Pini Fruit

My family always jokes--and joked--that we travel to eat. It's a tendency that has, according to us, been passed down to the younger generation (my brother and I). The family trait appears to install itself as a constraint in the scope of memory recall. When asked about the trips that our parents took us out of school and country for--to Bali, Mexico, Cuba, Canada, Borneo, and Japan (one of which I, I admit, is a lie I added to fill out the list)--we recount the food. More convenient, sometimes, than recounting the rest.

Likewise, the images from books that really stick with me--and hopefully you distrust me by now--are of food. This is especially true Ursula Le Guin's sci-fi, which are "safe trips"* to various worlds. They chronicle the intergalactic Ekumen's (a kind of postcolonial Federation) encounters with aliens.

I remember the pini fruit from Four Ways to Forgivesness, a "curious orange-brown" globe that falls into perfect little radial segments, like a mandarin or a mangosteen. Consumed almost entirely by the slave-owning class, its smooth, finely textured flesh seems almost artificial. The Envoy from the Ekumen is treated as an "owner" (rather than an "asset"), and thus is given these fruit. She eats them--popping out the segments delicately with a small knife--with a mixture of guilt and delight.

True to our familial mythology, my memory of the fruit glares out all others. I have mentioned it many times in conversation--a strange habit, ass even those who have read the book don't remember what I refer to--always with a reverent stare into nowhere, mouth watering for a fictional fruit. And that's what it's for--to be desired and consumed. Even for fruit it is oddly suited for civilized consumption--the segments bite-sized and so neat, eating them not at all messy. Even for an inanimate object, it lacks otherness. No spines, fuzz, juices, seeds, or pits. It doesn't even bruise easily. It's completely purposive, the asset qua asset--what the assets (slaves) can never be. Having no incidental qualities, no ontological leftovers, it is pointless to consume it (though inevitable). Being so well suited for consumption, it is nothing to consume. Nothing about it can be had because everything about it is to be had, a priori. As its whole purpose is to be eaten, to be had, to be taken pleasure from, and therefore, in its relentless felicity, utterly fails--passing through its owners, as it were, and leaving nothing but another dim desire for another--it is, more than anything, viral. A benign virus, it doesn't threaten its host with death, or even give rise to any unpleasant sensations.

This is what the owners dream of owning. But if they did, their world would fall into silence. No energies would need be expended upon elaborate systems of opression and suppression. There would be nothing to be better than, to own. The lifeblood of aspiration and delusion gone, the culture of the owners would wither. In this sense the fruit does leave behind one thing: It gives the owners an ideal to strive for, one which is actually their destruction.

Generally, however, the food in Le Guin's fiction is more Eros than Thanatos. It posesses a presence that food, in my experience, never does. There is a bottle of fruit juice in The Disposessed (on Annarres, the anarchist planet, of course). While the pini fruit is the epitomy of Capitalist object relations, Le Guin seems to elsewhere wish for the healing of that relation. The fruit juice is precious in a way that things can never be in a well-oiled, affluent consumer society: One gets a tiny ration of fruit juice, per the limited amount that can be produced on dry Anarres. About a liter a year. So this stuff that's so mundane (because plentiful) to us on the receiving end of industrial agriculture's boon is transformed by scarcity into something to be savored. They save it for a special occasion, and sip it in tiny cups. The liquid becomes luminous. While Le Guin calls this world "an ambiguous utopia" and is as interested in finding its faults as its idyllic qualities, here she seems to salivate. Life on Anarres may be hard, but it is very real. The scarcity is romantic. Anarres has not solved material ills, but seems to have solved the ills of the soul. This is the end of Capitalism as imagined in Capitalist terms: Things are precious and full of substance because rare. In this, the people of Anarres sound more like bohemians--who quest ever for authenticity, i.e. an escape from consumerism--than socialists.

19 September 2012