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The Poetics of Spice:
Romantic Consumerism and the Exotic

by Timothy Morton

Chapter One: The Confection of Spice: Historical and Theoretical Considerations


  1. Recent literary study has described relationships between texts and their historical contexts. Even more recently, scholars have read literature closely again, informed by new thinking about contexts. Romantic-period studies has left the intellectually rarefied realm of abstract philosophical speculation to become more devoted to the play of culture and history. Apart from my work, some attention has been directed towards the representation of food, and more par- ticularly spice. Marjorie Levinson's discussion of Keats's The Eve of St Agnes in Keats's Life of Allegory shows an awareness of the significance of the image of a spiced meal of sweetmeats. In addition, fresh work on the rediscovered women poets of the Romantic period has renewed the significance of close reading. There is no necessary contradiction between `contextual' and `close' approaches.

  2. There have also been notable contributions to a growing field of research into relationships between economics, literature and culture, such as in the work of Kurt Heinzelman, Marc Shell and the conference `New Economic Criticism' at Case Western Reserve University in October 1994. Lisa Jardine's Worldly Goods (1996) is a history of the Renaissance which links cultural to economic changes. Studying Florentine ideology in the fifteenth century, Jardine shows how money and an abundance of purchases were related to the metaphorical rebirth of culture. In so doing, however, Worldly Goods distinguishes too rigidly between medieval and modern worlds. The study of themes associated with orientalism and colonialism has grown in importance since the publication of Edward Said's Orientalism, and any work on the economic figuration of spice must account for Western mappings of the Orient.

  3. In addition, social science disciplines such as anthropology and sociology have benefited from the study of figurative language and a heightened sensitivity to the ways in which meaning is produced, as in the work of Michael Taussig. The historian Sidney Mintz, whose work on sugar is of great significance, has moved into areas of cultural history. Shelley and the Revolution in Taste owed much to Keith Thomas, whose Man and the Natural World pioneered the study of cultural formations through time and challenged the idealism of the `history of ideas'. Moreover, there is a growing interest in the history of international trade.

  4. Within the growing critical genre which one could call `literature and . . .', studies of relationships between food and figurative language have grown in number and scope. Michel Jeanneret's A Feast of Words (1991) is a study of eating and rhetoric in the Renaissance, and Emily Gowers's The Loaded Table discusses food in Latin literature. Maggie Kilgour has written about Coleridge's addictive personality in her wide-ranging From Communion to Cannibalism (1990). To write about food and literature is to encompass a broad range of approaches, from cultural and literary history to Marxism, psychoanalysis and deconstruction.

  5. The cultural study of scent has been increasing in recent years. Annick Le Gue¬rer's Les pouvoirs de l'odeur (1988), which contains a section on spice, was translated into English as Scent in 1994. Constance Classen, David Howes and Anthony Synnott published Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell in 1994. The recent work of Hans J. Rindisbacher on smell in literature and culture, The Smell of Books (1992), has been an inspiration for my study of aromatic spices. Rindisbacher's work, however, reproduces hegemonic literary-histor- ical teleologies. Thus the distinction between ancient and modern depends upon an opposition between the smells of primal sexuality and perfume, which The Smell of Books equates with an opposition between nature and technology. Older Europe, he declares, used scent to cover the stench of thanatos; later, perfume was created as a supplement that simultaneously brought out and dissimulated a natural sexuality. The real opposition here is between a ruse with one twist and a ruse with two twists, two layers of disguise. Moreover, it is unclear whether disguise was ever a primary motive in the medieval use of spice.

  6. Furthermore, perfume was used medically in the Middle Ages, as a means towards positive thinking: not smelling or not feeling bad could keep the plague at bay. In William Bullein's A Dialogue Against the Fever Pestilence (1564), the doctor, Medicus, tells the protagonist Antonius to avoid all but the most sanguine (hot and moist) foods. Spices and rotten fruit are both out, spice being choleric, but Medicus does recommend saffron, cloves and mace in his medicine: for example, pills of saffron, myrrh and aloes. Medicus prescribes a pomander of storax, calamite, cinnamon, sandalwood, aloes, lilies, violets, mastic, poppy seed, camphor, amber, musk and spikenard to defend against the plague. Bullein's play also prescribes perfume as medicine against corrupt air and urges the avoidance of anger and the cultivation of mirth (Bullein, Dialogue, fo. 83ff ). Certain features of the AIDS panic are remarkably similar: the avoidance of negative thinking about HIV in counselling and advertising as a precaution against full-blown AIDS. The ruse with one twist is still with us.

  7. The Poetics of Spice is thus informed by historical and cultural approaches to the study of food in literature and culture. It is not preoccupied with empirical distinctions between one kind of substance and another (pepper and coffee, for example). It deals principally with spice as a cultural marker rather than as a solid substance. Moreover, The Poetics of Spice is interested in the way in which spice as substance is never divorced from notions of language, including the languages of economics and money. This book does not assume a teleological narrative or a rigid division between modern and pre-modern. It tries to be sensitive to questions concerning figurative language while remaining interested in histor- ical context. Finally, it shows why the Romantic period was a formative moment in the development of the poetics of spice.

  8. theorising spice

  9. Spice is a linguistic and ideological operator rather than an essentia- lised object. It has only quasi-objective status: almonds and dried fruits in the Middle Ages were classified as spice, along with the expected pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg. The foods listed alongside spice in Bullein's Bulwarke of Defence (1562), a medical treatise, include crushed gems and stones and animal flesh, notably oxen, weasel, fox and earthworm, powdered hedgehog (good for baldness), and mandrake, unicorn's horn and medicinal dung.[9] According to Christopher Dyer, the medieval category of spice `included dried fruits or rice as well as condiments such as pepper and ginger'.[10] Consider the first lines of Speke Parott (1521) by John Skelton (1460?-1529), a lampoon of Cardinal Wolsey:

    My name is Parot, a byrd of paradyse, By nature deuysed of a wonderous kynde, Dyentely dyeted with dyuers delycate spyce, Tyl Euphrates, that flode, dryueth me into Inde; Where men of that contrey by fortune me fynd, And send me to greate ladyes of estate: Then Parot must haue an almon or a date.[11]

    The almonds and dates are part of the parrot's luxurious diet of spices.

  10. Examining closely poetic representations of spice, we find that one of their strangest aspects is the way in which spice is used as a general term. Spices may be separately named: the members of the genus spice are occasionally listed. For example, there is Milton's `flowering odours, cassia, nard, and balm' (Paradise Lost v.293), but spice is only occasionally directly named in the particular. More significantly, it is hardly ever given an extensive figurative description. Not a single device is used, whether it be metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche . . . Even if there is a list of spices, as in Milton's line, the generalisation of `flowering odours' takes priority over its specific instantiations. The use of spice as a term denoting a general quality or kind of object, moreover, occurs outside English literature and outside the early modern period. For instance, there is the Spice (and More Spice, and Even More Spice) show on New York's Time Warner Cable channel 35, the sex channel. And there is the notion that certain kinds of perfume contain `spice notes'.

  11. This is part of what I have chosen to call `the spice effect'. In figurative language, spice appears as a species, or appearance, which has the qualities of a genus, or larger set of which the species is a part. The other aspect of the spice effect, however, seems to contradict the apparently blank, empty, generic set-like quality of the use of the word spice. Paradoxically, there is a potent concreteness about the empty signifier spice. Less an external substance than a cultural coefficient, spice behaves like a computer program, simulating value. To paraphrase Shakespeare, some commodities are born spicy, some achieve spiciness, and some have spiciness thrust upon them.[12] Spice is a confection.

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