Do you know why the caged tire man sings? Probably because we keep poking his rubber fat rolls. But why does he sing for his supper? Because he must, because we all must. And what does he sing for?
Well, often for the Japanese. Japan was a place where the Tire Man food guide found a lot of traction. Why? Because the Japanese, like the French, found a lot of success in the technique and artistry of food. The presentation and the experience of food was given a lot of focus. In the Japanese, the French had found a kind of kindred spirit. And what they had in common was a very important thing.
What is high and low cuisine? High cuisine is defined not just by its deliciousness, but about the care of preparation, the quality of ingredients, the presentation, and especially the technique. While many 3 stars exist in the realm of novelty and experimentation (the chefs have ascended to the food equivalent of modernist composition – is molecular gastronomy not akin to atonality?), the far more common 2 and 1 stars are almost always very delicious. But deliciousness itself does not make something high cuisine. The aforementioned elements of high cuisine combine into one thing: the pursuit of a perfected dish. It is not only dumplings or whatever, but the attempt to create dumplings with such art that they are really what they ought to be. By contrast, low cuisine is cheap, mass produced, and delicious. Fast food is delicious, but in a crude way. Hearty peasant foods are delicious, but able to made by an ordinary, non-professional chef household with commonplace tools – they do not emphasize strange and exacting techniques. Stewing and roasting are popular – cheap on attention, even if they can take a long time. Between high and low cuisine is middle cuisine, which is often not delicious but is a statement of fanciness – you go to show that you are a person who can go to fancy restaurants.
Of course it was always a fit for Japanese culture. Japan is a culture of monomania – it’s not just the katana meme. While Japan pretends its claims to fame are all ancient, many are really imported. Oh, you think you know trucks? We’ll take those trucks and make the perfect truck. Oh, you think you know noodles? Those noodles are bullshit. We have made the perfect ramen. This fruit, the grape? Watch this. We will grow a grape the size of a fist, watching the skin every day to make sure it doesn’t split open. Beef? You think you’re a beef eater, Texan Man? Behold my marbling! The case of the peach is instructive. Peaches are not from Japan, but Japan loves its peaches. And Japan has a myth about peaches. But as one normally imagines myths, we have a problem – peaches showed up in Japan in 1875. The peach blossoms were not used to grow real, eaten peaches prior to then. How could real, modern humans invent a myth? I suppose the same way one invents a religion.
While Shinto is fake, what we might call the Shinto ethos is real. That is, objects that are real and physical can deserve worship. And that mastery or perfection can be obtained with physical pursuits. I’m sure you’ve seen things like the “God of Swords” or the “God of Spears” in anime or manga. What the peach man is growing is not a peach, but a Peach. Not an ordinary peach, but the God of Peaches. So of course the God of Peaches can have a myth and dwell in mythology. That is rightly where it belongs. Like the Bronze Age brave, the peach man undergoes a quest to the realm of the divine. Through ritual, the physical passes into the realm of the mythical, much like burning offerings changed them from the meat of men to the meat of the gods. The mythical is a realm of stories, and these stories are true lies about what composes a culture.
To the extent you can invent a religion or a myth, it must be reflecting of the deep nature of a people, such that it can survive the quest to the mythic realm. That is the secret of the Gloranthan hero quest. The safest way is always to reenact the myth as told. But if circumstances dictate, you can introduce novelty to the realm of the gods, and in doing so, hopefully find the answer fitting your own time. However, the novelty must conform to the realm of the gods – what is introduced must reflect the deep nature and essence of a myth, which is the people that produced it, in the same way, or it will be ejected from the Godrealm – painfully.
Consider that a warning for all our would-be right-wing Brahmin.
And what is this mythic realm? It is an imagined place, certainly. But it is also an imagined time. It is a particular imagined time, which becomes the Mythic Age. It is an idealized past from which all things of antiquity must descend. The common mistake is to imagine this Mythic Age is always the Ancient Age, a distant, far-off place beyond human recording. But that is not so. The Mythic Age is deeply tied with the birth of a culture, not the strictures of absolute time and absolute technology.
The birth of a culture, like the death of a culture, is a long, drawn-out thing, and it is hard to draw bright lines. Take, for instance, the long, strange death of Late Antiquity. Rome fell, Rome will fall, and Rome is falling.
