Dialectics of the (in)edible

Still from Teshigahara’s film version of Suna no onna (Woman in the Dunes).

Bernard Beckerman once called theatre a “glutton”: “It will swallow any kind of material and experience that can be turned performance” (1970: 11). Theatre can be anything, can be anywhere. Beckerman was referring to the developments in theatre in the 60s and 70s and their exploration of (their gluttony for) the fresh possibilities of the body as a symbolic, meaningful surface — there was so much more to be explored beyond the limits of representational/mimetic theatre.

Where else can we take this metaphor of theatre’s ‘gluttony’? What if we take it quite literally?

I’m interested in the specificity of this metaphor, its gastronomic aspect. In the context of modern Japanese theatre, consumption becomes highly politicized — for example, in the post-restoration’s ravenous consumption of Western culture, aesthetics, politics, and even food. Shingeki was indeed a result of Japan’s absorbtion of Western theatre conventions. Of course, similar digestive expansions were happening in other theatres  — Brecht for example found inspiration from China. Indeed, Eugenio Barba writes that “[t]oday, the theatrical environment is restricted but has no frontiers. Performers often travel outside their own cultures or host foreigners, theorize and diffuse the specificity of their art in foreign contexts, see other theatres, remain fascinated by and therefore tempted to incorporate into their own work some of the results which have interested or moved them” (1995: 14). But then he goes on to says something else very interesting: “How does one manage to ‘eat’ the results obtained by others, while also having the time and chemistry to digest those results? The opposite of a colonized or seduced culture is not a culture which isolates itself but a culture which knows how to cook in its own way and to eat what it takes from or what arrives from the outside” (1995: 14). How does one eat the Other without having the body simply reject (expel, defecate) precisely that which is foreign about it? Or, how does one consume the Other without making it ‘the same,’ a repetition of one’s own identity — and the related question: how does one maintain one’s own individuality without rejecting the Other?

There is certainly a lot to be said about food in Abe’s The Green Stockings, in terms of theorizing the consuming body, about the semiotics of food, about food taboos, about food as nostalgia.

First, maybe a cursory synopsis is in order:

The play begins with the rumbling noises of the human digestive tract. The curtain rises to show a man standing in the centre of the stage, who pulls out a cube-shaped section from the floor of the stage to peer inside its hole: “a mouldy-smelling wind hit me in the nose. But I suppose there’s times when having a bad tooth can give a special flavor to a meal” (74).

He begins to tell the story of a scientist and his assistant. They have discovered an old woman who lives entirely off of termites, which she harvests in her house. They attempt to expand and improve her termite farm in order to solve the world food crisis. To their dismay, however, the National Food Agency and the United Nations ignore their research. The assistant laments that it’s “just plain conservatism. People are unbelievable conservative when it comes to their stomachs” (80).

We find out that The Man is a teacher, and that he has a panty fetish, especially for green stockings. When his family finds out, he tries to commit suicide but ends up being resuscitated by the doctor and his assistant. They offer him money to be their research subject: they want to transform him into a herbivorous human being. Their project is no longer raising termites as food, but rather they wish to turn human beings into termites, that is, restructure their stomachs so that they can eat anything: grass, straw, wood, paper, and so on.

The man has been sending the money he receives back to his family, and his son and fiancée soon find out his location and come to rescue him. They bring him his panty collection, including the green stockings. He does not want rescuing, however, desiring instead the freedom and the solitude afforded by what he imagines will be his new lifestyle as a herbivorous man:

I want to slip through the dark spaces separating one human being from the next, not interfering with anybody, not being interfered with by anybody else . . . The wind at daybreak, a half-moon in the sky like a segment of a canned tangerine, and feel the sand and gravel under my shoes . . . I’ll become a shadow, hard as a knife, and mingle with the silent ghosts . . . Grassy meadows waving in the wind will be my dinner table . . . Look! A dinner table fit for a king, and you can eat as much as you like . . . A dinner all by myself, with nobody else around . . . A rabbit on a dark night . . . A black rabbit. (93-4)

However, as the experiment progresses the transformation continues to become more and more uncomfortable: “it feels like a snake’s running wild inside my guts” (94). His stomach begins to make very loud, startling noises, “composed of many elements, suggest[ing] a monkey playing on a wheezing pipe organ” (94). The assistant explains to him however that these noises are normal, a side-effect of his new digestive process. What’s worse, in “resolving cellulose” the man naturally starts to produce a lot of gas. His sense of the grandeur of the experiment fades: “there’s such a thing as dignity. And pride. Man does not live solely to eat […] how would you like to fart every two hours to the accompaniment of a brass band?” (97). The assistant explains that the public’s reaction to the herbivorous man will no doubt be as indifferent as it was to the idea of termite farms. At best, he’ll “be a fine circus attraction, about on a level with a midget” (98). People’s attitudes towards food are just as conservative as they are towards sex, they’ll reject his herbivorism just as they did his fetishism. In order to avoid becoming disgraced again, The Man resolves to run away. The son and fiancée return, this time with The Man’s wife. To escape from his family, as well as the doctor and his assistant, he climbs up into the ceiling before anyone sees him.

