On Shelley's sideboard

Shelley and the Revolution in Taste
February 28, 1997

The politics of food, together with the relationship of the body to the world which furnishes it with the means of sustenance, is the burden of Timothy Morton's meticulous investigation, Shelley and the Revolution in Taste. This book, which aspires to be a "green cultural criticism", is not about what Percy Bysshe Shelley ate, but about what Shelley, his circle, and his society, thought about what they, and others, ate.

In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1816), for example, the monster prefers a "natural" diet of bread, cheese, and milk. This preference not only aligns the monster with Shelley's own views on diet, but reinforces the sense of the initial moral impulses of Frankenstein's otherwise unnatural creation. Primarily, Morton maintains, Shelley's dietary concerns were ideological. Yet, Shelley's chief published statement on the topic, his pamphlet A Vindication of Natural Diet (1813), ends with the ringing exhortation: "NEVER TAKE ANY SUBSTANCE INTO THE STOMACH THAT ONCE HAD LIFE". The similarity of this prescription to the practice of ahimsa - reverence for all life - among the Jains of India, whose devotees are masked to ensure that no tiny fraction of wind-born and soul-laden life is inadvertently consumed, is evident. Morton is silent, however, about the influence on Shelley's dietary politics of nonwestern practices and beliefs; his study is firmly located within a narrower, domestic, political sphere.

The politics of early 19th-century food production and consumption provides, as it were, the sideboard upon which Shelley's poetics are served up. But Morton's book perhaps promises rather more here than it delivers. A "revol-ution in taste" is suggestive of an aesthetic as well as a political programme. On the politics of the "body", Morton acknowledges the influence of historicist work in the field of Renaissance studies since the 1970s. But on the representation of the body, Morton has rather less to say.

Shelley lived and wrote in a society unlike our own, where the production of food, and its appearance on the table (providing one had the money) were closely linked. The lowing of cattle being driven to slaughter at Smithfield could be heard in the dining rooms of Georgian Bloomsbury. At the same time, Shelley and his contemporaries knew nothing of carbohydrates, fatty acids and calorific values.

In the 17th century, Sir Thomas Browne, observing human and animal bodies fertilising the earth, which produces vegetable matter, which is converted into meat, concluded that "we are what we all abhorre... devourers not onely of men but of our selves". For Browne, in the presence of this primitive food cycle, the scriptural text "All flesh is grasse" contained a literal truth. By contrast, a 1792 cartoon by Gillray (a small selection of whose images Morton reproduces) depicts the politically skeletal republican Frenchman dining on limp, vegetarian fodder, and a corpulent John Bull, carving a steaming haunch of animal. Of this image, Morton observes that "John Bull tucking into beef is made to look more natural than the French revolutionary's 'Natural Diet'". But John Bull's pock-marked, no-neck, piggy enormity is as grotesque as the Frenchman's vulpine hunger. For Gillray, just as for Browne, there is no "natural" body; or, rather, the body is capable of disturbing metamorphoses, which allows it to represent wider, less corporeal ideological structures within its own frame. "One eats ideology while consuming a McDonald's hamburger," Morton writes, and he is surely correct. What he shows, by his incisive readings of individual texts, is how Shelley, too, understood the truth of this notion. Shelley and the Revolution in Taste is a subtle, thought-provoking and ambitious analysis of the opposed ways of life of the rich and the poor, the hungry and the surfeited, as exposed in Shelley's thinking. Nobody interested either in Shelley's poetics or the body's politics will be able to ignore.

Jonathan Sawday is senior lecturer inEnglish, University of Southampton.

Shelley and the Revolution in Taste: The Body and the Natural World

Author - Timothy Morton
ISBN - 0 521 47135 4
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 298

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