“We are born into this time and must bravely follow the path to the destined end. There is no other way. Our duty is to hold on to the lost position, without hope, without rescue, like that Roman soldier whose bones were found in front of a door in Pompeii, who, during the eruption of Vesuvius, died at his post because they forgot to relieve him. That is greatness. That is what it means to be a thoroughbred. The honorable end is the one thing that can not be taken from a man.”Ryan Gosling
An honorable culture, like an honorable man, must seek an honorable end. When did Rome fall? 476? And yet, for a while longer, the lingering energy of the empire and its institutions persisted. The men who felled Rome did not think they were felling Rome. They admired Rome. They wanted to be Rome. When Rome fell, they styled themselves as continuations of such. Successors.
What happened to the legion? The legions started out as free men of property mustered to serve Rome. Marius transformed them into a standing army of career professionals. But as Rome decayed, it proved incapable of paying and upkeeping the classic Marian legions. There was a shift to a two-tiered system. There would be interior legions which more closely resembled the classic legions combined with the limitanei, troops that manned permanent border fortifications and which could quickly muster to confront threats. When Rome fell, the limitanei did not. They stayed at their posts because no one relieved them. When the Merovingian Empire rose, it found willing servants in these final legions. The nature of birth and death can be seen in the evolution of the Merovingian military. Roughly, it had several components: royal retainers (belonging to one or many kings), the retinues of the magnates, the yeoman levy, and the Roman legions. Each of these had different operational ranges. The yeoman levy had to stay close enough to home to return to do farm labor. The magnate retinues had no business but war, but had a magnate master who would not allow them to do tasks disagreeable to them or stray from their control. The legionnaires were professional soldiers but had a home base in the fortification they manned. The royal retainers were highly mobile and well trained, but few in number. The Merovingian army was primarily an infantry army, with 10-30% cavalry. The Merovingian legionnaire was an armored heavy infantryman with a throwing axe or javelin that was used to break or disable an enemy’s shield before closing into melee combat.
What is the life or death of a culture? While a culture lives, it is vital. It self-reproduces and evolves and comes up with new variations. It is, like a living thing, learning and growing older. A dying culture is not the same way. We can see this in the decline and fall of the last Roman legions. Youthful Rome had an inexhaustible supply of manpower, but had not yet found its way – it had not yet invented the legion idea. Marius’s mules were strong, vigorous, and many. As Rome passed through adulthood to enter old age, the legions changed again to this center and border model. But the fall of the Rome, the death of Rome, did not usher in a new form of legion. That is what it means to have a dead culture – despite the radically different world, the legions did not become radically different. Rather, they were conserving a fixed supply of vitality inherited from their dead world which ebbed over time. When Romanness was the living culture, the ability to raise legions was – while not unlimited – certainly not a problem. Strong and willing men could be recruited and *formed into* legions.
When the early Merovingians summoned these legions, they found this still to be the case, and were able to form a few of their own. But while Rome mustered whole armies into being, the Merovingians, despite holding substantially similar territory, could only create a few legions. A living and vital culture has the power to assimilate and absorb. The legions could always reproduce the culture of the legion through their institutions during the time of Rome. During the Merovingian night, the institutions and their military science disappeared – but there was still military tradition. And this tradition was alive enough that it was understood, and being an understood tradition, it could be used to raise more legions. As this vitality waned further, no more legions could be raised. The last reinforcements had arrived in that long, dark night. What legions remained could only reinforce themselves, reproducing themselves. The military traditions still survived, but they were now merely dead tradition. The preservation of fire had become the worship of embers scattered among ashes. The ability to teach military drills and maneuvers had forgotten the purpose and reasoning of such things. You were a legionnaire because your father was a legionnaire and his father before him, going back into a forgotten antiquity. And you would do your duty until one day, the Emperor returned to relieve you. The one thing that could not be taken from you was an honorable death.
The wars continued. Bit by bit, the last Roman legions were chipped away, lines ending before they could renew themselves. And some time in the final decades of the 7th century, the last legion fell, two hundred years after their emperors did. Only in death did duty end.
