Infectious states of mind

Image of Harry Eyres

The other evening, after a concert at the Musikverein in Vienna (I picked up a reasonably priced return in the very front row, with slightly strange acoustics and an excellent view of the cellists’ patent leather shoes), I made my way to an unpretentious restaurant just inside the Ringstrasse.

I was on my own, and eating solo can feel awkward; in some restaurants, especially when there is pomp and ceremony, the empty place opposite can seem like a yawning void, the attentions of waiters an embarrassment, in which the paranoid might detect a trace of mocking irony.

But luck (and a recommendation from a friend) had guided my steps. Huth’s Da Max, formerly and more agreeably called the Huth Beisl – using that rather lovely Austrian term for a homely eating place – is low on pomp and ceremony and high on conviviality.

Much of the space is taken up by a single long table, an arrangement that I’ve long argued should be more common. Whoever runs the restaurant has a philosophy that chimes uncannily with that of Slow Lane, and which is inscribed on the paper tablecloth: “share a table, share a dish, share a drink, share a thought”.

On this occasion (unlike some at my favourite café), my sharing did not get beyond the table; the thoughts were entertained privately, then committed to my journal. But I didn’t feel isolated; I could see smiles, hear laughter (not of the drunken or shrieking kind). “There’s a lot of enjoyment in this place,” I wrote, somewhat absurdly, in my journal. “There is such a thing as infectious enjoyment.”

Maybe all this affected me simply because I was on my own and more vulnerable to mood swings. It also made me think how very often the experience of “fine dining” ends up being a terrible disappointment. Fine dining is usually set up on a hermetic premise; intimate lighting, isolation of tables, a sort of hushed reverence: all contrive to ensure that you are alone with the other person, and with the food.

There may be times – if we are lucky – when we are so absorbed in the other person that, as John Donne put it in “The Sun Rising”, “Nothing else is”. But these high points of romantic bliss are probably not that frequent. My sense is that the solemnity of food preparation and service in swanky restaurants – the recherché combinations of ingredients and techniques, all the simultaneous lifting of the metal plate-cover business – are often a substitute if not quite for sex, then for wider erotic interest. The food becomes the object of desire.

I like food to be delicious – Huth Da Max’s Ofenfleck with goat’s cheese, spinach and tomato, washed down with a glass or two of the excellent house Blauer Zweigelt, did the trick perfectly – but I do not want it to become a god. Even more important than the food is what it facilitates; the sharing, the infectious enjoyment. This cannot happen when there is hermetic sealing between people, or between classes.

Thinking about infectious enjoyment also made me reflect on its opposite, which in economic terms goes by the name of self-defeating austerity. Casting a pall of gloom over people and scaring them half to death, using false analogies and misleading statistics, seems a risky way of bringing about an economic recovery. Gloom, as well as enjoyment, can be infectious.

Hold on a minute, though; do I detect a wink in European finance ministers’ eyes when they speak of austerity? The wink would mean something like this: “Don’t worry, austerity is not for people such as you and me; as we all know, top executives’ pay continues to increase at a really remarkable rate. We ministers may not be especially well-paid, but lucrative consultancies and directorships and speaking engagements await us. Austerity is mainly for the poor.”

Perhaps the UK chancellor George Osborne, and other proponents of austerity in Europe, are recalling as a cautionary tale a story related by Jean Jacques Rousseau in his Confessions. A “great princess”, when told the peasants could not afford bread, retorted: “Let them eat brioche”. Many assume that Rousseau was referring to Marie Antoinette.

Since the “let them eat brioche” solution did not really work, either for the peasants or for the princess, the austerity-wallahs are proposing something different and harsher: let the poorer classes eat dust and stones, while the powerful continue to live it up on billionaires’ yachts.

Infectious enjoyment is good for the health, I find; one feels not just lifted in mood but better in one’s body when surrounded by good cheer. Equally, austerity is bad for people. The recent study by David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu, The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills, is a powerful indictment of the unnecessary suffering and rising mortality rates associated with austerity policies unsoftened by remedial social programmes.

I hope the finance ministers read it, and try mixing with the ordinary people, who are the only ones who can bring about economic recovery.

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