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Posts Tagged ‘books’

26 APRIL, 2013

Ancient Aphrodisiacs and Anti-Aphrodisiacs


The erotic lives of gladiators, or why pomegranate juice is the opposite of fresh lettuce.

“Self-respect … it’s the secret of good sex,” Susan Sontag wrote in her diary. And yet since time immemorial, humans have engaged in all kinds of practices of questionable dignity as we’ve indulged the mesmerism of our own procreation, from the first ejaculation in the fossil record to the cultural history of judging desire to the seemingly counterintuitive question of how to think more (meaning better) about sex. But beyond mere biology, the history of sex has always been paralleled by a kind of mythology defining our beliefs about eroticism and propelling our compulsion to control copulation in all of its dimensions. That’s precisely what Vicki León explores in The Joy of Sexus: Lust, Love, and Longing in the Ancient World (public library) — a fascinating journey to the intersection of science and superstition, exhuming antiquity’s curious beliefs about and practices of such facets of fornication as medicine and matrimony, bisexuality and gender-bending, adultery and pornography.

Among the most intriguing aspects of ancient love was the desire to control desire — in both directions of the dial — enlisting various alleged aphrodisiacs and anti-aphrodisiacs:

When it came to intimacy readiness, Greek and Roman lovers were perennially inventive. They set store by a wide spectrum of aphrodisiacs, some still in hopeful use today, including raw oysters, the fleshy symbol of the goddess Aphrodite (Venus among the Romans). Aphrodite emerged from the foamy crest of ocean waves, which the Greeks saw as a type of marine semen. … These pioneers on the frontiers of sexual virility wandered far beyond oysters, however. Pomegranate juice from Aphrodite’s favorite tree, mixed with wine, scored high with ancient Egyptians and other males in the Middle East. So did lettuce. Although toxic, mandrake root was an evergreen. So was opium as a wine additive.

Many ardent souls preferred lotions applied directly to the male organ — one provocative but now-mysterious favorite was called “the deadly carrot.” Some approaches, however, such as the honey-pepper mix, the tissue-irritating nettle oil, and the cantharides beetle (Spanish fly), gave painful new meaning to the expression “All fired ready to go.”


Other aids to Venus were added to wine, a social lubricant that provided a one-two punch: among them, gentian and a red-leafed root in the orchid family called satyrion, named for the randy prowess of the mythical satyrs. Roman emperor Tiberius, on the other hand, swore by another exotic tuber called skirret.

As an aphrodisiac, the pomegranate wine cooler had an enthusiastic following around the ancient world.

But that ancient libido had a flipside and often had to be reined in with different concoctions:

Consuming cress, purslane, cannabis seeds, nasturtium flowers, or the ashes of the chaste tree would do the trick. So would that horrific, erection-withering substance, fresh lettuce. In order to maintain sexual vigor, Greek and Roman male diners were careful to combine lettuce with aphrodisiacally active arugula to neutralize it. Or just avoid lettuce like the plague. (On the other hand, lettuce was considered highly lascivious among the Egyptians…)

Mouse dung, applied as a liniment, was a favorite anti-aphrodisiac. So was rue boiled with rose oil and aloes. Drinking wine in which a mullet fish had drowned and sipping male urine in which a lizard had expired both had their loyal adherents.

Nevertheless, taming truly terrific potency required strong measures, like nymphaea, an herb guaranteed to “relax” the phallus for a few days. One writer even boasted that it would “take away desire and even sex dreams for forty days!”

The Joy of Sexus goes on to explore ancient attitudes toward and rites of everything from mystery cults to masturbation to marriage. Complement it with Pixar’s Ancient Book of Sex and Science and the fascinating history of the first sexual revolution.

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25 APRIL, 2013

The Paris Review Origin Story and Their Secret to the Art of the Interview


“Authors are sometimes like tomcats: they distrust all the other toms, but they are kind to kittens.”

Most interviews today tend to fall somewhere on the spectrum between lazy conversation and blatant publicity puffery, the truly exceptional interview a kind of near-lost art. But it wasn’t always so. In the spring of 1953, The Paris Review built from scratch a new paradigm for the art of the interview, which endures as a gold standard sixty years later. In the introductory essay to the 1958 anthology Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, First Series (public library) — which also gave us this fantastic anatomy of the four stages of writing — the inimitable Malcolm Cowley, who edited the collection, recounts the Paris Review origin story and examines the secret of what made their interviews such a timeless echelon of the craft:

Most of the interviewers either have had no serious interest in literature or else have been too serious about themselves. Either they have been reporters with little knowledge of the author’s work and a desire to entrap him into making scandalous remarks about sex, politics, and God, or else they have been ambitious writers trying to display their own sophistication, usually at the expense of the author, and listening chiefly to their own voices.

