Winter 2011–2012

On Why Soup Is So Bad for Diurnal Rhythms

The opposite of art

Sally O’Reilly

This contribution to Cabinet’s “24 Hours” issue was completed in London, United Kingdom, in 23 hours, 23 minutes.

The following is a chapter, written specifically for this project, of Crude, a novel in progress. The story so far:

We are in an alternative reality, where art and critical theory are the dominant cultural forms, taking the place of pop music and sport: symposia on Being Oriented Ontology (BOO) are conducted in stadia overflowing with youths, academics release merchandise, corporeality is suppressed, and the intellect is paramount. An art critic, Ida, has accidentally and very publicly denounced art as a force for evil (it’s a short and simple story involving libido, pride, and other humanist motifs) and decides to retreat as far from art as possible until the media storm passes. She is a bit stumped as to what the opposite of art might be, but a series of happenstances leads her to an underground group of anti-intellectuals called the Terraists, who are waging a fierce campaign for re-corporealization. Through them, Ida learns of the obscure but fascinating substance called “oil” which, it turns out, fuels the entire cultural sphere. In the previous chapter, she has just witnessed her first Terraist campaign rally, escorted by the unremittingly handsome John.

• • •

Fending off a few friendly greetings, inquiries into the source of the high-tenacity rip-stop material of his over-trousers, and other such conversation openers, John steered Ida back up the creep, to the tube station, onto the train, and, eventually, into a winceyette-lined booth in an unpopular pub in a familiar part of town.

“So you people call yourselves Terrorists,” said Ida, raising one eyebrow—the internationally recognized flag of cynicism.

Terraists,” said John patiently. “Terra, as in earth.”

“Ouch,” said Ida, the penny dropping from a height.

“I know, it is a bit punny, but it gets a physical response from people. As we say, better a visible wince than a cerebral flicker. Emotions are so abstracted these days, like soup.”

“Is soup abstract?” asked Ida.

“Certainly. Carrot soup mimetically resembles a carrot only in color.” John was worried by the mainstream diet of soup. Not only is frantic chewing part of the joy of feeding, but widespread and protracted ingestion with minimal effort could derail diurnal cycles. Originally food was partly invented for sustenance, and partly to pass time and to mark it, and so John, in any given day, would scrupulously observe all nine meals: an early breakfast on rising; a second breakfast, in the German tradition, as rumbling recurred around nine; brunch, closely followed by elevensies, or vice versa if you favor Bohr’s algorithm; lunch; tiffin at four, with the focus on small savory sandwiches rather than cake, to avoid a mid-afternoon sugar coma; dinner; supper, and, of course, a final midnight feast to salute the day as it retires. Each meal consists of one, two, or three courses, plus intercourses where appropriate, and the main cycle might be accessorized with any number of subcycles of casual snacking.

“Anyway,” John continued, “it really is time for tiffin—my treat. But you’ll not find any soup on this menu.”

“No soup?” Ida was open-mouthed at the prospect of public mastication.

They both faked menu absorption: John, because he knew exactly what he wanted—bite-sized roast pork groin sandwiches (made from tiny loaves, not simply cut-up normal-sized ones) with mustard—and to mask the fact that he was focusing his peripheral vision on Ida’s heaving chest as she internalized a psycho-physiological struggle; and Ida because she was indeed experiencing something alarming, that is, she was feeling peckish mid-afternoon.

“Time is a physical phenomenon and the prevailing habit of reductive souping poses a serious threat to diurnal momentum,” said John, tucking his chewing gum behind his ear.

“Don’t be ridiculous. Time is a chimera, an intellectual tool by which we perceive events in the universe. It doesn’t have momentum—it’s not going downhill.”

“Ah, Ida, you are wonderfully, exasperatingly theoretical. My palms deliquesce when you utter such impractical rhetoric. Have you never heard of time’s arrow?”

“Of course—it’s a classic play by the ancient thinker Amisimus. It demonstrates how morality is contingent upon causal interpretation,” Ida trotted out. She’d studied Amisimus and found him wanting, although she wasn’t sure what it was that he wanted.

“The classics won’t help us now. I’m talking about the science of time, the fundamental process by which time flows in one direction only.”

“We only perceive it as flowing in a single direction. If there’s one thing that Amisimus tells us, it’s that causality is a matter of perspective,” said Ida.

