The Gluttony of DelicacyPosted on 2007.02.03 at 14:07
—Screwtape the Devil, in The Screwtape Letters, by C. S. Lewis
I read these words about seven months ago, and they stuck into my gut like sour milk. The Screwtape Letters had been recommended to me by a friend of sound literary judgment, and one who would normally bristle at reading a book of Christian moral injunctions. This was at a time of transition in my life, after deciding to give up the Victrola ghost and before moving to New York. It seemed an appropriate time to be reading books of life advice by dead British writers. Of course, in this case, all of the advice is in photo-negative, since it takes the form of a devil's instructions on how to lead humans into a deadened, soul-sucking, constricted existence.
In the above quote, Screwtape is talking about the sin of gluttony. He notes that just as insidious to the human spirit as "gluttony of Excess" is something he calls "gluttony of Delicacy." This formulation sliced right through my ego's armor of shiny self-regard. How guilty it makes me feel! Working the line at Victrola, on some particularly bad days, I had all manner of contempt for people who ordered large drinks, laden with sugars and syrups and all. "O, verily, they respect not my art. Angels must be shuddering to witness such brutishness."
Thanks to the grace of others I was able to snap out of this way of thinking more often than not, but it was a consistent theme nevertheless, and a psychic poison. There's a reason so many people distrust wine snobs despite how lovely wine can be: some wine experts give off palpable waves of evil. Steering clear of wine altogether doesn't seem like such a bad idea.
The substance of Screwtape's critique of gluttony is this: insofar as Delicacy leads me into "querulousness, impatience, uncharitableness, and self regard," it is my heart's enemy. But here I have made a lifestyle and indeed a living out of having as acutely refined judgment of coffee as I can. Deconstructing espresso and cupping coffees and measuring one technique against another — all this is almost a charicature of snobbishness. What to do?
There are three ways out:
Way the First: Quit Drinking Coffee ... I'm not going to do this. Not only is it cruel and unusual punishment, but it wouldn't even really solve the problem. These kinds of psychic issues are infinitely transposable. If one is a jerk, any given form of jerkishness works as well as the next.
Way the Second: Become Uncritical ... I think I could actually do this, and not in a disingenuous way, either. If I go long enough without a certain delicacy, I begin to forget why it's so great. I think, actually, that more gourmands than would care to admit are like this. It's much more forceful to claim that you categorically will not stomach x,y, or z. But all preference is acquired, and if you are starving to death you will no longer find mayonnaise so objectionable. On a less dramatic level, perhaps I could learn to stop having a preference for fine coffee... but then I don't want to.
Way the Third: Cultivate Joy The obvious answer: be happy about great coffee. Relish it! Go easy on the sub-par stuff, and be in love with the great stuff. To people of agreeable disposition, this will seem ridiculously simple. But for whatever reason I have a sour streak in me somewhere. Some days I just feel magical and nothing but positive vibes emanate from my pores; but on other days, I have black wishes for all (and really, who is not like this?). What I have come to believe, however, is that one need not surrender to this dichotomy. It is possible to cultivate one's joy through focus and repetition and thought. And this is what I choose for my life in coffee. No dopey lack of analysis; no self-denying abstinence; only humble happiness at what tastes good and what is interesting. The devil of Delicacy ¬— any sort of devil at all — has no power if I don't arm him.
Anyway... enough philosophy for one day. We all know philosophers never get anything done ... or do they?
(“The Greeks are going mad! Socrates has scored on a beautiful cross from Archimedes. … The Germans are disputing it. Hegel is arguing that the reality is merely an a priori adjunct of non-analytic ethics. Kant, via the categorical imperative, is holding that ontologically it exists only in the imagination. And Marx is claiming he was offsides.”)