What makes the Paris Review interviewers and their ethos different, Cowley observes, can be boiled down to two essentials — homework and humility:

The interviewers belong to a new generation that has been called “silent,” though a better word for it would be “waiting” or “listening” or “inquiring.” They have done their assigned reading, they have asked the right questions, or most of them, and have listened carefully to the answers. The authors, more conscious of their craft than authors used to be, have talked about it with an engaging lack of stiffness.

Even more interesting than the question of interview style is that of motive — what prompted George Plimpton and his co-founders to forever change the face — and economics — of literary writing by redefining the art of the interview when they launched The Paris Review in 1953 in what closely resembles contemporary startup culture? Cowley writes:

The new quarterly had been founded by young men lately out of college who were in Europe working on their first novels or books of poems. Their dream of having a magazine of their very own must have been more luminous than their picture of what it should be, yet they did have a picture of sorts. They didn’t want their magazine to be “little” or opinionated (engagé, in the slang of the year) or academic. Instead of printing what were then the obligatory essays on Moby Dick and Henry James’s major phase, they would print stories and poems by new authors and pay for them too, as long as the magazine kept going. They wanted to keep it going for a long time, even if its capital was only a thousand dollars, with no subventions in sight. They dreamed that energy and ingenuity might take the place of missing resources.

George Plimpton party (The Paris Review)

But The Paris Review differed from other literary magazines in one crucial aspect: Its intricate osmosis of art and commerce.

Like [other magazines] it wanted to present material that was new, uncommercial, “making no compromise with public taste,” in the phrase sanctified by The Little Review, but unlike the others it was willing to use commercial devices in getting the material printed and talked about. “Enterprise in the service of art” might have been its motto. The editors compiled a list, running to thousands of names, of Americans living in Paris and sent volunteer salesmen to ring their doorbells. Posters were printed by hundreds and flying squadrons of three went out by night to paste them in likely and unlikely places all over the city. In June 1957 the frayed remnants of one poster were still legible on the ceiling of the lavatory in the Café du Dôme.

And thus the interviews themselves became at first a kind of merchandizing gimmick designed to build circulation — The Paris Review needed big names to hook readers, but couldn’t afford original writing, so the interview offered a welcome loophole of unpaid name-dropping:

“So let’s talk to them,” somebody ventured — it must have been Peter Matthiessen or Harold Humes, since they laid the earliest plans for the Review — and “print what they say.” The idea was discussed with George Plimpton, late of the Harvard Lampoon, who had agreed to be editor. Plimpton was then at King’s College, Cambridge, and he suggested E. M. Forster, an honorary fellow of King’s, as the first author to be interviewed. It was Forster himself who gave a new direction to the series, making it a more thoughtful discussion of the craft of fiction than had at first been planned.

But soon, it became clear that the interview itself held unique allure as its own genre of literary entertainment and The Paris Review team quickly honed its craft down to a science:

Interviewers usually worked in pairs, like FBI agents. Since no recording equipment was available for the early interviews, they both jotted down the answers to their questions at top speed and matched the two versions afterward. With two men writing, the pace could be kept almost at the level of natural conversation. Some of the later interviews … were done with a tape recorder. After two or three sessions the interviewers typed up their material; then it was cut to length, arranged in logical order, and sent to the author for his approval.

The most obvious question, of course, is why some of the era’s most revered literary legends would agree to discuss, in print, the most intimate and profound details of their craft with a duo of recent college graduates. Here, we once again see the human element — that quintessential blend of empathy, sheer goodwill, and indulgent delight in a tickled ego — come into play:

Some of [the authors] disliked the idea of being interviewed but consented anyway, either out of friendship for someone on the Review or because they wanted to help a struggling magazine of the arts, perhaps in memory of their own early struggles to get published. Others … were interested in the creative process and glad to talk about it. Not one of the interviewers had any professional experience in the field, but perhaps their experience and youth were positive advantages. Authors are sometimes like tomcats: they distrust all the other toms, but they are kind to kittens.

Cumulatively, Cowley argues, the interviews painted a powerful portrait of the writer:

In spite of their diversity, what emerges from the interviews is a composite picture of the fiction writer. He has no face, no nationality, no particular background and I say “he” by grammatical convention, since [some] of the authors are women; they all have something in common, some attitude toward life and art, some fund of common experience.

Though The Paris Review has since released all of the archival interviews online, as well as in an irresistible boxed set, Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, First Series is worth a read even if only for Cowley’s lengthy and insightful introductory essay, which explores in over twenty pages such facets of the writing craft as daily routines, motivations, and work ethic.

