Spitting, Sneezing, Smearing

Marjorie Garber

  • Cooking with Mud: The Idea of Mess in 19th-Century Art and Fiction by David Trotter
    Oxford, 340 pp, £35.00, February 2000, ISBN 0 19 818503 0

Once, recycling was a way of life, conducted without civic ordinances, highway beautification statutes, adopt-a-motorway programmes or special bins for paper, glass and metal. Until the mid-19th century, rag-pickers plied their trade in European and American cities. Quilts were made from clothing scraps; rugs (now, like the quilts, collectors’ items) were made from rags; soap was made at home from wood ashes and grease, tallow candles from animal fat, buttons (as well as dice and dominoes) from bones. The 20th century’s disposable cups, plates and packaging, suggests Susan Strasser, in Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash (1999), are signs of wealth and leisure, as well as of hygiene. Both cultural and institutional change played a part – the invention, for example, of the ‘waste trade’ and of city trash collection, replacing the free-ranging scavenger pigs in the streets. ‘Trash,’ Strasser writes, ‘is created by sorting.’ Inside or outside the house; keep it or toss it. Marginal items occupy a marginal category and get stored in marginal spaces, like attics, basements and sheds. ‘Dirt is matter out of place’ is the celebrated dictum of Mary Douglas. A teenager’s clothing scattered about the room; a pair of shoes on the dining-room table. And what we regard as dirt someone else may prize; dirt is not natural but cultural.

The move from the material to the metaphorical and cultural was often a short step; consider the inscription on the Statue of Liberty, from Emma Lazarus’s poem ‘The New Colossus’, where new immigrants from Europe and elsewhere are welcomed as ‘the wretched refuse of your teeming shore’. America at the turn of the century was in a sense a national salon des refusés, a place where the ‘refuse’ were not refused but taken in, reclassified and resorted as residents and citizens. And as with persons and objects, so with art. When Yeats wrote about poetry being made ‘in the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart’ he was invoking a cultural cliché of sorts: the rag-and-bone shop and the rag-and-bone picker were Victorian commonplaces. The earnest Henry Mayhew wrote that ‘the state of the shoes of the rag-and-bone picker is a very important matter to him’; Mrs Gaskell placed ‘rag-and-bone warehouses’ next to those other urban emporia of recycling, pawn-brokers’ shops; and almost sixty years before Yeats, James Russell Lowell had already seen that literature itself was the random stuff of visceral alchemy: ‘The somewhat greasy heap of the literary rag-and-bone picker is turned to gold by time.’

Much attention has been given to the 20th century’s predilection for making art out of trash, from the Surrealists to modern poetry (Wallace Stevens’s ‘The Man on the Dump’; T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’, with its indicative title and its formalist assertion, ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruin’). Converted Post-Modern palaces of art, like the Musée d’Orsay in Paris (a former railway terminus), the Tate Modern (a former power station) and Mass MoCA in Western Massachusetts (a complex of former factory buildings in an old mill town) are triumphs of recycling and metamorphosis. Books on ‘found objects’ as interior decoration, and the proliferation of ‘salvage’ companies selling everything from old marble columns to barn-wood, make it clear that nostalgia is now big business as well as high – and low – art.

As we enter the Internet century, where the trash can is an icon for cyber-disposal while highly material questions of waste management, from oil spills to wandering garbage barges, fill the morning paper and the evening news, a number of scholarly books and essays have begun to cogitate about trash, waste, litter and mess. Some are written by cultural historians, like Strasser, and others by literary critics. In 1996, a graduate student conference held at Harvard bore the uncompromising and prescient title ‘Dirt’, a rubric that encompassed topics from waste management to immigration to pornography. A forthcoming essay collection edited by Ryan Johnson and William Cohen will be entitled Filth.

The interest in ‘waste-theory’ may be seen as a recyclable and non-biodegradable byproduct of a number of related tendencies in contemporary literary studies: 1) the borrowing of critical paradigms from science and social science (in previous years the uncertainty principle in physics, ‘the structure of scientific revolutions’ and ‘chaos theory,’ now ecology, cybernetics and environmental studies); 2) the rethinking of certain interpretative moves derived from deconstruction and psychoanalysis, like ‘the supplement’ and ‘the Real’, in the context of historical and material culture; 3) the renewed interest in what might be called the history and cultural life of objects; and 4) the current – and concurrent – attention to questions of human emotion, passion, disgust and other affective manifestations of the ‘interior’ self.

