Biters, suckers, screamers: Gothic Orality

Posted by Dr. Jennifer Brown on December 05, 2012 in Guest Blog, Jennifer Brown tagged with , , , ,

Facecake at The Evil Cake Shop

In late October I came across a link on The Guardian newspaper website for a group of photographs entitled “Eat Your Heart Out” with the tag “The most revolting cakes”. I was immediately intrigued. It was a collection of photos from a festival in London showcasing and selling anatomically correct cakes. However, these were no love heart cupcakes. Rather, think truffles, buns, cakes, chocolate sculptures in the form of cancerous organs, degrading bones, genital warts and more. The gruesome cake sale was the brainchild of Miss Cakehead and her website evilcakehead.com gives background on the idea: “The Evil Cake Shop has been shock-chocking the innocent and not-so-innocent since 2010, when Miss Cakehead and her team of reprobate bakers fashioned the world’s first 18+ cake shop…taking pride in a precise anatomical approach to cake that meant realistically filthy sugar-spun gashes of flesh, gruesome gouged-out eyes and fearsome vagina dentata. These cakes were literally to die for”. Brilliant!

Tucking in at evilcakehead.com

Last Spring, a London ice creamery sold breast milk flavour ice cream called, wait for it, “Baby Gaga”! It was met with a range of reactions, most of them leaning towards disgust or confusion and was soon banned by the Health and Safety Authorities. On a more personal note, I was recently celebrating the release of my book Cannibalism in Literature and Film and my friend threw me a cannibal themed party. Besides the unusual fancy dress costumes, the theme was enhanced with party snacks made to look like body parts. There were mozzarella eyeballs, prosciutto wrapped digits, mixed body parts punch, skull sponge cake and more! The shrieks of delighted disgust as we tucked in were music to my ears! Furthermore, it got me thinking about the blurring of the boundary between the human body and food. This is a boundary we have long held to be a firm one, hence the taboo status of cannibalism, but we certainly find the collapse of this boundary fascinating and indeed unsettling. Gothic texts relish the blurring of boundaries and unsettling us. Hence, I find a plethora of Gothic texts concerned with the question of the human body as food, and the mouth as a site of danger, contamination, death or corruption. In this and the following entries I will, therefore, examine the idea of the Gothic mouth.

Crossing the oral boundary on the cover of Jim Crace's The Devil's Larder

The mouth, of course, is the site of this symbolic ingestion. Mikhail Bakhtin sees the mouth as the locus of speech and consumption. Therefore the mouth plays a leading role in the interpretation between the Self and the world. For Bakhtin, it is through the mouth that man “tastes the world, introduces it into his body, makes it part of himself…The limits between man and the world are erased”. This is, according to Bakhtin, to man’s advantage. Julia Kristeva, however, is a little doubtful. For her, “the fact remains nevertheless that all food is liable to defile”. Food, as an oral object, signifies the boundary between the Self’s clean and proper body and the possibly abject Other. For Kristeva food becomes abject when it is a border between two distinct entities or territories; a boundary between nature and culture, between the human and the non-human.

Orality, the metaphor of the mouth, and voice, are critical issues in discussing Gothic texts. Both Walter J. Ong and Penny Fielding look at notions of how orality is considered close to the primitive. Ong explains how print encourages a sense of closure and irrefutable truth. The term “orality”, on the other hand, is associated with irrationality, temporality and the marginal. The oral is always other: of writing it is speech, of culture it is the voice of nature, and of the modern it is a pre-modern past. Fielding points out the significance of this phenomenon in the nineteenth century when orality was placed in contrast to modernity and argues that in order for orality to be contained and managed, it is usually located elsewhere than in the temporal centre. The opposition, in psychoanalytic terms, associates writing, the visual, phallic sign, with the creation of the conscious while the oral is repressed into the unconscious. What does this mean for Gothic texts, preoccupied with orality and peopled with a range or oral criminals, monsters or victims?

Janet Leigh in Psycho

In their studies on orality, Ong and Fielding do not consider the cannibalistic link to the oral through the mouth. However, in Gothic texts we can make this link in a number of ways. Cannibalism is, above all else, an oral crime. Primitive in its biting, pre-civilised in its ignorance or rejection of accepted morals, and savage in its cruelty, it powerfully aligns the mouth and the oral to the primitive. Cannibalism, within the system of dietary codes, is generally deemed unnatural and monstrous because it disregards widely accepted norms of eating practices. The human body is considered the pinnacle of the food chain.

The Flintstones as cannibals

Cannibalism creates ambiguity because it both reduces the body to mere meat and elevates it to a highly desirable, symbolic entity; it is both disgusting, and the most rarefied of gastronomic tastes. Cannibalism is a forceful reminder of how the human appetite is a life-driving force, and is the ultimate transgression of cultural mores. Furthermore, fear of the Other is often expressed through images of being literally and metaphorically consumed by that Other. Popular representations of the cannibal remind us of the voracity of human hunger and the potentially limitless nature of appetite. The cannibal figure represents the fear that our appetite for consumption knows no end, and indeed reminds us of our own potential inhumanity.

In Gothic texts, the above themes are often embodied in the image of the wide open mouth. I am thinking here of Kurtz’s gaping maw wanting to swallow the world in Conrad’s colonial Gothic nightmare, Edvard Munch’s The Scream, Wes Craven’s iconic mask from Scream, Bertha Rochester’s rants from the attic in Jane Eyre, a plethora of final girls

Scream

and scream queens shrieking their way through 1970’s horror films, Janet Leigh in the shower, Regan’s spitting, drooling, snarling, gnashing potty mouth in The Exorcist, along with a veritable host of vampires, zombies, werewolves and cannibals populating Gothic texts throughout the last two centuries. I believe these examples convey our terror at being consumed and the wide open mouthed scream echoes through our popular culture.

It seems to me that Gothic orality involves i) dangerous food in the form of poison, grotesque overeating, addictive eating habits, or indeed starvation; ii) dangerous voices in their power to control (I am thinking here of Svengali in George du Maurier’s Trilby, Hannibal Lecter, Dracula, Richard Marsh’s Beetle); and iii) dangerous mouths in the form of various biters and consumers. In the next entries I will explore these ideas of Gothic orality in some specific texts.

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