Or on Reading Ourselves, Homo Cohabitus, with Newton in a New Tone
A Reflection On/With:
Feast & Fast: The Art of Food in Europe, 1500–1800
Tuesday, November 26, 2019 scheduled until Sunday, April 26, 2020 (but forced to close on Sunday, March 16, 2020, due to COVID-19)
The Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge, UK
I notice that if I am sad or in danger and preoccupied by some sad affairs, I sleep deeply and eat voraciously. But if I am full of joy, I do not eat or sleep.
– René Descartes, Private Thoughts (Cogitationes Privatae in Olympica, 1619–1621)
The house of my soul is too narrow for thee to come in to me; let it be enlarged by thee. It is in ruins; do thou restore it. There is much about it which must offend thy eyes; I confess and know it. But who will cleanse it? Or, to whom shall I cry but to thee?
– St. Augustine, Confessions (397–400)
And “Payd my Laundresse 0.5.6.” … and a little later “Payd to my laundresse 0.2.6” …. these are what I noticed inter alia and I began to wonder, ponder … along the way …
Meet Young Isaac, who will become Sir Isaac Newton (1643–1727), a Cambridge graduate, also an avid reader of René Descartes (1596–1650), a French-born peripatetic philosopher and mathematician who died in Sweden. A light traveller, Descartes carried around in a locked box an encrypted notebook, Olympica, which was lost by 1670. Yet, at least about one and a half pages of it were quickly copied by another follower of Cartesian mathematics and “rationalist” philosophy, G. W. Leibniz (1646–1716), a German polymath who was searching for that rumored manuscript. That is how some traces of Descartes’ “private thoughts” are kept alive.
Newton, too, kept a notebook (shown above), at least two of such, as we know of. We are not talking about the kind of “commonplace book” that good students were expected to keep but more like a pocket book. The University of Cambridge where he studied and later taught has two, both titled Quaestiones Quaedam Philosophicae (Certain Philosophical Questions), which show seeds and sketches for his ground-breaking ideas in the making. The first book, starting in 1659 and archived at Trinity College where he was an undergraduate student, makes evident that Newton had already started working on his QQP (my abbreviation) prior to his arrival at the University in June 1661. The second book, starting in 1662 ends with his appointment to the position of second Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge in 1669. The second book, archived in the Fitzwilliam Museum at the University of Cambridge, traces some of his professional and philosophical progress as well as personal problems, private pangs, etc.
Now begins the story. Return to the Trinity notebook and turn to the “other” pages, where Issac, this newly arriving, ambitious freshman, added a new series. In June 1661, in his new environment, maybe in his dorm room, I wonder, he started recording his Expensa Propria (Personal Expenses, hereafter EP, my abbrev.). And here is an important compositional detail of the EP within the QQP we need to note, to keep in mind, in order to “get it”: the author of the EP starts from the back of the notebook and on the back side, and writes upside down, on the clean verso, that is, of the recto pages saved for the QQP. Two, both, sides matter now.
Expensa Propria, documented on the other, blank side of the personal notebook, is a private inventory, a laundry list, vividly random memos, some traces of his life at the College. Even after getting settled in at Cambridge, fairly comfortably, as one might imagine, Newton continued this practice of recording such quotidian details about his daily subsistence, as shown in the Fitzwilliam Notebook where we see that he, most likely back in town from a trip back home (Woolsthorpe Manor, August 1665–April 1667) during the Great Plague of 1665–1666, paid his—his, not a or the—laundress first 5 shillings and 6 pence, followed shortly after by another 2 shillings and 6 pence, and paid the porter 5 shillings and 6 pence while spending 4 shillings and 2 pence on 4 oranges for his sister (and not for himself?). Gentle order has been restored.
“And because this is England,” to borrow this window frame from Sally Potter’s 1999 film adaptation of Orlando (1588–1928, the character in Virginia Woolf’s eponymous 1928 fiction), contemporaneous then with M. Descartes and Sir Newton both, the everyday life of this solid student at Trinity as a “subsizar,” a work-study student waiting tables at the college dining hall and cleaning other students’ dorm rooms—also “destined to have his portrait on the wall and his name in the history books” (Potter on Orlando)—seemed also emblematically English, whatever that might mean today in the age of post-Brexit and whatnot. In any case, given his class background, pre-Cambridge Isaac might not have had all that “good food, education, a nanny, loneliness, and isolation” (again, Potter/Orlando), yet all of this becomes part of the picture as this future physicist and mathematician of epoch-defining gravity starts his academic life.
