I’ve been going back over drafts of my first few dissertation chapters, written a couple years ago before my rollercoaster ride of a career shift. I’m trying to rework them to be more consistent with the voice I’ve developed after a year of writing freelance and the philosophy I’ve developed after several years of sitting on this topic. That means jettisoning some of the passages which emerged from my first flushes of excitement–a sad but strangely satisfying exercise.
When I submitted my first batch of drafts for review long ago, a set piece about Rene Magritte’s Ceci n’est pas une pomme opened my first chapter and entire project. At the time of writing, I had just gone on a tear of sorting through volumes of Magritte’s paintings, looking at all of the compositions that placed edible objects in his surreal landscapes. I wrote a poem sequence about five of his paintings of apples for my writing workshop. I got a tattoo of Le Prêtre Marié. And I wrote a rhapsodic blazon which my committee members seemed to enjoy although they questioned what role a Belgian painter could play in a dissertation about American literature.
Fair point, and in any event it no longer fits the arc of my introduction. But I was fondly reminded of my Magritte period by Thomas Micchelli’s delightful recap of an Edible Magritte event at MoMA. Each course, arranged by Tin Nyo, was designed to allude to a specific Magritte painting–often making the visual content quite literal. A platter of prosciutto eerily resembles the skin-and-eye platter of Le Portrait; a chocolate bird must be torn into with the teeth à la Le Plaisir, staining the eaters’ hands with raspberry goo. The edible compositions play the same tricks that the paintings so often play: teasing formal beauty with surreal savagery, soliciting and vexing the appetite of the eye, visually punning on narrative expectations. Magritte’s compositions seem at first to be complete and unified scenes captured from an imaginary universe entirely distant from our own, but to read them, we call on the tropes of painting and storytelling we already know, which Magritte anticipates and makes fun of. Tin Nyo’s edible compositions echo that teasing dynamic: her broken soft-boiled eggs over pasta deconstructs the whole egg in Les affinités électives, which in turn makes an enigmatic play on Goethe’s novel of the same name; and as Micchelli points out, the backstory of Le Plaisir was essentially reenacted by the Edible Magritte diners.
Anyway: adieu, pretentious and overenthusiastically M-dashed introduction. May your successor be more elegantly written and to the point, and may any images it contains be less expensive and difficult to obtain than Magritte’s.
The Epistemological Apple
The apple I have in mind was painted by Rene Magritte. It is a dusky yellow apple with a ripe red blush blooming over its dome, or possibly it is red striated with yellow and blanched pale by a beam of light from behind my left shoulder. It is round but not perfectly so; it bulges from a beige canvas. It looks ready to pick: muddy green leaves droop from a vestigial stem, alluding to the tree from which it came. This apple seems so vividly present that I’m tempted to ignore the blank space in which it floats, in which the painter has inscribed, infuriatingly, Ceci n’est pas une pomme. “This is not an apple”–when I can see quite clearly that it is.
I choose this image–the apple that is not an apple–to open this chapter and this dissertation because the subsequent chapters are dedicated to describing and teasing out differences between food practices–eating, cooking, hungering–and the stories we tell about food practices.
A better-known painting of Magritte plays a similar joke with a pipe: the words Ceci n’est pas une pipe are scrawled beneath a painstakingly painted pipe, and the painting is called The Treachery of Images. The “treachery” is not just that we’re tricked by the paint to see a pipe; we’re tricked by the caption to draw a line between what we’re seeing and what is “really” there. But as this chapter (and as a whole, this dissertation) will argue, the negotiation of the interplay of food objects and the representation of food objects–between texts and appetite, appetite and narrative, and so forth–is not inevitably treacherous. Rather, that negotiation is a condition of being.