As the last embers fade, a great relearning must occur. Traditions are a culture’s answers to the great problems of life, and those problems do not go away just because an empire declines and falls. Who now speaks of the Merovingians? Because the Merovingians are only the shade of Rome, rapidly fading away. The traditions are necessary because the problems remain. But the old, dying culture cannot adapt its traditions to meet changing times, and more and more, they fall out of step with a world deeply unlike the world that created them. Meanwhile, the rising culture is confronting the constant problems of life and happening into solutions that work with those problems while reflecting the reality *it* is born into.
This early misty age, when the culture exists but is not aware of itself, is not conscious of itself and what it is, becomes the Mythic Age of the culture. Cultural Antiquity, the age which we consider a thing to have existed since time immemorial, is not a fixed thing, or even a time relative to the present, but refers back to the Mythic Age of the culture. The Romans had their own Mythic Age in the founding of Rome, the kings, and the early Republic, the early Republic becoming the moment of consciousness. What is the British Mythic Age? It begins with Late Antiquity and King Arthur and ends with British self-awareness in either Alfred the Great or William the Conqueror. The mythology of Britain thus hearkens back to an imagined Romano-British age, which has a *fixed chronology*, despite being mythical. You can place the unreal events in a particular time and a particular place. It is the mythic Britain behind the real one, as C.S. Lewis might say. And the Mythic Age and the Mythic place are perhaps not real, but they are a reflection of what should be real, the Britain that Britain imagines it should be. For the French, this Mythic Age is a time spanning from that same Late Antiquity to Charlemagne, when the new culture realizes it is born and that it exists.
When writing new myths, they place themselves into that Mythic Age. Stories set long ago, in a vague past, are set at a particular time, the Mythic Age. It is the symbols of that Mythic Age that confer legitimacy. The scepter is not a universal of rule, but there must be a thing that fills the role of that scepter. For instance, the Dahomey, a gunpowder culture, coming of age in the Early Modern, had a shotgun of state as a symbolic weapon conferring legitimacy. In their primal myths, metallurgy and the forging of iron are very important, developing into themes of duality, reshaping, and a metaphysics of creation. From a real historical viewpoint, it does not make sense to have iron and gunpowder as primal, metaphysical elements when they were created in real history at a real time at a documented place and were not eternal and coexistent with the universe. But from a mythic point of view, there was only one thing the Dahomey could call their god of iron, war, and ur-masculinity: Gun.
What is America’s Mythic Age? The Early Modern period through the Civil War. When do we set our Disney fairy tales? For the most part, they are set in the Early Modern era, the time preceding the American and French Revolutions, but succeeding the Medieval. Like European Gothic civilization before us, Americans struggle, on a folk and gut level, to comprehend a past beyond the Early Modern. When medieval painters painted antiquity, they dressed up the figures in a style familiar to them, and they could do nothing else. To really live and perceive the past beyond that would mean reaching into a time where their culture did not exist, which they cannot recall and which does exist in the scope of their oral and cultural traditions. When Americans imagine the past, everything before our infancy is blobbed together with the events of the Early Modern, becoming one theme park of Pastland, the world of a vague yesterday. When we try to imagine the Medieval, we get not the Medieval, but knights in shining armor (Late Medieval/Early Modern) and regulated grand jousting tournaments (Late Medieval/Early Modern), and to top it all off, we call it… a Renaissance Faire. Nice. America does not remember the world before the New World. The Old World is shrouded in mystery. There are Mythic figures for America from the Colonial Age and the settling of the West and Manifest Destiny, but with the Civil War, we were forced into being one nation. We exited childhood by seeing our parents fucking – traumatic.
So it doesn’t matter if peaches came to Japan in 1876. The peaches have a peach spirit and they’re a part of myth now.
So we return to food, and with that, the safe exotic.
What is the safe exotic? The safe exotic is a thing which is culturally distant that does not transgress the axioms of the culture, thus becoming a boundary limiter between us and the alien them. Whenever the benefits of multiculturalism are brought up, the safe exotic is cited, ignoring the fact that the safe exotic is necessarily of the host culture and not alien. When people say chicken tikki marsala is as British as British gets, they’re right, but they’re also lying, and this is obvious because they cite it as a benefit of multiculturalism and thus the alien. The safe exotic exists in the boundary, the liminal space between us and them. But it cannot be them, because it being them would make it unsafe, would actually end up challenging the assumptions of the host. Honor killing is not the safe exotic, because it transgresses the cultural frame and values of the host culture, despite being another ubiquitous product of mass immigration.
