Fall 2001

Ingestion / The Epic of the Cephalopod

The beast on the table

Allen S. Weiss

“Ingestion” is a column that explores food within a framework informed by aesthetics, history, and philosophy.

Consider the cephalopod represented in Victor Hugo’s ink-and-wash drawing of an octopus, Pieuvre (c. 1866), a black, nearly formless stain that evokes the morbid, lugubrious aspect of this animal, described by Hugo: “One would say a beast made of ash that inhabits the water. It is spider-like in form and chameleon-like in coloration.”[1]As is the case for the most extreme examples of zoological and botanical classes, such animals touch on the limits of monstrosity, evoking worldly fears and unconscious anguish. One can, in fact, localize the source of the octopus as monster par excellence, as a creature of nightmares and terror, an icon of the horrors of death: It was the moment when Victor Hugo, in Les travailleurs de la mer (1866), substituted the local word pieuvre, used only in the Channel Islands, for the more common term poulpe. One should remember that in French, the word for the living animal is usually different from that of the carcass to be transformed into food-stuff. Hugo’s differentiation between poulpe and pieuvre takes this transformative logic one step further, for while normally man eats poulpe, in Les travailleurs de la mer the opposite is true, as pieuvre threatens to eat man, in the most horrendous of manners.

This moment of inestimable horror occurs when the protagonist, Gilliat, in the process of exploring rock formations on the coast, is caught in the grip of a giant octopus. This animal is a monster, the very “enigma of evil,” “a viscosity with a will,” a boneless, bloodless, fleshless creature with a unique orifice equivocally and disquietingly serving as both mouth and anus. Endowed with eight powerful tentacles covered with hundreds of blood-sucking suction cups, the octopus borders on the chimerical—“a medusa served by eight snakes”—as if coming from a world other than our own. Its attack is pure terror:

It is a pneumatic machine that attacks you. You are dealing with a footed void. Neither claw thrusts nor tooth bites, but an unspeakable scarification. A bite is formidable, but less so than such suction. The claw is nothing compared to the sucker. The claw, that’s the beast that enters your flesh; the sucker, that’s you yourself who enters into the beast. Your muscles swell, your fibers twist, your skin bursts beneath this unworldly force, your blood spurts and frightfully mixes with the mollusk’s lymph. The beast is superimposed upon you by its thousand vile mouths; the hydra is incorporated in the man; the man 
is amalgamated with the hydra. The two make one. This dream is upon you. The tiger can only devour you; the octopus, what horror, breathes you in! It draws you toward itself and into itself, and, bound, stuck, powerless, you slowly feel yourself emptied out within that horrendous sack, that monster. Beyond the terror of being eaten alive is the ineffability of being drunk alive.[2]

Victor Hugo, Pieuvre, 1866.

Here, monstrosity gains a new dimension, the reduction of anatomy to an absolute orifice. This “indescribable horror” inexorably leads to the “horror of the indescribable,” as analyzed by Laurent Jenny in La terreur et les signes, in terms of the poetics of unfigurability. The octopus represents a zoological manifestation of the temptation of the void, the equivocation of the formless, the horror of ungraspable monstrosity. Jenny explains: “Hugo’s octopus is not satisfied being merely the gravedigger of the living: the entire sensible world comes to be buried within it piece by piece, wayward residues with which its monstrosity is nourished.”[3]

In fact, it is zoologically the case that the squid, and not the octopus, occasionally grows to giant proportions. Indeed, Linnaeus even included, in the first edition of his Systema Naturæ, a species referred to as Sepia microcosmos, to describe the giant squid; by 1861 the first demonstrable evidence of giant cephalopods was offered; and such giant creatures—referred to as Kraken, Devil-fish, Blood-Suckers—continued to excite the popular imagination. Hugo described the creative logic behind this perversion of creation:

At certain moments, one would be tempted to think that the ineffable which floats in 
our dreams encounters, in the realm of 
the possible, magnets that attract its lineaments, and that beings emerge from 
these obscure fixations of the dream. 
The Unknown disposes of marvels, and it makes use of them to compose monsters. Orpheus, Homer and Hesiod only managed to make the Chimera; God made the Octopus. When God wishes, he excels in 
the execrable.[4]

