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Al’s Existential Breakfast

Stuart Hanscomb on fry-ups and Nausea.

In the discussion after his presentation of Existentialism and Humanism, Jean-Paul Sartre said that the idea of existential anxiety does not extend to the choice between a millefeuille and a chocolate éclair, but he might have thought differently if he’d ever eaten a full English breakfast.

I’ll explain.

Last Friday I returned to my East End home after an away bender on the other side of town. I was dreaming I’d been turned into a gigantic bed-bug, but the reality was worse. A hangover of terminal proportions, still fullyclothed, under some filthy fag-burnt blanket … My friend and his mates aren’t down and outs – they’re not even students – but they’ve not got the message. The fridge was as empty as my stomach, my stomach as empty as the house. They all had jobs to go to so there was no one about, and as I don’t work on Fridays – in fact I’m not sure why I work at all since my ‘bonus ball’ came up – all I had to do with my morning was to find breakfast. That meant, first, getting out of there, and second, either seeking it in a Cricklewood Broadway greasy spoon or going home and cooking it for myself.

I chose home, not because of the state of Broadway cafés, but because I took a wrong turn out of their back street and ended up at the tube station minus the will to walk any further. (So I didn’t really choose it at all, but whatever.) Back in my neighbourhood, looking like nothing other than a person who’d passed out seven hours earlier after six pints of XB and half a bottle of whiskey, I staggered down the high road and into the supermarket to buy breakfast.

On the tube I’d carefully constructed a list; carefully because if I didn’t let detailed images of a fry-up enter my consciousness slowly I’d risk letting their viscosity render me ill over other passengers. I dropped a handful of button mushrooms into what looked appropriately like an aeroplane sick-bag (and pocketed another just in case), gathered up tomatoes and sausages and headed for the till.

‘Linda’ waved my goods over her scanner dismissively and chucked them down a metal slope into a pile of bags. I gave her bedroom eyes, just out of habit, without irony, then paid with an AMEX Gold Card to piss her off. Back on the street I nearly fell over a stray dog with its head down in a MacDonald’s carton.

Now at my home, two streets away, my kitchen came equipped with bread, bacon, eggs and tea. Without taking off my coat I slapped the kettle on for a warm-up cuppa and ignited the grill. In went the sausages. I took off my coat and my shoes, pulled on my slippers and started to feel more myself. A hungry self, a self who then flicked a dollop of butter into the frying pan, turned on the gas and wondered if he might be able to cook the bacon and sausages before a fat fire started in the grill pan. I crossed my fingers and removed a greasy Jarvis Cocker bang from my forehead. As I looked up I caught the gaze of a brown and white cow from an old poster above the oven.

By the time the kettle had boiled I was absorbed in the task of pulling the stalks out of the mushrooms and cutting the tomatoes in two. Tea was in the pot, milk and sugar in the mug, the mushrooms were sizzling in the hot butter. I found the bread and placed two slices in the toaster, poised like sinners about to be lightly browned in Hell. It was not yet their time though. Onto the grill went bacon and I turned the sausages. I poured the tea, took a few sips, and paused. First thing to enter my mouth today. How was I responding? Well, it seemed.

Like two clowns drowning in an oil slick the tomatoes entered the pan and through the gathering smoke gastronomic beat poetry was being written. I drank more tea and turned on the radio – Woman’s Hour, an on-air punch up between a Chilean liberal and General Pinochet’s mother was promised, followed by something about leaves – could this get any better? The mushrooms were nearly done. I flipped them onto their rounded backs, played with the red noses briefly, bent down and turned the meat on the grill. The fat spat and exploded and the sausage skins had split and it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. The bacon curled its assent, my oven hot and happy. I was tempted to climb inside but just in time remembered the state of play up above. I spatulared the mushrooms and the tomatoes onto a shining plate – cobalt blue – and put them on the shelf under the grill. I fetched the eggs and cracked two – one unsuccessfully, but I wasn’t going to let that spoil things – into the buttery pan. Then the toast was released from purgatory into its private inferno, and aside from supervision of the sausages and bacon my job was about done. Only the unmitigated pleasure of consumption now. Or so I thought.

I poured more tea, and five minutes later the toast was spread thinly and cut into four half-slice triangles. I arranged them so that my plate had hair and a goatee, but that was all it was getting. This was no portrait, it was a full English breakfast. You don’t play with food like some noncy super-chef at the best of times, but making faces with bacon and eggs is like dressing Ernest Hemingway up like Santa Claus, sitting on his knee and asking for Hungry Hippos for Christmas.

So there I was – toast, two free-range eggs, four rashers of rindless back bacon, two pork sausages (with herbs), four halves of non-GM tomato and a pile of butter-boat mushrooms. I carried my plate confidently across to the kitchen table, happy, engulfed, at home.

