Objectification of the Onion


The Supper of the Lamb by Robert Farrar Capon is the most remarkable cookbooks that I’ve ever read. For one thing, it has hardly any recipes in it. Most of the book is a reflection on food, life, the world and everything, while patiently describing the preparation of a lamb stew. Chapter 2 is dedicated to considering the onion. Capon suggests you ought to set aside an hour for this one ingredient.

When you take the onion into your hand you note that it is a thing, as are you. He calls this a mutual confrontation, for the onion also confronts you. With his poetic prose, Capon leads us on an exploration of all aspects of this amazing ingredient, from the dry onion paper, both sides, to the wonder of the layers within. To look at an onion in this way, one encounters gravity and mortality, the nature of dryness and the miracle of water, the glory of discovering something never before seen, life inside death, and pressure. Because of this careful exploration, he hopes that we will “never again argue that the solidities of the world are mere matters of accident . . . [and] meaningless shapes out of nothing.” He wants us to encounter it first for what it is and not only for how it can be used. He believes man’s “real work is to look at the things of the world and love them for what they are.”

Objectification is bad, right? At least in the sense that to objectify a person is bad. It suggests that they’ve been downgraded to a lower level—the level of the object. This idea, that objects are inferior to people, is a given.

It makes sense, I suppose. We’ve inherited this idea from our past. In the Middle Ages, for instance, we understood reality in terms of the Great Chain of Being. In this view of reality, everything was placed hierarchically as if on a cosmic chain. At the top of the chain were all the things that were completely spiritual, then the human world which was part spiritual and part physical, then the animals and the plants, and at the very bottom were the things that were completely physical and therefore inferior to everything above it. In this scheme almost everything was thought inferior to human beings.

But objects weren’t then as we think of them now. Objects today are completely empty of anything but their physical properties. To know something we just need to know measure, graph and diagram it.

In the Medieval world, objects were more than just their physical properties. Garlic wasn’t just a flavour for stew, but also a repellent for evil. You had to be aware of your relationships to things like black cats and ladders because they weren’t just cats and ladders. The flowers a bride carried not only covered up her body odour, but aided in her fertility on the wedding night.

These things weren’t hard to believe for the medieval mind.  Because the meaning of things was in the thing.  Meaning was external—meaning was objective.

Meaning has moved–it no longer lives in the object, but in the mind of the human looking at it (or smelling, measuring, graphing it).

So, while objects have been held as inferior to humans for a long time, the modern world has taken the inferiority of the object in a whole new direction. It has completely emptied things of their meaning. Meaning is no longer to be found in the object, only in the subject, or, more accurately, in the mind of the subject. Objects have no inherent meaning, only that which I attribute to it. The modern person takes this as a given; it is part of our worldview.

. . . crossing the line between subject and object

But Capon warns that much is lost when we view the world of things as empty of meaning. He says that every time we look at what a thing “can be made to mean,” rather than what a thing is, reality slips away and we are left with nothing. He concludes the chapter on the onions saying, “One real thing is closer to God than all the diagrams in the world.”

To objectify something is to look at it only as something to be used. It is completely inappropriate for one to look at a human being in this way—we call it objectification. But built into the word itself is the assumption that it’s just fine to look at an object in this way.  Capon contests this view of the created world.

If it seems strange to see objects as Capon sees them, it is because we are modern.  Most people who have lived would think secular modernism pretty strange.

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