Posted on:Monday 20th July, 2020
You will often find me thinking about food and drink. Sometimes, it is part of my research on what I call leftovers: the unthought-of psychological, historical and figurative meanings which I identify in representations of eating and drinking in post-war French fiction and thought (a taste of which follows, after a virtual detour to some erstwhile haunts of Rimbaud, Verlaine and a host of other French literary figures). Sometimes, I am just thinking about delicious things (often French). And, during lockdown, I am no doubt not alone in thinking a lot about contemporary questions of consumption: spanning global issues such as food poverty and sustainable food systems and very local conundrums, such as what to cook and how soon may it be eaten (and the bodily ramifications of my newly elastic conception of moderation during a global pandemic).
Now, as we consider if and where to go to eat out and drink, I am aware more than ever of the tensions between pleasure and danger, and of the ethics of how best to eat well with others. This resonates with the ambivalent leftovers of French thought and fiction which feed my research.
An amuse gueule for re-openings in Britain came in the shape of tantalizing media reports 2 June 2020 of the French enjoying being back on the terrasses of their favourite eating and drinking establishments. Many were accompanied by photographs, often of Left Bank haunts with illustrious literary pasts and tourist-fed presents such as St Germain‘s Café de Flore. A glimpse of this old haunt of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir had me pop over digitally to the Deux Magots, likewise frequented by existentialists and surrealists, but which also served Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud. Meanwhile, the Closerie des Lilas in Montparnasse (boasting poetic patrons Apollinaire, Louis Aragon, Charles Baudelaire, André Breton, Paul Éluard, Paul Fort and Tristan Tzara and whence Verlaine wrote to Rimbaud 2 April 1872), is now serving drinkers and diners in addition to its click-and-collect service featuring the not quite eponymous ‘Close Burger’. The venerable Procope, where a surprisingly decorous Verlaine is immortalized as sitting at Voltaire’s favourite table, is closed until September. However, the Maison de Verlaine restaurant has re-opened, its virtual potted history jauntily offering details of the impoverished poet’s death sur place from alcoholism alongside a welcome to diners (apart from Wednesdays and Thursday lunchtime).
If tourists now occupy seats where literary figures of the French past sought company, warmth or fuel (whether for the imagination or for addiction), appearances by writers today are now part of a much more knowing media circus. A taste of this is found in the amusing send up in Michel Houellebecq’s 2010 novel La Carte et le territoire/The Map and the Territory of a fictional Frédéric Beigbeder in full flow at the Café de Flore (a scene with the leftover effects of recalling how, with his own bibulous mise-en-scène, the ‘real’ writer Houellebecq is co-implicated in promoting his own consumption as a literary figure). Nonetheless, the ’real’ Beigbeder founded the Prix de Flore in 1994, a literary prize for young novelists that latterly responds to the 1933-founded Prix des Deux Magots, responding in turn to the Prix Goncourt, so if the presence of illustrious writers has become involved with the marketing of images, these haunts continue to pull a literary punch.
Verlaine and Rimbaud, like Beigbeder, are much more readily associated with alcohol and drugs than with food, but my delicious tourism by proxy around their drinking holes and its intersections with France’s best-selling bête noire brings my thoughts back to my work on representations of food and drink in works by more recent French writers. And, perhaps more surprisingly, of French thinkers. Of course, food and drink (and how and where they are consumed) are important tools for the writer of fiction: meals get characters together and can be the premise for conversation, conflict, moving plots on and marking the passing of time. Eating and drinking habits are also key for characterization, as well as foreshadowing, symbolism and for authors to communicate critical, sociological and historical connotations.
Yet what fascinates me is less this standard literary fare, than the unintended meanings that such strategic representations bring with them – the leftovers bound up with food and drink. This is because, whilst eating and drinking are necessary to sustaining life, and so appear to go without saying, food and drink are intrinsically ambivalent, and always exceed the ways in which they are deployed, whether by a cook, a writer or a thinker.
In fact, it is astounding quite how much food, drink and figures of their consumption fuel post-war French thought, and this discovery has led me to harness an eclectic range of works which can be used to reveal leftover meanings, feelings and experiences: individual and social; pleasant and painful; enduring and repressed. Re-thinking how eating and drinking are deployed by a range of post-war French thinkers – many of whom could be found at the Café de Flore – provides me with critical tools for identifying psychological, historical and ideological leftovers in representations of food and drink.
