Enthusiasts in the Wild 1: THE MENU
Updated: Dec 30, 2022
(image by Joris Hoefnagel)
With family hence babysitters around for the holidays, my wife and I were free to do something which was once an ordinary and now a rare treat — go to a movie and dinner. We saw The Menu, which I absolutely loved for the first Act before settling into just very much liking. I taught Dante's Inferno a while back and searched long and hard without success for a decent film adaptation or analogue. The Menu fits the bill perfectly.
It also contains a perfect example of a version of the Enthusiast: a being (to borrow language from Angus Fletcher's Allegory) “driven by some hidden, private force,” lacking “control [of] his own destiny, but appear[ing] to be controlled by some foreign force, something outside the sphere of his own ego.” Fletcher named this sort of being a daemon and identified it as playing a crucial role in allegory. One might interpret Spenser’s Faerie Queene, for instance, as a parade of daemons — beings with some sort of physical embodiment but who are animated by their peculiar idées fixes, whether Justice, Chastity, Despair, or whatever else. The Enthusiast differs from the daemon in that it purports to be a description of a really existing sort of person — not an allegorical character, but a type one might find anywhere. No less than the allegorical daemon, though, Enthusiasts derive everything from their abstract fixations. They live to do just one thing — whether pray and prophesy (the problematic sort of Enthusiast which my book focuses on) or witness the Detroit Lions win the Super Bowl (the sort of Enthusiast my father is).
(I guess what follows might count as spoilers.)
The perfect Enthusiast in The Menu, is, of course, Tyler (played by Nicholas Hoult), a foodie who willingly agrees to die for a mind-blowing tasting (and brings a hired companion to die with him as otherwise he would have lost his reservation). A willingness to die (and incidentally to kill) for an ideal is not enough to make one an Enthusiast these days. At least, not a Bourgeois Enthusiast. Willingness to die must find, rather, an ideal which is not generally recognized as worthy of death. Not one’s family. Not one’s home. Not one’s sense of justice. Something aesthetic. Something mundane. Something comforting and nostalgic. Something silly. Something a little bit self-consciously absurd. Perhaps the Detroit Lions. Or (like Rick of Rick and Morty) McDonald’s Szechuan Sauce. Or a scallop on a rock seasoned with barely frozen sea water and complemented with foraged aquatic greens.
This is also what makes the Enthusiast now feel so near yet far from the Enthusiast in the period I spend most of my time thinking about. Then, the two linked axes of enthusiasm were religion and politics. Enthusiasts were, on one hand, Quakers who refused to defer to gentlefolk, and on the other, military messiahs like Oliver Cromwell and Napoleon Bonaparte. Both sorts have their current analogues. Meanwhile the sort of character who emerged from the long-successful sublimation of the concept, the Enthusiast who has redirected enthusiasm into something harmless, eccentric, or (at worst) snobby, trundles along too. The Menu somehow manages to remind one of the cruel, sad, horrific edges of this latter character. The Vulgar Enthusiast would die for an idea. The Bourgeois Enthusiast would die for a tasting. Neither would mind at all if others — if the world — were to die along with them.