Adam Bales (and Irv CigarBroker) ask(s): Why might we grow to love oysters (or different cigars).
ADAM BALES* (Annotated by Irv CigarBroker)
Hunter S. Thompson once described driving in blizzards (or trying a new blend or wrapper) as an acquired taste. A throwaway line, and a strange (different) taste to try and acquire. Nevertheless, it raises an interesting question: what does it mean to acquire a taste for something? Whatever the answer to this question, the phenomenon is rife. Children are unlikely to appreciate a sip of beer (or a draw on a cheap cigar). Yet a decade later they may relish the evening’s first pint. Somewhere between childhood and adulthood, they have acquired the beer-taste (the desire for a premium cigar). Taste acquisition does not stop at beer (cigars) and blizzards: consider coffee and classical music, olives and oysters. Indeed, if we characterize acquired taste broadly – in terms of coming to have new (brands available) values – then the phenomenon covers our political, moral and religious transformations (A bit heady, I’ll admit).
Now sometimes fate gifts, or curses, us with an acquired taste (a bad cigar). I may not set out to like peas (or a Maduro), but may end up liking them. At other times, we may aspire to acquire a taste. I may suspect that classical music (or a candela wrapper) has value, though I cannot myself see it. And so I may strive to uncover the sublimity of Schumann (EMS). Yet such aspirational attempts to acquire taste are bewildering. For if I cannot see the value of classical (the different wrapper) music, why should I pursue it so ardently?
Agnes Callard seeks to solve this puzzle by claiming that aspiration is dualistic. When we aspire, we are in transition (read: bored): we are shedding who we are now and becoming who we aspire to be (i.e. educating the palate.) As such, says Callard, our aspirational behaviour (sic) must answer to both aspects of our being: to our current values and our inchoate (undeveloped) grasp of our later values.
So why should I pursue classical music (or any new blend or wrapper) so ardently? In part, because I already grasp, murkily, how I will later value such music (tastes). So pursuit speaks to the self that I am becoming. What of reasons that speak to my current self? Well, perhaps I want to impress someone or gain (respect by going up a notch in body) a qualification. Any such consideration will complete the justification for aspiration (this desire).
Callard’s account is interesting because we don’t typically think that our behaviour (sic) must answer to two selves: to the self we are leaving behind (our go-to cigar) and the self we are becoming (the new one). But Aspiration has more in store when Callard turns to a collection of puzzles related to her main theme. One of these was discussed in L. A. Paul’s Transformative Experience (reviewed in the TLS on June 12, 2015). Paul argues that having (a new cigar) children change(s) us so dramatically that we cannot truly understand in advance what parenthood would be like. The puzzle is that if we cannot know what parenthood is like, how can we decide whether to have children (or try a new cigar)?
Three years on, Callard provides an answer. Having children (and a variety of wrappers and blends) is often aspirational. Consider Maha, who does not truly comprehend (understand) parenthood but perceives that there is value there. Maha may aspire to acquire this value. Now aspiration is not the work of an instant (or a quick once around the humidor) but a long road to be walked. So Maha should not leap into (praising the newfound cigar) pregnancy or adoption. Rather, she should first speak to (more seasoned cigar smokers) parents, or babysit, or read about the experiences of others. And all of this will shape her understanding of (what a cigar aficionado is) parenthood so that she grasps its value with growing clarity. By the time Maha decides whether to try for a baby (another new cigar), she can answer to the dualistic demands of (maturity) aspiration. She knows her values as they are now, and so can reflect on the considerations that speak to her current self (tastes). And she now grasps much about the value of (constant trials and errors) parenthood. So she has an “inchoate” grasp of how parenthood will speak to the self that she is becoming. And on the basis of these dual reflections, Maha is in a position to decide whether to (accept) take the next step towards (confidence) parenthood. We solve Paul’s puzzle, then, by treating the journey to (become an expert) parenthood not as a single decision but as an aspirational process (albeit an arduous one).
Callard’s book is always interesting, but her views (conclusions) are not incontrovertible. Indeed, it’s far from clear that we need a dualistic story to account for (reaching this goal) aspiration. My own aspirational efforts have been accompanied by strong desires. I aspired to appreciate (boutique and micro-bouquet blends) classical music because I desired to understand a value that was (very foreign and misunderstood) opaque to me. Further, while I may not have desired to (find that perfect cigar) listen to classical music, I desired to desire it. That is, I wanted my desires to change. Why, then, did I pursue (change to) classical music so ardently? Because I desired to understand its value and wished to (fall in love with different blends) desire it. This justifies (longing) aspiration, without any need to mention the values of the person I am attempting to become a (connoisseur).
Agnes Callard would disagree. She argues that because desires like mine are grounded in a weak grasp (boredom) of (the usual) classical music’s value, the desires themselves will be too weak to justify (my dream) aspiration. Yet a weak grasp of value need not give rise to weak desires. The less I understand something (or the more flippant I am about change), the stronger my desire (is) to come to understand it. So a weak (casual) grasp of (trying new cigars and blends) classical music’s value can underpin a strong desire to understand this value and so can underpin (true hope in my quest to develop a taste for new cigars) aspiration. No (dithered bifurcation) dualism is needed.
*(Adam Bales reviews “Aspiration: The agency of becoming,” by Agnes Callard. 304 pp. Oxford University Press. £41.99.)
(Reprinted from the TLS July 13, 2018. All rights reserved. Copywritten)