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24 APRIL, 2013

How Cooking Civilized Us: Michael Pollan on Food as Social Glue and Anti-Corporate Activism


What the four elements have to do with corporate exploitation and the story arc of culinary craft.

In 2006, Michael Pollan penned what became the most important food politics book of the past half-century, which spawned everything from a motion graphics tribute to an exquisite sequel illustrated by Maira Kalman. Now, Pollan returns with Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation (public library) — a powerful manifesto for reclaiming food in a way that liberates us from our reliance on consumer culture while at the same time strengthening our shared sense of belonging and connection. At the heart of his case is the conviction that cooking — as well as understanding the ecosystem which food occupies — is not only one of the most interesting things we do, but also one of the most human.

Intrigued by the disconnect between the dramatic drop of home cooking in the past fifty years and the increased interest that has turned food preparation into a spectator sport elevating professional chefs into celebrity status, Pollan sets out to investigate what he terms “the Cooking Paradox” and emerges with several hypotheses. First, he traces the age-old roots of our culinary voyeurism, lingering over the nostalgic memories of watching his mother cook as he considers the narrative arc of cooking:

In ancient Greece, the word for “cook,” “butcher,” and “priest” was the same — mageiros — and the word shares an etymological root with “magic.” I would watch, rapt, when my mother conjured her most magical dishes, like the tightly wrapped packages of fried chicken Kiev that, when cut open with a sharp knife, liberated a pool of melted butter and an aromatic gust of herbs. But watching an everyday pan of eggs get scrambled was nearly as riveting a spectacle, as the slimy yellow goop suddenly leapt into the form of savory gold nuggets. Even the most ordinary dish follows a satisfying arc of transformation, magically becoming more than the sum of its ordinary parts. And in almost every dish, you can find, besides the culinary ingredients, the ingredients of a story: a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Pollan goes even deeper, down to our very evolutionary underpinnings. While some scientists have pointed to music and maps as the holy grails of civilization, Pollan turns to anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who has argued that cooking is the act with which culture begins, to explain why watching food being made would mesmerize and stir us so profoundly:

According to the “cooking hypothesis,” the advent of cooked food altered the course of human evolution. By providing our forebears with a more energy-dense and easy-to-digest diet, it allowed our brains to grow bigger (brains being notorious energy guzzlers) and our guts to shrink. It seems that raw food takes much more time and energy to chew and digest, which is why other primates our size carry around substantially larger digestive tracts and spend many more of their waking hours chewing— as much as six hours a day.

Cooking, in effect, took part of the work of chewing and digestion and performed it for us outside of the body, using outside sources of energy. Also, since cooking detoxifies many potential sources of food, the new technology cracked open a treasure trove of calories unavailable to other animals. Freed from the necessity of spending our days gathering large quantities of raw food and then chewing (and chewing) it, humans could now devote their time, and their metabolic resources, to other purposes, like creating a culture.

But more than mere physical sustenance, the pivotal role cooking played in our evolution as a species was in providing the social glue that came with shared meal occasions:

Cooking gave us not just the meal but also the occasion: the practice of eating together at an appointed time and place. This was something new under the sun, for the forager of raw food would have likely fed himself on the go and alone, like all the other animals. … But sitting down to common meals, making eye contact, sharing food, and exercising self-restraint all served to civilize us.

Even more than that, Pollan argues, as we grew accustomed to cooked food and our cognitive capacity expanded “at the expense of our digestive capacity,” uncooked food was no longer an option, essentially baking cooking into our very biology. Pollan offers an apt aphoristic analogy:

What Winston Churchill once said of architecture — “First we shape our buildings, and then they shape us” — might also be said of cooking. First we cooked our food, and then our food cooked us.

But since with any dependency comes a dangerous opportunity for exploitation, we have paid for our evolved taste and the rise of industrial cooking — which is where we’re reminded of Pollan’s razor-sharp political awareness:

Corporations cook very differently from how people do (which is why we usually call what they do “food processing” instead of cooking). They tend to use much more sugar, fat, and salt than people cooking for people do; they also deploy novel chemical ingredients seldom found in pantries in order to make their food last longer and look fresher than it really is. So it will come as no surprise that the decline in home cooking closely tracks the rise in obesity and all the chronic diseases linked to diet.


The shared meal is no small thing. It is a foundation of family life, the place where our children learn the art of conversation and acquire the habits of civilization: sharing, listening, taking turns, navigating differences, arguing without offending. What have been called the “cultural contradictions of capitalism” — its tendency to undermine the stabilizing social forms it depends on — are on vivid display today at the modern American dinner table, along with all the brightly colored packages that the food industry has managed to plant there.

