My friend Carey and I met yesterday, and we spoke for a while about my little book on sausages. His fond childhood memories of sausages in England prompted him to wonder what we know about the earliest sausages. I mentioned references to blood sausage in Homer, and how modern Linguiça and Longaniza are direct descendants of Roman Lucanian links, which are -- in turn -- descended from older Greek ones.
All rather ordinary factoids.
This morning, that discussion seems to have been about more than encased meats (not that the subject isn’t a juicy one in itself). No, it has something to do with what -- in me, at least -- passes for an intellectual life.
I have always been a voracious and eclectic reader. I’ve consumed thousands of arcane volumes, on subjects as diverse as history of science, anthropology, mythology, physics, geology, archaeology and paleontology, computer science, philosophy and religion. Most of that reading was non-fiction, but my more literary readings generally lean toward the classics. Given a choice between old books and new, I always choose the old.
I only half-kiddingly refer to myself as a dilettante, but a better description would be “serial monomaniac.” Subjects grab hold of me for a while, leading to bouts of obsessive reading. An interest in fly-fishing provokes the consumption of countless entomologies, life-histories of various salmonids, and angling literature from contemporary writers all the way back to Dame Juliana Berners’ A Treatyse of Fysshynge wyth an Angle, with obligatory stops at a couple of editions of Izaac Walton.
A fascination with words leads to etymology, which suggests that Greek and Roman literature might offer some hints, which leads to a prolonged stay among the Loeb Classical Library’s editions, with red-covered Romans and green-covered Greeks of all descriptions.
Herodotus and Thucydides start me wondering about connections between myth, vaguely remembered bits of oral history, and archaeology. I find I must read everything I can about Egypt and the Fertile Crescent. But it’s not enough – I need to examine the earliest ancestors of Homo sapiens sapiens. That requires a look at evolution itself – which carried to its logical extreme passes back though the planet’s history, to cosmology, and ultimately to quantum physics.
I realize there could be a connection between the orbital distances of electrons around the nucleus of atoms and the colors of the perceived world, from pigments and dyes to the spectrum of light itself. The most esoteric scraps of information appear to be directly connected to the seemingly most-obvious aspects of day-to-day life.
The pot of feijoada, bubbling away on the stove contains – scattered among the black beans and linguiça -- the colonial history of Brazil, the discovery of the New World, medical notions of the Renaissance, the Crusades of the Middle Ages, the Islamic fascination with spices, linked via sausages all the way back to Ancient Greece, and via the Homer to memories of Bronze Age conflicts.
Noticing that the ancient gods spoke directly to the heroes at Troy (something they rarely do today), leads to reading a book on the breakdown of the bi-cameral mind. Which leads to a bunch of books on the functioning of the brain (and a host of literary – as in “non-scientific” -- speculations on the nature of thought itself).
Why would these seemingly unrelated subjects hold such fascination? Why follow every lead back to point where there is nowhere to go beyond the axiomatic? Why prefer the raw purity of Aeschylus over the more psychologically-correct Sophocles? Mathematical Bach over Romantic Brahms? Why this constant need to strip away the surface soil, to see what’s buried beneath? Why spend countless hours on Ancestry.com digging into every remote corner of my genealogy? What could possibly be gained through all this effort?
That conversation with Carey suggests an answer of sorts. Sausages may be a savory metaphor for this quest: they are literal links between the past and present, and between all these disparate subjects; and each one is stuffed with tiny scraps of whatnot, fused together into a savory morsel that is something quite different from its ingredients, yet somehow incorporates the attributes of each.
The expeditions through all these subjects do have something in common: they are about the search for an ultimate answer, the First Cause, if you will. While ego obviously initiates our attempts to find our place in the history of the Universe, we are unlikely to find much ego gratification there. It’s all so big and we’re so small. However, it’s oddly comforting to know that even though we occupy such an insignificant portion of that time-space continuum, we simultaneously contain all of it.
Despite the sound of that last sentence, there is nothing mystical about it (‘though I can certainly see how mystics might reach similar conclusions). We each represent a history of everything that came before us, in microcosm, much like a strand of DNA… or a link of sausage.