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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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William Wordsworth on Pleasure as the Shared Heart of Poetry and Science

“Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge; it is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science.”

“True poetic practice implies a mind so miraculously attuned and illuminated,” wrote Edward Hirsch in his meditation on how to read a poem, “that it can form words, by a chain of more-than coincidences, into a living entity.” “Poetry makes possible the deepest kind of personal possession of the world,” James Dickey asserted in his essay on how to enjoy poetry. And yet it is part of the mesmerism of poetry that the exact mechanism by which it grips the soul remains ever-elusive. But in the preface to the second edition of his 1798 Lyrical Ballads, found in the fantastic 1938 anthology The Harvard Classics: Prefaces and Prologues to Famous Books (public library), celebrated poet William Wordsworth makes an admirable effort to illuminate its mysteries as he considers the nature, purpose, and intricate art of poetry, and its relation to science:

By the foregoing quotation it has been shown that the language of Prose may yet be well adapted to Poetry; and it was previously asserted, that a large portion of the language of every good poem can in no respect differ from that of good Prose. We will go further. It may be safely affirmed, that there neither is, nor can be, any essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition. We are fond of tracing the resemblance between Poetry and Painting, and, accordingly, we call them Sisters: but where shall we find bonds of connexion sufficiently strict to typify the affinity betwixt metrical and prose composition? They both speak by and to the same organs; the bodies in which both of them are clothed may be said to be of the same substance, their affections are kindred, and almost identical, not necessarily differing even in degree; Poetry sheds no tears ’such as Angels weep,’ but natural and human tears; she can boast of no celestial choir that distinguishes her vital juices from those of prose; the same human blood circulates through the veins of them both.

Centuries before the age of sensationalist news media, Wordsworth knew — like E. B. White did when he championed the responsibility of the writer to lift people up rather than lower them down — that poetry shouldn’t conform to the service of sensationalism:

The human mind is capable of being excited without the application of gross and violent stimulants; and he must have a very faint perception of its beauty and dignity who does not know this, and who does not further know, that one being is elevated above another, in proportion as he possesses this capability. It has therefore appeared to me, that to endeavour to produce or enlarge this capability is one of the best services in which, at any period, a Writer can be engaged; but this service, excellent at all times, is especially so at the present day. For a multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and, unfitting it for all voluntary exertion, to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor. The most effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the increasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies. To this tendency of life and manners the literature and theatrical exhibitions of the country have conformed themselves.

Like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who co-authored Lyrical Ballads and who famously asserted that “the mere addition of meter does not in itself entitle a work to the name of poem,” Wordsworth defends poetry against a reduction to mere metrical language:

If it be affirmed that rhyme and metrical arrangement of themselves constitute a distinction which overturns what has just been said on the strict affinity of metrical language with that of prose, and paves the way for other artificial distinctions which the mind voluntarily admits, I answer that the language of such Poetry as is here recommended is, as far as is possible, a selection of the language really spoken by men; that this selection, wherever it is made with true taste and feeling, will of itself form a distinction far greater than would at first be imagined, and will entirely separate the composition from the vulgarity and meanness of ordinary life; and, if metre be superadded thereto, I believe that a dissimilitude will be produced altogether sufficient for the gratification of a rational mind.

He then considers the general subject of what a poet is (in era-characteristic gendered language that excludes some of the greatest poets in history):

He is a man speaking to men: a man, it is true, endowed with more lively sensibility, more enthusiasm and tenderness, who has a greater knowledge of human nature, and a more comprehensive soul, than are supposed to be common among mankind; a man pleased with his own passions and volitions, and who rejoices more than other men in the spirit of life that is in him; delighting to contemplate similar volitions and passions as manifested in the goings-on of the Universe, and habitually impelled to create them where he does not find them. to these qualities he has added a disposition to be affected more than other men by absent things as if they were present; an ability of conjuring up in himself passions, which are indeed far from being the same as those produced by real events, yet (especially in those parts of the general sympathy which are pleasing and delightful) do more nearly resemble the passions produced by real events, than anything which, from the motions of their own minds merely, other men are accustomed to feel in themselves: — whence, and from practice, he has acquired a greater readiness and power in expressing what he thinks and feels, and especially those thoughts and feelings which, by his own choice, or from the structure of his own mind, arise in him without immediate external excitement.

