Forbidden fruit

suggestive tomato 1

If I told you that it was reported that a shepherd was killed because his goat wasn’t wearing a diaper, and goats are simply too sexy to be naked, would you believe me? Or if I said that three people were killed because of the provocative way their vegetables were displayed in the market, would that make sense? The celery and tomatoes were deemed too naughty by clerical edict.

–Robin Andrea, The Fertile Naughtiness of the Natural World

suggestive tomato 2
We laugh at such thinking at our peril, we WASPs. A hundred years ago, we too were mortified by such things, teaching our children (for example) that a table or chair had limbs, not legs. Did anyone honestly believe that careless reference to the sexiness of furniture could lead an impressionable mind astray? Where does such prudishness come from?

The great Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin introduced some useful concepts in his book Rabelais and His World, as he strove to bridge the chasm between modern and pre-modern European ways of looking at the body. The predominant imagery of the pre-Lenten Carnival, he found, was grotesque: like the tomato in these photos, it exceeded itself in ways that were both comic and sexual, with a mixing of lower and upper body symbolism whereby, for example, a nose became a penis, and vice versa. Though material rather than spiritual, the grotesque body was, in a sense, cosmic, both literally and figuratively larger than life — “a body in the act of becoming,” as Bakhtin put it. A popular survival from pre-Christian days, it persisted in an uneasy balance with the Body of Christ and what Bakhtin termed the classical body of church and state, which was as finished as the grotesque body was unfinished, closed off to the world and therefore susceptible of that sine qua non of priestly religion: purity.

The European so-called Enlightenment gave the mind-body split a huge boost, in conjunction with the rise of capitalism and the modern nation-state. The classical body dominated the thinking of the emerging middle class, whose members always aspire to better themselves by embracing elite mannerisms and perspectives and turning away from their origins in the village and the soil. But it seems to me that the new, ideal body of the industrial bourgeoisie was even more private and tool-like than the classical body had been, in keeping with new, reductionist ideologies.

Reductionism is the genius of the modern age, the source of our immense scientific and technological power. Religious fundamentalism, though often seen even by its adherents as a rejection of modernity, is equally modern in its insistence on reductionist interpretations of text and doctrine. (Recall that for Islam, the Wahabite and other modern “fundamentalist” movements arose only in the 19th century; Sufic and syncretic movements dominated popular Islam up until modern times.) As oppressive social structures spread their tentacles (a grotesque image!) into every facet of society, one unintended consequence is to inspire ever higher levels of fear and paranoia in its increasingly individuated and isolated members, now reduced to the status of taxpayers, occasional voters and consumers. Modern medicine and industrial warfare promote a diminished vision of human beings as little more than animated cadavers, suicide bombers, collateral damage.

In place of the comic body of Carnival, we have the angry, anonymous mob, summoned up and defined by its fear and rejection of some threatening other: capitalists, immigrants, Arabs, Jews, Shiites, Sunnis, Americans, whatever. The institutionalized religious or insurrectionary mob is like a grotesque body with bulimia. Its obsessive quest for purity, now liberated from the constraints of an empathy-based ethics, feeds a revulsion toward its own members, and purge follows purge. Nazi propaganda defined its undesirables as “life unworthy of life”; Chinese communist propaganda rejected sexual desire itself as anti-Communist. These are of course extreme examples, but I am trying to understand how people can be put to death for displaying suggestive vegetables. The mobocracy instinctively acts to control whatever threatens its supremacy, and what could be more subversive than sexual desire?

It may seem as if North America is relatively free from these impulses, but that’s hardly the case: true freedom and wildness are perceived as deeply threatening by most Americans. Aside from a very few towns and cities, our streets are virtually lifeless, devoid of informal commercial activity, vagrants, even loiterers. The symbol of middle class respectability is the weed-free mowed lawn. Lifestyle ordinances are strictly enforced, even in many rural townships. In place of riotous carnivals, we have parades. The reductionist equation of human being with zygote gains ever more popular acceptance, even as we become more willing to deprive our undesirable members of liberty and life in a vast prison-industrial complex.

Our actual, individual bodies bulge grotesquely in perverse reaction, it seems, to the unattainably attenuated, hard, machine-like bodies pimped by our elite-controlled popular culture. Sex in America now comes in two official flavors, liberal and conservative. Among liberals, sex is seen as a glue for self-fulfilling relationships, a form of healthy exercise, and/or a subject for therapy. For conservatives, it is a time-honored, divinely sanctioned technique for procreation. Both strike me as a radically impoverished understanding of what love-making could and should be.

