A friend of mine is a philosophy scholar who specializes in applying Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophy to the tourism and travel industry. I recently came across the following quote in one of her papers; it is an excerpt from Sartre’s Being and Nothingness:
[The spirit of seriousness] transfers the quality of ‘desirable’ from the ontological structure of things to their simple material constitution. For the spirit of seriousness, for example, bread is desirable because it is necessary to live (a value written in an intelligible heaven) and because bread is nourishing. The result of the serious attitude, which as we know rules the world, is to cause the symbolic values of things to be drunk in by their empirical idiosyncrasy as ink by a blotter; it puts forward the opacity of the desired object and posits it in itself as a desirable irreducible.
I leave the translation of this spirit of seriousness concept to the experts; I’m interested in the bread! Sartre is describing a mental process related to metonymy. Metonymy is when the word for one thing (bread) is taken to represent a larger or more abstract concept or thing (sustenance,satiation). For example, Matthew 4:4 claims that human beings do not live on bread alone, which is literally true, but in context this phrase is metonymic: bread stands in for all food, and the verse goes on to claim that believers must supplement this physical sustenance with spiritual sustenance. In the above excerpt, however, Sartre is concerned with the flip side of metonymy – not that bread is taken as a symbol of all sustenance, but that bread is taken to be an exemplary sustenance. The symbolic value of bread is “drunk in” as though it were the empirical value of bread: the most important food, something one cannot live without.
When I read this quote, I thought of the past two winters and the onslaught of snowstorms each brought. When snow is forecast, bread (and milk, and eggs) fly off the grocery store shelves. Even growing up in a relatively warm climate, I remember my mother gritting her teeth when we needed to buy groceries before a big storm: everyone in the world would already be out, buying bread. And milk. And eggs. We now joke: is everyone planning to make French toast?