Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Want and Plenty (Love and War)

The Schilthorn 

The French have a phrase "jolie laide", which is translated literally as "pretty-ugly", but means something more transcendent: something like a woman who is attractive, but not conventionally pretty.  This is a simple definition, but the term has a deeper significance, that true beauty has a roundness to it that comes of both want and plenty, interior and exterior attractiveness born of a cultivation of spirit (which is most often a product of want rather than plenty) as well as the well groomed gift of birth which characterizes physical appeal.  An easy prettiness, while charming, is not always deeply attractive. Or as Balzac, the French novelist writes, "at fifteen, beauty and talent do not exist; there can only be promise of the coming woman."  Seduction is a far more complex dynamic for it to be a lasting appeal, which takes nothing from a truly beautiful woman who is physically stunning. A woman like this is a gift to all those around her, and gives pleasure as she graces any room she enters.  But true beauty has in its web not only the velvet but also the fire, and like a good malt whisky, requires the conviction born of appreciating want to deepen the contours of its visage and cultivate the imagination.

I remember the first time I had the sense of this fire. I was in Murren, in the Swiss Berner Oberland with my grandparents during a year hiatus from college during which time I had gone to stay with them in French Switzerland. It was a magnificent day, and I had climbed up to the glacier on the Schilthorn alp with a guide, something my grandfather arranged for me, for I love mountains and the clarity of vision they often invite, if one approaches them with reverence. The high and lovely places are also dangerous and difficult, and this confluence is what opens the door to the new view. It was clear and cold and spectacularly beautiful in the way that carries with it an almost hypnotic edginess. I remember shivering, and not from the cold wind off the glacier, but from the overwhelming realisation that this was a terrible beauty, that God's Beauty was this kind of terrible Love, that would redeem even at the cost of Himself, and would not rest until my own redemption was Accomplished, painful step by painful step, kicked out of the glacier as I climbed. But this is not cause for despair. For of the climb comes the summit gained, the perspective and Joy Flooding In that would not have been possible, could not have been, had the difficulty of the climb not prepared the heart for the intensity of the light above. The poet Blake said this another way, when he alluded to life as the training ground by which we learn to bear the beams of love.

Want is a master teacher, for it opens our hearts such that they become teachable.  Even more, it opens up our imaginations, which require a little spaciousness or emptiness to take flight: necessity is the mother of invention, non? This is not idealized fluff. There is nothing easy about want, either of the body or of the spirit. And its heartwrenching, soul searing lessons are not the stuff of fairy tales, but taken in measure, bring a kind of conviction, or faith, if you will, that cannot be easily discovered. The path is narrow, Jesus said.  Balzac, again, in musing about this, commented that "conviction brings a silent, indefinable beauty into faces made of the commonest human clay; the devout worshiper at any shrine reflects something of its golden glow, even as the glory of a noble love shines like a sort of light from a woman's face.”  Perhaps this woman has discovered that to Love is to know pain, and in her eyes are a new depth that pain has fashioned and cultivated, and so it goes and so it goes.  A life that has known pain is also a life, assuming the heart has not closed in protective layers, alive to Sweetness.  The sweetest man I ever knew had an interior conviction born of pain. It was not a sickly, cloying sweetness (which I detest in food and soda pop alike) and he had a true warrior-like strength, but a sweetness that is born of appreciating the pain of the human condition, of loss and heartache, and finding the unbearable lightness of being which comes of having looked into the abyss and turned back to breathe in the zephyr-like breeze of being alive, alive to possiblities.

Perhaps the simplest way to understand it is to suggest that Beauty is not an easy beauty. When you think about it, true beauty isn't really easy, any more than Love is.  Love fashions us and disciplines us such that what comes to life is Life Itself, freed of bondage and the heavy yoke of our humanity, which in many respects, only pain can break.  But this is fire, and want, and the desert, not plenty and ease.  There are times when the burnishing fire of Love can seem a whole lot more like War.  I have many times experienced this burnishing fire, and it is an awesome master.  Monteverdi, the great late 16th and early 17th century composer and Master at St. Mark's in Venice, to whom I have alluded before, wrote a series of madrigals about this, and he was not the first or the last to ponder its depths.  Actually,  in his fifth set of madrigals, he sets an old story to music, the epic ancient poem by Torquato Tasso, composed for an evening entertainment in the presence of all the nobles at the Palazzo Mocenigo in Venice. In this old story, he describes the battle between Tancredi and Clorinda, and in their conflicting passions are found great love, war, and even death. Alas, the lover wields a sword as well as arms which enfold his beloved. Love is discipline. In the new "agitated style," Monteverdi developed, he gives expression to a violence of passion that, in the midst of combat, comes into conflict with temperance and humility.  Perhaps it is the difficulty in our lives that allows room for the humility of spirit that brings about an acceptance of Love.   These themes are further explored in his Eighth set of madrigals of love and war, in which he describes the pursuits of love through the allegory of war; the hunt for love, and the battle to find love, and the relentless warrior-like nature of a lover seeking his beloved.  The great philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said that man's greatest acheivement is to accept love. Perhaps this is why it takes a war to make it happen.  God is such a suitor, willing to wield a sword and make war in order to win our hearts.

