pantagruel, which revealed his genius as a storyteller, satirist, propagandist and creator of comic situations and characters. In 1534 he published Gargantua, a companion to Pantagruel, which contains some of his best work. It mocks old-fashioned theological education, and opposes the monastic ideal, contrasting it with a free society of noble Evangelicals. Following an outburst of repression in late 1534, Rabelais abandoned his post of doctor at the Hotel-Dieu at Lyons and despite Royal support his book Tiers Livre was condemned. His last work, and his boldest, Quart Livre was published in 1551 and he died two years later. For the last years of his life Rabelais was persecuted by both religious and civil authorities for his publications. His genius however was recognized in his own day and his influence was great.

In his comic masterpiece Rabelais tells the story of Pantagruel. It is the story of the birth and early life of this Giant, which was probably the most hilarious of the books. Gargantua is the story of the birth and life of Panagruel’s father Gargantua; this was also quite funny covering several topics. The 3rd book of Pantagruel contains two main themes; the first is a discussion between Pantagruel and Panurge on debtors and borrowers. Panurge gives the funniest discourse on the need for debtors I have ever seen. The rest of the book tells of Panurge consulting every imaginable method of seeing the future to see if he should marry. Rabelais gives us a description of how the Thelemites of the Abbey Thelema lived and the rules they lived by:

All their life was spent not in laws, statutes, or rules, but according to their own free will and pleasure. They rose out of their beds when they thought good; they did eat, drink, labour, sleep, when they had a mind to it and were disposed for it. None did awake them, none did offer to constrain them to eat, drink, nor to do any other thing; for so had Gargantua established it. In all their rule and strictest tie of their order there was but this one clause to be observed, Do What Thou Wilt; because men that are free, well-born, well-bred, and conversant in honest companies, have naturally an instinct and spur that prompteth them unto virtuous actions, and withdraws them from vice, which is called honour. Those same men, when by base subjection and constraint they are brought under and kept down, turn aside from that noble disposition by which they formerly were inclined to virtue, to shake off and break that bond of servitude wherein they are so tyrannously enslaved; for it is agreeable with the nature of man to long after things forbidden and to desire what is denied us. 1

François Rabelais couldn’t get enough of arseholes. When the giant Gargantua is born, the midwives can’t tell at first if his mother’s in labour, or merely evacuating her bowels of the 16 tuns, two gallons and two pints of tripe she’s been eating. Another curious meal includes “fine turds, tweak-nose style”, “Athenian rump”, “shitlets”, “collared bullfarts”, “stitched bum-stirrings”, “dirty-filths”, “puffs-up-my-bum” and, for dessert, “shit drench with blossoming turds”. Here are some books in a Rabelais library: On the Art of Discreetly Farting in Company, On How to Defecate, Fundamental Floggings, The Gut-cavities of the Mendicants, Spanish Pongs, Super-refined, The Backgammon of Belly-bumping Friars and Martingale Breeches with Back-flaps for Turd-droppers.

But the arse isn’t all that Rabelais is interested in. Why the sea is salty, how to cook pears in red wine, ironmongery, weaponry, war (he’s a little too interested in war), decapitation (ditto), the names of games (including “judge alive, judge dead” and “shitty yew-twigs”) and dances, glassware and grapes, history, mythology, archaeology, “foolosophy”, scholarship, medicine of course (as a doctor he risked his life to save victims of the plague), anatomy, botany, lechery, law, magic, superstition, religion, servants, aphrodisiacs, wines, astronomy, astrology, tourist sites, even sci-fi. He wants, like any real writer, to explain the whole world to us – comically, satirically, ethically and unethically. (see: Lucy Ellmann: 12/2006 Guardian Review of Books)

Shall we say it? Rabelais was moving toward that inhuman laughter of the monstrous alterity that risks the boundary zones between reason and unreason, knowledge and nonknowledge (Bataille). In laughter we find the key to unlock what Bataille would call the philosophy of non-savoir, where laughter – not the comedy of existence subordinated to reason and human identity – ruptures the abject and enters the regions of Nietzsche’s grand baroque, where the abyss of laughter reverberates in nonknowledge and excess.

Bataille believed that laughter is sovereign, and that comic literature had been suborned to its lowly position because it stepped outside reason and philosophy, that it dared to cause havoc in the House of Reason.  Rather than just attempting to philosophize comedy, Bataille treats philosophy as comedy. Like Rabelais he gave attentive lesion to an affinity with surrealism and celebration of cultural forms expressing the irrational, the unthinkable, and the impossible (such as death, ecstasy, ritual, sacrifice, the erotic, the comic, and the sacred) has been extended to theorizations that interrogate both the philosophical underpinning of his work and, indeed, its consequences for philosophical thinking.

