Near the climax of Ratatouille, an unsuspecting waiter takes an order from Anton Ego, the harshest food critic in Paris: “Do you know what you’d like this evening, sir?” Ego, voiced by the legendary Peter O’Toole, responds, “Yes, I think I do. After reading a lot of overheated puffery about your new cook, you know what I’m craving? A little perspective. That’s it. I’d like some fresh, clear, well-seasoned perspective. Can you suggest a good wine to go with that?” Waiter: “With what, sir?” Ego: “Perspective. Fresh out, I take it?” The waiter hesitates. Ego: “Very well. Since you’re all out of perspective and no one else seems to have it in this bloody town, I’ll make you a deal; you provide the food, I’ll provide the perspective. Which would go nicely with a bottle of Cheval Blanc 1947.”
Of course, our protagonist Remy serves Ego exactly what he asked for: some fresh, clear, well-seasoned perspective in the form of a modern riff on the titular peasant dish. The ensuing scene, in which Ego is transported into nostalgic bliss, is one of the most surprisingly poignant moments in any film I can remember seeing.
Perspective is what gives us Othello, general relativity, the St. Matthew Passion, and iPhones. But what gives us perspective? I think it’s taste, and sadly we’re in low supply. Cultivating taste is surely one of the most interesting things anyone can do, but when’s the last time you met someone with taste? I don’t mean vague likes and dislikes, half-thoughts, or any form of received wisdom; I mean a clear belief that they are willing to argue passionately about even, perhaps especially, if it’s a completely subjective and pointless matter.
I fear that taste may be passé in the post-ironic age, and I don’t like to think of a world without perspective. We can all be better about cultivating our taste and sharing it unapologetically. Here, then, are ten items of taste, presented in the order in which they came to me. If any of these anger you, write my editor.
- Bernini saw beauty caught in motion like nobody else; his Apollo and Daphne is one of the great human achievements, and his David interests the eye more than Michelangelo’s.
- Hatred and irritation can be real virtues if handled with care. Christopher Hitchens, Kingsley Amis, and Martin Amis are all hilarious, prolific haters.
- South Indian cuisine, particularly from Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, is far superior to North Indian cuisine. It’s a shame that American restaurants, for the most part, serve only the latter.
- Shakespeare should be taught to young children, blue humor and all, but not as if he is writing in another language that needs to be translated, sentence by sentence, into modern English. He should be taught simply as he is, trusting in children’s abilities to understand unique expression if given the space to be wrong. This means no testing.
- A good reader is detailed, imaginative, and quick to a dictionary. A great reader is a good reader who has learned to empathize with the author, not with any of the characters. The business of “favorite characters” is best left to lesser readers. Great readers also go to battle with their books, pen in hand, for they are not conscientious objectors in the war of ideas.
- Classics are much more valuable than any contemporary art. Readers of The New York Times Best Seller lists and listeners of the Top 40 charts resemble nearsighted people who scorn glasses out of vanity. There are only a handful of truly insightful minds from each century, and by definition, most of them are hidden away in the vague genre of “classics”. The percentage of people who have studied the foundational texts of modern civilization is depressingly low.
- Johann Sebastian Bach is the greatest musician to have ever lived, and the importance of his body of work will never be equalled by modern composers. It’s worth learning an instrument, any instrument, just to play his music.
- The conception of atonal music as being more “modern” than tonal music is completely misguided. Case in point: while Schoenberg was writing dodecaphonic quasi-Baroque suites, Stravinsky was tonally paving the way for jazz. Who is the conservative and who is the radical?
- Modern literature owes a great debt to Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet, which is a remarkable and under appreciated novel. Its unfinished appendix, the Dictionary of Received Ideas, will have you rethinking everything you have ever said. The novel reads like a compendium, but there is a pure beauty to art which plainly observes without casting judgement or inciting drama; Joyce’s Ulysses also falls into this category.
- Kafka is really funny. He would laugh hysterically while he was writing, not because he was crazy, but because he understood that the only thing to do in the face of life’s absurdities is to laugh. People who describe Kafka as “nightmarish” aren’t paying enough attention to waking life.
Well, that certainly helped to concentrate the mind, if nothing else. Try it for yourself; we can’t afford to be fresh out of perspective.