The day after I conceived of this blog, I was packing up my things from the classroom where I help teach journalism and gazed up at the bookshelves. The first title to become clearly legible was The Ravenous Muse, by Karen Elizabeth Gordon, which turned out to be a collection of passages from writers, philosophers, and artists all relating to food and eating. The front of the book sports a greedy raven scrambling to demolish a plate full of books, and the cover design plays with severe shades of blacks and reds, giving it a demonic air.
The Ravenous Muse pieces together quotes and passages from mostly European and Slavic writers such as Balzac, James Joyce, Nabokov, Flaubert, and Rilke. Gordon interlaces these passages with mischievous descriptions and annotations, lending it a personalized cohesiveness. The subtitle of the book, “A Table of Dark and Comic Contents, a Bacchanal of Books,” hints at its hedonistic tone. However, while many of the quoted characters revel in the pleasure of imbibing, such as Toulouse-Lautrec when he asks his mother: “Has the goose-liver season started? If it has, remember to have a dozen tins sent to me,” many of the selections also deal with food metaphorically, as a tool to unlock the poetry of the everyday. René Char, a living French poet, uses allusions to bread and baking to delicately characterize his lover: “Woman! On her mouth we kiss the madness of time; or side by side with the zenith cricket, she sings through the winter night in the bakery of the poor, under the softness of a loaf of light.”
Gordon supplements her collection with a generous heaping of subtitles and a section of witty and unusual biographies of each writer at the end. I enjoyed stumbling across the collection as it united two of my passions, and made them seem inextricable yet bizarrely foreign to one another, depending on the quote. Gordon’s selections sway between absurd, comical, eerie, and romantic. Sometimes they invoke the authors we’ve known and studied and shove them into a new light. “Is there not a sweet wolf within us that demands its food?”, asks Emily Dickinson, and we smile to imagine her in a stark, solitary house with a hungry canine as a companion. Gordon establishes an intimacy with us and draws out our appetites, addressing us in her introduction: “Since you are here, you too must be a bibliogourmand, taking sensual as well as cerebral pleasure in the act of reading. And that’s what’s on the table here: creation caught in the act, writer and muse in flagrante delicto, biting each other’s mouths.”
Foodies and farmers often seem fixated with the material substance of food, but it’s interesting to also consider it’s place in literature and culture, as a metaphor and a delightful participant in many surrealist fantasies. The Ravenous Muse does not claim to explain food’s importance in literature, but it’s exploration of authors and their depictions and musings on victuals will surely satiate.