For Wordsworth, poetry is closer to philosophy than to the mere architecture of language, a highest expression of what it means to be human:

Aristotle, I have been told, has said, that Poetry is the most philosophic of all writing: it is so: its object is truth, not individual and local, but general, and operative; not standing upon external testimony, but carried alive into the heart by passion; truth which is its own testimony, which gives competence and confidence to the tribunal to which it appeals, and receives them from the same tribunal. Poetry is the image of man and nature. The obstacles which stand in the way of the fidelity of the Biographer and Historian, and of their consequent utility, are incalculably greater than those which are to be encountered by the Poet who comprehends the dignity of his art. The Poet writes under one restriction only, namely, the necessity of giving immediate pleasure to a human Being possessed of that information which may be expected from him, not as a lawyer, a physician, a mariner, an astronomer, or a natural philosopher, but as a Man. Except this one restriction, there is no object standing between the Poet and the image of things; between this, and the Biographer and Historian, there are a thousand.

And yet, rather than debasing the poet’s art, this purpose of pleasure elevates it through the conduits of sympathy:

It is an acknowledgement of the beauty of the universe, an acknowledgement the more sincere, because not formal, but indirect; it is a task light and easy to him who looks at the world in the spirit of love: further, it is a homage paid to the native and naked dignity of man, to the grand elementary principle of pleasure, by which he knows, and feels, and lives, and moves. We have no sympathy but what is propagated by pleasure: I would not be misunderstood; but wherever we sympathize with pain, it will be found that the sympathy is produced and carried on by subtle combinations with pleasure. We have no knowledge, that is, no general principles drawn from the contemplation of particular facts, but what has been built up by pleasure, and exists in us by pleasure alone.

Much like great science, the consistent pursuit of which develops in the scientist acumen often shorthanded as “intuition,” great poetry acquires underpinning of intuitive convictions:

The Man of science, the Chemist and Mathematician, whatever difficulties and disgusts they may have had to struggle with, know and feel this. However painful may be the objects with which the Anatomist’s knowledge is connected, he feels that his knowledge is pleasure; and where he has no pleasure he has no knowledge. What then does the Poet? He considers man and the objects that surround him as acting and re-acting upon each other, so as to produce an infinite complexity of pain and pleasure; he considers man in his own nature and in his ordinary life as contemplating this with a certain quantity of immediate knowledge, with certain convictions, intuitions, and deductions, which from habit acquire the quality of intuitions; he considers him as looking upon this complex scene of ideas and sensations, and finding everywhere objects that immediately excite in him sympathies which, from the necessities of his nature, are accompanied by an overbalance of enjoyment.

Like young Virginia Woolf, Wordsworth places imitation of nature at the heart of poetic practice — and all science, thus binding the two in a shared sensibility:

To this knowledge which all men carry about with them, and to these sympathies in which, without any other discipline than that of our daily life, we are fitted to take delight, the Poet principally directs his attention. He considers man and nature as essentially adapted to each other, and the mind of man as naturally the mirror of the fairest and most interesting properties of nature. And thus the Poet, prompted by this feeling of pleasure, which accompanies him through the whole course of his studies, converses with general nature, with affections akin to those, which, through labour and length of time, the Man of science has raised up in himself, by conversing with those particular parts of nature which are the objects of his studies. The knowledge both of the Poet and the Man of science is pleasure; but the knowledge of the one cleaves to us as a necessary part of our existence, our natural and unalienable inheritance; the other is a personal and individual acquisition, slow to come to us, and by no habitual and direct sympathy connecting us with our fellow-beings. The Man of science seeks truth as a remote and unknown benefactor; he cherishes and loves it in his solitude: the Poet, singing a song in which all human beings join with him, rejoices in the presence of truth as our visible friend and hourly companion. Poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge; it is the impassioned expression which is in the countenance of all Science. … [The poet] is the rock of defense for human nature; an upholder and preserver, carrying everywhere with him relationship and love. In spite of difference of soil and climate, of language and manners, of laws and customs: in spite of things silently gone out of mind, and things violently destroyed; the Poet binds together by passion and knowledge the vast empire of human society, as it is spread over the whole earth, and over all time.

Wordsworth considers the osmosis by which science and poetry serve each other in serving a common purpose:

Poetry is the first and last of all knowledge — it is as immortal as the heart of man. If the labours of Men of science should ever create any material revolution, direct or indirect, in our condition, and in the impressions which we habitually receive, the Poet will sleep then no more than at present; he will be ready to follow the steps of the Man of science, not only in those general indirect effects, but he will be at his side, carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of the science itself. The remotest discoveries of the Chemist, the Botanist, or Mineralogist, will be as proper objects of the Poet’s art as any upon which it can be employed, if the time should ever come when these things shall be familiar to us, and the relations under which they are contemplated by the followers of these respective sciences shall be manifestly and palpably material to us as enjoying and suffering beings. If the time should ever come when what is now called science, thus familiarized to men, shall be ready to put on, as it were, a form of flesh and blood, the Poet will lend his divine spirit to aid the transfiguration, and will welcome the Being thus produced, as a dear and genuine inmate of the household of man.