In Cooking with Mud: The Idea of Mess in Nineteenth Century Art and Fiction, David Trotter, the author of several other books about 19th-century writers, proposes what he calls ‘mess-theory’ (and, as a corollary, ‘litter-theory,’ which he regards as the point at which ‘waste’ and ‘mess’ overlap). Trotter’s main argument is that waste-theory is related to system and to metaphor, while mess-theory concerns itself with chance, accident or contingency, and with metonymy. ‘Waste’ could thus encompass garbage, sanitation systems or ‘the refuse of society’. ‘Waste is a condition; mess is an event,’ Trotter writes. ‘Waste remains for ever potentially in circulation because circulation is its defining quality. Waste is the measure of an organism’s ability to renew itself by excluding whatever it does not require for its own immediate purposes.’

What then is mess, the focus of Trotter’s own concern? ‘Mess,’ he says, ‘is what contingency’s signature would look like, if contingency had a signature.’ This formulation, like a number of others, will itself recirculate in the text (e.g.: ‘metaphor, substituting blood for wine, enables Dickens to imagine waste as system’s signature ... Disgust enabled Dickens to understand mess as contingency’s signature.’) There are, he claims, ‘two styles of commentary on modern life, one drawn consistently towards and into determinism, the other an acknowledgment of chance as matrix and occasion. I shall argue that one style proposes a “theory” of waste, the other a “theory” of mess.’

Mess is spitting (in Moby-Dick), sneezing on your boss’s head (in a short story by Chekhov), or smearing one’s boots with mud or horse manure (in novels by Wyndham Lewis and Faulkner); mess is floating vegetables or gutted fish (in a painting by Turner), rumpled bedclothes (in a painting by Courbet), stains, especially bloodstains (in the essays of Pater). Mess, according to Trotter, has both a politics and a poetics – that is, it is related to issues of social hierarchy and social codes (‘the ways in which men and women have been defined in history by the different positions they occupy with regard to spillage and litter’) and also to issues of form and formlessness (‘the invention of complicities with and figures for contingency’); mess, and mess-theory, are also other names for, and clues towards, a ‘way of being modern’.

There are good messes and bad messes; good messes often lead to, or even constitute, artistic production, while bad messes can signify ‘an anticipation of death’, and/or a ‘specific anxiety about class or gender’. Disgust is the affect that often accompanies an encounter with a bad mess: a ‘dreadful slimy thing among the coal dust’ encountered in Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, and subsequently identified as ‘a chewed quid of tobacco’, or the greasy mark left on the wall by a Trollope character who has ‘a habit of rubbing his head against the wallpaper’. Good messes, by contrast, make something possible: the mess of papers on a desk in Wilkie Collins’s Armadale produces a long-lost letter, ‘crumpled into the mouth of a jar’, and the very contingency of the discovery leads the principal characters to place their faith in a further, systematised mode of contingency: the toss of a coin. For Trotter, Armadale is modern because of the ‘respect it shows for contingency’ and what he repeatedly terms ‘the contingent self’, as contrasted with the typical sensation-novel plot of determinism and unconscious desire. The colloquial phrase ‘a fine mess’ becomes for him a critical tool. Similarly, in Madame Bovary, Emma’s hair lies ‘in a great mass’ about her neck, ‘neglectfully’, betraying the ‘accidents of adultery’, and the steamer deck on which Frédéric Moreau stands in L’Education sentimentale as he returns home from Paris is littered with nutshells, cigar ends, pear skins and sausage-meat, a ‘mess,’ says Trotter, which ‘encrusts the world rather than the person’. The mess on the deck is ‘pure metonymy’, he says. It ‘expresses nothing. It is Flaubert’s recognition of mess as such.’