While Hugo criticizes God for creating the octopus, that masterpiece of fright, Lautréamont turns this terror against its own creator. In Les chants de Maldoror, he imagines a creature to torment God: “Maldoror changed into an octopus, moving against his body his eight monstrous arms, each solid lash of which could easily have embraced the circumference of a planet.”[5] But it is perhaps Jules Michelet who best summed up, in La Mer (1861), the continual source of fascination, in the literal sense of the term, with such cephalopods: “You are more mask than being.”[6]

In La Seiche (The Squid; or The Cuttlefish), the autobiographical novel by Maryline Desbiolles, the recipe for stuffed squid divides the book into twelve chapters. This recipe articulates both the narrative and the symbolic structure of the book, all the while marking the variegated trajectory from reality to fiction through numerous digressions. The seductive, petrifying squid that the narrator saw as a child in the oceanographic museum in Monaco is made the symbol of both life and death. For this child, who emigrated from the mountains of Savoie to the back country of Nice, the simple experience of seeing a pissaladière (a Niçoise onion tart) emerge from an oven was enough to make of that stove, “the doors of the unknown”[7]; for the adult author, the kitchen, and more precisely the recipe for stuffed squid, continues to offer the basis for a meditation about her predilection for exploring both the unknown and death itself.

The narrator explains, at one point, that, “But for the moment I only want the squid for the fragility of its doubtful whiteness, for the subtleness of its white coat,”[8] an animal curiously whiter than milk, whiter than snow. The unknown has, by definition, no color; whence, for example, the intensity of the terror inspired by Moby Dick. This disquieting strangeness suggests the necessity of establishing an iconology of La Seiche, a book traversed by a constant and disquieting slippage from white to whitishness, from whiteness to whitening; a tale in which white is neither color nor light, but the very texture of existence, the interior fiber of desire and pain, and the certain premonition of death. Given my own family name, Weiss—whiteness in its pure, abstract state; a strange and foreign white-ness; a disquieting name for a writer—I cannot be indifferent to the figural play derived from the author’s name, Desbiolles, equally linked (not directly, but through a botanical intermediary) to the color white: “But I was even furthermore convinced that whiteness was not as dreary as I had thought when I learned that my name, that of my father, came from the birch tree, whose silver-white bark made it the most attractive of all trees.”[9] And this name, this onomastic whiteness, was also inscribed in her culinary destiny, signified by rice, that “delicate and nacreous hyphen”[10] connecting her family’s Italian origins and her own birth in Savoie. This emigration was marked by the passage from her grand-mother’s risotto to riz à la béchamel, a rice and a sauce that could not but evoke the horizon of her childhood, the “eternal snow above the fir trees.”[11] This whiteness triumphed once again in the squid, symbol of the strangeness that the South would always remain for her. But despite the mono-chromatic aspect of this creative matrix, the squid symbolizes a complex existence: “It was really in the nature of this animal, with its changing name and fluctuating morphology, to plunge us into confusion from the very beginning.”[12] Milky, murky waters have always inspired writers and artists, whence the duality of the iconography of La Seiche: both a chromatic (or rather achromatic) iconography of whiteness, and a zoological iconography.

The psychic source of this cephalopodic symbol of death is expressed, in all its terror, by Artaud in “Correspondance de la momie” (1927), a meditation on the question of suicide: “But this death is much more refined; this death multiplied by myself exists through a sort of rarefaction of my flesh. The intelligence has no more blood. The squid of nightmares spurts all its ink to obstruct the outlets of the spirit; it is blood emptied from the veins, meat oblivious to the cut of the knife.”[13] While Artaud never conquered the inner squid of his torments, Hugo’s protagonist, Gilliat, vanquished the giant octopus: “Gilliat plunged the point of his knife into the flat viscosity and, with a gyrating movement like the twist of a whiplash, making a circle around the two eyes, ripped off the head like one pulls out a tooth. It was over. The entire beast fell. It resembled a fallen piece of laundry. The sucking pump destroyed, the void was undone.”[14] As for Desbiolles, her accurate knifework—taking care not to tear the beast’s flesh—assured the success of the dish, though the squid took its revenge otherwise, in a more purely psychological manner.

