The other day I ate a trussed guinea fowl in a white wine reduction that tasted like refuse. This morning my eggs benedict disintegrated like ash in my mouth. Even now, as I write, this apple I allow myself (there’s no refusing the body) I know will taste no different from the paper I write on. It will taste, at best, like the word apple.
What can I say about such food as this? I’m paid to do just that, to consume food and produce words, an act of regurgitation. This is the fundamental law of my profession, that what goes in must come out—somehow. But how can I possibly speak, by what miracle could this flesh be made word, when I tasted no more than words in the first place?
My condition is now so advanced that I have had to devise a game of chance for the writing of my reviews. I still go through the formality of eating, this is unavoidable, and the body has its demands, but when I am done, having consumed what I do not doubt to be competently prepared cuisine that nonetheless descends the gullet void of all flavor, I must flip a coin. I do not wish to punish anyone but myself for my condition, and it is only propriety that requires that some reviews come out positive and some negative. The rest is wordplay. There are no longer flavors I can describe from experience; I sit with the thesaurus and compose with apathy. Chefs I spurn often allege that I could not possibly have been describing—must never have even tasted—their craft. They are exactly correct.
The symptoms, at their onset, were minor enough. Though one cannot pinpoint the beginnings of such a malady, I believe I first noticed its effect over a meal of chicken parmigiana. It was not that it was in any way an average or unappealing preparation, though I recall thinking to myself that I tasted only chicken parmigiana, not the one in front of me, but all of them I had ever eaten; I tasted only the difference between this one and all the others, and in so doing tasted nothing. At that time, the least variation or subtlety could rescue me from this literal indifference: a pesto of rosemary, a taro root in place of a potato, the slightest novelty. As the disease progressed my tastes grew more perverse, only satiable by strange conglomerations—a spaghetti carbonara doused in curry spices, butternut squash soup with a dollop of mint ice cream, all eaten behind closed doors, suffered in secret.
It was not long before even these deviations could offer no relief. I soon stopped tasting the dish presented to me, and instead experienced only genre distinctions. Asian cuisine. French cuisine. The endless miscegenations of fusion cooking were no escape; they only mocked my fallen palate. Beyond this, there came a time when I tasted only the meal—breakfast, lunch, dinner. Then I was reduced to kingdom—Animalia, Plantae, Fungi. Ultimately, I settled at the stage where distinction could collapse no further, experience having become completely grey. Homogeneous. I now taste only food.
I can’t help thinking that if I had never made it my life’s work, had never brought it under the careful scrutiny of my pen, I would never have suffered such a collapse. That perhaps it was only rigorous contemplation and expertise that brought it on, a disease of hyperconsciousness. But there is no use guessing at origins. It is a fact of my existence, and I blame only myself; I desire to punish only myself.
The other night I set my alarm for 4 AM, an hour completely unrecognizable as a mealtime, and with the device still ringing, with a dry throat and a pounding head, I cut a swathe of dirty leather from the sole of an old shoe, garnished it with shavings of steel wool, and worked my gums sore and my throat raw in getting it all down. How did it taste? It tasted like not food—if there was any pleasure in it, it was that. Mostly, it tasted like pain, and pain I deserve.
Perhaps every obsession, every addiction, ends this way. I fear that, were I to abandon this field whose pleasures I have exhausted, I would discover only of new forms of decadence. A sexuality, for example, that grew monstrously paraphilic until it became unrecognizable—a fetish for the supersensible, or suicide, or abstinence. I could deplete each realm of objects until there were left for me only the indistinguishable object, toward which I would experience only an undifferentiated desire. Could I long for something else, askesis, not desire? What is this but another desire? If it cannot be overthrown, neither will it be satisfied; desire demands the impossible, both repetition and novelty, the repetition of novelty.
Still, I could turn to the writing itself. If things have, in a certain sense, forsaken me, will words one day do the same? They might seem to be the culprit of my former loss, and thus some sort of bedrock, preserved from the flight of qualia, perhaps because they have none themselves. But this cannot be. No doubt the search for new subject matter would soon devolve into the yearning for avant-garde innovations of form. What, then, may I hope? One day, perhaps, these would grow unintelligible even to their author, and would be granted the peaceful indifference of remaining unread.
Jonathan Basile is the creator of an online universal library, libraryofbabel.info, as well as a universal image archive. He promises he wrote this the old-fashioned way, though. His fiction writing has been published by Litro and his non-fiction by The Paris Review Daily. He currently lives in Atlanta, where he is a Ph.D. student in Emory’s Comparative Literature program.