And in some grim turn of cosmic irony, this contradiction has permeated our relationship with the natural world from which we evolved, funneling us further and further into a world where simulacra fill in for the real thing:

Our growing distance from any direct, physical engagement with the processes by which the raw stuff of nature gets transformed into a cooked meal is changing our understanding of what food is. Indeed, the idea that food has any connection to nature or human work or imagination is hard to credit when it arrives in a neat package, fully formed. Food becomes just another commodity, an abstraction. And as soon as that happens we become easy prey for corporations selling synthetic versions of the real thing — what I call edible foodlike substances. We end up trying to nourish ourselves on images.

Pollan’s approach to cooking, his remedy to the worrisome disconnect, is guided by the four elements — Fire, Water, Air, and Earth — to each of which a section of the book is dedicated. In fact, he likens cooking to a kind of alchemy that both encompasses and transcends science:

The fact that modern science has dismissed the classical elements, reducing them to still more elemental substances and forces — water to molecules of hydrogen and oxygen; fire to a process of rapid oxidation, etc. — hasn’t really changed our lived experience of nature or the way we imagine it. Science may have replaced the big four with a periodic table of 118 elements, and then reduced each of those to ever-tinier particles, but our senses and our dreams have yet to get the news.

To learn to cook is to put yourself on intimate terms with the laws of physics and chemistry, as well as the facts of biology and microbiology. Yet, beginning with fire, I found that the older, prescientific elements figure largely — hugely, in fact — in apprehending the main transformations that comprise cooking, each in its own way. Each element proposes a different set of techniques for transforming nature, but also a different stance toward the world, a different kind of work, and a different mood.

Though Cooked is essentially a how-to book, it is also very much a kind of systems-thinking blueprint that illuminates the many interrelated processes, technologies, and social forces that propel and permeate food. To understand those is to reclaim an essential kind of knowledge that we’ve all but forsaken:

Nowadays, only a small handful of cooking’s technologies seem within the reach of our competence. This represents not only a loss of knowledge, but a loss of a kind of power, too. And it is entirely possible that, within another generation, cooking a meal from scratch will seem as exotic and ambitious— as “extreme”— as most of us today regard brewing beer or baking a loaf of bread or putting up a crock of sauerkraut.

When that happens — when we no longer have any direct personal knowledge of how these wonderful creations are made — food will have become completely abstracted from its various contexts: from the labor of human hands, from the natural world of plants and animals, from imagination and culture and community. Indeed, food is already well on its way into that ether of abstraction, toward becoming mere fuel or pure image.

Driving this deterioration of essential knowledge, Pollan contends, is the same byproduct of capitalism that Buckminster Fuller admonished against and that cheats us of doing fulfilling work: specialization. He writes:

Specialization is undeniably a powerful social and economic force. And yet it is also debilitating. It breeds helplessness, dependence, and ignorance and, eventually, it undermines any sense of responsibility.

Our society assigns us a tiny number of roles: We’re producers of one thing at work, consumers of a great many other things all the rest of the time, and then, once a year or so, we take on the temporary role of citizen and cast a vote. Virtually all our needs and desires we delegate to specialists of one kind or another — our meals to the food industry, our health to the medical profession, entertainment to Hollywood and the media, mental health to the therapist or the drug company, caring for nature to the environmentalist, political action to the politician, and on and on it goes. Before long it becomes hard to imagine doing much of anything for ourselves — anything, that is, except the work we do “to make a living.”

But besides the point of vulnerability which this learned helplessness creates for corporations to exploit, Pollan argues, the most troublesome problem with this division of labor is how, in disconnecting us from the connectedness of everything, it blinds us to our individual responsibility for the consequences of even our most mundane actions:

Specialization makes it easy to forget about the filth of the coal-fired power plant that is lighting this pristine computer screen, or the backbreaking labor it took to pick the strawberries for my cereal, or the misery of the hog that lived and died so I could enjoy my bacon. Specialization neatly hides our implication in all that is done on our behalf by unknown other specialists half a world away.

Pollan sees cooking as the connective tissue between us and the rest of the ecosystem we inhabit, the vital antidote to this fragmented, compartmentalized inclination of modern life:

Cooking has the power to transform more than plants and animals: It transforms us, too, from mere consumers into producers. Not completely, not all the time, but I have found that even to shift the ratio between these two identities a few degrees toward the side of production yields deep and unexpected satisfactions.

Thus, Cooked is at once a philosophical journey into the depths of that transformation and practical handbook for tilting the ratio back to its natural, satisfying balance.

Public domain images via Flickr Commons

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