The Weird Chef Theory

This was originally going to be titled “The Chef Makes Shit Theory”, but I decided not to use foul language in the headline.

Let’s say you have a chef. He is a brilliant chef, an absolute genius. He can whip up just about any meal you can think of and turn it into a masterpiece.

And let’s say the chef says, “You know what? I want to make a cake that tastes EXACTLY like the watery shit excreted from people who have diarrhea.”

He works and slaves hour upon hour to create the perfect recipe. He does research. He experiments.

And he does! It took him weeks, but ultimately he made what he intended: A cake that tastes EXACTLY like diarrhea shit, down to the last detail. It is an extraordinary feat of craftmanship.

Now: Should we be praising the chef for this?

If your answer is, “No, because why would anybody want to EAT a cake made of shit?”, here’s a question for you:

Thornton Wilder creates “Our Town”, a play that attempts to recreate the little details and minutiae of small town life. He succeeds perfectly, but as it turns out small town life is boring.

James Joyce decides he is going to recreate the internal monologue of a woman thinking back on her day. He succeeds, but as it turns out it’s virtually unreadable.

Bertholt Brecht decides that he is going to write plays specifically meant to alienate the audience and make them uncomfortable. He succeeds, but as a result audiences are uncomfortable or bored during his plays.

So: If James Joyce, Bertholt Brecht, and Thornton Wilder attempt to create things that are not actually very interesting to read or watch and succeed, what is the difference between them and the chef who makes shit?

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14 Responses to The Weird Chef Theory

  1. S. Edwards says:

    The purpose of a chef is to make food to tantalise the taste-buds. An author to conjure images that cause the reader’s mind to ascend from the lowly depths of ordinary life. A chef who makes shit, or a writer who depicts the boredom of small time life, are neither chefs nor writers. They are hacks.

    • Never, ever, ever see “Our Town”. I just did. I nearly fell asleep.

      (To be fair, I nearly did during “Macbeth” as well, but then Macbeth reaches moments of greatness Thornton Wilder has wet dreams about.)

      • isa015 says:

        then i guess you could say that “Our Town” is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?

  2. Just for fun, not because I care for tedium:

    I think the chef analogy makes the point well, but if you’re asking the question, I’d say that the chef has produced something actually disgusting. And, because he made it as a food, the end product is even more grotesque because it engages the notion of having to eat it.

    Whereas, the authors mentioned (I have not read/seen those works) are engaged in tedium, not debasement. I take discomfort to be different than disgust, in the case of Brecht.

    As they stand alone, I think they’re all interesting experiments and exercises, and maybe there is something for other artists to appreciate in them. (I couldn’t get through “Portrait of the Young Man as an Artist”, which has been recommended as a classic).

    I would say the same for the chef – not a great culinary accomplishment, but certainly a skillful exercise.

    • Whereas, the authors mentioned (I have not read/seen those works) are engaged in tedium, not debasement. I take discomfort to be different than disgust, in the case of Brecht.

      But the whole idea behind the analogy is to get down to the *point* of making food or writing a book or play. Like the weird chef, the authors in question have used their skills to make extremely well-crafted works, but in doing so they’ve created something that fails the primary purpose of writing fiction: To get people to read or watch it, and when they do to have them enjoy it.

      The transcendent is an even higher end.

      • “The transcendent is an even higher end.”

        Completely agree. Maybe that is the complaint, which I would readily agree with, that these authors were not reaching for the transcendent at all. I find stories without the spark to be boring.

        I’m curious though, how you would respond to this. From my passing acquaintance with Joyce, it was almost as if he denied the spark of the transcendent was real. Like he consciously omitted it. (If I’m wrong about him, let’s just say “for the sake of argument”).

        If he takes this stance on principle, but still is driven to write, are you suggesting he will never put out fiction that is worthy of the classification? Couldn’t the scope of the work itself – the thoughts of an ordinary woman – be the message? (i.e. There’s nothing more to life than this?)

        Or, is it transcendent if, 300 years from now, any given woman can still relate to his work?

      • How about this, to make it simple: He wrote something borderline unreadable, on purpose. In my eyes, that makes him the weird chef.

