Over the past week, one episode per night, I have been taking in Netflix’s documentary series Chef’s Table.
Having completed the season, one immediate thing becomes apparent: how many different archetypes can be fit into a single narrative. The goofy rebel, the ecologist, the Hemingway, the type A woman, the family man, and the prodigal son all fall into the same story line: A dream forms, falls off track, and then, through an assertion of individualism/uniqueness and persistence bears fruit.
Still, it was strongly affecting. Even as yet another Chef espoused the importance of “freedom” or one more critic lined up to say the chef “really puts himself into his dishes,” each brand of “The Chef” managed to deliver something new on the topic of creativity, family, or food.
One completely under developed angle of each story were the women that supported each of these Chef’s. It reminded me of the fictional biography in AS Byatt’s Possession “Helpmates,” which celebrates the role wives and mother’s play in the lives of celebrated artist. Behind every “great man” with a dream there is a woman with a dream deferred and a grocery bag on her hips.
Several years ago, I gave up watching Mad Men because it made me feel deeply sad. That is practically my default setting so I don’t really need to be watching entertainment to invoke those feelings in me.
In the same fashion, I probably should have turned away from Chef’s Table. It’s the same story told six different times of different people’s success at creating a life that tethers them to their dreams and being recognized publicly for it. I don’t know how to write this without it sounded like petty jealousy, but the cumulative effect of the show is an uncomfortable feeling that I am adrift in my own life. I have no narrative arch and, worse, I have no dream to tether me in the first place.
Of course, everything that didn’t fit our documentarians arch had been edited out. And it some places that editing was obvious: a disapproving families’ attitude barely explored, children shown in some episodes but never mentioned.
So much is being written now about how as self-documentarians on social media, we are also careful editors. And I certainly feel that way. There are so many things I want to say online/out loud that I don’t, because they are self-indulgent/depressing/useless to say out loud.
Creative expression also requires careful editing. An artist tries to invoke a particular feeling in his viewer through engaging the senses of the viewer. What is left unsaid is as important as what is said. Food is an interesting means of creative expression because very rarely, I think, does a diner thinking “I would like to feel the despair of not knowing if I have made the right choice” or other similar negative emotions. A documentarian, a song writer, a movie maker may feel the same : as all art converges into popular cultures what’s painful rarely gets air time.
At the same time, for some of us, so much of inner life is occupied with painful emotions. I can’t help but feel erased.