Despite its many assertions about ‘mess-theory’, metonymy and contingency, Cooking with Mud is fundamentally a work of literary criticism rather than of theory. The strengths of the book come by and large in the close readings of literary texts and works of visual art and culture, from Turner, Pater, Ruskin and Courbet to Flaubert, Zola, Trollope and Dostoevsky. The author of a book on Dickens’s novels, Trotter is confident and teacherly in guiding us through both waste and mess in Great Expectations. His observations on Turner’s fascination with floating cabbages and fish, on Courbet’s rank bedclothes, on Darwin’s disgust at food traces clinging to a man’s beard, are well-taken and illuminating, and his range across English and European fiction is commendably broad. The book includes diverting and engaging sections on interior decoration (veneer and the Veneerings, the smell of oilcloth, stickiness as a property of the omnipresent varnish; ‘Varnish, an antidote to mess ... is itself a mess’) and on food (the smell of frying fish, crumbs in the bed, the manufacture and consumption of sausages) each localised in a novel, story or painting. Trotter claims that ‘Flaubert’s most notable endurance, like Turner’s, was the endurance of dirt’, whereas some fictional characters, like Frederick Fairlie and the villains Sir Percival Glyde and Count Fosco in The Women in White, are defined by their ‘hostility to mess’: ‘they cannot help their own tidiness.’ And he sets up his oppositions with a clear and helpful example from Middle-march: ‘Casaubon makes a point of sorting and filing every scrap of paper which comes his way; Brooke is the enemy of system ... The novel works with two kinds of distinction: between order and disorder, and between good and bad messes.’

Good messes are related to illusion (the clutter of the artist’s studio; the ‘idea’ of mess that offers meaning for writers and painters), bad messes to disgust, ‘Illusion-sustaining mess, actual or represented, enables us to understand contingency as the matrix and occasion of an exemplary desire ... Illusion-destroying mess, actual or represented, enables us to understand contingency as the matrix or occasion of an exemplary death.’ This is symmetrical and appealing; but it could also be said to prejudge the case.

In his introductory chapter Trotter points out that the word ‘mess’ means a kind of broth as well as a dirty or untidy state of affairs. In fact, ‘mess’, like other key words here, is what critics following Plato and Derrida call a ‘pharmakon’, since it has a double set of connotations, one generally deemed positive (a pharmakon is a remedy) and the other negative (a pharmakon is a poison); the English word ‘drug’ carries the same two meanings. The co-incidence of opposites is not a paradox but rather an index of the powerful tensions located within language, and thus within the possibility of what is thought. Freud noted ‘the antithetical sense of primal words’ (the same German word, Boden, means garret and ground, the highest and lowest places in the house; the same Latin word, sacer, means both sacred and accursed), ‘Dirt’, which means ‘unclean matter’, filth, excrement, and by extension gossip and scandal, is also soil or earth; here the term seems to begin in English as dismissive (dirt versus gold, or Hamlet’s contemptuous description of the courtier and landholder Osric as ‘spacious in the possession of dirt’) and to become more neutral over time.

Thus ‘mess’ in its earliest English forms refers to a portion of food, or an amount or quantity of something (‘mess of pottage’ may mean a bowlful; pottage itself is related to both ‘porridge’ and French ‘potage’ – Esau’s meal in Genesis 25 was conceivably a kind of stew rather than a broth, since he arrives from the fields hungry and asks to be fed. Modern translations call it ‘red pottage’ or ‘red-stuff’, which suggests that it may have contained meat). A ship’s or officer’s ‘mess’ is an orderly rather than a disorderly event, a company who take their meals together. Yet at some point in the 19th century the word ‘mess’ did indeed begin to take on the associations of jumble, confusion and muddle that may derive from the combination of foods which go into a stew. To watch the word’s ricochet from Thoreau’s ‘rare mess of golden and silver and bright cupreous fishes’ in Walden, to the roughly contemporaneous report in Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor that ‘they make it a rule when they receive neither beer nor money from a house to make as great a mess as possible the next time they come’ is arguably to notice something important about the progress, or regress, of modernity.

‘Rummage’, another key word for Trotter, has a similarly intriguing double life that might be suggestively explored. It fits into his argument largely in the verbal form, ‘rummaging about’, something that can produce the chance and contingency he associates with his own view of the modern, and with metonymy; if you rummage in a drawer you are likely to find, in some random juxtaposition, a series of items that while apparently unrelated can be construed to tell a story. Yet the word ‘rummage’ begins as a sign of arrangement, not disarrangement: the orderly stowing of casks in a vessel, a place of stowage or storage, and in verbal form ‘to arrange, put in order’. Before long it became searching, and ransacking, and disordering, while the invention of the ‘rummage sale’ or charity bazaar (now to a certain extent succeeded by the more entrepreneurial ‘garage sale’, ‘yard sale’ or ‘tag’ sale) in the later 19th century suggested the bringing of unwanted items down from the attic, up from the basement or out of the garage. Strasser in her book describes the evolution of what could be called ‘second-hand chic’ in the later 20th century, after a century of hand-me-downs, second-hand clothing stores and Salvation Army recycling. The vogue for ‘vintage clothing’ is a recycling upward, not of waste, precisely, or mess, or litter, but of the experience of material life. What are the implications, theoretical and cultural, for these recursive changes in value?

