The Idea Orphanage

By Michael Ennis

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Here are some thoughts from the Sam’s Club café, where I am enjoying a three-meat pizza and soda combo. I bought them with some loose change. They have, you’ll have to trust me on this, prompted the following line of thinking.

I teach literature, or what’s left of it, and I often make two diametrically opposed rationales for continuing to read literature when no one really seems to care. On the one hand, literature is the last bulwark against consumer capitalism. To read literature from any era keeps our minds alive, resisting the ready-made and reproducible. It brings with it a pleasure wholly outside the immediate gratifications of shiny objects. In other words, literature maintains a contemporary political exigency. It helps us resist the omnipresence of consumerism.

But there’s another way to defend literature: as a kind of museum, the pleasures of which are completely antiquarian, dilettantish, useless. This is different than the first defense, which asserts literature as useful insofar as it cannot be abstracted and commodified. This second defense simply asserts its uselessness as a pleasure to be savored, a pleasure that enriches our lives, with pleasure.

But there exists a middle ground. Literature’s antiquarian impulses will not topple capitalism, but they can at least preserve some emotions and sensibilities, which may or may not be useful. I’m not sure. In any event, I often like to think of literature as a kind of emotion museum, or an idea orphanage. As our culture tends to flatten out and limit our emotional experiences, literature indexes historically and culturally distinct peoples’ own wide range of emotions, both experientially and conceptually. I should qualify that by the “our” in “our culture,” I mean “every one.”

Such experiences are, strictly speaking, useless today, but they are not inherently useless, and maybe one day they will find homes again in the general populace.

We need a movement to adopt ideas. Maybe I should start a blog called the idea orphanage, and people could browse ideas that have no parents, and nurture them. But that would require starting a blog. There are no real-space markets for such enterprises, except for used bookstores, and those have moved to amazon.


Literature also helps us name and understand new experiences that we hold in common. I hope we hold them in common because if we do not, then I have to reevaluate some things. Take for example the following linguistic failure:

I was waiting at a stop light the other day on my way home from work. I was tired, but happy to see winter passing and spring moving in, despite my allergies. It was a long stop light, one with several guarded lefts that takes forever to cycle all the way through.

As the late afternoon clouds slid way under the weight of a strong breeze, I noticed the falling petals of a cherry tree. I think it was a cherry tree, but it could have been pear, pecan, almond, or dogwood. Let’s call it cherry.

The petals were a soft pink streaked with white, and the wind animated them into a flutter, which passed by my windshield in their elusion of gravity. As they fell and flew through the clear spring light, I was reminded of my daughter chasing butterflies at the local children’s museum. One of those precious memories that grow with the child until their innocence becomes so pure as to overwhelm the actual person.

I was aware of the beauty of the image of those softly descending cherry blossoms, but could not appreciate it in the physical way I normally experience beauty. It was like looking at a Picasso or a Rothko; I had to think to myself, “Ah, that’s beautiful.” I had no name for that aesthetic delay. The closest I could come was a word from the psycho-logos: anhedonia. A symptom of depression, anhedonia means the loss of the ability to experience pleasure. But that was not the feeling I needed to understand and describe.

I wasn’t confounded by the lack of pleasure at the sight of the falling petals, but the dissonance between my conscious appreciation of the image and the absence of any emotional, instinctive, pre-conscious reaction. It was the anti-viscera of the moment that troubled me. No. The aesthetic dissonance? Nope. I don’t know what to call it, the preoccupation with knowing why I was divided so.

Such moments of language failure don’t always bring sadness or nostalgia, but can offer us a source of humor. After all, what use are our foibles and shortcomings if they don’t provide the grist for a few jokes? Here’s another example.

My landlady/roommate studies medicine and works, I would guess, about 110 hours a week. I am not exaggerating. She grew up in Nicaragua and her parents came to visit this week. Her mother is Nicaraguan and her father American, but they both still live outside Managua.

I used to live in Mexico City and so enjoyed reminiscing about Latin American cuisine—especially the tamales and the fruit—with her parents. We stayed up late one night discussing the subtleties of tamales, and the amazing variety they have around the hemisphere. Spicy chocolate tamales, savory buttery ones, sweet tamales, hot tamales, tamales based on potatoes, tamales in banana leaves, tamales in corn husks, tamales with fruit, tamales with fresh lard. We could agree on one thing: tamales are friggin’ delicious no matter where they come from.