Not for long.

Things started okay. I sliced some egg white, cut into a bisected sausage, added some bacon and a mushroom to my burgeoning fork and shoved the whole lot in my mouth. It was better than sex, there was no creeping sickness … I’ll try that again. It was better than sex. There was no creeping sickness, just a glorious coincidence between my meal, my taste buds, my stomach and my rapidly transcending ego.

This is how it stayed until my plate was three-quarters empty, but then, for no apparent reason, I began to feel uneasy. Not queasy, not nervous or afraid, but a mild ontological unhinging. I sat staring at the plate. On it, still warm, was a golden yolk surrounded by a thin, ragged coastline of white, half a sausage, one and a half rashers of bacon, a half of tomato – a tomata-noemata, a tomatumcogitatum (a what?) – three mushroom and half a slice of toast. An unseen, unfamiliar pressure was mounting. I became aware that I had to get all this down my neck in such a way that, via balanced mouthfuls, I was left with two final and perfect fork sculptures composed of toast, half a haemorrhaging but intact yolk, and at least one from both the sausage/bacon and mushroom/tomato pairings. In the past I must have worked my way towards this finale by way of a self-correcting, phenomenologically seamless series of subintentions – as content and oblivious as a cow – but now my perception was saturated by the task. I was beginning to splutter.

I froze, my noetic compass spinning. Options filled my mind, permutations jammed together so tight I couldn’t manoeuvre between them. A kaleidoscope of yellows, pinks, reds, blues. Blues? Jesus Christ! The plate was closing in, threatening to engulf my nutrients if I didn’t act. But act for what? Act why? Act how? The glaze was starting to ooze like mercury, poisoning my food, violating my table and invalidating my world. Ground and figure merged in a Blitzkrieg of objects that were no longer lifeless but had become an army of rampaging rashers, sadistic sausages and killer tomatoes. Entropic egg-whites came crashing through my collapsing consciousness on a tidal wave of noumenous butter. De trop toast soldiers in mushroom landing craft stood ready to administer the final blow to my phenomenal field as I backed away, eyes wide, slack-jawed in schizoid retreat.

It was then, through this undulating chaos, that I spotted a rivulet of yolk running from under the remains of the remaining egg. Shit! Jesus! This was an outrage. What demon was responsible for this? What speck of rind or ceramic blip has eroded the soft underbelly of this innocent free range? This was not in the script, not in my bloody script! It’s what saved my buckling world though. This egg was my saviour; its yellow blood spilled so that I could stay sane. My anger and my indignation redrew the boundaries. I cared. This leakage was unsatisfactory. This, indeed, was why God had to expel the lovers from Eden. Theirs was nausea without limit – a bottomless psychotic whirlpool that made their maker dizzy and embarrassed – so he gave them injustice instead and ever since it has kept us banging at the gates, protesting our innocence, not knowing that only our protest keeps us alive. Behind the highest hedgerow God gives a Gallic shrug – there’s nothing he can do.

My preconscious mechanisms were back at work, my plate a frame again, round, inert, unnoticed. Whilst I fumed, they shovelled and chewed and heroically stemmed the flow with toast and sausage. By the time I caught up with myself I was piling appropriately sized pieces up my totem-pole fork ready for the penultimate mouthful. The egg was flaccid and deflated but had just enough left in it to perform its lubricating function. The final grouping – a lean square of bacon, the final mushroom and some eggy toast disappeared with only a hint of dissonance. I pushed back my plate and leant back in my chair sweating.

Often overlooked in Sartre’s philosophy (even by Sartre) is the fact that anxiety reveals contingency as well as responsibility and selfhood – that by revealing the nothing of freedom it also reveals the nothing that supports all values and categories and thus beckons to the thin end of nausea’s wedge. Anxiety can cripple as well as empower, and for a terrible few minutes that morning the wedge had thickened.

Was Sartre in bad faith when he wrote Existentialism and Humanism? I wondered later that morning, trying to decide between a shower and a bath. Where was the dark power of Nausea and Being and Nothingness? Why hadn’t he confronted the anxiety and nausea latent in all decisions including that between a millefeuille and a chocolate éclair? But maybe he had. Maybe that address was given with fortitude against the background hum of absurdity that was the result of just such an experience? And maybe if at a crucial point in his life he’d breakfasted English style his sanity wouldn’t have survived to say what he did.

© Stuart Hanscomb 2000

Stuart Hanscomb is a part-time lecturer in philosophy at the University of Durham and teaches evening classes in philosophy and psychology in London at City University and the City Lit. He has never won the lottery.

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