It is not Newton’s life per se that I am about to rethink, however. I have neither the desire nor the expertise to pursue such a line of research especially on a figure likely not being understudied. What interests me at the moment is just that “laundry list” moment in the life of a scholar, in particular the one currently Newtonalized at Cambridge. What, who, else remains under-understood? As I am a Professor Lee, too, one paid to profess, there also seems that not-so perverse, semi-public pleasure of picking through a fellow scholar’s semi-scholarly, otherwise made books, be it notebooks or books not yet (or yet to be [re-]) written. What immediately got me thinking, cogitatively salivating, was that curious object carrying Newton’s fingerprints and calligraphic footprints: those scribbly pages out now and waiting, with quiet twofold openness, at the far left end of the display cabinet in the corner behind the last room of the fabulous, retrofuturist show at the Fitzwilliam, Feast & Fast: The Art of Food in Europe, 1500–1800.
The exhibition, cerebrally comprehensive and critically celebratory, where the QQP is presented upside down and back side out accordingly, is itself a platter of cocktailed fastidiousness and fabulousness as well as aesthetics and polemics, all provided with curatorial incisiveness and finesse. Reanimating the sense of life that permeates the treasure trove of archival objects from the Fitzwilliam and elsewhere related to culinary culture, early European on this occasion, Feast & Fast has the viewers feast fast on the poetics and polemics of food production, preparation, consumption, and circulation while allowing its richly dense and various semiosis and sensorealities to continue to percolate and overflow the exhibition space, which extends into the front lawn of the museum, where a 4-meter tall flamboyant gold pineapple by Bompas & Parr, a techno-pineapple construction, is showing off its real virtual post-Newtonian gravitas.
Read this way, the QQP really is not just some curious stuff left by some rightly canonical Cambridge-y genius or some new fetish object to be contained and worshipped; that would be as bad as missing the whole (pointy presence of that) pineapple. More simply and immediately, required here is a closer, more critical and creative readership, given all such rich contexts that are known and somehow unknown. The “front” side of the QQP (center), juxtaposed with the back sides (“personal expenses” are on the left and the list of sins including food confessions on the right), together illuminates a 3D Newton. In other words, the “other” sides of the QQP, which many standard narratives tend to dismiss or ignore, do not exactly show the “other” Newton. Rather, one reads him “otherwise,” making a more holistically embodied sense of all that density, complexity, and extensivity of human existence. Pertaining to his case and milieu, we also get to relate to what he would have eaten in the privacy of his room (those apples, pears, raisins, stewed prunes, wafers, white wine, and sugar on the list would have been consumed in his room, as Victoria Avery, the amazing keeper and researcher from whom nothing seems to escape, so keenly infers) and at what cost, also in relative terms. The notebook recontextualized here opens up such a new window, however micro-, into a deeper and wider reality surrounding his example, his life not just as an exemplary towering figure in the domain of “intellectual” life narrowly conceived, where there seems no eating, sleeping, sleep-talking, no towering pineapple.
What I find particularly engaging and instructive in these yellowing pages, such handmade gold made of the pastry layers of longings, delights and sighs, is the psychophysics and somatics of the soul struggling with itself, appetizingly or not. Presented in such an orderly, linear, intimate fashion—to whom?—are the unflattering facts of eating disorder faced by the one suffering from it, the first-person recording of which alleviates or aggravates it—which way? Hard to tell. In any case, this budding future professor newly arriving at school, also evidently a listmania, almost compulsively starts jotting down his quotidian quirks, details, deeds, needs, wishes, including issues such as what he considers his own, forgivable tendency toward “glutiny” or “glutony” which appears no less than three times. The QQP is both a vivid illustration of modern science in its incubation and an equally vivid example of confectionary confessionals (and burials) in the British textual culture that includes not only juicily dressed diaries of some famous literati but also this kind of methodically freeze-dried or palpably air-fried list compiled by a scientist. The sin list on the verso of the QPP reads unwittingly, even quasi-futurally, like an avant-garde conceptual poem where unfolding repetition reveals the form that also “glues” stuff.
I mean, who needs/reads other words here? Again, this being England, if Gerard Manley Hopkins “ate two biscuits at the Master’s” at Oxford, which was his problem (not the Master’s) as the serial eater implies in his notebook, where he specified other “sins” such as “nightly emissions” and “anger at post office woman,” Newton at Cambridge ate only one, though an apple, and at “Thy house,” not chez Master, which, in this case, would have been, as, again, Victoria Avery our brilliant resident detective gathers, Great St Mary’s, the University Church, where, as he reported to himself in a shorthand code, he had committed a sin of “negligence.”