And yet, poetic genius, Wordsworth argues, isn’t a unique gift bestowed upon a chosen few but an inherent capacity we all possess in degrees and manifest according to our passions:

Among the qualities there enumerated as principally conducing to form a Poet, is implied nothing differing in kind from other men, but only in degree. The sum of what was said is, that the Poet is chiefly distinguished from other men by a greater promptness to think and feel without immediate external excitement, and a greater power in expressing such thoughts and feelings as are produced in him in that manner. But these passions and thoughts and feelings are the general passions and thoughts and feelings of men. And with what are they connected? Undoubtedly with our moral sentiments and animal sensations, and with the causes which excite these; with the operations of the elements, and the appearances of the visible universe; with storm and sunshine, with the revolutions of the seasons, with cold and heat, with loss of friends and kindred, with injuries and resentments, gratitude and hope, with fear and sorrow. These, and the like, are the sensations and objects which the Poet describes, as they are the sensations of other men, and the objects which interest them. The Poet thinks and feels in the spirit of human passions.

Despite the pivotal role of pleasure and excitement in poetic practice, Wordsworth — unlike Anaïs Nin, who believes emotional excess is the root of all creativity — cautions against excess:

The end of Poetry is to produce excitement in co-existence with an overbalance of pleasure; but, by the supposition, excitement is an unusual and irregular state of the mind; ideas and feelings do not, in that state, succeed each other in accustomed order. If the words, however, by which this excitement is produced be in themselves powerful, or the images and feelings have an undue proportion of pain connected with them, there is some danger that the excitement may be carried beyond its proper bounds. Now the co-presence of something regular, something to which the mind has been accustomed in various moods and in a less excited state, cannot but have great efficacy in tempering and restraining the passion by an intertexture of ordinary feeling, and of feeling not strictly and necessarily connected with the passion. This is unquestionably true; and hence, though the opinion will at first appear paradoxical, from the tendency of metre to divest language, in a certain degree, of its reality, and thus to throw a sort of half-consciousness of unsubstantial existence over the whole composition, there can be little doubt but that more pathetic situations and sentiments, that is, those which have a greater proportion of pain connected with them, may be endured in metrical composition, especially in rhyme, than in prose.

The root of poetry’s pleasure, Wordsworth argues, is the same peculiar alchemy of contrasts that lies at the heart of all art:

If I had undertaken a SYSTEMATIC defense of the theory here maintained, it would have been my duty to develop the various causes upon which the pleasure received from metrical language depends. Among the chief of these causes is to be reckoned a principle which must be well known to those who have made any of the Arts the object of accurate reflection; namely, the pleasure which the mind derives from the perception of similitude in dissimilitude. This principle is the great spring of the activity of our minds, and their chief feeder. From this principle the direction of the sexual appetite, and all the passions connected with it, take their origin: it is the life of our ordinary conversation; and upon the accuracy with which similitude in dissimilitude, and dissimilitude in similitude are perceived, depend our taste and our moral feelings.

Ultimately, however, Wordsworth returns to the channeling and cultivation of pleasure as the poet’s highest responsibility:

Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind. In this mood successful composition generally begins, and in a mood similar to this it is carried on; but the emotion, of whatever kind, and in whatever degree, from various causes, is qualified by various pleasures, so that in describing any passions whatsoever, which are voluntarily described, the mind will, upon the whole, be in a state of enjoyment. If Nature be thus cautious to preserve in a state of enjoyment a being so employed, the Poet ought to profit by the lesson held forth to him, and ought especially to take care, that, whatever passions he communicates to his Reader, those passions, if his Reader’s mind be sound and vigorous, should always be accompanied with an overbalance of pleasure.

Complement with Coleridge on what a poem is and James Dickey on how to enjoy poetry.

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How to Create the Perfect Wife

How an 18th-century bachelor enlisted Rousseau’s teachings in Frankensteining his better-ever half.

In the spring of 1769, twenty-one-year old Thomas Day received a letter informing him that his fiancée was breaking up with him. Margaret, the attractive, cultured, and spirited sister of a friend he had met the summer before, was clearly no match for the awkward, sullen, and serious Day, who had resolved at a young age to live a hermetic life with a devoted wife at his side. Margaret’s ultimate folly wasn’t that she was in every way incompatible with Day, but instead that she had been corrupted by the world by simply living in it.