Rabelais’s saying from Latin to ‘put its nose to her arse’ gives us that ribald and earthy humor that puts us back in touch with the base materialist world of the body: a well-known cause of laughter. To explain the elegant Latin word olfecit, used when a horse caused difficulties by ‘flairing’ (smelling) a mule, a medieval glossator of the Law Agaso (Ostler) notoriously explained it in basic Latin as ‘put its nose to her arse’.1 Rabelais would inform his future readers of laughter: “No other theme comes to my mind Seeing such gloom your joy doth ban. My pen’s to laughs not tears assigned. Laughter’s the property of Man.”

Even Bataille saw the benefit of laughter as communication. “When the need to communicate through loss of self is reduced to that of possessing more, then we realize that nothing sublime can exist in man without its necessarily evoking laughter. Now, of all the sorts of intense communication, none is more common than the laughter which stirs us in (each other’s) company. In our laughter, our lives are quite constantly released in a facile form of communication- and this despite the possibly isolating effect of our concern with sublime forms of communication.” (Bataille, Laughter: Writings of Laughter and Sacrifice)  As if commenting on the earthy humor of Rabelais – Bataille continues:

We laughed as one- a full, remorseless laughter- in which, together, we penetrated into the secret places of things. The joy of laughter became one with the joy of living. The spellbinding spark of roaring laughter came to mean, in a way that was crucial, a kind of dawn, a strange promise of glory. We must take care always to articulate the radiance discovered in laughter; that intoxication opens a window of light which gives onto a world of flagrant joy. Actually, the brilliance of this world is such that men swiftly avert their eyes. He who wishes to keep his attention focused upon this sliding, dizzying point needs great strength. In learned treatises, laughter is considered a mechanism. Tired scholars endlessly dismantle its minute gear system, as if laughter were really foreign to them; they avoid the immediate revelation of the nature of things and of their own lives in their own laughter. (ibid.)

Bataille’s philosophy of laughter awakens us from the gray men who shut down the world in a cage of reason and suborned meaning, who analyze the world into abstract categories, or synthesize it into realms of non-meaning and abstract ideas seeking some transcendence – all the while those like Rabelais and Bataille bring us back down to the base line, to the earthy shit and arse hole philosophies of reality – of laughter and the grotto, the grotesque antiques of the fool and merry pranksters who romp the vast comic literature of the eternal festival of cruelty and life going on within the cosmic landscape of history’s horror show, and that of our universe of transgressive and catastrophic play where amor fati and the Lord of Misrule dance in the eternity of night. Against the new crop of Neorationalists and their normative returns to regulation and enslavement of men in some new “give and take” of reasons and moral turpitude Rabelais and Bataille offer laughter and transgression, excess and a base materialism that keeps us in touch with matter, mater, goddess, earth, night, death and the ocean of endless being and becoming. As Bataille would remind us “Not only does each man participate in the limitless streaming of the universe but his laughter mixes with that of others, so that a room will contain not several laughs, but a single wave of hilarity. The icy solitude of each laughing individual is, as it were, refined; all lives are waters flowing into a torrent.” (ibid.)

In Rabelais and Bataille we discover a desubjectivized humanism that takes on the form of a seemingly more solidified cult of the generic Subject of the people, but even there it rests on an ever changing, protean, metamorphic and mutant existence of the human masses – a monstrous excess that transgresses the boundaries between bodies and style registers and refuses their members stable identifications – no identitarian politics here! – other than with the utopian body of the people and of humanity at large. This Renaissance brand of the decentred, indeed dislocated, humanism without subjectivity is his greatest discovery as a thinker and the source of his longevity on the intellectual scene where he ushers out vogue after vogue, staging for each new generation of readers the magic of witnessing the birth of proximity without empathy, of laughter without promise or closure. Rabelais is to laughter what Heraclitus is to tears, a mortal god among gargantuans; a panurge whose life abounds to all and sundry, and springs eternal in the reader’s mind like a promise of unbounded joy.

Bataille would provoke us to turn away from doom and gloom, from the Subject and Identity, from the isolated subjectivism of Idealist pretension and Hegelian dialectic of sublation and endless progress, objectivity of spirit, and transcendence. Instead he would provoke laughter and madness:

Laughter has the quality of provoking laughter. Hilarity discloses the fall-which has just occurred or some equivalent cause of joy, the certain presence of prospects of the spirit’s release. This invitation is difficult to resist. Isolation is always the effect of gloom, of fatigue, or heaviness; when invited to join in the “mad dance of release,” the spirit rushes in heedlessly. (Laughter: ibid.)

Only the cosmic comedy without end in a universe where nothing is assured, and everything is left to do; an incompleteness, a journey into ever more refined forms of formlessness and chaos, a spasmatic realm of catastrophe and impersonal numinous desire quickened only by the unknown laughter resounding in the abyss of impersonal night.

Or, instead let us come together for a drink, a little merriment and vibrant comradeship; and a night of ribald humor, letting our worries and the world – too long with us and hateful, fall away as the fires of conversation and bright laughter burst the halls with clanking ale and honored friendship:

‘I,’ said the steward, ‘would rather have a drink.’

And so saying they went into the lower hall; all their companions were there and when they told them this novella, they had them buzzing with laughter like a bevy of flies.