The Newtonian apple mystique remains twofold then: the apple that falls to the ground, literally and mythically, and the apple that falls into his glutinous time, rather theologically this time, are both caused by or causing an everlasting, gravitational pull. The body matters, maybe all the time. The apple is there, growingly, falling, eaten, entering into another body, a spatialized organic system. The apple, a sort of transbody in a body, becomes its own (trans)material folds, the flesh in the past and future unfolding somewhere the body is supposed to be; I am reminded of The Listening Room (1952) by René Magritte, that big apple almost about to explode out of the room. Is any-one there? Who? Where’s every-body? Note the psycho-metaphysics of it all, the surreal resonances of the apple as a material signifier, its material significance. The newly layered apple of such density, vibrancy, and longevity becomes a portal to its own 3D mystery.
Now, consider what falls within a body: this room in a room, a nested space of clear obscurity and obscure porosity called “my body,” where haecceity meets gravity. I eat therefore I am or continue to be—to exist—at least for a while, whatever it is I am or would be eating and go on living (Ego edo ut vivo), whether it is an apple or a bag of apples or bowl of boiled prunes or something starting with a C now, as long as eating is done progressively, even if intermittently.
Isaac, the painstaking note-taker, could also be then, if we were to zoom out a little further from this picture, a seventeenth-century Anglo-Puritan academic true-believer version of the Zen practitioner who would always try to eat mindfully à la, broadly speaking, Cartesian thinker; except that this promising Cambridge student’s notational ritualization of the post-consumer guilt trip, his way of trying to detox his own wounded system through words, would still make him more of a sweet-toothed Christian self-flagellator than an aspirational Buddhist meditator on a gluten-free diet. The Cartesian meditative “cogito” (I am thinking) inseparable from its “sum” (I am), as the Cartesian reasoner surmised, is also basically about mindfulness, reflective self-presence rather than a narrowly self-centered attention to perceptual activities. The problem, though, inter alia, is that “I” would be also so consumed by all sorts of spatiotemporally at-/dis-tracting forces residing in, neighboring, and sneaking back into myself-hood, past or future, including the very desire to stay free from or empty of “my” wholly holy holey self, the many needy greedy selves in me, the nitty-gritty of my mighty petite appetite, literal and metaphorical. Despite the ego’s tendency toward escapist self-abstraction, narcissistic self-absorption, repressive self-loathing, etc., what matters here with and after Descartes-Newton & Company is the shared spirit of self-critical consciousness often translated into textured conscientiousness, which has to reckon with its own worldly symptoms and side effects too.
I mean: Okay, so this 19-year-old otherwise decent dude getting nestled in that otherwise nice university, who indeed probably did not eat that nicely, ended up “stealing cherry cobs from Eduard Storer” (Sin #17) and then “denying that” he “did so” (Sin #18). Not so nice. Yet, if “Man shall not live by bread alone […],” as the Bible says, and as a man does occasionally (seem to feel a need to) miss the point every now and then or at least bracket it for a while, the stealthiness of a guilty, carnal pleasure annexed to the brute truthfulness of craving becoming indistinguishable from hunger would be as common as a displaced need of a 19-year-old that needs to be addressed somehow. So, we carry on, and I eat, I am: this is about the physical self-preservation of the body, vivre (to live). I think, I am: this is about the mental auto-abstraction of the thinking subject from the act of thinking, être (to be). Again, if that much seems clear, resuscitated in this Newtonian version of the micro-feast is a zone of existence where living and being intersect interactively. His notebook carries the meta-name of some-body in “I. Newton,” a transitory site of immanence and transcendence that stays on, persists. Isaac, for one, had to eat, and so did his laundress, and so do we, except that everyone relates differently to the source of and supportive structure for their respective residency here and there.
The human frame being what it is, heart, body, and brain all mixed together, and not contained in separate compartments as they will be no doubt in another million years, a good dinner is of importance to good talk. One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well. The lamp in the spine does not light on beef and prunes.
– Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (1929)
I continue to wonder, though: would Newton’s “0.5.6” and “0.2.6” for his laundress include a gratuity, even a bit? What could be the attitudinal tone of this exactitude and gratitude?
I eat, you eat, we eat, they eat, all eat—have to, in reverse order too. Eating is also a highly and directly relational, guttingly inter-operative event. The parental evocation in the face of a roast potato left behind on a dinner plate of starving kids on the other side of the planet is about all the labor-intensive and time-consuming work and network involved in the production and preparation of foodstuff as much as it is about “them,” those less fortunate hungry souls. So what to eat and with whom, if any? That still is the question of the day, old and new every day.