Women were “universally shallow, fickle, illogical, and untrustworthy.” But Thomas Day wasn’t bitter. He had simply thought he could bend the will of a grown woman into his perfect partner. He would have to experiment with a less fully formed individual. He wrote to a friend:

There is a little Girl of about thirteen upon whose Mind I shall have in my Power to make the above mentioned Experiment … she is innocent, & unprejudic’d; she has seen nothing of the World,& is unattach’d to it.

“Since he had not found the right woman,” writes Wendy Moore in How to Create the Perfect Wife: Britain’s Most Ineligible Bachelor and his Enlightened Quest to Train the Ideal Mate (public library), “the right woman simply did not exist.” Much like Pygmalion, or perhaps even Dr. Frankenstein, Thomas Day would have to create her.

‘Pygmalion and Galatea’ by Jean-Léon Gérôme, c. 1890. In Ovid’s ‘Metamorphosis,’ Venus grants the artist Pygmalion a beautiful wife by bringing his sculpture to life. (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Thomas Day had a plan for his perfect wife: he would train her according to the principles of John-Jacques Rousseau, whose novel Émile outlined a radical new form of education. When they were born, children had previously been blemished with original sin, but Rousseau maintained that a young child was essentially perfect, it was the world that corrupted. “Everything is good as it leaves the hands of the author of things,” he wrote, “everything degenerates in the hands of man.”

In Émile, Rousseau explained that children should learn through play and discovery, not rote memorization, which was the vogue in classrooms of the day (and, sadly, of today to a large degree). They should be encouraged and nurtured, allowed to take part in scientific experiments, but also should experience the harsh elements, such as cold and hunger, to strengthen their character. (Rousseau didn’t care to test his methods on his own flesh and blood: the five children he had out of wedlock with his mistress were sent directly to the orphanage.) In the novel, young Émile is successfully brought up according to these rules, but when he goes in search of his mate, her education has been less well-planned: the perfect wife for Émile was “a simple, artless, country maid”

‘An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump by Joseph Wright of Derby,’ 1768. The children present at this experiment reflect the Enlightenment education promoted by Rousseau. (National Gallery, London)

Day wanted a wife who was a magical joining of the two: the intelligence of Émile, and the unquestioning obedience of a country maid. At twenty-one, after his rebuff by Margaret, Day came into his considerable inheritance and determined that it was time to begin his experiment. He went to the foundling hospital and picked up two girls of eleven and twelve, under the assumption that they would be maids in a friend’s household. He gave them new names, Sabrina and Lucrecia, new clothes, and a new life, sweeping them off to France, where he began their new education.

There he taught the girls reading, writing, and arithmetic, and also had them perform all the household duties of a maid. In less than a year, he determined that Lucrecia was “invincibly stupid” and sent her to apprentice with a milliner, providing her with a generous dowry of £400 (about $96,000 today). The intelligent and obedient Sabrina would be his wife.

Day ramped up his education, beginning trials of endurance that Rousseau had claimed would turn boys into men: Day poured hot wax into Sabrina’s arms; he threw her into a lake, unable to swim; and he fired unloaded pistols at her to accustom her to loud noises. He would also test her “feminine” will by giving her a new dress, the first she ever had, and commanding her to throw it into the fire and watch it burn.

‘Thomas Day,’ by Joseph Wright, 1770. Painted when he was 22 and deeply invested in the upbringing of thirteen-year-old Sabrina as his wife. (National Portrait Gallery, London))

The tests left Sabrina confused, angry, and willful. Her education made little sense, as did her place in Day’s household, where he continued to tell her he was training her as a housekeeper. At fourteen, an age when her “wifely” qualities should have bloomed, Sabrina was no closer to Day’s perfection. Annoyed, he packed her off to boarding school, providing her with an allowance and a dowry, but otherwise discarding her as a failure.

Day would eventually marry a devoted woman that he could order around as he pleased, and Sabrina at twenty-six married one of his close friends. At the age of forty-one, Thomas Day was thrown from his horse and never regained consciousness. A strong believer in animal rights, he had failed to properly break the horse.

How to Create the Perfect Wife is the tale of a modern Pygmalion, whose intentions, however misguided, reflected an extraordinary age of educational reform for children, male and female alike. Writing to a friend about his former fiancée Margaret before he began his lifelong quest to train a wife, he had and uncharacteristic moment of insight that would have served him in his desire for a perfect partner: “I loved an imaginary being.”

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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