Why did Chinese and Japanese food find wide adoption in America? Because, for America, they are a safe exotic. They are different – but not too different. Not every cuisine takes off in America. Chinese food is a safe exotic. Chinese dishes are a lot like regular American State Fair food – here’s some shit, fry it. Fry it some more. Drown things in oil. Blunt, meaty flavors. Japanese food is an analogue to French food, a relationship the French also acknowledge. It is a safe exotic mirror of French cooking, a traditional style of fancy food for Americans. So in your small town, you will have a fancy European (Italian or French, usually Italian in a small town) restaurant, a diner or burger place, a pizza place, and their safe exotic analogues: a Chinese takeout place and a Japanese (or, more often, an “Asian fusion”/”fusion hibachi”) restaurant. It’s a way of leaving the comfort zone without actually having to confront the alien. In the fictional small town of Twin Peaks (population 5,120.1), you have a Thai-Italian restaurant (fancy, also combines the safe exotic with the local version), a BBQ restaurant, a tavern, and a diner.
The safe exotic doesn’t just apply to food, but the boundary markings of any culture or subculture. Another kind of culture is class culture. Some people assume things which are expensive are things consumed by the rich or high class. This is not the case. UMC people do not buy and wear T-shirts with large Gucci logos, despite their high price tags. That is because that item transgresses their cultural values. Rather, those items are for proles who get rich. The gold-covered, flashy aesthetic is an expression of prole values given a lot of money: that’s why they love Donald Trump. These items constitute the safe exotic for the prole. If you get rich and consume these luxury items, you are not a class traitor because you have not transgressed our cultural values, you have not violated the taboos of working class life. But if you do something far cheaper that goes against prole values, like becoming a blue hair – even if that lifestyle only costs $50k/yr, you’re still a class traitor. Because class is not just an economic condition, or even purely a relation to production, but is the tribe which forms out of those people who have a particular relationship to production and socioeconomic status. There is no necessary material condition that demands high professionals from Wall Street and Silicon Valley wear those stupid vests, but they do because it symbolizes their membership in a particular tribe with particular values. Antiques are not much more expensive than new furniture (or throwing out IKEA every few years), but buying antiques signifies membership in the world of Fussell’s Uppers (the upper middle and upper class), new furniture is a liminal space, and IKEA is firmly middle class, despite the lifetime costs being roughly similar. After all, people – in an economic and material sense – can only ever afford to spend so much on furniture. The divides are not primarily price, but cultural and tribal.
What is the thread uniting the safe exotic and the Mythic Age? I’m sure, dear reader, you have already figured it out. But sometimes it takes me a bit to puzzle out the implications of my own statements.
It’s boundaries. Both these concepts establish the bounds of the familiar. The Mythic Age is the boundary age of our culture, beyond which all things belong to an unreal past. For the modern progressive, dictatorships are a real fear, but feudal monarchies live only in storybooks. The latter precedes the Mythic Age and thus is too alien to be real in any gut sense. It’s fantastical. The safe exotic establishes a boundary for a culture and its people, while the Mythic Age sets a chronological boundary. And these boundaries matter. Across the boundary, those “in the know” will assume everything is alien (Those who are less cosmopolitan, like hicklib progressives and Protestant Universalists will assume every culture is more or less like ours, which is definitely untrue. There’s more to life than all bleeding red.). Thus, paradoxically, the distant is familiar. When we deal with the truly alien, we are often shocked by how familiar, human, and real it all seems. Rome is often as alive to us as the friends we greet each day. That is because, across the frontier of the alien, we assume everything must be strange, and thus chalk up peculiarities to them being different from us. What remains are the human universals, and we marvel that Romans were humans just like us. Amazingly, the Romans bleed red like us, and we marvel. They, too, cry and die and love and live and scheme and sleep, perchance to dream.
That is the familiarity of distance.
That which is near to us often feels more alien precisely because it is so familiar. It is chilling and dreadful for a progressive to remember slavery, because to remember slavery is to know that people almost identical to yourself, living the same lifestyle as you, in the same place as you, in the same time as you, condoned it.
What does that say about you?
In conclusion, I got a dinner reservation at prime hours on a prime day at Dorsia (MICHELIN STARS AHAHAHA). Fuck you.
Loves to humblebrag,
Monsieur le Baron