We all want to be Pagans: Reflections on the documentary "Jiro Dreams of Sushi"

There was a moment about fifteen minutes into the beautifully (and surprisingly) riveting documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi when I realized Jiro Ono, the sushi chef at the center of the story (whom many call the best in the world) all but worshiped his beloved food: the process of selection, the preparation, the eating of his dishes, and the serving of it to his enraptured patrons. Of course he did no conscious worshiping. Instead, it was implicit in everything he did, if we call "worship" what we choose to order our entire lives around, what we devote the entirety of our passions to, or that which utterly consumes us. This is what sushi has become for Jiro. It is his great love, even to the point where he dreams about it at night (hence the film's title).

This realization led to another thought: Jiro is a pagan. That is, is a "thing" worshiper or one who worships the earth and the stuff of earth.*

His whole life was structured around the production and consumption of ONE THING, both for himself and for others. It was at once devastatingly beautiful and tragic.

The man, his story, and his restaurant were absolutely entrancing. The cinematographers did their best to ensure the beauty of Yiro's, his son's Yoshikazu's, and the rest of their team's techniques were displayed in majestic grandeur: each flick of the wrist while turning the seaweed wraps, each tenderizing massage pushed into an octopus, each stir of the egg tofu portrayed in sweeping slow motion; their precise and loving repetition matched by the accompanying classical art music (often most fittingly paired with Philip Glass). While it is impossible to take in the whole experience of Yiro's restaurant on film, it was made clear through the portrayal that the elderly Japanese man had ascended to Sistine Chapel-like heights within the cuisine world. He had become a food god.

And who wouldn't want that? Who among us--the work and preternatural talent required notwithstanding--would not want to become a god (or God) within some realm of human achievement? The unceasing recognition, the reveling in one's unsurpassed work, the knowledge that I alone have ascended this mountain, and then the pure joy and pleasure of partaking of one's own work (in his case eating the "best" sushi in the world). What I mean to say is, we all want to make the thing the Thing and ourselves the god and supreme ruler of that thing. This is paganism. To be lost in the thing-ness of things, immersed in materials to the core of their and our being, to worship the earth.

But isn't this the misstep the Ten Commandments tries to protect us against: that we are to instead worship the One who made the earth, to be lost in the wonder of God because that wonder supersedes, pervades, and transcends all earthly pleasures, the one being or thing actually worthy of worship? And to be a non-pagan is not to reject our earthiness for the higher ideal of spirit alone-ness. No, to worship and partake of the God of the Ten Commandments, the God who sent his son to the earth, is to do so as fleshly creatures, spirit and body together. We experience the same depth and breadth of pleasures as we once had in our pagan-ness, but when we worship it is only directed to our God and maker. Our pleasure in the thing does not transform into worship of the thing, for we know that our God, who made heaven and earth and all the pleasures therein, revels as much as we do in our pleasures when our ultimate joy is found in him alone.

Jiro the chef will keep striving. For perfection. For the ever-greater experience of pleasure. For another rung of human achievement. Every time he rolls up another oblong ball of rice, marinades another filet of world class quality fish, or pays careful attention to the needs of every single one of his patrons, there will be a chance for him to get better. And he will do so until he dies and his eldest son can truly take over the family business. And his effort will be beautiful and wondrous, but ultimately just another pagan exercise; another Babel ascending into a scattered history.


*Other terms could work here as well: a-theistic pagan (to be more precise), secular pantheist (or pan-a-theist), non-religious neo-pagan, materialist, earth worshiper. There is however something in the word Pagan that signals to me what Jiro in fact is (though he would probably never attach it to himself) and that is why I use it here. By all accounts, that is, according to the film, Jiro appears to be a "normal"^ secular person with hints of a religious life (Shintoism, I think and perhaps Buddhism) who has devoted his whole life to his work and craft. By calling him a "Pagan" I in no way mean he is a polytheist of the Greek, Northern European, or any of the more classical derivations given to the various religions of the world, but instead am implying that (whether he knows it or not) he is a thing worshiper, that even if he acknowledges no transcendence in his work, I, as a theist, can ascribe the term to him, that indeed his work points to that which is outside himself and even outside the materials he works with, that as he devotes himself entirely to this one craft, consuming him whole, he in turn becomes a worshiper not just of those things but of Stuff itself. He therefore worships the earth.

^There is nothing normal about this extraordinary man.

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