Fashionable Reading

Koreans enjoy a rice liquor called soju. It it somewhat similar to vodka, but sweeter and somewhat syrupy. It is primarily consumed neat. Like kimchi, Korea’s famous fermented cabbage, soju is an acquired taste. But how does one acquire a taste? Or, for that matter, other opinions?

In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy gives a glance into the tastes of Stepan Arkadyevitch. Why, for example does he wear a certain style of coat or hat? Why does he listen to certain music? Why does he have certain political beliefs? Because these are the fashions of his time and circle. People love to assert their individuality and to “think for themselves,” but it is not that simple. One thinks that he likes or believes one thing because he has carefully considered the options and has cultivated his tastes, but in general, it is habit rather than contemplation that creates tastes.

To be sure, there is something in natural disposition that lends weight to certain tastes. Stepan preferred “liberal to conservative views, which were held also by many of his circle… not from his considering liberalism more rational, but from its being in closer accordance with his manner of life.” But still, it is not really thought or consideration that leads to most views, only a sort of intangible natural proclivity. (As Montaigne claimed that he did not hunt, not because he reasoned it to be immoral to harm animals, but only because his own temperament found it distasteful.)

Many people will object to Stepan’s approach to such questions. They may indict him as a follower and as shallow for basing his opinions on what is popular. Or, to speak more accurately, for not basing his tastes on anything at all, and letting them simply come to him by way of popular opinion. But “having finished the paper… and, squaring his broad chest, he smiled joyously: not because there was anything particularly agreeable in his mind—the joyous smile was evoked by a good digestion.” And if joy can be achieved without straining to think up and defend one’s “own” opinions against the rabble, why should anybody put in the effort?

Beer of the Week: TESCO Strong Lager – In many people, it is not only political opinions and fashion that are determined by the crowd in which one runs, but also taste in beer. If young people in England are anything like young people in the United States, then they probably develop a taste for cheap beer with high alcohol content. TESCO supermarket stocks a store brand that is 7.5% alcohol and can be had for a very low price. It is not a good beer, but for the price, it gives a bit of a kick. (Of course, when the beer is shipped halfway around the world, the over-all value diminishes significantly.) TESCO Strong Lager smells slightly of alcohol and malt and has a rather flat taste with a hint of alcohol at the end. Not unlike a Natural Ice, although perhaps not as crisp. No doubt, many Brits have found as they mature that their tastes have shifted slowly away from store brand beer and toward more refined tastes. Maybe, over time, they will develop a taste for something less riot-inducing.

Reading of the week: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, Part One, Chapter 3, Excerpt – In this short passage near the beginning of the novel, the reader joins Stepan Arkadyevitch for breakfast. Stepan’s political leanings are explained along with his general temperament.

Question of the week: Can deep intellectual pursuit ever have the same pleasant effect as a political newspaper or after-dinner cigar, a “slight fog diffused in the brain”?

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