It is said that western civilization sprang from wheat. These days, although it remains staff of life to many, it’s often called junk food, or if you’re a paleo dieter, just plain evil. And what is considered junk by the pious is also a comfort, or even more: an indulgence.
This is guaranteed by the degree to which its emptiness is insisted upon. How else could a dry Starbucks scone constitute pleasure than by the reflexive tut-tut that it’s “just empty carbs”? This sense of their substancelessness makes baked goods palatable in unique ways.
Though if 1890s London is as Sarah Waters imagines it, then perhaps bread needn’t be saturated with health-food discourse to go down like nearly nothing. In Tipping the Velvet, bread products are all that its protagonist, Nancy, can handle after a catastrophic breakup. She lays in a dark bedsit for weeks eating nothing but “bagels, brioches, and flat Greek loaves, and buns from the Chinese bakeries” and cups of tea, “which I brewed ferociously strong, in a pot on the hearth, and sweetened with condensed milk.” God, if that ever sounds familiar.
(I have spent weeks alone eating little but toast and tea. When anything substantial is nauseating, toast will do.)
I wrote that Sarah Lund’s diet of mostly bread, butter, and coffee was deeply appealing to me, for similar reasons. Baked goods can be passed off as almost not food at all. Lund is perennially, functionally depressed, and Nancy is suddenly becoming acquainted with depression. The will to live and the will to eat are connected in this way. When I say “will to live,” I do not mean it literally, though the sense does not disinclude that. Nancy’s post-breakup melancholy is the instructive example here: she can’t move on from her former lover, despite (or because of) the fact that she is clearly and acutely gone. Letting anything else in–even a bit of food–is abhorrent because it would mean letting go of this nothingness.
Which sounds self-defeating, and it is. But I do not want to fall into the judgemental prescriptiveness of phrases like “let go” and “move on.” In the pop-psychologic vernacular, these imperatives lie (pun intended) firmly on the side of productivity. They prioritize orienting oneself to the future. But what’s in the future? More moving on. One moves on to float in an endless deferral.
Contemplation is possessive, i.e. depressive. Indeed, depression is to be blocked from acting by the sheer bandwidth of cognition. Writing is thus a bizarre balancing act of thinking and not thinking. Don’t think at all and you’ll have nothing to write; think too much and you’ll never be able to write it down.
One cannot eat a feast and at the same time possess it. But the world–and oneself in it–turns on consumption, and so it is generally thought advantageous to advocate eating.
When this helpful prescription turns sour, there are ways to mitigate the bile–to keep distance from both life and death. To not have to take on the burden of having hope (the backlash from which Nancy suffers), one takes in whatever unwholesomeness is available. Bread, being neither food nor not-food, will do nicely. It is an imperfect antidote to the illness it makes possible–civilization.
What will happen to a civilization that demands productivity from its citizens and also demands that they keep themselves healthy by not eating “empty carbs,” not smoking, not drinking, and absolutely no other vice, save sex, which has been deemed healthy.
Yes, of course all these vices are the opiates on which civilization functions, and some more revolutionary souls would say it’s better to renounce them.
I’m not trying to say that society’s prescriptions ought to self-consciously indulge us. You can’t go back. But rather that there seem to be increasingly fewer blind spots. Which is a bit scary. Everything is a lifestyle choice.
What, are we all going to binge on naughty kale chips?