After some time however — during which the family, the doctor, the assistant and the nurse have been arguing over the effects of experiment — the man’s stomach begins to rumble, revealing his hiding spot. The family tries to make him leave with them, but he refuses. The man locks all of them in the room, however, and orders them all to stand against a wall. Stagehands, who also interact with the characters, enter and place sheets over all of them as the man goes to the washroom. One stagehand reluctantly collects his urine in a cup. Two others turn into a cameraman and a reporter, and proceed to conduct an interview with the man and the doctor. The cameraman and interviewer discuss who will buy the film, suggesting a toothbrush company or perhaps a dairy supplier. The doctor applauds the man as “our last ray of hope, the lifeline of humankind, the pioneer, the prophet, the explorer, the vanguard, the morning star, the first to clear the barrier” (118). The man contemplates: “Am I the star of hope for this world? A hero who will radiate light on tomorrow? […] No, I’m just a laughingstock, a cripple rejected by society” (116).

The Man then struggles to eat his first meal as a herbivorous man, which has been brought in on a cart, and which the nurse describes as being composed of “five stalks of sugar cane, three of straw, threw in some cedar shavings and soybean stems, ground them all up to make for easier ingestion, and then steamed them for about twenty minutes” (106). While he attempts (with difficulty) to chew his meal, the wife demands that the doctor give her husband a vasectomy. As a herbivorous man, his reproductive powers are pointless. The man agrees that all he needs are the green stockings. The play ends with the man vanishing as the doctor delivers a soliloquy on the glory of being finally free from the fear of hunger. Everyone searches for The Man until they find him in the painting of green fields that covers the stage wall: “he’s running. It looks as if he’s escaping” (130). The doctor, however, smashes his fist against the painting and says, “It was a bug! Just a stupid little bug!” (130).

The play shifts from one state of affairs to the next with dreamlike fluidity and strangeness, but I think it’s important to remember that we begin with eating insects and only then move on to eating like an insect. The Man begins as a distanced narrator and becomes, against his will, incorporated into the texture of the play (I’d like to know how the audience felt watching this play, if they too felt like The Man, trapped in an absurd fantasy). In doing so, he combines an other’s experiments in entomophagy with his own sexual fetishism to create an entomofetishistic dreamscape, in which taboo gastronomic and erotic desires, food and sex, insect and human are all cross-circuited.

There is constant ambivalence, push and pull, repulsion and attraction, as The Man moves from positive to negative, from emotional exuberance to despondence. Each fluid shift erases the last, but also at the same time seems to preserve it, like an insect preserved in amber (a flight that is paradoxically preserved in stasis).

I read an interesting article by Sarah Gordon on the topic of Entomophagy, “Representations of Insect Eating in Literature and Mass Media”. She is quick to point out that in Western culture “insects have long been considered dirty or repulsive and associated with a richly derogatory and utterly unappetizing semantic field” (342). However, in literature, she says, it is often the case that “images and representations of entomophagy entail transgression, play, and spectacle. Audiences and spectators also engage in voyeurism and play in looking at entomophagy as exotic and other” (343).

Illustrating this attractive/repulsive binary, Abe’s text vacillates, as we have said, between two poles.  On the one hand, The Man’s herbivorous transformation is viewed as a utilitarian (if undignified) last resort to a world food crisis, one that reduces The Man to a farting, pissing, and defecating lab rat; on the other hand, his transformation becomes a radical means of escaping from given social/gastronomic realities. The Man’s diet simultaneously stretches the boundaries of the edible and of society. His new diet is exoticized as a supreme ‘Other’ diet — the gastronomic gateway to the Utopic green fields beyond the stage, beyond  all of its constructed artificiality (the players recognize they are merely characters in a novel, the stagehands become characters; indeed, this play wears its artifice on its surface like loose clothing). It’s the oceanic impulse: the desire to escape from the world of civilization into the primitive world of the Other.

Like the man’s stocking fetishism, his transformation is both a disgrace and also something poetic and liberating. Without any changes to the play’s content, it moves easily from dystopia to utopia: from empowered boundary crossing to the dangers of an existence bereft of its humanity. Indeed, the difference between the two, as Jameson writes in another context, is not one of content, but of “the mere changing of a valence” (Archaeologies of the Future 215). I recall what Benjamin wrote in the Arcades, that “what matter are never the ‘great’ but only the dialectical contrasts, which often seem indistinguishable from nuances” (N1a,4).