Humans have, I think, a natural desire for self-transcendence. The physical excesses of the grotesque body of Carnival honored this desire by spoofing it: as Bakhtin somewhere points out, in ancient times and in highly traditional cultures, religion included a healthy admixture of comedy and burlesque. When the belly shakes with laughter or the whole body with orgasm, the line between self and other grows thin — a perilous situation for those whose power depends on anathematizing the other. You want self-transcendence? Make babies. Or wait until after death … and thus the death-dealing at the heart of reductionist ideologies attains an aura of sanctity. Keep your vegetables in line, buddy, or your ass is grass.
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Long-time readers of Via Negativa might remember my previous, more comprehensive treatment of these themes with reference to Zuni Pueblo: Laughing in church and Houston, we have a problem.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

24 Comments


  1. Bloody hell. I mean I know I said you should blog it immediately, but I was thinking along the lines of “hurr hurr, phallic veg”. What an absolutely fantastic post.

    In Britain tomatoes were known as love apples and in Victorian and Edwardian times at least women were discouraged from eating them because of their presumed aphrodisiac qualities. As a child I had elderly female relatives who wouldn’t touch them.

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  2. Man, you got that right about the link between fundamentalism and reductionism.

    Great discussion about the grotesque and the “admixture of comedy and burlesque” in some religious traditions. We still use such equations as that of nose with penis, but chiefly as euphemisms (e.g., The Rolling Stones’s “Honky Tonk Womanâ€?), but it seems less likely to reach the cosmic in that context, I guess.

    In a way purity is a practical ideal for me, but I find that I can’t discuss it without a long preface because of what has been done in its name for millennia. I like how you qualify your discussion of those who desire to impose purity — those “liberated from the constraints of an empathy-based ethics.” Indeed, how can one seek purity with such liberation? How can one — or many — ever impose purity? I can’t even impose it on myself, except to a limited and rudimentary extent, I think.

    tournesol, I thought tomatoes were considered poisonous by the English-speaking world up until the nineteenth century. But what do I know?

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  3. Now I’ll never be able to look at my sexy tomatoes (I’ve had some like yours) and other veggies without remembering this post, Dave! Fascinating stuff.

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  4. Enormously learned essay, Dave. I really enjoyed it (for obvious reasons), and I’m glad you’ve revisited Bakhtin.

    I’ll have more to say about your various observations later…

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  5. Great stuff, Dave. I’m trying to remember an article I once read on the very sexual nature of Jesus as depicted in Renaissance art (where the point was to prove not the divinity of Christ, which was taken for granted, but his humanity, which wasn’t). Others who read your blog may have this at their fingertips — it was in one of the trendy art critical theory journals, early 90s, I think.

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  6. There’s a book, Pica, and it’s a very good one. It’s called “The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion” and it’s by a mad genius art historian (still active) called Leo Steinberg.

    I think you’ll find even the book’s table of contents very exciting:

    http://www.press.uchicago.edu/cgi-bin/hfs.cgi/00/13085.ctl

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  7. I’m not sure I agree that very few towns and cities have such lifeless streets, but maybe I’ve just been very lucky in the places I’ve lived and visited. The increasing fear and paranoia, generated by the powerful because people can be manipulated and held in control that way, that I see.

    Yesterday I was reading up on anxiety disorders for a work project and stumbled across a piece online about control freaks being driven by anxiety and the need to put down others in order to try to reduce that anxiety – I was thinking of a certain person of my aquaintance but it applies societally. If we’re kept anxious and given an enemy to blame it on, we’ll want all sorts of control to be put in place and subject ourselves to them willingly in order to try and reduce our anxiety. Comparatively speaking, the US is a lot more free of societal controls, despite our own religious fanatics. Maybe because freedom from war (here) and having great relative wealth relieves us of those kinds of anxieties that makes it easy for controlling types to run countries. They do try here, though. Boy they do try.

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  8. “Comparatively speaking, the US is a lot more free of societal controls”

    Actually, the way I see it, between the illusion of safety and the ubiquity of television, this is a very controlled society. There’s a tyranny of “politeness” that is very oppressive indeed.

    This must be one of the few places on earth where I can’t slaughter a goat in my own front yard. In America, meat comes from a store. In America, it’s considered wrong to say the word “retarded,” but it’s considered right to keep them out of sight. That tells me just about all I need to know.

    Dave’s point about well-kept lawns is very well taken.

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  9. It were Steinberg what gave me handle on Jesus.

    Haven’t let go either.

    When I’m with my wife I think

    She wonders

    What would Jesus do.

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  10. When I’m with my wife I think

    She wonders

    What would Jesus do.

    Honk!