– Francois Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel 

The notes below are not pertinent to the fragment above… Just needed to gather them together for future reference… 🙂

Notes Toward A Short History of Gastronomy

Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de La Reynière is known as the first public critic of cooking, the first reviewer of the ambitious restaurants that cropped up in Paris in the later eighteenth century and flowered under the Napoleonic regime, his name is a by-word on a par with Brillat-Savarin and an equally rich source of quotations in French gastronomic literature through the eight volumes of his annual L’Almanach des gourmands, which he edited and published from 1803 to 1812. Gourmand still retained its sense of “gluttony”, one of the Seven Deadly Sins, and Grimod’s choice of the word, when “friand” more usually connoted a connoisseur of fine food and wine, was a conscious one and wholly in character; gourmand and gourmet first achieved their pleasant modern connotations in Grimod’s Almanachs, which, among other innovations, were the first restaurant guides. The success of the Almanachs encouraged Grimod and his publishers to bring out the monthly Journal des Gourmandes et des Belles, which appeared for the first time in January 1806. Its editorial board consisted of the friends who met weekly for dinner at the Hôtel Grimod de La Reynière, those “Dîners du Vaudeville”, composed of dishes sent round by the premier restaurants of Paris for judgment, and Grimod as host and presiding genius. His Manuel des amphitryons (“hosts”) appeared in 1808. Sainte-Beuve called him the “Father of the table”.2

Wandering through my gastronomique collection it dawned on me how delightful it would be to read a great comic novel of a Chef. But not just any Chef, I was thinking back to Gunter Grass’s fabulous comic novel The Flounder, which had all the lovely asides of various gastronomique treats and binges as the women through the Flounder’s long rambling history cooked their way into his heart. One thinks of the Francois Villon (1431 – 1474) the great French poet whose earthy love of women, wine, and song. One of my favorites was his The Debate Between Villon And His Heart (only a snippet):

Who’s that I hear?—It’s me—Who?—Your heart
Hanging on by the thinnest thread
I lose all my strength, substance, and fluid
When I see you withdrawn this way all alone
Like a whipped cur sulking in the corner
Is it due to your mad hedonism?—
What’s it to you?—I have to suffer for it—
Leave me alone—Why?—I’ll think about it—
When will you do that?—When I’ve grown up—
I’ve nothing more to tell you—I’ll survive without it—

I can imagine a encyclopedic history in the comic vein of a Chef who has lived through time cooking at the great and small tables of historical and imaginary figures, interspersed with ribald poems, epithets, rancorous satire, jibes, and jubilant and festive culinary affairs of both the heart and mind… a cross between Don Juan and Julia Childe; or, Antoine Careme:

Known as the “King of Chefs and the Chef of Kings,” Antoine Careme went from being an abandoned child left at the door of a restaurateur in 18th century Paris, to become the father of “haute cuisine” – the high art of French cooking – in the early 19th century. Chef to then-world movers and shakers such as diplomat Talleyrand-Perigord, the future King George IV, Czar Alexander I, and the powerful banker James Rothschild, Careme is noted for his voluminous writings on cooking, including the famed L’Art de la Cuisine Francaise (The Art of French Cooking), a five-volume masterpiece on menu planning, table settings, hundreds of recipes, and a history of French cooking.

Another Frenchman, George Auguste Escoffier, bridged the 19th and 20th centuries with a modernization of Careme’s elaborate cuisine by ingenious simplification of it. Escoffier lent his talents as a chef to open the Ritz and Carlton hotels with partner Cesar Ritz, and then went on to wow such illustrious passengers as Kaiser William II of Germany on the German liner Imperator. Besides being known for such famous treats at Peach Melba, created for Australian singer Nellie Melba in 1893, Escoffier penned numerous volumes on cooking and was largely instrumental in the betterment of conditions within commercial kitchens. A stickler for cleanliness, he demanded the same from his workers and forbade swearing or any type of violence, which at the time, was common as apprentices and other help were routinely beaten by older staff.

Charles Ranhofer, the son of a restrauteur and the grandson of a chef, goes down in the annals of great chefs as the first French chef to bring the grandeur of his country’s cuisine to America. Noted primarily as the head chef of New York City’s famed Delmonico’s restaurant, Ranhofer ran its kitchens for nearly 34 years. Serving such luminaries as President Andrew Johnson, President U.S. Grant, Charles Dickens, and a host of foreign dignitaries, Ranhofer created such culinary distinctions as Lobster Newburg and Baked Alaska, among many others. He also wrote “one of the most complete treatises of its kind,” according to the New York Times in praise of his book, The Epicurean, published in 1894.3

  1. Gargantua and Pantagruel. François Rabelais, translated by MA Screech (Penguin)
  2. See: Aguecheek’s Beef, Belch’s Hiccup, and Other Gastronomic Interjections: Literature, Culture, and Food Among the Early Moderns by Robert Appelbaum. Excellent history!
  3.  Author Keith Londrie II. Famous Chefs in History.