The narrative of La Seiche is polymorphous, vacillating between childhood and adulthood, life and death, Eros and Than-atos, macrocosm and microcosm, gastronomy and psychology; when we reach the point of the recipe where the narrator explains that, “now we must stuff the phantom,”[15] the squid has already taken on an excessive and incommensurable symbolism. A dish is a symbol; inspiration comes from aromas, tastes, techniques; but meaning derives from elsewhere, from a place most often unnamable and unattainable. In La Seiche, the ambivalent phantom—squid, self, death —is founded on a confusion of names, a rich polychromaticism paradoxically existing within the confines of whiteness, and a narrative enriched by subtle allusions and complex correspondences. The narrator could indeed claim that, “La seiche, c’est moi.”

If, as Proust showed so well, childhood culinary experiences provide the paradigms that guide adult culinary pleasure and discomfort, it is also true that the culinary exists in a symbolic matrix far more complex than that which uses food alone as its metaphors: “...I bit into the sheet to keep me from already sliding into the infinitely open pit. The little bellies were quite taut, quite stuffed, quite swelled.”[16] The shudder caused by an unexpected juxtaposition—that of the Pascalian theological black hole of the open pit of hell revealed to the child during catechism, and the white holes constituted by the squids aligned on the kitchen table many years after—is existential, and not surreal; and the disquietude caused by recognition of one’s own mortality, while not appeased by the cathartic effects of the white host, was allegorized by the squid. The hint of the abyss that spices up the squid’s welcoming void is a subtle manifestation of the sublime in cuisine, that violent and scatological sublime that establishes the metaphysical piquancy of gastronomy. As Hugo reminds us in Les travailleurs de la mer, “All beings enter into one another. Rot is nourishment. The frightful cleansing of the globe. Man, the carnivore, is also a burier. Our lives are made of death. Such is the terrifying law. We are tombs.”[17] Nothing is exempt from this law, as is proven by the eating of the gods. Indeed, for Maryline Desbiolles the essence of cuisine is “to eat death, to make it one’s own, to slowly masticate it, taste it, to lick one’s lips after it...”[18] We cook dead flesh, we cook death itself (“well spiced”), we grasp it and tear it apart with our teeth, before finally abandoning our own life to it in turn. Yet these stages of life are not chronological, and the psychological structure of existence, like that of most complex narratives, is one of hysteresis, an anachronistic lagging of effects on a body behind the cause, the displacement of a previous influence on a subsequent response. Might this not be precisely the structure of culinary sublimation?

All translations are by the author.

This article is part of a forthcoming book, Feast and Folly. An earlier version of this text appeared in Critique #618, 1998.

  1. Victor Hugo, Les travailleurs de la mer (1866), in Oeuvres complètes, Roman III (Paris: Laffont / Bouquins, 1985), p. 279.
  2. Ibid., p. 281.
  3. Laurent Jenny, La terreur et les signes : Poétiques de rupture (Paris: Gallimard, 1982), p. 107.

  4. Les travailleurs de la mer, p. 278.

  5. Cited in Roger Caillois, La pieuvre : Essai sur la logique de l’imaginaire (Paris: La Table Ronde, 1973), p. 89.
  6. Cited in La pieuvre, p. 75.

  7. Maryline Desbiolles, La Seiche (Paris: Le Seuil, 1998), p. 105. An English translation of this work has appeared as The Cuttlefish, trans. Mara Bertelsen (New York: Herodias, 2001). All references here are to the French edition. 

  8. Ibid., p. 12.

  9. Ibid., p. 48.

  10. Ibid., p. 45.

  11. Ibid., p. 48. For another reading of white foods of childhood, see Chantal Thomas, “Blancmange with Almond Milk,” in Allen S. Weiss, ed., Taste, Nostalgia (New York: Lusitania Press, 1997), pp. 17– 19.
Ibid., p. 7.

  13. Antonin Artaud, “Correpondance de la momie” (1927), in Oeuvres complètes, Vol. I, Part II (Paris: Gallimard, 1976), p. 57.

  14. Les travailleurs de la mer, p. 285.
  15. La Seiche, p. 52.
  16. Ibid., p. 58.

  17. Les travailleurs de la mer, p. 283.

  18. La Seiche, pp. 25–26.

Allen S. Weiss teaches at the Performance Studies and Cinema Studies Departments at New York University. He is the author of many books, including Phantasmic Radio. Weiss is an editor-at-large at Cabinet.

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