  3. They confuse purpose and effect. A properly done sermon, for instance, should make you uncomfortable. The purpose is to get you to look at yourself and repent. It means to make you a better Christian. A preacher who goes before the church and starts revealing graphic details of his sexual attractions and practices may indeed make them uncomfortable, but it does not intend and cannot have the effect of improving anyone there.

    A play may have the same purpose, if it rings true, it can allow you to see yourself as others see you, to resolve to improve yourself, or at least avoid the obviously bad things you’ve become accustomed to in yourself. This sort of play can make you very uncomfortable indeed. A book may bring realistically into your mind the perspective and understanding of another person, helping you to see them as an alter Christus or at least a fellow human.

    But the effect is secondary to the purpose. When the artist makes the effect the purpose, like Brecht making the audience uncomfortable, or Wilder evoking the triviality of small-town life, and fails to go beyond the effect to the purpose he fails as an artist.

    But Nihilists cannot see it. They believe there is no greater purpose, and they think that Dejeuner sur L’Herbe is great because it creates a clear picture with blurry indistinct brushstrokes and neatly captures the beauty of a spring morning in Paris. They think Hamlet is great because of the masterful use of verse forms and the evocation of personality types we all know..They’ve no sense of propriety vs shame or cowardice vs duty. They can’t see the larger meaning of a work, so they marvel in it’s execution.

    • Danby – I like how you’ve laid it out as purpose and effect. That rings true with me.

      Your progression to nihilism is also interesting, and an angle I have not thought about. I find nihilism in general to be useful in thought, like the number zero. I think it also explains, both large and small, some of the things I’ve observed.

      What especially strikes me is how even the religious fall into this (they who should be opposed to nihilism). I notice it in myself, at any rate: There are times when I reflect on my beliefs, and I realize they’re just ideas in my head, effectively. Think of the big one: How often do I really approach any given day, any given moment, as though God – the totality of God, all that a man could ever understand about God – were real?

      I don’t think it’s just that it’s hard to hold such a thought in your head and still eat soup properly. I think it’s also that the fruits of reason have been reduced to ephemera. (In fact, when I really am conscious of God, and not simply my thought of God, I really am awed).

      Not meaning to threadjack, though. I think Malcolm’s OP is actually a great indication of where the culture is at large, and corresponds with my experience of it – as you say, we’re awed by the execution. It’s all efficient cause, and no final cause.

  4. Ilíon says:

    Thornton Wilder creates “Our Town”, a play that attempts to recreate the little details and minutiae of small town life. He succeeds perfectly, but as it turns out small town life is boring.

    You know, it’s not that “small town life” is boring (or trivial) … it’s that most people are boring (and way too wrapped up in trivia as a means to hide from themselves the smallness of their lives).

    So, how can it be that Thornton Wilder succeeds perfectly recreating the little details and minutiae of small town life and thereby shows us that it turns out small town life is boring?

    As the saying puts it: no matter where you go, there you are.

    • More like, it’s only interesting to the people living there.

      Like Tolkien said, we all love to watch conflict. We just don’t want to live it.

      Grover’s Corners (the town) seemed like a perfectly nice place, and I’m sure I’d have been happy there, but man was showing normal life there dull.

  5. Eh, I liked Our Town more than you did. I think it’s the exception from those you’ve listed.

    How do you respond to the “as long as it makes you think & feel” and “as long as it’s provocative” defenses art? Usually these are given to pieces of works that belong to Picasso and many art-house/foreign/indie movies (think movies that show up to Sundance and Cannes film festival).

    • I’d respond that they’re not really arguments. If Ulysses makes me think, but only because I’m trying to figure out what the Hell Joyce is trying to get across, he’s still missing the point of writing, both the lower and higher end.

      That’s not to say that being difficult to read is bad, just that writing something that’s intentionally meant to be near-incomprehensible (like Joyce’s stream of consciousness) may be good craftmanship but, as Danby said, confuses process with result.

      (I actually like Picasso. I just think his work looks cool.)

      “As long as its provocative” is just dumb, and it’s what the original point was meant to respond to anyway.

      (And, ugh, “Our Town”. Dull, dull, dull, not to mention depressing. But hey, apparently a lot of people do like it. Maybe it’s me?)

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