We need to eat to live, but some also live to write. Terry Eagleton explains why the two acts are inexorably intertwined
The link between eating and writing has a venerable pedigree. Francis Bacon famously observed in his essay Of Studies that "some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested". Literary language can be mouth-filling or subtly flavoured, meaty or hard-boiled, spicy or indigestible. Words can nourish or poison, and somewhere beneath this figurative equation lurks the eucharistic word itself, a body that feeds other bodies, a sign that is also a meal. There are anorexic texts such as Samuel Beckett's, in which discourse is in danger of dwindling to a mere skeleton of itself, and bulimic ones like Gerard Manley Hopkins's, muscle-bound and semiotically overstuffed. The language of Keats is as plump and well-packed as an apple, while less palatable poets such as Swinburne are all froth and ooze. If Dylan Thomas binges on words, Harold Pinter approaches them with the wariness of a man on a diet. Bombast is a kind of verbal flatulence, a swelling which, like the bodies of the famished, conceals a hollowness.
Words issue from the lips as food enters them, though one can always take one's words back by eating them. And writing is a processing of raw speech just as cooking is a transformation of raw materials. One of Roland Barthes's structuralist models, bathetically enough, was a menu: just as a diner selects one item each from the "paradigmatic axes" of starters, entrees and desserts, and then combines them along a "syntagmatic axis" in the actual process of eating, so a literary work chooses items from various repertoires (genres, formal devices, narrative forms) and then goes on to string them together. These are the kind of speculations that send most English critics scrambling for their Helen Gardner. The later, post-structuralist Barthes threw over this model for the delights of semantic indeterminacy, but nothing is more alimentary than the ambiguous. If there is one sure thing about food, it is that it is never just food. Like the post-structuralist text, food is endlessly interpretable, as gift, threat, poison, recompense, barter, seduction, solidarity, suffocation.
Food is just as much materialised emotion as a love lyric, though both can also be substitutes for the genuine article. A sign expresses something but also stands in for its absence, so that a child may be unsure whether receiving nourishment from its mother's hands or breasts is a symbol of her affection or a replacement for it. Perhaps a child may rebuff its food because what it really wants is some impossibly immaterial gift of affection, rather as a symbolist poet wants to strip language of its drably functional character and express its very essence. Food looks like an object but is actually a relationship, and the same is true of literary works.
If there is no literary text without an author, neither is there one without a reader. The doctrine of transubstantiation, which states that the bread and wine of the mass become the body and blood of Christ, redescribes physical substances in terms of relationships. A chemist would still identify the consecrated elements as bread and wine, but this for Catholic theology would be as pointless as describing the proferring of a box of chocolates in physiological terms. There is a parallel mystery about writing: why are these little black marks actually meanings? By what strange transfiguration do arbitrary physical inscriptions come to be the medium of spirit, a matter of human address in the way that random tracks in the sand are not?
Language is at once material fact and rhetorical communication, just as eating combines biological necessity with cultural significance. Hunger-striking is not just refusing food, but a question of not taking it from a specific oppressor, and thus a dialogical affair. Starving here is a message rather than just a physical condition, semiotic as well as somatic. Food is cusped between nature and culture, and so too is language. Nobody will perish without Mars bars, just as nobody ever died of not reading Paradise Lost, but food and language of some sort are essential to our survival.
Fast food is like cliche or computerese, an emotionless exchange or purely instrumental form of discourse. Genuine eating combines pleasure, utility and sociality, and so differs from a take-away in much the same way that Proust differs from a bus ticket. Snatching a meal alone bears the same relation to eating in company as talking to yourself does to conversation. It is hardly surprising that a civilisation for which a dialogue of the mind with itself has provided a paradigm of human language should reach its apotheosis in the Big Mac.
Those starved words, gaunt bodies and sterile landscapes of Beckett's dramas may well carry with them a race memory of the Irish famine, a catastrophe that was the slow death of language as well as of one million people. The famine decimated the farm labourers and small tenants, who made up most of the Irish speakers, and using the language in post-famine Ireland rapidly became a symbol of ill-luck. It is possible to read Beckett's meticulously pared-down prose as a satirical smack at the blather and blarney of stage-Irish speech. Beckett hoards his meagre clutch of words like a tight-fisted peasant, ringing pedantic changes on the same few signs or stage properties like someone eking out a scanty diet. There is, perhaps, a Protestant suspicion of superfluity here, in contrast to the extravagant expenditure of a Joyce, the linguistic opulence of J. M. Synge or the verbal gluttony of Brendan Behan.
