Sunday, 23 September 2012

The Art of Gluttony and Temperance

Gluttony - Medieval Woodcut
One of the most famous images in the West, and the foundation of Christian theology was the story of the Fall of Man. In terms of the English literary tradition the most celebrated retelling of the story, derived from the Book of Genesis, was John Milton's Paradise Lost (1667)

If we look closely at Milton's works we can discern that there was a close correlation between the excesses of curiosity and the precarious results of attempting to over-reach our human limits. The notion of gluttony, and the need to balance it with temperance, played a key role in Milton's theology, and in the literary presentation of his theme. The balance between these ideas suggests the notion of a need for discipline and regulation - what we might in modern terms think of as a healthy diet.

But Knowledge is as food, and needs no less
Her Temperance over Appetite, to know
In measure what the mind may well contain,
Oppresses else with Surfeit, and soon turns
Wisdom to Folly, as Nourishment to Wind.
(Paradise Lost 7.126-30) 

In a poem that is often celebrated for its classical eloquence, decorum and decency, there is a hint of absurd humour in the momentary images of digestive excess, and of a discordant and grotesque flatulence. But such images are not infrequent. They form an unpleasant cluster. In the most grotesque of these images Death is depicted as a Glutton who is unable to satisfy his appetite.

The theme of Gluttony is a favourite one in English Literature, and it was often placed first in the Seven Deadly Sins (even before Pride). In Chaucer's classic Canterbury Tales, it was the Pardoner who outlined the case against Gluttony in a vivid rhetorical outburst:

O glotonye, ful of cursednesse!
O cause first of our confusioun!
O original of oure dampnacioun,
Til Crist hadde boght us with his blood agayn!
Lo, how deere, shortly for to sayn,
Aboght was thilke cursed vileynye!
Corrupt was al this world for glotonye. (498-504)

But John Milton shows us the other side too; for post-lapsarian gluttony is balanced with pre-lapsarian temperance and dietary and culinary harmoniousness.  The poet persistently represents harmony in terms of balanced bodily constitution. In fact, the Garden of Eden is, in part, presented as female Nature. Before the Fall there is a pure balance of its constituent elements, even if that is difficult for our post-lapsarian consciousness to grasp. The temptation for the reader is to find a garden that is turning already to wildness and over-ripeness; a garden that tempts by virtue of its delightfully cunning sense of ominous fruition.

Logically, we find that after the Fall, the Garden must expel what has polluted it

Those pure immortal Elements that know
No gross, no unharmonious mixture foul,
Eject him tainted now, and purge him off
As a distemper, gross to air as gross,
And mortal food, as may dispose him best
For dissolution wrought by Sin, that first
Distemper’d all things, and of incorrupt
Corrupted. (11.50-57)

As we move from the medieval to the renaissance period, the theme of Temperance and gluttony persists. Briefly, one might consider Edmund Spenser's allegorical poem The Faerie Queene, which draws on many traditional elements. In Book 1 of the poem, which explores the theology and theme of Holiness, the Red Crosse Knight visits the House of Pride, where Lucifera’s procession includes Idleness, followed by Gluttony on a swine. In line with common iconographic representations, he is displayed gorging himself and he is drunk. He is traditionally presented as a version of Bacchus or Silenus, suffering from dropsy:

Such one was Idlenesse, first of this company.

And by his side rode loathsome Gluttony,
   Deformed creature, on a filthie swyne,
   His belly was vp-blowne with luxury,
   And eke with fatnesse swollen were his eyne,
   And like a Crane his necke was long and fyne,
   With which he swallowd vp excessiue feast,
   For want whereof poore people oft did pyne;
   And all the way, most like a brutish beast,
   He spued vp his gorge, that all did him deteast.

In greene vine leaues he was right fitly clad;
   For other clothes he could not weare for heat,
   And on his head an yuie girland had,
   From vnder which fast trickled downe the sweat:
   Still as he rode, he somewhat still did eat,
   And in his hand did beare a bouzing can,
   Of which he supt so oft, that on his seat
   His dronken corse he scarse vpholden can,
In shape and life more like a monster, then a man.

Vnfit he was for any worldy thing,
   And eke vnhable once to stirre or go,
   Not meet to be of counsell to a king,
   Whose mind in meat and drinke was drowned so,
   That from his friend he seldome knew his fo:
   Full of diseases was his carcas blew,
   And a dry dropsie through his flesh did flow:
   Which by misdiet daily greater grew:
Such one was Gluttony, the second of that crew.

And next to him rode lustfull Lechery,

(Book 1 Canto 4.20-24).

It is also significant that Milton represents an idealised notion of food in contrast to the vile excesses of gluttony. In this case, the culinary elements are life-affirming, balanced, and perfectly presented by Eve who is the unblemished Mother of a line of idealised female Hostesses

She turns, on hospitable thoughts intent
What choice to choose for delicacy best,
What order, so contriv’d as not to mix
Tastes, not well join’d, inelegant, but bring
Taste after taste upheld with kindliest change. (5.332-36)

And in the case of Spenser, the Second Book of his chivalrous romance dealt with the notion of the golden mean, avoiding extremity, and the virtue embodied in Temperance.

As we have been outlining, real food is always the product of a complex consumption of cultural codes; and these can serve to evaluate, in lurid or pleasing allegorical terms, the very foundations of good and evil. Food serves as an effective means to explore the moral universe. It is both corporeal sensation and a means to critical thinking, and furthermore serves to evaluate the moral universe.

Discussing the “paradise within” Michael Schoenfeldt's study of Bodies and Selves in Early Modern England has proposed that this concept “is not a geographical place but rather a series of social and dietary practices that cultivate the inner spaces of the postlapsarian subject.” (53)

His outline of the thematics associated with the “alimental vision” in Paradise Lost, based on the mutual mapping of physiology and psychology surely deserves to be better understood.

Further Reading

Allen, Stewart Lee, In the Devil's Garden: a Sinful History of Forbidden Food. Canongate, 2002.

Scodel, Joshua. Excess and the Mean in Early Modern English Literature. Princeton. Princeton University Press, 2002.

Schoenfeldt, Michael, Bodies and Selves in Early Modern England: Physiology and Inwardness in Spenser, Shakespeare, Herbert and Milton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999

Yeager, R. F. “Aspects of Gluttony in Chaucer and Gower,” Studies in Philology 81 (1984): 42-55.

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