Hanne Blank on M.F.K. Fisher and the Art of Seduction: An Excerpt From ‘Icon’

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In the new book Icon, edited by Amy Scholder, fearless feminist writers and Rick Moody talk about some of our most notorious, beguiling, and trailblazing feminist figures. It’s a stacked lineup of fascination, including Mary Gaitskill on Linda Lovelace, Kate Zambreno on Kathy Acker, Danielle Henderson on bell hooks, and Johanna Fateman on Andrea Dworkin. One of my favorite essays was Hanne Blank’s sensual look at how seduction works in the food-and-everything writing of M.F.K. Fisher. Read an excerpt from Blank’s essay below; Icon is now available in stores and online. — Elisabeth Donnelly

Here is the single most practical thing I ever learned from M.F.K. Fisher: seduction is not the art of showing someone that you want them. That is merely a proposition, no matter how artfully it is done. Seduction, properly done, is the art of inducing a desirable second party to want you to want them. The reflection of desire is critical. Without that mutuality, seduction is just pursuit on one side and capitulation on the other, and frankly less fun than it seems like it should be, particularly when the game is no longer new.

Fisher alludes to seductions in various bits of her oeuvre, both her own and other people’s, as often with the sharpness of her femme perspicacity as with fondness or excitement. As for the real seductions in Fisher’s work, they involve the author, and are thus more impressions than demonstrations. She never divulged too much about her own personal amorous doings. But there are a few scenes in which we see Fisher seduced or seducing, in earnest. One of the most fully written of these details a secret Easter midnight supper of caviar served by her beloved Dillwyn Parrish in Parrish’s candle-lit, flower-bedecked studio in their shared home in Switzerland. It ends not with Fisher and Parrish tumbling into bed but with Fisher thanking him and shyly, primly walking to her own room. Yet there is no mistaking what is going on: Fisher writes that having found a hand-illustrated invitation on her desk, she made herself “look as beautiful as I could,” then ascended the stairs to the studio with a small gift. The effort is mutual. Parrish has gone out of his way to make the room and himself desirable to Fisher, including setting forth a large tin of caviar and a bottle of excellent gin, two of her favorite treats. That “every swallow of the liquor was as hot and soft as the candle flames around us,” and they “talked, more and better than we ever talked with anyone else,” comes as no surprise. It is fabulous, cinematic, achingly desirable, and it is both circumspect and discreet, a triumph of selective self-presentation.

It is in such acts of creating the self that will make the Other wish she would want him, that we find the foundation of Fisher’s work and perhaps of her person. This is precisely where opinion enters into it.

Even when we do not necessarily share the sentiments we tend to admire firm and unfragile opinions tempered with intellect and erudition as well as experience. It is, we know, easier to go through life without such things. Many of us have been scolded or intimidated out of some of ours. We look up to those who express strong opinion graciously, without silencing or condescending. We respect such people, and we want their respect in turn — and their good opinion. We want them to like us, to find us worthwhile, to have a good opinion of us on the same sturdy, articulate footing.

Sometimes we fight back against our wanting to be wanted, our preference for being preferred. It does make us vulnerable, and vulnerability can breed resentment. Some readers react angrily to Fisher’s opinionatedness, calling her arrogant and smug. I have occasionally felt that way myself. When I first fell in love with her, though, I just wanted to be, to embody, the sort of thing she might like. I was tremblingly seducible… and it made me tremendously teachable.

What did my love teach me? If nothing else, Fisher taught me the valuable skill of detecting a crucial sort of category error, the confusion of form and substance. Good food, as Fisher resolutely and repeatedly reminds the reader, has nothing to do with haute cuisine. Fisher’s work participates in a metanarrative that has become a cliché of the food-writing genre, the one a clear-sighted friend once referred to as “Pilgrim’s Progress to Paris” in which the American of (of course) stunted and parochial palate goes to France and experiences culinary enlightenment. But it is also true that this was in Fisher’s case, happenstance.

Fisher herself does not put her cart before that horse. She does not buy into the notion that “exquisite” or “ostentatious” are synonymous with quality or pleasure, nor does she err in believing it of “rustic” or “artisanal” or “peasant.” All these things are found in both good and bad versions in Fisher’s tales. Indeed, Fisher embraces even bad food, when it has integrity in her eyes. She discerns what is important to her about a meal or a dish, and having done so, says what it is. Her concatenation of thought and emotion is what seduces. Our agreement or disagreement is of no moment. A successful seduction, as Fisher made clear, need not end with things going bump in the night.