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'The Poetics of Fire' explores the history and cultural Significance of the chile

Author Victor Valle. (Courtesy)
Author Victor Valle. (Courtesy)

Author Victor Valle has researched the chile and the culinary traditions stretching back thousands of years in Mexico. The chile is more than a spicy element in a dish —  it has important cultural significance, he writes.

Valle lays out the amazing story of the chile in his book “The Poetics of Fire.” He joins host Deepa Fernandes to discuss.

Book excerpt: ‘The Poetics of Fire’

By Victor Valle

Capsaicin-Induced Synesthesia

Recent work in the neurochemistry of chile and Timothy Morton’s writing on how synesthetic
language expresses a taster’s immersion in sensation and meaning proved crucial in my critique of chile-eating aesthesis. Writers who send dispatches from that country resort to synesthesia, the confusion of different orders of sensory knowledge, to imagine those sensations as a symphony of flavors, a cliché that equates the atmospheres of taste with an engrossing sound that dissolves everyday notions of the body’s limits, and the time before, during, and after pleasure consumes us. We thus experience synesthesia in poetry as a corporeal atmosphere, “a kind of embodied space,” Morton argues, an experience suggested by the term ambience. Smell, Morton writes, is this drama’s most powerful ambient agent: it “is associated both with pungency of the corporeal and with the intangibility of the mental,” the je ne sais quoi of the “unattainable object of desire. A smell is also a presence that moves, an atmosphere and something emerging from an atmosphere.” Atmospheres have volume, a sensory space-time fabric we discover in the involuntary memory that interrupts whatever we were thinking before an aroma immerses us in another sensorium of meanings and memories. The taste, touch, and sounds that trail an aroma extend the duration and the dimensional depth of its aura. Chile’s pungency, however, takes its “ambient” qualities to the sensory limit. With violence or subtlety, just a hint of it can open an aperture from which to summon shards of place memory or to inscribe a new, unforgettable memory, as the gastronome and playwright Paco Ignacio Taibo I (late father of the eponymously named Mexican hardboiled detective novelist) expressed in his reminiscence of a mole-tasting visit to Oaxaca:


Suddenly walking into a great warehouse filled with different chiles is an experience that can transform the whole olfactory system; putting aside the unquestionable beauty the dried pods offer, with their intense shades of lustrous black and golden ochre hues; putting all that aside, the locale’s aroma is so thick, so penetrating, so piercing it indeed rebuffs the intruder with a punch to the nose. Chile does not stay still. It floats in the air; it fills its surroundings with its sphere of influence, and sidles up to linger on the skin in such a way that if you were to put your finger in your mouth four hours later you would still feel it lingering there, in a state somewhere between flesh and chile.

The connotative power of these sensations, it must be stressed, arises from their materiality, not from the printed page. Consider how the mere presence of pulverized chile de árbol, when
sprinkled with a squeeze of lime, moves raw oranges, cucumbers, or oysters into the category of
the fully cooked because the sensation of piquancy enhances their sweetness, acidity, or brininess without need of explanation. Those who indulge chile-eating as a kind of thrill-seeking aesthesis, moreover, may imagine it as a dangerous immersion they anticipate in their first taste of the angriest habanero, a minor terror that warns, “Watch out, it’s hot.” Yet they dive in, quietly thrilled to discover how hot it is in their quest to relive the drama of what might consume them and the sense of mastery earned from surviving that trial. For Walter Benjamin, the experience of sensory envelopment is key. Whether stimulus of involuntary memory or shock of an experience

that produces a new memory, a pleasurable or disgusting taste breaks the outward-looking habit of scanning our visual field to remind us that we are already inside the orb of our subjectivity— hence the need for a synesthetic language to express what we can taste, touch, and hear yet hardly see.

Excerpted from “The Poetics of Fire” Metaphors of Chile Eating in the Borderlands.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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