“And in theoretical physics, too, laws and forces work in both directions, so there’s no time’s arrow in theory. But in practice, in human experience, there is. We can never retrieve this moment, for instance.” John reached across to place his massive hand over hers to press the point home, upsetting the salt as he did so, which they then spent some minutes pitching over each of their shoulders with each hand—surprisingly, there are 256 permutations of this—to blind the devil.

“So you prioritize the sensation of the day passing linearly then? How do you override the contrary theoretical imperative?” asked Ida, once the devil was safely cantering back to Hades to rinse his contacts.

Device used to train undergraduates off solids. A knob at the back sets the bars closer and closer together until finally the head is encased by fine mesh and soup is the only food that can pass through. From Lilliput magazine, ca. 1943.

“With other more particular theories.”

“Rather than general rules? Or do you mean fussier theories? Neither sounds very rigorous.”

“Particular in that it’s down to particles,” said John. “Every object is made of particles which are constantly rearranging themselves, and entropy reflects the number of ways a system can be rearranged without changing the overall appearance and properties of that system. So a crystal is a low-entropy system and a fluid a high one.”

“Ah, am I a high- or a low-entropy system?” asked Ida, fishing for compliments.

“A human being is somewhere between the two, a whisker above the entropic state of an oyster. Anyway, high-entropy systems are more likely, as they’re less specialized, but—and this is the nub—the second law of thermodynamics dictates that the entropy of the universe can never decrease. Everything is gradually transforming from a low-entropic state to a higher one. Everything is steadily devolving from the peculiar to the indistinguishable.”

“And what does this mean in socio-political terms?”

“That no one is so idiosyncratic that they don’t mulch down eventually.”

“That’s a comforting thought,” said Ida. “And where does soup come into it?”

“The problem with soup is that it is already a high-entropy system. Human physiology observes the laws of thermodynamics, breaking down complex foods to less complicated slurry, which helps to keep time moving forwards. You’ve probably noticed that when you try and recall the previous week, the days stretch backwards like bunting, with each meal a fluttering pennant that you can read off like semaphore. Go on, try it…”

Ida didn’t ordinarily discuss food. She feared she might be a closet sensualist, because she secretly did enjoy the moment of ingestion, but she knew she could never express this with so much as a lip smack. To enjoy a drink, on the other hand, was perfectly OK. Alcohol was referred to as “talking water” and was encouraged in excess—the original classical symposia were always well-oiled by alcohol, after all. Ida took a hearty slug of her yard of brandy, converting it efficiently to the metric of her gizzards.

“Just soup, soup, soup, and soup, of course,” she eventually answered after feigning a protracted act of recall by standing on her head for five minutes or so with the aid of her travel cogitation-inflata-cushion.

“Well, give it a bit longer and you could probably come up with the flavors, right? Er, does soup have flavors?”

“I don’t think so. ‘Flavor’ implies synthesis, but soup’s taste is immanent. Anyway, no, I don’t remember what sorts of soup.”

“Well, therein lies my point. I, on the other hand, can tell you that last night I had anglerfish foie gras in hay, Thursday’s dinner was pheasant tartare with sweetbreads dauphinoise, Wednesday’s was a henge of hot sauce–injected spare ribs, Tuesday’s was potted hough, Monday and Sunday’s were both herring lasagna, hot then cold, and last Saturday I dined on goat Wellington. And that’s just the dinners. Anyway, even though I tend to travel backwards through my own memory, the process of digestion greatly contributes to the forward momentum of time’s arrow because it involves the breakdown of these very particular dishes into the generality of shit. And so now maybe you can see how dangerous this faddish eschewal of chewing, this … this … ridiculous denial of viscera is.” John looked gravely accusatory. “You souparians produce such a considerably lower differentiation between entropic states that it could, in just twenty years, cause the stagnation of the day.”

“Listen,” said Ida, swinging her right leg over her high horse, “it’s not like I’m eating spherical soup in a perfect vacuum. Soup can be very visceral. Have you ever cracked an egg in a clear tom yum? It’s a moment of pure biology that can shunt you right into next week. And don’t get me going on the slurping. Have you ever actually heard a canteen of PhD candidates slurping cock-a-leekie?”

John said that he had and that he’d found it moving, but he was lying outrageously.

Read the introduction to the “24 Hours” section here.

Sally O’Reilly is a London-based writer. Her publications include The Body in Contemporary Art (Thames & Hudson, 2009) and her performances include The Last of the Red Wine, a radio sitcom based in the art world (ICA, 2011). She is currently writing a novel, Crude.

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