6.22.2011

Reconsidering the Oyster (special guest post)

This post comes to FCI from Seth Rosenbaum, a Doctoral Candidate in English Literature at Harvard University. Seth's full bio follows the post.
I have heard others describe M.F.K. Fisher’s Consider the Oyster as playful, fun, escapist, light, and it certainly hits those notes. Can you really conceal a smirk when Fisher writes that “all oysters, like all men, are somewhat weaker after they have done their best at reproducing”? I’m particularly fond of the raw ‘somewhat’ in the sentence, but her usage of ‘best’ is delightfully crude.
And yet there is no escaping the dark palimpsest upon which Fisher sets Consider the Oyster. Fisher dedicated the book to her husband, Dillwyn Parrish, whose health was, at the time of writing, deteriorating rapidly from Buerger’s Disease, and so it comes as no surprise that Consider the Oyster is so intensely personal, haunted by private struggle and the threat of death, even though it begins with a consideration of birth. The opening epigram comes from Dickens’s A Christmas Carol: “…Secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster,” which brings us to the first sentence: “An oyster leads a dreadful but exciting life.” Fisher continues, “Indeed, his chance to live at all is slim, and if he should survive the arrows of his own outrageous fortune and in the two weeks of his carefree youth find a clean smooth place to fix on, the years afterwards are full of stress, passion, and danger.” It is tough to say, with certainty, whether Fisher is describing oyster spat or human sperm. Perhaps she sees no need to differentiate between the two.
Either way, Fisher raises her oysters from conception to consideration to consumption, and she consumes them in all forms. There are 27 recipes in the 12 chapters, and I find myself thirsty for a shot of oyster liquor after reading just the first few. Fisher’s great achievement, to my mind, is that Consider the Oyster is not really a book about oysters at all, and yet it is not not a book about oysters at the same time. Elegy and recipes have never fit so well, and disturbingly, together. Fisher has “thought seriously” about oysters, bread, butter, and lemon juice
while incendiary bombs fell and people I knew were maimed and hungry, and I believe that all American oyster-bars and every self-respecting restaurant in this good land which presumes to serve raw oysters in their shells or even naked in a cup, should at once make it compulsory to serve also a little plate of thin-sliced nicely buttered good dark bread, preferably the heavy fine-grained kind and buttered with sweet butter I should say, and a few quarters of lemon.
Perhaps it is perverse to think about oyster etiquette in the same breath with maimed bodies, but Fisher is proud, and not ashamed, to confess what the mind can do, what it must do: think seriously, both about the high and the low, the fragility and richness of life. The key word from the title is “consider,” and if there is one thing Fisher demands of her reader it is the ability to think, “since it is impossible to enjoy without thought, in spite of what the sensualists say.”
Thought was Fisher’s antidote for emotional suffering, and perhaps at no other time in her life was Fisher so in need of treatment. Parrish and Fisher had left Europe in 1940, both because of the war and to seek treatment, medication, and palliatives for Parrish’s debilitating condition. He was in extreme pain and facing further amputations when he took his own life with a rifle in August of ’41 – I suspect we will we find a dark echo of Fisher’s consideration of the oyster in David Foster Wallace’s suicide and his essay Consider the Lobster. Fisher and Parrish escaped the war, but their own, personal hell crossed the Atlantic with them.
The more I read Consider the Oyster, the more I sense that Fisher is writing her own form of stiff-lipped elegy, stoic, sensual, sarcastic, ironic – her ‘consideration’ contains all registers. She writes for Parrish, for her life with Parrish, for the vagaries of the unknown life she sensed approaching. This book does not have the historical aspirations of Serve it Forth, and it does not smart in the way that How to Cook a Wolf would a year later. This is the moment in which Fisher transitions between two styles, by turning deeper inward than she had ever done in print to express her own thoughts and feelings.
The final chapter, “As Luscious as Locusts,” brings out, explicitly, the tension between thought and feeling that Fisher has been building throughout the “novella,” and I do believe that Consider the Oyster achieves fictional heights at times. Again the epigram is more than well chosen, from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “The best in this kind are but shadows…” Fisher cuts the quote short, but a quick glance at the first scene of the play tells us that “the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them.” The best and the worst, shadows and bodies, thought and feeling. The binaries pull in opposite directions, but they are our source of knowledge. Only the imagination can mend and amend the maimed – both the terminally ill and their lovers. Fisher wants, needs to think and feel: “And yet to be a man who has once eaten something and taken thought about it…not merely digested it and remembered that, but eaten, digested, and then thought” is critical. But the chapter ends with a very different image, that of two boys lost at sea overnight, who find that their boat, come morning, has nested atop a paradise of great oysters.
They remove their clothes and dive into the undisturbed morning sea. Fisher’s descriptions could not be more sensual. The boys could not be thinking any less. They are unthinking bodies who inhabit the shadows of the reader’s imagination. “When each little boy had emptied his shells, he dove down for more, and all the hidden fears of the hard night vanished as they ate, and dove, and ate, naked as they were born in the growing light.” Rhythmic repetition of “ate” and “dove” complement the edenic nude bodies of the scene.
Fisher’s divers eat from the sea of life and imagination, a clear avatar for the tree of life and knowledge, and in keeping with their predecessors they are escorted out of a watery paradise. The arch-angel is a simple guard, and he doesn’t wield a flaming sword, but a sufficiently menacing gun: “The end of the story was that a bullet plunked into their little cabin wall, because they were stealing oysters from one of the most famous privately owned beds…The guard frightened them, and then pitied them and let them go, and they headed into the bay full of the best breakfast they were ever to eat in their lives, wiser but not sadder little boys.” Why, and how, does wisdom, amidst the gluttony of sensations, slip into the skiff? By a trick of dramatic irony. The readers know what the boys do not: consider the oyster, and wisdom will be yours.

Seth Rosenbaum is a PhD student in English literature at Harvard, working on a dissertation provisionally entitled After-Taste.  His dissertation considers representations of food in 20th C. American Literature, looking primarily at canonical authors.  He believes that by re-examining old ground through the lens of food we can gather fresh insights about particular authors and works, and begin to construct a supplementary, if not alternative, history of 20th C. American literature.  Seth was an undergrad at Columbia, and then took 3 years off between undergraduate and graduate school during which time he lived and worked in France, Italy, and Greece. Needless to say, much good food was sought after and consumed.

2 comments:

  1. I have not read this book, so it was interesting to hear that so much of it is a reflection on how to live in view of death. David Wallace Foster's Consider the Lobster, on the other hand, is more to do with the pain we inflict on others, and how we justify that to ourselves. I may need to read that essay again now that I know more about its namesake.

    It took me a few reads of MJK Fisher to get on board with her style of food writing, but she really does have a fine voice and a knack for capturing the intangible resonances of a meal.

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  2. MFK's one of my favorite writers, though I read her too rarely. Maybe it's time to consider the oyster again. You're reminding me to reader Foster's book. I'm very interested in that topic—the pain we inflict on others to make food for ourselves. Or even the simple (purely vegetarian) equation that food=death, just as it=life. hard to get around that.

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