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  11. Hey, these are some great comments to come home to after a day out & about!

    tournesol – Excellent point about ‘love apples’ – wish I’d remembered that.

    Peter – I’m glad you agree with me about fundamentalism, since I gather from other stuff you’ve said that you were once more or less in that camp yourself.

    Re: purity, I thought about qualifying my points about priesthoods and such, but figured that if folks followed the links to my old posts about the Zuni, they might realize that the important distinction is whether the people serving in priestly roles are unpaid volunteers, as in Zuni, or whether they form a seperate caste, as in India, say. It has a lot to do with patriarchy, too: the Zuni are matrifocal, so male priestly positions can only be handed down to a nephew — a sister’s son. All this works to guard against the growth of an ideology of seperateness associated with ritual purity and a fear/hatred of the body associated with sexist ideology, I believe. In Zuni, someone performing an important ritual function must restrain from sexual contact for only a day or two in advance.

    Marja-Leena – Glad you enjoyed this!

    Pica and Teju – That sounds like a book I really need to check out. I do admire the incarnational, embodied aspect of Christianity.

    Leslee and Teju – “Lifeless” may have been a little hyperbolic, but I was thinking in terms of the contrast with towns and cities in the global south.

    Leslee’s point about anxiety is spot on. As for comparing ourselves with other countries — that’s hard. In certain domains, we do have a lot more freedom, especially for women and sexual minorities. But in other areas, as Teju suggests, we accept a lot of controls that must be very difficult for new immigrants to understand.

    Bill – Thanks for the poem! What kind of handle, exactly?

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  12. Oh yes oh yes, it was Steinberg. Fabulous. Thanks Teju. Off to the library tonight.

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  13. Ah, rural life! Where you can (and my neighbors do) slaughter goats in the front yard.

    I don’t know why certain kooks in Iraq think you should be put to death for risque vegetables, but I think that US veggies must be responding. That’s the second, umm, “enhanced” tomato I’ve seen on a blog this week.

    Come to think of it, I had some conjoined-twin walnuts late last fall that must have seen it all coming.

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  14. Well, that’s good to know.

    Now if only they could fit in some of that goat slaughter (I think it’s especially healthy for non-vegetarians to watch animals getting killed) on network TV. Say, somewhere between the sanitized sex and the eroticized violence.

    Meanwhile, your conjoined walnuts (good God, does that sound rude!) remind me of an observation I wanted to make earlier: the “freak of nature” (tomato or human) is necessary precisely because it reminds us of our frail biology.

    So when Duerer hears a rumour of the two headed-calf born in some neighboring town, he hastens over to make a drawing of it. And it’s in all the broadsheets, too. Everyone is interested because it’s a reminder that life is in the process of figuring itself out, “a body in the act of becoming.” A humbling but also a comforting thought, when you think about it, except for those who can only countenance the ideal and finished product.

    Anyway, that’s all less to do with the sexually suggestive aspect of the vegetable freak of nature, but more to do with how it is a grotesque object. A grotesque body is out of control, and thus (as Dave has pointed out) rather worrisome to officials.

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  15. Karen – But are the goats wearing diapers?

    I’m glad to hear that well-endowed tomatoes are popping up other places. Someone should start a Freaks of Nature Blog Carnival!

    Teju – I’ve actually toyed with the idea of writing a book on Duerer. Interesting guy.

    “life is in the process of figuring itself out” – so the fundamentalist opposition to evolution relates to this too! Good lord.

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  16. Wow. They don’t grow tomatoes like that over here (at least I haven’t see them) but if they did, they’d appear on the cover of Sunday colour supplements and be sold in chichi sex shops next to fancy vibrators and there’d be a pub called the Tumescent Tomato and a TV series called How to Grow Sexy Veggies and a learned society would debate sexuality in vegetables and…….etc. etc. The shock-horror-blush factor has been gradually excised from this society since the 60s and while it may still exist in some remote parts of the kingdom (sorry, queendom) I don’t think anyone is shocked by anything anymore, violence included. Recently a venue in London hosted a masturbation marathon, for example.

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  17. The Tumescent Tomato — what a great name for a pub!

    Recently a venue in London hosted a masturbation marathon, for example.

    Sex meets competitive athleticism — reminds me of that poem by Sharon Olds I linked to a little while back.

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  18. Weren’t tomatoes originally banned in Europe, or considered suspect, when they were first introduced from the “New World”? They were thought to be entirely too sexy.