I am reminded of a childhood of eating worms and insects. I never did so myself, but I was, like many children, an amateur entomologist. I would turn over rocks in my backyard and look for interesting specimens to collect in jars. I had an ant farm for a while, but my favorite insects were bees and cicadas. The bee was, I thought, the perfect organism: it takes what it needs to live without destroying anything. I was also fascinated by termites: that they could eat furniture, whole houses even . No doubt it was also the joy of building sand castles that created a sort of envy of insect: to be able to be a termite and build their fantastic edifices, fortresses of sand with strange and uneven minarets, towering impossible shapes like Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia.

The child’s ability to transgress conventional boundaries of what is edible and what is not, to re-imagine the edible and cross the boundaries of what is human — it breaks a cultural taboo, it’s a transgression, it’s play. It’s a skill, a taste that is lost to adults. And yet isn’t there also a sense of nostalgia encased in the hard shell of the insect? To penetrate the shell, like the entomologist with his pins, is it not, like Proust’s madeleines, symptomatic of a desire to taste childhood again?

Joseph Cornell’s Untitled (Butterfly Habitat) illustrates how the fascination with the insect can be a confluence of exoticism and nostalgia. It invokes a yearning for lost childhood as something entomological. Carol Mavor describes this work as “memories turned frozen” (the glass is frosted, reminiscent of old Christmas display windows). She goes on to call his works “nostalgic boxes in the service of childhood lost”.

Joseph Cornell’s Untitled (Butterfly Habitat) (1940)

This work also captures the ‘valence’ of nostalgia: that nostalgia is predicated upon loss, that one can never take the chill off of memory, or step inside the box that houses them in their anodyne symmetry.

Did Abe eat bugs as a child? We know, at least, that he developed a serious interest in insect collecting as a young man living in Manchuria, becoming somewhat of an “amateur entomologist” (Rosenstein 114). And we know his most famous novel Suna no onna (Woman in the Dunes) has an entomologist as its protagonist, Niki Jumpei (who was born in the same year as Abe), and that there are significant examples of entomology to be found in several of his other writings (The Green Stockings included, of course). In Suna no onna, Jumpei is searching in the desert for a rare specimen of beetle, the Cincindela japonica Matschulsky, and ends up being taken captive by a termite-like society of sand-dwellers who live in deep holes in the sand. Jumpei is unwillingly put with a widowed woman. First he tries to escape, but by the end, though the opportunity arises, he has decided to remain in the ‘village’: he gives up his life in society to live as an anonymous insect, a dune bug. Perhaps the meaning behind it is that this life as an insect is in fact less “insect-like” than life in modern society (its increased rationalization), that it affords him the capability of developing into a more meaningful individual. But there is the other valence, as well: indeed, the publication of Suna no onna coincides with Abe’s renunciation of Communism, and it is easy to draw a correlation between the enforced community of the dune people and that of socialism. Timothy Iles argues that Suna no onna thus offers not so much an example of a Utopian community as an example of “communal rigidity [wherein] the individual is but a machine fulfilling a function, the end product of which is the continued prosperity of the community” (13).

But the valences perhaps form a dialectic, if we hold them side by side, to create an image like that in a stereoscope: the insect and the man, the community and the individual combine. If we hold both sides together at once, like the fly in amber (Benjamin’s “dialectics at a standstill”) perhaps we can see the final (perhaps unattainable) Utopia Abe strove for, which Iles articulates as “a return to nomadism within an urban setting” (13). Another reason to always read beyond the linear, to read un-teleologically, to see at once all the nuances of the story, not just the ending (Abe’s stories don’t really have conclusions, and the fly squashed on the wall is not the end).


Abe, Kōbō. 1993. Three plays, ed. Donald Keene. New York: Columbia University Press.

Barba, Eugenio. 1995. The Paper Canoe: A Guide to Theatre Anthropology, eds. Eugenio Barba, translated by Richard Fowler. London; New York: Routledge.

Beckerman, Bernard. 1970. Dynamics of Drama. Theory and Method of Analysis. New York: Knopf.

Gordon, Sarah. Representations of Insect Eating in Literature and Mass Media. In Insect Poetics, ed. Eric C. Brown, 342-362. Minneapolis, London: U of Minnesota Press.

Iles, Timothy. 2000. Abe kôbô: An Exploration of his Prose, Drama and Theatre. Fucecchio (Firenze), Italy: European Press Academic Publishing.

Mavor, Carol. 2007. Reading Boyishly. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Rosenstein, Roy. 2006. The End of Insect Imagery: From Dostoyevsky to Kobo Abé via Kafka. In Insect Poetics, ed. Eric C. Brown, 112-128. Minneapolis, London: U of Minnesota Press.

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