Book Review: Strange Gourmets: Sophistication, Theory and the Novel

 

Joseph Litvak’s Strange Gourmets: Sophistication, Theory and the Novel looks to relay the true value of sophistication, and reconstruct the bridge between the class distinctions of sophistication and sexual politics. The definition of sophistication has changed throughout the years with the constant metamorphosis of cultural structures.  Sophistication is taken out of its current context of engendering “worldliness,” and re-framed to show how it originally was taken: as a sort of perversion. Throughout the book, Litvak provides a close reading of two of Jane Austen’s novels, Vanity Fair, In Search of Lost Time, and both Adorno and Barthes in relation to Litvak’s conception of this new (and old) definition of sophistication. The problem with this book is that it gets caught in defining its own criticism throughout the pages. If his angle of argument was more properly defined in the introduction (or his passage on the cultural critics was placed earlier), it would have allowed the reader to better focus on and understand his critique of the content.

First, along with his re-framing of sophistication comes Litvak’s obsession with the mouth as an organ because of its association with consumption. This is because when sophistication is paired with taste (and the mouth), it involves what Litvak calls “the consumption of edible bodies” (9). To dispel the association of taste and consumption with appetite, Litvak employs Barthes’ critique of taste belonging to the order of desire.  In creating this association, sophistication is not only related to taste, consumption and desire, but with pleasure as well because of the mouth’s function as a sexual organ. This is how the idea of sophistication seeps into sexuality and eventually into class distinctions. The interesting argument comes from a more critical Proustian angle, where Litvak suggests that a better example can be set my retaining expensive tastes rather than repudiating them (18). By retaining it, the introspection by readers and critics can prove to be of extreme value rather than an echo chamber of outside critique taking hold of the discussion.

In lieu of this critique, Austen’s novels become an excellent place to start, due to the importance of any sort of blemish on the sophistry of the characters involved. The critique first centers around the plots of her marriage tale, and how the characters in Pride and Prejudice must deny themselves to operate within the bounds of their sophistication. The appearance of any sort of filth in Austen’s story becomes a beacon of information that calls for the deconstruction of sophistication. For example, Litvak uses Elizabeth’s dirty petticoat when she shows up to visit her sister Jane and her reaction to call for a halt to the immediate sanitization of Elizabeth because of what can be learned about sophistication from the altercation. He also uses Northanger Abbey to exemplify class politics and sophistication, where characters are always in flux due to blurred class cultural constructs in relation to sophistication (37). Sophistication then provides this constant unknown, and an act to try to fulfill the requirements it posits.

Litvak then turns to Vanity Fair to further discuss sexuality in relation to sophistication. Thackeray’s work tries to exhibit how the idea of sophistication becomes a host to a parasitic relationship to middle class heterosexual masculinity (56). Thackeray’s satire opens the floor to adding a proto-homosexual element, as Litvak puts it, by critiquing the hetromasculine bouts between characters in his work. After this, the last of the novels features Proust’s volume, The Guermantes Way and how it dives into the waste associated with aristocratic sophistication. By doing so, it reveals how Proust was accustomed to a diet that “prevented his palate from becoming ‘sophisticated’ in the best… adult way” (94). Litvak argues that by rejecting the sophistry, Proust is in fact sophisticated because he is able to analyze the implications of the aristocratic discourse and tastes of the bourgeoisie, all while being distanced from the sexual discourse due to his removal from it. Proust’s appetite, so to speak, is rather focused on waste instead of the “plenty” of the sophisticated class and how waste isn’t what it’s intended to be.

Lastly, Litvak finishes his last course serving sophistication with Adorno and Barthes. However, other critics of this book (Kelleher, Monk) are correct regarding the placement of this chapter because it looks to support Litvak’s argument, and would’ve much rather benefited by being placed after the introduction. The passage stems from the relationship that Adorno and Barthes have with mass culture, and how they’ve re-entered study in the 90s when this book was written, and how they pose a sort of “naivete without innocence” (121). In the observation of Barthes, Litvak shows the digestibility of cultural norms from a generation past, and how easy they can supplant themselves in the current generation. For Adorno, it’s how the outsiders weave through and negate the cultural industry by bending the presupposed norms (135). However, Livtak’s dessert should’ve shifted to his appetizer. His critique is very compelling, but his structure could prove to almost be a bit too within the bounds of sophistication for the average reader.

 

Works Cited

Litvak, Joseph. Strange Gourmets: Sophistication, Theory, and the Novel. Durham: Duke UP, 1997. Print.

 

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