Trotter says at several points that he is interested in ‘mess as such’. ‘As such’ means ‘essentially’, as a thing in itself, rather than contingently: the absolute existence or possession of qualities. The coinage ‘as-suchness’, earlier found in the philosophy of William James, has been used as a synonym for what cultural theorists often call ‘everyday life’; thus a book reviewer can describe a writer’s attention to ‘the as-suchness of things: the sniffing man in the restaurant.’

‘As such’ has become increasingly familiar of late in theoretical writing, and seems to embody a certain kind of critical move that goes back as far as Plato. In the works of some critics the move is a kind of trumping, with the implication that others have discussed whatever-it-is only glancingly, or on their way to another point, or untheoretically, whereas the present writer will look the basilisk square in the face.

But in an uncharacteristically oblique reference, Trotter mentions that ‘Barry Bullen quotes Barthes quoting Nietzsche to the effect that in history-writing there are no facts as such; that is, no fact which is not preceded by a meaning.’ Derrida makes a related argument in ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’, in an account of the seriousness of play:

As soon as it comes into being and into language, play erases itself as such. Just as writing must erase itself as such before truth, etc. The point is that there is no as such where writing or play are concerned. Having no essence, introducing difference as the condition for the presence of essence, opening up the possibility of the double, the copy, the imitation, the simulacrum – the game and the graphë are constantly disappearing as they go along.

It would be possible to substitute the word ‘mess’ for ‘play’ in the foregoing. ‘There is no as such where mess is concerned.’ If mess (and ‘mess-theory’) is, as Trotter consistently claims, an aspect of contingency, accident and chance, ‘mess as such’ is either a tour de force, or a contradiction in terms, or perhaps both at once.

Tacitly and sometimes implicitly, Trotter suggests that the categories in which novels are often discussed by literary critics – condition-of-England novels, sensation novels, bildungsromans, realism, Modernism, naturalism etc – might be rethought in the cognitive and structuralist terms he deploys: ‘we might reconceive some aspects of the English fiction of the 1860s and 1870s in terms of particular socio-rhetorical alignments: metonymy/mess/nausea, metaphor/waste/horror.’ He is a generous and lucid guide to the views and contributions of other critics. Among the most impressive elements of Cooking with Mud are the summaries of trains of thought, or points of view, with which he then takes gentle issue, like the Freudian account of the nervous body that speaks through its symptoms, and the recent critical interest in related questions of hysteria and paranoia. Some of these instructive and incisive summaries appear in the footnotes: e.g. the account of disgust as the product of conceptual trauma in Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger and Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror and the related account of bodily disgust (‘the villain of the piece is either the mouth or the anus’).

The footnotes in general are exemplary and learned; one could cobble together a good course in 19th-century fiction by just reading the notes and citations at the bottom of the page. The index, alas, is less useful, since it contains none of the theoretical terms Trotter is at such pains to deploy. One searches in vain for ‘waste’, ‘mess’, ‘trash’, ‘disgust’, and ‘rummaging’, not to mention ‘metonymy’, ‘metaphor’ and ‘premature historicisation’, all of which are regularly repeated and combined in the text. This is an odd flaw for a book that aims to be a contribution to the theoretical conversation, and it becomes important when the reader tries to look backward, through the richness of examples, to find the conceptual structure. Yet this absence, too, is perhaps indicative.

Although Trotter’s book is marked by an unusual zeal to tidy and to order into ‘mess-theory’ the ‘mess’ he is describing (‘in this chapter, I have tried to suggest ...’, ‘in the chapters that follow, I take these issues further ...’, ‘the aim of this chapter, and of chapters 7 and 8 ...’), that task is precisely the one he cannot perform if mess is what he says it is. The absence of a conceptual index, the presence there only of the names of authors and their works, is perhaps the sign of the ultimate triumph of ‘mess’ over ‘mess-theory’. Whether or not he compiled the index himself – authors often don’t – the index is, as its name implies, a sign. But perhaps, despite his theoretical gestures to the contrary, this tidy ‘mess’ – a ‘good mess’ – is exactly what Trotter had in mind.