Making aesthetic judgements about grape taffy

I have a specific taste and consistency lingering on my tongue: Sticky, vaguely brackish, fructose-esque. It is better than the memory of the grape cough drops I was forced at a young and impressionable age to hold in my mouth to alleviate illness: a cure, in my mind, more distasteful than the malady.

This lingering taste is worse, on the other hand, than the memory of September wine grapes just pulled from the vine, the fullness of their youth ripened to sweet maturity.

To say this, though, is to make some kind of statement about the value of grape saltwater taffy. That’s Ok with me. I’m not a huge fan of saltwater taffy. I don’t feel bad about regulating it to the position of, say, Thomas Kincaid, cotton sweater-vests, Danielle Steele, a box house in the suburbs, or “Wind beneath my wings.”

But I do realize that if I say there are better things than saltwater taffy, than the people who like saltwater taffy can rise up in arms and say: “that’s just your opinion; taffy isn’t REALLY aesthetically worse than actual grapes, just like the people who like it aren’t really aesthetically inferior to you.” Which might be true. Maybe high fructose corn syrup and blue/red food coloring is just as tasty as the thing it’s imitating, in some kind of platonic sense.

C.S. Lewis’ “Experiment in Criticism” is interesting here, because he posits that people don’t actually have “bad” taste. They just like things for different reasons– unaesthetic reasons. They like Kincaid for the emotional appeal; the safe, warm, glowing portrait of house and hearth. They like taffy because it is also cheap and easy; keeps well, stores well, and is sweet and chewy, even more so than the real thing. They like “bad” writing because it acts as a hieroglyphic between page and brain: little thinking required, high on action, high on cliche.

Discussing what is and is not “bad” writing or “bad” aesthetic sense would be an exhaustive subject. Good writing, perhaps, is easier to define; C.S. Lewis suggested the parameters of sound and significance. Maybe the latter of these two is more widely accepted; that a text should mean something seems more or less obvious. The first goes back to aesthetics — yes, those stupid elitist English majors, always wanting things to sound pretty. I recently heard the argument that beauty, in writing, was a waste of time, and prone to be required only by arrogant snots. To put this argument into theoretical terms:

x = x + beauty, if x can function apart from beauty.

i.e. beauty has no bearing on x if it does not add to the efficiency or productivity of x.

But this argument quickly breaks down if applied in other places. If x is, for example, a window in a house, then by this test a view of an industrial processing plant and a view of rioting palm trees would be one and the same, if the window lit the house equally in both instances. If x were food, then you might as well forgo any superfluous taste or texture and stick to three meals a day of boiled beans and boiled spinach on flax seed bread with a side of milk and a vitamin pill. It would make shopping much easier, and it would include all your necessary sustenance. If x were a potential spouse, then, well, the idea that he/she were attractive or not shouldn’t even occur to you. Because he/she would be able to perform all functions necessary to marriage, even if he/she had no nose. Actually, having no nose might help the functions: it would not impede kissing.

However, we do consider beauty in these situations, and, likewise, there is more to language than sheer meaning. Words, after all, are not even really meaning. Words, taken one at a time, are symbols of something else. “Taffy,” T-A-F-F-Y, doesn’t really mean “the state and object of being taffy,” except as a link to this idea. Likewise, the most direct and prosaic language doesn’t equate to direct and prosaic truth. It can be used that way, but an idea couched in perfect cadence and powerful vocabulary will probably evoke more response than putrefying stuff like “the k-ability of Homo Sapiens to construct/formulate/enhance technological implementation.” I am assuming the best approach to try to explain anything is to try to use every tool in one’s grasp to make one’s point.

To resort to well-structured language should not be a strictly aesthetic judgement, though; it should be a judgement of meaning as well. I am assuming it will be. I assume thus not because I am an elitist English major, but because, growing up, having had no English classes whatsoever until the age of 17, I thought this was how writing operated. I read literature, essays, news stories, personal letters, e-mails, poetry, pulp fiction, and tried to write much of the same in that time.

3 thoughts on “Making aesthetic judgements about grape taffy

  1. Mark those to whom beauty is an inconvenience. Their agenda is unwholesome.

    The man that hath no music in himself,
    Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
    Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
    The motions of his spirit are as dull as night
    And his affections dark as Erebus:
    Let no such man be trusted.

    M of Ven, V, I

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