Wolfgang Schivelbush’s Tastes of Paradise by Marian


Historians tend to classify Modernity as an historical period: this underscores how much the qualification of « modern » is first and foremost the result of the gradual emergence of an industrialized popular consciousness. Wolfgang Schivelbusch, German historian and social scientist, explored this rise in three books. Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants and Intoxicants (1980) is the last in date.

Tastes of Paradise presents a social history of Genussmittel (literally objects of pleasure, stimulants in English) in Western Europe, starting at the dawn of the Modern Age with pepper and salt, addressing the introduction of coffee, tea and chocolate as well as tobacco, and finishing with the popularization of liquor and opium in 19th century England. The book is an admirable feat of synthesis and vulgarization, but it leaves major elements aside and is too lenient for the analytic work it claims to be: its twofold objective of synthesis and argumentation necessarily ends up as somewhat conflictual.

Schivelbusch argues that Genussmittel were more than what their name implies: they symbolized and accompanied the rise of the modern social consciousness. The aim is broad; the project ambitious: Tastes of Paradise tries to make it all work in 228 pages. This also makes the book a synthesis of at least five centuries of consumption. The author’s audience is therefore clearly not academic, and the purpose of the book is twofold: trying to prove that the Genussmittel have been major social factors in modern times as well as giving the reader a very general sense of the historical unravelling of stimulants consumption.

Doing so, Schivelbusch takes unusual angles: for example, it explores the history of medicine to explain the receptions of tobacco, coffee, tea and chocolate as well as the shaping of a popular conception of their use. We learn, for example, that « coffee [dries] out the body’s phlegm and therefore [robs] the phlegmatic temperament of its very foundation ».[1] This allows him to build a sociological approach: given what certain stimulants were thought to do, who would be most inclined to drink them?

For example, in the chapter Chocolate, Catholicism and Ancien Régime, Schivelbusch argues that chocolate (the drink) was prized among Catholics of southern Europe for its nutritional value: it was very useful in periods of fast. It was as well praised by the nobility, for chocolate started to represent Rococo elegance: « the essence of the chocolate ritual [served in bed] was fluid, lazy, languid motion [representing the] ideal of an idle class’s morning-long awakening to the rigors of studied leisure ».[2] This was in opposition to coffee, a defining element of the bourgeoisie and the middle-class, « a powerful force for change, helping to forge a new reality ».[3] It enhanced one’s concentration and productivity, supposedly sobered drunkards and weakened sexual impulses, fitting right into a protestant working ethic.

As another example, Schivelbusch devotes an entire chapter to the evolution of the rituals involved in smoking and the social importance of the pipe, then of the cigar, and then of the cigarette. Each was less prestigious than its predecessor and each presented a quicker way to consume tobacco and ingest the stimulant, in a society in which time was becoming an ever more precious resource. Tastes of Paradise associates consumption habits to broader social customs and perceptions, addressing class divides and inequalities through a seemingly benign object of consumption, and the links it highlights make for a compelling case.

The work of synthesis and vulgarization is admirable: Schivelbusch is concise; his style is never challenging, and the reader leaves the book with a much better understanding of the history of consumption. The thematic arrangement of the book allows the author to make his points independently from one another, and, although this may undermine the interdependence between different stimulants (for example, the way tea progressively supplanted beer as the biggest drink in England), it is all done for the sake of clarity.

Furthermore, Tastes of Paradise spares itself much explanatory work with a frequent use of paintings and engravings illustrating what it is trying to say. It allows the reader to visualize the popular representations of coffeehouses as opposed to taverns, of the impact of liquor as opposed to beer: the first obliterating any social restraints, the second simply cheering up individuals, and so on. On a side note, it is interesting to compare, in Tastes of Paradise, the different conceptions of beer: before the 18th century, it was blamed for the effect liquor was considered to have in the 19th century. This allows the book to guide its reader through the centuries, touching upon a multitude of stimulants, all the while keeping its focus.

