Chocolate Cake and the Death of Meaning
Recently my wife and I spent a weekend in Portland. Yes, that Portland: the Pacific Northwest hipster haven popularized by the sketch comedy show of Portlandia. The city where tattoos and body piercings are so ubiquitous one feels like a rebellious teenage outcast by not making permanent etches or punctures in their skin. I would have truly felt less out of place if I had worn my hair in an electric pink samurai topknot. Still, it’s an American city, and beneath the skin of hipster chic lies the familiar beating heart of business and tourism. There are museums, shows, and parks aplenty. There are dozens of breweries and a few distilleries, not to mention a handful of wineries. What interested me, though, were the multitudinous restaurants.
How else does a Millennial find a good restaurant in a new town except by Yelp? There’s no better aggregate of customer restaurant reviews out there. If I want to know where everybody in town likes to eat, I can get a good idea with a few swipes at my smartphone. I can see what restaurants have good ratings, what menu items customers suggest, and even get tips on parking or happy hour and whatnot. The only downside to Yelp is that it sometimes seems that my fellow foodies don’t understand the purpose or function of language.
The trouble came at dessert. As I browsed reviews for dessert joints in Portland, I began to notice an alarming pattern of adjective abuse among customers, particularly when it came chocolate cake. For some reason, chocolate cake elicits the most awful religious hyperbole from amateur reviewers. The cake isn’t simply “delicious,” “moist,” or “rich.” No, it is “divine” and “heavenly.” Ordinarily, this sort of corny writing isn’t worth a discussion. It’s worth noting, however, that for every review calling a cake “divine” or “heavenly” there was another review calling that same cake “decadent” or “sinful.”1 Either that cake has a serious personality disorder or we have some very important words in our vocabulary that have reached a point of utter uselessness.
Words come and go. Meanings shift. Epic, for example, meant “grand” or “heroic” in its adjective use not ten years ago; now if you make a friend a decent sandwich when he drops by for lunch, he might call it epic without any irony whatsoever. As annoying as such a phenomenon may be for the purist, or the stubborn, or the elderly, shifts in word usage simply aren’t worth fighting over in most cases. In this case, however, we’ve arrived at the point where words indicating the opposite poles of supernatural good and evil have been tethered together as synonyms in the popular imagination. The roads to Heaven and Hell overlap in speech and thought, and both are lined with chocolate cake.
Of course, I don’t believe praising a cake as “sinful” is a great moral failure. A great failure of creative writing, yes, but not a great moral failure. The problem is that the terms “heavenly” and “sinful,” which connote diametrically opposed values, have come to mean the same thing, and their new definition makes them worthless as words in themselves. A word that calls forth the joy and rest of God, and a word that haunts us with images of pain, suffering, and separation have both become words we use when we’re required to speak but have nothing to say—much like the word “nice.”
Language is important. Speech is the medium through which thoughts are teleported from my brain to yours across the open air. Having a conversation is genuinely the closest thing human beings can do to magic. Malcolm Guite wrote a poem calling the letters of the alphabet “summoners” for that very reason, I’m sure. If conversation is magic, then words are the spells we utter to summon images in the minds of others. Some spells are more powerful than others, and they should be used with care. When our spells lose their power, that is, when words lose their meaning, we lose our ability to communicate truth. How can I describe the loving mercy of God, if “sinful” just means “a good cake?” How can I describe the pleasures of Heaven, if “heavenly” also just means “a good cake?” It’s a fool’s errand.
I’m not against metaphor or hyperbole; I am, however, all for giving words their power. Therefore, let your cakes be delicious, moist, and rich; but let “divine” and “heavenly” conjure up feelings of love, power, and comfort and the image of a mansion in which there are many rooms. Let “decadent” and “sinful” call up feelings of sorrow and contrition—and the image of a man on a cross calling out, “It is finished,” in his final moments.