by Heather Clague
In our last meeting, I mentioned the phrase “Kale Factor”, which has been rolling around my head for the past few months, and if you will indulge me, I’d like to take this opportunity to figure out what I really mean by it, and why it seems so important to me now, when we are reading Proust.
What if it turned out that kale wasn’t a super-food? What if it was just an average vegetable, like turnips or celery, neither toxic nor not particularly healthy? How would I feel about it? How much does the pleasure I associate with kale consumption rely upon factors extrinsic to it’s actual gustatory qualities?
Plenty of marketing research has demonstrated that our enjoyment of food is highly influenced by our associations to it. (See Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink) Put the soda in the wrong can, and we won’t like it as much. Proust showed us how the experience of cookie crumbs soaking into tea can evoke a rich set of meanings and memories that can be just as salient as the mouth feel of the original stimulus. So it is to be expected that some degree of my pleasure in kale lies in its ‘Kale Factor’ (KF), its ability to activate within me a righteous sense cruciferous cancer-fighting wholesomeness (and here in Berkeley it can get extra points if it is locally and organically grown).
A high KF, by itself, is probably not enough to sustain our enduring interest, if the intrinsic experience is not at least interesting. Coffee, chocolate, wine, even Proust, have clearly prospered largely on their own merits, not just because they were deemed virtuous (carob or acai anyone?) And of course not everyone is positively influenced by the Kale Factor (probably why you don’t see hoards of teenagers descending on the produce aisle). However, a high KF is often a critical motivational factor to nudge me towards something I might otherwise drift away from, at least until the point that my involvement becomes stabilized by other factors such as its intrinsic qualities or my own habit.
KF helps me negotiate the challenges of non-immediate gratifications. Honestly, for me, reading Proust is hard, often soporific. Sometimes getting into it feels like trying to get a 747 off the ground, and continuing to read is like keeping the 747 in the air. But as Renée described at our last meeting, after some time of effort-fully muddling through, something starts to happen. Images unfold in my mind, his little observations make me smile, and then I am in it for its own sake, with a happy chorus of Kale singing in the background (“like a song taken up in ‘head voice’, an octave above”. (MK translation, pg. 69)