Love is both velvet and steel, just as true beauty is the marriage of the physical and the spiritual in a kind of aligned affirmation of the whole that makes it sing.  A truly seductive woman or man is one whose mind and spirit mirror the here and now physicality and grace of body. Often what constitutes the seductive element is a mind alive to nuance and possibility, such that in the sparkle of the eye one can see that he or she would be quite fun to engage, on any level you wish to consider the engagement, and that there are possibilities of play suggested even in the drop of an eye.  The sexes are not at war, but there is a kind of war-like intensity in the pursuit of passion and play, from which fire fashions what is beyond either.

And so with food, yes? Looking into the cupboard to make a meal pleasing to one's family, with very little in stock, is to muster all the imaginative capacity born of heart, the desire to please with little.  Some of the best food I have ever cooked has come of this. And it is no accident that great rustic dishes of many cultures were birthed in this manner.  The great cuisines of the world are as much children of want as plenty, for the fire which is necessary to lend it grace and make it sing is often born of necessity, that great teacher and Muse. Yes, necessity is a Muse far more readily than abundance.  What causes a cuisine to become truly seductive is the marriage of this character, born of want, with the hospitality and generosity of spirit that beckons, come, dine with me at my table. I have not much to offer, but the heart that I put into this meal.  This is Hospitality.  Often, a young cuisine lacks the cultural nuance to be truly seductive, to hearken those ancient archetypes from and for which we were made, weathered by the hardship and imagination of want, to produce art.  And the nuance of culture is often born of war and famine and hardship. From this hardship and want, came the fashioning of life and pleasure in its midst, not easily won, but nonetheless posited on Life. For art is the making of something, positing on the life of the spirit a physical creation that's very creation lends it transcendence. This is the art of a woman for her family.

In the landscape of my beloved Provence is a little key to this mystery. "The northern Provence of Giono, Cezanne and Pagnol is ascetic, dry, and secretive," writes Mireille Johnston in her lovely book The Cuisine of the Sun,  "It's olive trees, cypresses, fields of lavender, and rocky hilltops are swept by the mistral. Nevertheless, it is full of unexpected treasures: truffles under the dwarf oak trees, juniper berries, hills of rosemary and thyme.  It has deep gorges, woods of chestnut trees, and little villages perched on top of steep hills."  Most of the dry and flavorful dishes come from this region: aigo bouido, crespou, capoun, caillettes, tourte au miel et aux noix, and nougats.  This is not to diminish the pleasures of the south, where the lush and fertile Provence of Renoir, Matisse and Picasso is well irrigated and offers an abundance of fruits and vegetables. This beauty is Gift, and we should embrace it. This is where tian de legumes, artichauts a la barigoule, troucha, and salade nicoise were born.  We will explore these dishes in time.  The point is this: that in our embrace of all that is good and true and beautiful, let us not neglect the lessons of want as we embrace the plenty.

It must be relatively clear from these posts that I am in love with life. Yet, let it not suggest that because of this I think that Life is easily gained. I learned to cook by the great disciplines which, step by step, had to be mastered, and often included a French chef screaming at me (yes, they do that). Trial and Error. Cooking every night, even after 15 hour work days in another field, to cook at home with passion and discipline, sometimes at the foot of a great chef, other times painstakingly acquiring technique through armchair mentors; I have cooked my way through dozens of books of masters. The same could be said of the art of keeping house, which if learned with a similar discipline and resolve, brings great pleasure to those who are beloved.  I think my own spiritual walk has been akin to this. I have only a little to offer, and nothing God needs. Yet from this recognition of want, of neediness, I am learning to be teachable, and He is transforming my surrender from want into the glorious abundance of Life, not life, but far more than we could even imagine, the banqueting table of Love Manifest. Life Abundant. A Feast.

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