Wednesday, March 14, 2012

What Sir Gowther Ate

For at least a week now, Sir Gowther’s mouth has been plaguing my thoughts, spontaneously interrupting my morning cup of coffee, the tranquility of my showers and that ephemeral, reflective period right before I drift into slumber. I can say I am being ‘haunted’ by that mouth, if one can be haunted by such an orifice. Of course, one can be haunted by a poorly digested meal, “an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese,” (Dickens, A Christmas Carol) a past that refuses to stop acting on the present (as if any such ‘past’ could stop acting on any such ‘present’), so perhaps I am haunted less by the mouth of Sir Gowther than by his meals. I am having trouble digesting an excess of breast milk, a masticated nipple; I can’t seem to swallow this wine from the dog’s mouth.

The haunting may have started even before reading Sir Gowther; in fact, I’m sure it started when I first encountered a grisly essay Karl Steele was kind enough to share with readers at In The Middle, a work scattered across 4 blog posts that deals, in part, with food, food and death. Please read HERE (and be sure to follow the work to its conclusion). These notions of infinite abysses, of the eater being eaten, of humans as food, colored my reading of Sir Gowther and likely inspired my heightened attention to the the dietary habits of the lay’s titular hero (I wouldn't dare assume that this bit of writing even approaches the complexity and genius of Steele's work; I just mean to acknowledge my influences). The “how” and the “what” of his eating, the ways in which he uses his mouth and the role of that which he consumes in the creation and reception of his identity, these are the questions that now haunt me, and this blog post is, hopefully, an exorcism.

As Jane Bennet writes in Vibrant Matter, “in the eating encounter, all bodies are shown to be but temporary congealments of a materiality that is a process of becoming, is hustle and flow punctuated by sedimentation and substance” (49). That which eats and that which is to be eaten are both changed by the encounter; neither the consumer nor the consumed is the primary actant; instead, eating is an assemblage in which all parties express their unique agencies and influence each other member of the eating-machine. When talking about a human’s diet, this way of thinking serves to de-anthropocentrize perceptions about the process of eating; it reminds us that to eat is not to dominate, but to subject oneself to the agency of that which is eaten. Of course, if all members of the eating-machine are humans, if humans are both that which eats and that which is being eaten, any notion of anthropocentrism is further displaced. Acts of cannibalism are perhaps so taboo because, during such an eating encounter, even the most staunchly human-centric perspective must compensate for a seeming paradox as the all-consuming human-subject is digested in the bowels of another all-consuming human-subject, as glorious Man becomes sediment and substance in the intestines of another. What, then, of breast milk, of our species’ first meals that flow directly from the bodies of our human mothers? It is certainly not an act of cannibalism, but recognizing our need to nurse from the nutrients of another human’s body works nearly as well to shatter the notion that during the eating encounter humans are always the ones doing the eating.

Sir Gowther, then, further shifts humans out of the driver’s seat of the eating-machine when he turns breast-feeding into an act of cannibalism. After his father provides the insatiable infant with the best wet nurses in the land, “He sowkyd hom so thei lost ther lyvys, / Sone had he sleyne three!” (113-4; He sucked them such that they lost their lives, soon he had slain three). He manages to consume the spirit straight from the breasts of his nurses; more than just nutrients, Sir Gowther sucks the very vitality from his human meal. The text refers to these wet nurses as “melche wemen" (110; milk women), further displacing their agency as human subjects and reinforcing the idea of human-as-food. As food objects, the vital forces of these wet nurses cause the young Gowther to grow fast, and not just in size, but also in ill-repute (grieving the recent loss of their wives, a confederation of recent widowers begged the king to stop offering up nurses to the ravenous infant).

Sir Gowther also consumes the fleshy part of humans when, nursing from his mother’s own nipple, “He snaffulld to hit soo / He rofe tho hed fro the brest” (129-30; He suckled to it so that he ripped the nipple from the breast). Not only is the spirit of humans edible, but the very flesh of his mother’s body becomes meat (O.E. mete- food, item of food), the materiality of humans is also ripe for consumption. Thus the role of humans within the eating-machine shifts and congeals and erases itself as one human eats another; the eating encounter becomes an equation with like variables that cancel each other out and leave only raw, faceless material as a remainder. We have seen that such a diet directly correlates to a rapid rate of growth for the child, but, after such a meal, we are also left with spare bits of material that direct us towards the identity of Sir Gowther. By consuming body and spirit, Sir Gowther has consumed that which is human about himself; everything that is identifiably human has been eaten and yet something remains: his fiendish heritage. That these acts of cannibalism also occur in the text so near to the revelation of Sir Gowther’s paternity serves to reinforce his identity as half-demon. By presenting this paradox of human as simultaneously the diner and the meal, we are left to focus on that which is non-human about Gowther. Thus, food not only transforms the material of the body, but its identity as well.

To be continued…

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