The co-consumption of food as a socially expressive and in/exclusive form of being and living together, human con-viviality, is integral to human culture, Homo Convivialis. Not only do I eat, I eat with others, us or and them—and how, when, where, why? I would finish, or not, my roast potatoes mindfully and would share them thoughtfully with others, or not, even before serving myself, also thinking, or not, of the one(s) who took the trouble to roast them and bring them and will dispose of the rest of them, myself included or not. The stratified hierarchy and distributed affectivity, the intricate architectural interiority and exclusivity, of co-eating codified by the self-regarding young Newton at Cambridge, a subsizar allowed to feed himself at the dining hall only after the other diners vacate it, is fairly self-evident. The relative frugality of his dietary practices signaled in his memos also mirrors his sociality, his non-party animality. Somehow I feel his laundress, probably not his pal, is still present in his life whether he is in town or gown.
Consider “gynger and synamom” (ginger and cinnamon), thusly pair’d, listed on the inventory above, halfway down, one of over thirty ingredients on the list of Expenses of a Dinner for the Executors of Lady Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and Derby (c. 1510). These ingredients might have eventually become gingerbread men (resembling the gingerbread militiaman above, for instance)… and women maybe (also as above) who sometimes literally exist at the back of the (militia)men mould, as I learned this fascinating detail from the food historian Ivan Day, whose astute “reconstructive” attention to this curiously subtextualized, “other” pattern also rhymes with our rediscovery of good old new Newton at the back of his QQP, if you recall. Also, this digestive gingery dessert being a luxury item then in Europe, I have not yet spotted and would be mildly surprised to see it in Newton’s lists, grocery or even sin; as with spices and seasonings, ginger and cinnamon being such a catalyst for yearning for better food and in turn a better world, one should also be ready for any unreasoned surprises.
Note also in the list how gynger and synamom are sitting with “items for the hyer (hire) of iij tabyll (table) clothes and napkyns […] laborers, coke (cook), bote hyer (boat hire).” From the ones fetching such special spices all the way to the mansion to the nobler ones on the guest list invited partly to co-fuss a bit at an appropriate moment about their fantastic flavors, not to mention the chefs, sous-chefs, and their assistants strutting and fretting around the kitchen furnace-feeding and furnishing the desires of the omnivorous delicate hearts, everyone involved in this operation is playing their part, including the spot-gilded peacock and swan brought to the baroque feasting table (painstakingly reconstructed by Day). They are all in this together, also fulfilling gendered roles in this culinary theatre that unfolds against the background of the rise of spice colonialism in early modern Europe, creating and complicating the spaces of intersubjective and interspecies life seasoned and at times sweetened with gingery delicacies ….
… By the way, the “ginger jars” might not (actually have to) contain ginger, a scandalous detail I learned from co-curator Melissa Calaresu, who seems to know exactly what needs to be seasoned and where the signifiers are. What do we make of this alluring façade, this Asiatic secret, namely, no ginger in ginger jars?! So these meta-gingery objects of international mystery and geo-cultural abstraction often placed on top of cabinets or mantlepieces in rich houses across Europe prompt me to imagine a ginger jar with a (hidden) logo, “this is not a ginger jar”: what pre- or post-Magrittean sense could one make of those “G-spots,” this emptily rich choral signifier?
Speaking of missably unmissable cues: the two paintings above, both Netherlandish, Preparations for a Feast (1550–75) by Pieter Aertsen, and Still Life with Peacock Pie (1627) by Pieter Claesz (not included in Feast & Fast), capture such an extensively resonant conspicuity and conviviality of early European feasting culture with vibrant and subtle details; not only from the lobster tail but also from that lemon spiral lusciously overflowing the silver plate over the edge of the table baroquely draped in a wrinkled white tablecloth, in both Claesz’s painting and Day’s “historical recreation,” or more precisely (taxidermological) “emulations of how we think people dined in the past,” one can sense the zesty ambience and materiality of Homo Cohabitus.
And now, of course, again, we need to go back and look back too …
… except for rare exceptions it is the male that goes after the animal, just as it was Adam whom God charged with establishing his domination over the beasts […] carnophallogocentrism, its very first substitution of the concept of the trace or mark for those of speech, sign, or signifier was destined in advance, and quite deliberately, to cross the frontiers of anthropocentrism, the limits of a language confident to human words and discourse. Mark, gramma, trace, and différance refer differentially to all living things, all the relations between living and nonliving.
– Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am (L’animal que donc je suis), 2006
As I write this sheltered in my shoebox in New York City, slightly startled by a sudden clapping and whistling outside, at 7:00 p.m., I see, already it is, another siren is coming or going. I can no longer tell where the ambulance is headed, east or west, north or south, though the hospital is around the corner. Today, too, I am sitting, eating, and sometimes trying to work, at my desk in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, yes. I am trying to learn to practice this social paradox, standing together by standing apart, by “staying at home” as expected, while trying to figure out some ways to stay connected with and still contribute to the world while sharing this not-so-small privilege of mine, this way of WFH (work/ing from home, a new acronym) for this while. I am also being fed and protected by many underpaid and overworked frontline workers, some of whom cannot follow official social distancing rules since they first need to make sure they can keep their home; if you worry about becoming homeless tomorrow, how can you just stay home now? Also, some people are literally out there, risking their lives, saving other lives, dutifully, heroically, responding to the call as law enforcement officers and health-care workers.
Some folks, suddenly laid off, are going hungry, fast, and some, suddenly having to lie down, dying, fast … can’t breathe, can’t breathe … we heard it already … more than twice … from Eric Garner. … in this famously sleepless and now increasingly shapeless city inhabited by countless homeless and hungry people already constantly exposed to randomized and routinized death; soon there will be many more members of the city at the back of the city, especially working poor and underprivileged racial minorities, becoming hungry and homeless, fast, unless dying or dead already, also because, it must also be said, some amongst us are such triumphantly “uncharitable monopolizers,” all ready to eat up the world nonstop, all that glitters.
Reread, today, this golden-globed “carnophallogocentric” (carnal-phallic-logos) figure of the omnivore, to borrow Jacques Derrida’s coinage, at the back of the token, The Uncharitable Monopolizer (1800) designed by token-engraver John Hancock. It is startlingly familiar. This parody is prescient, depressingly resonant. Feel those fountains of fecal fortune filling up fast as those fat faces are fed fast and furious with all that fast or fabulous food. Perhaps I have become a little uncharitably animated even from the safer side of the screens here and windows there, yet in this animal kingdom where the human animal finds all kinds of ingeniously brutal, self-glorifyingly greedy ways to conquer and consume other animals especially fellow human beings, not to mention all sentient beings, this attention to “non-human agency” in historiography, as Melissa says, including inhuman animality greatly matters, now more gravely.
Looking through these fascinatingly allegorical artefacts and artworks upside down, back and forth, inside out, outside in, many of them presented with such curatorial insights and foresights into those flip sides, and now looking “across the pond” transhistorically too, I am thinking of the Great Plague of London of 1666, which partly seems to explain why, as Victoria points out, there is no foodstuff listed ever since in Newton’s notebook, save those oranges for his sister. Perhaps this young studious chap became more tenderly frugal after this experience of epochal gravity. And again, what happened to his laundress? Did she survive the Plague? Did she resume her work? I wonder again, also reminded of the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919, which hit New York City particularly hard, and which reportedly claimed no less than 30,000 lives. How do we move, live, subsist? What kind of micro-mega lessons on co-operative co-survival can we learn now without simply moralizing, politicizing, sensationalizing, even sentimentalizing them?
All that fear and fury, as universal as animal fate, unfolding right in front of our eyes right now, perhaps we all could also use at least some neo-Newtonian frugality and futurity, in a new tone.
Ideas, Information, Inspirations, Quotations from: First, deli-nutritious conversations on-site with Victoria Avery, Melissa Calaresu, and Ivan Day, along with the great community of fellow scholars and staff members at CRASSH (Center for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities), The University of Cambridge, to all of whom I dedicate these musings, part of my current Homo Cohabitus project at Cambridge; St. Augustine, Confessions; Victoria Avery and Melissa Calaresu, Feast & Fast: The Art of Food in Europe 1500–1800 (catalog), in particular, sections on, “human-animal relations,” “ginger,” “gingerbread,” “Lady Margaret Beaufort’s executors’ dinner,” “Newton’s food confessions,” “a reconstructed Baroque feast,” and “the ‘uncharitable monopolizer’”; Sophie Barling (interviewing Ivan Day), “‘Sugar paste is very fine, finer than porcelain’ - the art of historical banquets,” Apollo; “Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am; René Descartes, The Philosophical Writings of Descartes (ed. by John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff, and Dugald Murdoch); Kyoo Lee, Reading Descartes Otherwise: Blind, Mad, Dreamy, and Bad; Joseph Phelan (on Gerard Manley Hopkins), “Unsealing the Confessional,” TSL; Sally Potter (dir.), Orlando; Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own; (The Dining Hall of) Wolfson College, The University of Cambridge, During Lent 2020. Unless otherwise stated, all objects are from the collections of The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.
Q aka Kyoo Lee is a philosopher, writer, critic, and Professor of Philosophy and Gender Studies at CUNY. She is the author of Reading Descartes Otherwise and Writing Entanglish.
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