On the other hand, Schivelbusch’s choices as to what to develop in his book are sometimes questionable. For example, the decision to leave out sugar is difficult to understand. Sugar was seen first as a spice, as a mean to display wealth, then it democratized and became one of the most consumed items in the world; it was a source of population migration (with slavery); it played a noticeable role in the development of mercantilism; it changed the way people consumed coffee and tea… The list goes on. Was there no point to be made on sugar as a major social factor? Sidney W. Mintz’ Sweetness and Power (1985) is a fascinating read and can be used to complement Tastes of Paradise on the matter. Nevertheless, it is understandable that an author must make choices in a work of synthesis, but sugar seems too important to ignore, especially when Schivelbusch tries to link Genussmittel to social restructuration.

Tastes of Paradise’s argumentative integrity also raises concerns, mostly on the question of sources. The author has compiled an 8-page bibliography without ever referring to it sources in his book. Such a lack of references may seem trivial: but it can leave the reader with the impression that Schivelbusch was trying to prove his point more than anything else. We do not know what he borrowed from his sources, nor do we know how objective he was. The pertinence of the argument suffers greatly from such an assessment. To what extent do the argumentative and narrative purposes overlap?

This also depreciates the value of his synthesis: how much was he trying to inform the reader rather than convince him? In a word, how reliable is Tastes of Paradise for the non-academic audience it aims?

To the author’s defense, the biography does not really serve an academic purpose: it is rather an invitation to the reader to build upon Tastes of Paradise, to further his research and deepen his knowledge by looking at the sources referenced: after all, the book is a 228-page synthesis: it is an introduction to a very broad topic. Nevertheless, the reader aware of historical methodological requirements cannot but look with suspicion at such a lenient use of sources.

Moreover, Tastes of Paradise’s twofold objective is often conflictual: first, the book’s broad argument, with examples spanning over half a millennium, would have needed much more development. For example, the author does not even try to address the major historical question of causality? In other words, did coffee propel protestant ethic, or did it fit in their preexisting narrative? Did liquor answer to a quicker need to become drunk in a society with less and less time to spare, or did it create said need?

Second, the synthesis is necessarily structured to prove the author’s point: but then, how good of an introductory book is it? The book cannot be both a brief synthesis and a well-rounded historical and sociological argument.

In conclusion, Schivelbusch’s Tastes of Paradise is a clear, simple work: its efficient synthesis and his compelling sociological argument make it a worthwhile read. However, some important omissions are to be deplored, and an obvious lack of references in the text are prone to make anyone remotely knowledgeable on methodology somewhat skeptical of its argument, which sometimes conflicts with the book’s synthetic aim. It is a book that invites its reader to learn more; but its content must sometimes be taken with a pinch of salt.

[1] Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants and Intoxicants (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 46.

[2] Ibid., 91.

[3] Ibid., 63.

One response to “Wolfgang Schivelbush’s Tastes of Paradise by Marian”

  1. Tristan Hughes says:

    I enjoyed reading your piece. It looks like an interesting read. One thing that occurred to me––I am unfamiliar with this particular book in question––is the extent to which the development of global capital as the dominant form of exchange has gone completely unmentioned throughout your description of the book (because I assume the author does not). It is interesting to note the possible relations between the extension of capital as the world-standard mode of exchange, and the creation of new needs, desires, tastes, social mores in Europe and so on. In Marx’s theory of capitalism, as I am sure you are aware, capital constantly revolutionized the desires of its consumers, as it constantly requires new products and new modes of consumption to speed accumulation. The creation of particular ‘tastes of paradise’ are undoubtedly an epiphenomenon of global capitalism. I would be interested to know how exotic desires changed qualitatively between the age of global capital, and before, such as in the middle ages. Are they historically the same? You mentioned, for instance, that concomitant with the increase of particular desires was the revolutionization of social mores. Is it possible that the exotic desires of modernity are more socially destabilizing then those exostic desires of pre-capitalist societies? These are questions that occurred to me while reading your review. Thank you! Tristan

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