Anyway, last night they invited me to a small feast they were preparing for tonight. They were preparing their favorite Latin American delicacy, tongue, and assured me that no one should die with out trying it. How could I disagree with such like-minded folk? So, I accepted. If nothing else, they had brought a dozen liters of high quality rum from duty-free, so I felt certain I would enjoy myself.

I am not sure if I ever had eaten tongue, but while in Mexico I tried a lot of crazy things, even Oaxacan chocolate-covered grasshoppers. So I felt like I would be game, although some past mishaps indicated that my culinary adventurousness had limits. Once, in Spain, I ordered a suckling pig, only to feel a little apprehensive about eating the baby when its head showed up on the platter. I kinda knew it was coming, but there it was. I still dream about the little guy’s face from time to time.

A couple of years ago, when I was living abroad, this very topic of food forms came up at a lovely market eatery in the San Angel section of Mexico City. A Mexican friend of mine, a big lover of America in general and not one to complain about most things, cited gringos for our refusal to eat food that looks like animals.  I looked about the market to see the chickens, and rabbits, and pig’s feet strewn about and felt deeply guilty. I ate some rice and beans.

We do not need to invent a word to describe the covering up of animal forms in the food industry because we already have a word for it, and it’s a good one: reification, the process of erasing a commodity’s history.

Now, I am not the kind of low bottom loser who would sew a Canadian flag on my backpack, but I also do not fancy myself an ugly American. So, it was hard for me to confront this limit in myself, in my culture. But, as Christopher Evans has said, “Culture is what you cannot help but believe.” And I cannot help but get queasy from food that looks like animals. It’s a part of me that my conscious mind knows to be wrong and objectionable, but my gullet enforces with a variety of perturbations.

However, I did not expect the dinner tonight to present a problem. I assumed the tongue would just be cut up into a stew or something, its history as a cow’s tongue obscured from view.

This morning, a gigantic pot of rapidly heating water pulled back the veil. The tongues were clearly discernible as tongues. I wondered if they were the cows’ strongest muscle, too. The two tongues curled in the bottom of the pot in an absolutely lurid French kiss, awaiting the boil and the lid. Ten minutes later and they would have been covered, and I would have been safe, but I was done for at the sight of them.

Is there a name for this dissonance between what we wished we were and what we cannot help being? I mean, aside from “shame.” I would definitely like something more precise, with a less pointed valence.

Anyway, here I am with my slice of pizza and soda, taking refuge in a spot that always comforts me, Sam’s Club. Ironically, this raises precisely the kind of problem that I am struggling with because every neuron of my intellect informs me that I should not find Sam’s Club comforting. It is the opposite of comforting: sterile, mass produced, enormous, impersonal, interchangeable. Moreover, it’s bad for the environment, mistreats its employees, and is the epitome of the problems against which my first justification of literature rallies. And it’s not as though I cathected to Sam’s Club as a child. I never even knew what it was until I was 28 (childish, but past the mirror stage).

But there you have it. When I sit in the café eating the ridiculously cheap processed foods I feel like I imagine singers of country songs feel when they talk about their mothers praying at the window for them. I know it probably sounds as though I am being sarcastic or ironic or somehow insincere. I am not. Although, that could be another experience to name, failed sincerity, or better, assumed irony.

But here I sit. The meat on my pizza could never be deciphered as once-an-animal. If you told me it was engineered from some futuristic yeast culture, I would have to believe you even as I savor the last morsel of sausage.

I am looking for a name for this feeling, this dissonance of my mind and viscera, which neurobiology assures me is an illusion anyway. Sitting with my back to the corner, I look at the expanse of ceiling, with its zigzagging girders and undulating steel. I can see over the tops of the two-story aisles, the cleaning products, canned goods, furniture…but I can’t see the termination of the ceiling or the back wall. No horizon.

It settles me, like yoga is supposed to. Maybe I can just describe the Sam’s Club with an allusion. What similar moment or place can begin to help me unlock this experience? What is it? A metaphor maybe? Like the set in “Synecdoche, New York”? Like an Asimovian cave of steel? The Death Star? Heorot?

The field of view lowers to the floor, which is a scurry of activity. Greeters greet the shoppers shop. The store has its own street sweeper, which I pretend is a repurposed Zamboni. The white noise it produces is like forest chatter.

There’s a display of gardening equipment for the spring season at the front of the store. I imagine the cherry tree there, twice as large as in reality. It could just be there, inexplicable and unsalable.


Michael Ennis