But all that reckless prodigality may itself have a bearing on food, as a form of compensation in the mind for what is lacking in historical reality. In conditions of colonial backwardness, language is one of the few things you have left; and though even that in Ireland had been put down by the imperial power, words were still a good deal more plentiful than hot dinners. Part of the point of language was to bamboozle the colonialists. The linguistic virtuosity of the Irish writers springs partly from the fact that, like Joseph Conrad and many a modernist emigre, they are inside and outside a language simultaneously. But it is also a form of displacement, whereby you hope to discover in discourse a richness denied to you in reality.
The most celebrated food-text of English literature is the work of an Anglo-Irish patriot who bitterly recommended munching babies as a solution to his country's economic ills. During the Great Famine, this may well have happened; as Swift's fellow Dubliner Oscar Wilde observed, life has a remarkable knack of imitating art. Language in Irish culture, however, is associated less with food than with drink. As drink flows in, so words pour out, each fuelling the other in a self-sustaining process. In fact, apart from the notoriously bibulous trinity of Behan, Flann O'Brien and Patrick Kavanagh, remarkably few Irish writers have been alcoholics - far fewer than American authors, for whom alcohol seems as much of a prerequisite as a typewriter.
There is a fair amount of eating in Ulysses, but the novel itself, at least in the view of the critic John Bayley, is impossible to consume, "sunk in its own richness like a plumcake". Bayley misses the point that Joyce's work is deliberately calculated to induce dyspepsia. Modernist art was born at much the same time as mass culture, and one reason for its obscurity is to resist being sucked in as easily as tabloid print. By fragmenting its forms, thickening its textures and garbling its narratives, the modernist text hopes to escape the indignities of instantconsumption.
It is significant that our word for the use of a commodity - consumption - is drawn from the guts and the gullet. This modern metaphor has a rather more high-toned ancestor: taste. The 18th-century idea of taste was partly a way of freeing artistic evaluation from too rigid a consensus: taste was subjective, beyond disputation, a je ne sais quoi that refused any total reduction to rules. Just as there was no moral obligation to like rhubarb, so it was not a capital offence to turn up your nose at Rembrandt. Similarly, what food you enjoyed was a private, arbitrary affair - until, that is, you tried ordering in your London club the kind of meal they ate in rural Cork. But this gustatory trope made room for individual freedom only at the risk of trivialising art to the status of a sausage, rather as the modern idea of consumption celebrates individual choice while threatening to drain it of value.
Food is what makes up our bodies, just as words are what constitute our minds; and if body and mind are hard to distinguish, it is no wonder that eating and speaking should continually cross over in metaphorical exchange. Both are in any case media of exchange themselves. There is no more modish topic in contemporary literary theory than the human body. But there has been strikingly little concern with the physical stuff of which bodies are composed, as opposed to an excited interest in their genitalia. The human body is generally agreed to be "constructed", but what starts off that construction for all of us - milk - has been curiously passed over. There has been much critical interest in the famished body of the western anorexic, but rather little attention to the malnutrition of the Third World. Perhaps such dwindled bodies are too bluntly material a matter for a so-called "materialist" criticism.
One notable exception to this indifference to the politics of starvation is Maud Ellmann's brilliant study The Hunger Artists, which concludes with the following reflections: "(Food's) disintegration in the stomach, its assimilation in the blood, its diaphoresis in the epidermis, its metempsychosis in the large intestine; its viscosity in okra, gumbo, oysters; its elasticity in jellies; its deliquescence in blancmanges; its tumescence in the throats of serpents, its slow erosion in the bellies of sharks; its odysseys through pastures, orchards, wheat fields, stock-yards, supermarkets, kitchens, pig troughs, rubbish dumps, disposals; the industries of sowing, hunting, cooking, milling, processing, and canning it; the wizardry of its mutations, ballooning in bread, subsiding in souffles; raw and cooked, solid and melting, vegetable and mineral, fish, flesh, and fowl, encompassing the whole compendium of living substance: food is the symbol of the passage, the totem of sociality, the epitome of all creative and destructive labour."
Ellmann quite properly makes a meal of it. Her paragraph coils like an intestine, the sense slipping from clause to clause like a morsel down the oesophagus. As these lines track the processing of food, so they in turn process that subject matter, by the cuisinary transformations of style, into a delectable feast.
Terry Eagleton is Thomas Warton professor of English literature and fellow of St Catherine's College, University of Oxford.
THE TIMES 7Joctober 24J1997perspectiveJ25 'Genuineeating ...differs froma take-awayin much the same waythat Proust differs from a bus ticket.'