For example, Pierre Bourdieu’s analyses of how food choices are determined by, and perpetuate, class difference and Beauvoir’s discussion of shopping and cooking as examples of how women are constructed as man’s negative other, can alert us to ways in which food and drink operate as mechanisms of exclusion and feed into constructs of class, gender and race. Roland Barthes’ de-mythologizing of the nationalist, bourgeois premises lurking in what he calls the French national meal of steak frites keeps us on the lookout for the ways in which we may unthinkingly consume and perpetuate the ideologies bound up with food, drink and representations of it. Going back to our very first changes in eating habits, Jacques Lacan argues that severance from the mother’s breast is key to individuation, resulting in a yearning for an ever-lost oneness – the lack he describes as feeding desire that cannot be assuaged, resonating with representations of hunger and appetite. Claude Fischler’s work on the incorporation of food and drink spans the psychological, social, economic and the imaginary. Here we are alerted again to the ideologies and power relations bound up with food and drink. Fischler also explains how incorporating food involves simultaneous responses of pleasure and danger, hunger for the new and fear of the unknown as we establish what we believe to be edible and inedible. Such classifications are not simply functional or biological, but also involve imagination and value judgements. Fischler also notes how incorporation destabilizes boundaries of inside and outside, literally and symbolically taking on board something ‘other’.
Always ambivalent, then, eating and drinking are at once material and inseparable from the imaginary, and so open to infinite interpretations for the eater and for the reader. Such slippery signifiers bring Jacques Derrida to the table. He identifies traces of meaning which are intrinsic to all signifying practices, deconstructing falsely-premised binary oppositions and stable meanings, instead opening up multiple, provisional interpretations (and one of the terms Derrida uses for the trace ‘ les restes’ also translates into English as ‘leftovers’). Such a constant play of leftover meanings which always already escape definitive signification, resonates at once with Verlaine’s exploration of the indefinite, and Rimbaud’s destabilizing of the binaries of self and other.
Eating brings these together in Derrida’s discussion with Jean-Luc Nancy of the injunction ‘il faut bien manger’ – ‘one must eat (well)’. Just as eating is required for survival, the nature of interpersonal relationships means that consuming the other is inevitable, so the question is not whether to eat, but how to and so, how best to be with – to consume – the other. The ethical challenge here is to consume others well – without setting up binaries or boundaries – whilst being open, likewise, to being consumed as other.
This brings me back not only to the interpretive leftovers bound up with food and drink and representations of them, but also to thinking about our contemporary patterns of consumption. As Derrida puts it, ‘toutes les différences, les ruptures, les guerres […] ont ce “bien manger” pour enjeu. Aujourd’hui plus que jamais. Il faut bien manger’ (p. 110) [‘in all differences, ruptures and wars (…) “eating well” is at stake. Today more than ever. One must eat well’ (p.115)]. As we emerge from lockdown, consider going back to our old haunts and habits, and imagine raising a glass to Rimbaud and Verlaine on a Left Bank terrasse, this is a timely reminder of what is at stake in representations and in acts of consumption. Nothing in what we eat and drink goes without saying: there will always be leftovers.
For Further Re-thinking with Eating and Drinking
Ruth Cruickshank, ‘Exploring Leftover Meanings in Representations of Food’, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BzSj_JrcQ-A
Ruth Cruickshank, Leftovers: Eating, Drinking and Re-thinking with Case Studies from Post-war French Fiction (Liverpool University Press, 2019) http://bit.ly/rcleftovers
Jacques Derrida and Jean Luc Nancy, ‘“Il faut bien manger” ou le calcul du sujet: Entretien avec Jean-Luc Nancy’, in Cahiers Confrontation, 20 (1989), pp. 91–114; ‘"Eating Well", or the Calculation of the Subject: An Interview with Jacques Derrida’, Eduardo Cadava, Peter Connor and Jean-Luc Nancy (eds.), Who Comes After the Subject? (London: Routledge, 1991), pp. 96–119
Fischler, Claude, ‘Food, Self and Identity’, Social Science Information, 27.2
(1988), pp. 275–92; L’Homnivore (Paris: Odile Jacob, 1990).
(Forthcoming) Debra Kelly, Fishes With Funny French Names. The French Restaurant in London from the Nineteenth to the Twenty-First First Century (Liverpool University Press, 2021)