Gimme some sugar

From a culinary perspective, reducing means more than simply boiling down, removing liquid, thickening a sauce. Chemical changes happen as well. My most significant discovery in 20-some years of cooking concerns onions that have been fried at the lowest possible heat: rather than the sturdy, flexible, translucent bits or ribbons familiar to us from omelets and pizza toppings, slow-fried onions turn to yellow-orange sugar.

This is called caramelization. It represents but one way of making sugar through the reductive process. Homebrewers know two or more other ways of splitting long chains of starch into shorter sugar molecules; all involve the application of fairly precise temperatures for periods of 45 minutes or more. The essential art of brewing lies not in fermentation – even vintners can manage that – but in the various methods of extracting fermentable sugar from starchy grains and other plant parts.

I bring this up to remind myself that reductionism can be a wonderful thing. Usually I focus on its negative aspects, and not without reason – the results are all around us. I was struck yesterday afternoon by the absurdity of an AP story comparing The Passion of the Christ with a remake of Dawn of the Dead based on the wholly arbitrary measure of last weekend’s North American box office ticket sales. (I tried to turn this into a Diogenes post, which I subsequently removed for being out of character.) The humorous, Jesus-versus-flesh-eating-zombies story line irritated me more than it should’ve, setting off a chain of associations with bestseller lists and the hit system that has so distorted the evolution of so-called ‘popular’ music. Several things stick in my craw here: the reduction of value to sales or profit; the fake populism used to disguise elite control and manipulation of tastes and opinions; and most of all the very notion that different things can and should be ranked according to their positions on meaningless continua or axes of our own invention.

This last impulse is the most deeply rooted and difficult to challenge. We invent, for example, the category ‘poetry’ to encompass various distinct and unrelated forms of intensified linguistic expression – everything from light verse to song lyrics to elaborate puns, riddles, metaphysical mazes, transcriptions of dreams, rhythmic narrations, and so on. Having invented the category, the next impulse is to decide which among its various components is best, purest, most representative of the category. Then one must try and rank individual poems or poets according to some scale, be it economic, scholarly or purely personal. But what does it mean to have a favorite poet? Favorite for all seasons and moods, or simply evocative of one’s favorite season and mood? Top ten lists seem fairly harmless as long as they remain light-hearted, purely personal and subject to constant revision, but what makes us so fond of them in the first place?

What is genius? Does it cohere to a creator or to the creation? To say that a work is a thing of genius is to emphasize its uniqueness, its originality – its resistance to comparison with anything else. Originality: never to be confused with novelty (though the hit makers and bestseller listers have long since forgotten the distinction). A unique work, thing or being originates in unrepeatable circumstances. Such particularities of time and place are reflected in the etymology of the word genius, as I mentioned last week. The Latin word refers to the tutelary spirit of a place or person; according to my dictionary, it derives from the verb gignere, to beget.

It may be that an inclination toward hierarchical thinking is in some way innate for humans. No doubt our social structures closely resemble the strictly hierarchical societies of dogs and crows, though the overwhelming power of culture in determining the shape of human societies makes hash of such appeals to biological determinism without the addition of a great number of qualifiers and caveats.

In Nature herself there are no hierarchies. No component of a natural system is trivial; greatness is a trick of perspective, a matter of the eye only. Those of us involved in translating the language of ecology for professional conservationists must be careful to remember that notions of “top-down trophic regulation” must never be reified, however well they seem to capture realities of predation and the way in which the loss of one species can have rippling effects throughout an ecosystem. The top-down arrangement was designed by humans for the convenience of other humans. It is a cognitive crutch made necessary by the inadequacy of human imagination: because “Nature is not only more complex than we know, but more complex than we can know,” as the ecologist Frank Engler is reputed to have said.

Scientists themselves of course remain very aware that their maps and models are provisional and imaginary constructs, valued for their predictive power and their elegance. “Elegance,” to a scientist, seems to include notions of utility and efficiency: Ockham’s razor rules supreme. The great power of reductionism is nowhere more in evidence than in the discoveries of Western science – discoveries that rest upon inventions, but are no less real for that. To pick the most obvious and fundamental example: all of mathematics rests upon unprovable assumptions, such as the convention that dissimilar things have an essence that is in some way comparable, capable of reduction to a cipher. This apple and that apple and the other apple: any one of them is one, their numerical value is interchangeable. Together they are three. What a terrible and impious lie if we take it for the whole truth – but what a useful fiction it is, the sine qua non of all “higher” civilization.

Every abstraction is a reduction, a step away from original wholeness. But is the return necessarily better than the journey outward? The Daoist, dogmatic in his preference for the uncarved block, rejects all flavor – literally. From a diet of unflavored grains the Daoist aspires to subsistence on air alone.

I say, to hell with that! Whole grains aspire not to bread but to beer, just as the caterpillar’s cells say butterfly – regardless of how often its doom may be spelled by killer fungus or ichneumon. So gimme some sugar! And give me the dance from suchness to symbol, from mystery to imagination and back again. The genius is in the dance.

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