    And, damn, I haven’t read the Bakhtan, so can’t participate in this discussion as I would like to. But I have delved into the abject through Kristeva, which isn’t quite the grotesque body, but the body of illness, that leaks, has pus, sores, smells. Not quite sexuality, mind you. Though in a piece of work I used those notions of the abject body when speaking about the baggy, bleeding post partum body, which sort of is sex taken to its fruit. Oh, my, my puns aren’t working today!

    There are so many “bodies,” and ways of understanding the bode has shifted through history. Laqueur wrote a great book on gynaecological drawings for genital anatomy and showed how for long periods a woman’s vagina was considered an inversion of a penis. Now that would make a most interesting tomato!

    It seems, from what you written, that Bakhtin was speaking perhaps more about a ‘sociological body’ than one, say, of private eroticism, or the body we cleanse in the bathroom. The body as it complies to social norms, both fulfulling social expectations and propogating those kinds of social constructions. It’s a complicated body for sure! As Teju mentions, that body is flayed about in the media with “sanitized sex and eroticized violence.”

    My personal preference in “body talk” is the body, which we really can’t know, through the various ‘systems’ we have defined: circulatory, nerves, meridians, Chi, whatever, composed of billions of cells subject to electro-chemical processes that are pure wizardry. That the body is a transducer, a relay station, that sexual and erotic and social and violent and deathly impulses flash through it, through us. I love Braidotti on this, if I may include a lengthy quote:

    With reference to molecular biology, genetics and neurology – to mention just a few – the body today can and should be described…also as a sensor; an integrated site of information networks….a messenger carrying thousands of communication systems: cardio-vascular, respiratory, visual, acoustic, tactile, olfactory, hormonal, psychic, emotional, erotics, etc. Coordinated by an inimitable circuit of information transmission, the body is a living recording system, capable of sorting and then retrieving the necessary information and to process it at such speed that it can react ‘instinctively.’ Fundamentally prone to pleasure, the embodied subject tends towards the recollection and repetition of experiences which pleasure has ‘fixed’ psychically and sensually upon the subject (to re-member, after all, is to re-peat and repetition tends to favour that which gave joy and not that which gave pain). The body is not only multi-functional but also in some ways multi-lingual: it speaks through temperature, motion, speed, emotions, excitement that affects the cardiac rhythm and the likes. “http://www.chairetmetal.com/cm06/braidotti-complet.htm

    Genetically altered tomatoes anyone? :grins:

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  19. Great post, Dave. And I agree with you completely about the comparatively lifeless quality of most American towns and the effect of schiphrenic desexualization of actual individual lives/hyper-sexualization of the media on people. And could obsessive overeating to be one way in which people deal with the need to have a physical relationship with their bodies.

    Has anyone checked out the original story about the vegetable vendor being put to death? I saw the reference too – but I wonder, is it really true? Certainly could be – but – wow.

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  20. Brenda – Thanks for the fun comment. I sort of like the idea of a body as a living recording system.

    Beth – As far as I know, the NPR reporter was the sole source of that story, though I admit I didn’t try every possible Google combination. I’ll see if I can find anything else on the Academic Universe (formerly Lexis/Nexis) database.

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  21. Thanks for pointing to that poem by Sharon Olds, Dave, I hadn’t seen it before. It’s wonderful.

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  22. Beth, All I can find is the link to the NPR story. Here’s the transcript (from here):

    August 7, 2006 from Morning Edition (JOHN HENDREN reporting)

    This is how staggeringly pointless the killing in Iraq is getting: shepherds in the rural western Baghdad neighborhood of Gazalea have recently been murdered, according to locals, for failing to diaper their goats. Apparently the sexual tension is so high in regions where Sheikhs take a draconian view of Shariah law, that they feel the sight of naked goats poses an unacceptable temptation. They blame the goats.

    I’ve spent nearly a year here, on more than a dozen visits since the early days of the war, and that seemed about as preposterous as Iraq could get until I heard about the grocery store in east Baghdad. The grocer and three others were shot to death and the store was firebombed because he suggestively arranged his vegetables.

    I didn’t believe it at first. Firebombings of liquor stores are common, and I figured there must’ve been one next door. But an Iraqi colleague explained matter-of-factly that Shiite clerics had recently distributed a flyer directing groceries how to display their food.

    Standing up a celery stalk near a couple of tomatoes in a way that might — to the profoundly repressed — suggest an aroused male, is now a capital offense.

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  23. What fun–getting in on a rousing conversation!
    I love the word –source?
    It would be fun playing with the erotic possibilities of the
    the (fairly) new 39-cent First Harvest veggie/sunflower stamp.
    Let’s hear it for the gov’ment and Lammas!

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  24. HI Jo! Glad you could join the party (latecomers always welcome). Have some conjoined walnuts.

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