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Elizabeth Blake’s Edible Arrangements Is Hungry (and Horny) for Modernist Literature

In lesbian filmmaker Chantal Akerman’s 1975 avant-garde film Je Tu Il Elle, the protagonist Julie (played by Akerman herself) spends a month isolated in a sparse room, obsessively spoon-feeding herself sugar out of a paper bag for sustenance. By the end of the film, Julie has left the room and made her way to an ex-lover’s apartment, where she announces, “I’m hungry.” The two women share a meal, staring lustfully into each other’s eyes as they each take bites of a sandwich. After Julie begins to undress her lover, the camera cuts to a scene in the bedroom: What follows is one of the longest lesbian sex scenes in film history. Over ten minutes, we watch Julie and her lover naked in bed: They roll around, their arms, legs, and mouths tightly entwined, almost as if they are trying to consume each other, hungrily fucking.

Film critics and scholars have been thinking through the ambiguity and abstraction of Julie’s sugar-eating and the final, lengthy sex scene in Je Tu Il Elle for the last 50 years. Is Akerman’s Julie self-destructive and depressed, consuming only sugar as a stand-in for the loss of her ex? Is the sex scene passionate and erotic, or graphic and gratuitous? How do the aesthetic qualities of the film (the static camera work, the long shots, the black and white cinematography), and Akerman’s own sexuality and history of mental illness, enhance or affect our understanding of what’s happening on screen?

The 2023 book Edible Arrangements: Modernism’s Queer Forms by Elizabeth Blake can help us understand the sensual relationship between food and sex in Je Tu Il Elle and in other forms of LGBTQ art, media, and cultural production. Edible Arrangements examines scenes of eating in modernist literature and how these scenes open up new ways of thinking about bodily pleasure, queerness, and literature itself.

Blake, an Assistant Professor of English at Clark University, argues, “scenes of eating in modernist literature do a kind of double work: as they depict queer or nonnormative forms of pleasure, they bend the rules of genre, unsettling literary norms and inviting new forms of literary pleasure.” Similar to how Akerman uses avant-garde filmmaking techniques to depict the non-normative, embodied pleasures of her protagonist in Je Tu Il Elle, the modernist writers in Blake’s purview experiment with literary form in ways that unsettle how we think about food, pleasure, sex, relationships, and writing.

Blake closely reads the work of queer authors writing in the early 20th century: Virginia Woolf, Richard Bruce Nugent, and Djuna Barnes, among others. During the period between WWI and WWII, often considered the modernist period in literary history, writing was characterized by a formal experimentation that breaks with reality. When we talked in March, Blake explained that literature in this time period popularized the stream of consciousness style. “We often think of it as an experimental form, a form that changes the shape of the sentence. What’s interesting to me is that it’s also intended to be a form that is an accurate representation of the way the mind works, right?…[Writers are] breaking with reality in a way that’s about understanding reality as it’s actually experienced by a sensing person. So for me, it’s a really interesting time to think about sensation,” she said.

The sensory experience of eating is central to Blake’s work. Edible Arrangements is all about “the pleasurable possibilities” of what Blake calls “thinking with the mouth.” Rather than focusing on the biological need to eat, Blake traces the way writers illustrate “how it feels either to eat or not to.” As Blake writes, this project requires her to take seriously “the way oral pleasures might be aesthetically, intellectually, and culturally generative.” Blake has a personal stake in this mode of analysis: she adds, “I am by temperament, a person who wants to taste everything, and that is reflected in the breadth and sheer number of texts discussed in these pages.”

If you raised your eyebrows at the sentences in the paragraph above, you are not alone. The margins of my copy of Edible Arrangements are full of exclamation marks, noting Blake’s own arousing sentences. Another example: As she explains the structure of the book, Blake writes, “The book proceeds in two parts, which I fancifully considered calling yuck and yum before realizing that either part could take either name, since yuck and yum are two sides of the same queer coin.” (Exclamation mark!) Earlier in the Introduction, Blake writes, “Queerness emerges amid the sensorium of the mouth, not from the growling of the stomach, and it invites us to savor the pleasures of sex in a way that moves beyond any biological imperative, including that of heterosexual reproduction.” I texted this sentence to my partner, followed by the word, “Hot.”

Blake’s play with sensual language is purposeful. “I want my readers to enjoy my writing. That’s really important to me, that there’s some kind of pleasure in the language itself. It’s also the most accurate representation of what I’m doing,” she told me. “I write about literature because literature is something that I love. We’re kind of trained not to admit that. But I feel like it’s really important. My students make fun of me often because in class I’ll be like, ‘this is my favorite book that I teach in this class!’ And they’ll be like, ‘you said that two weeks ago!’ And it’s true every time, I genuinely mean it. Because I’m really interested in what these texts do and what we can do with them, and the kind of excitement that they can produce, so I don’t want my own prose to be dry and stolid.”

Blake began this project after she stumbled upon a cookbook written by Alice B. Toklas, the long term partner of modernist writer Gertrude Stein, at a yard sale. “I picked it up and it was one of the most interesting experimental documents I’d ever read. It’s a cookbook combined with a memoir. It’s very gossipy, it’s this very hybrid document. There’s not a lot of scholarship on it because it’s written by a queer woman who herself within it talks about not really being a writer because cookbooks aren’t really a form of literature, but it really clearly is,” Blake told me.

Reading through the cookbook inspired her to start thinking “about food in the literary texts that I was reading, and thinking about how food, and relations to food, might be emerging as sites of counter-normativity, of experimentation.” While she doesn’t analyze the cookbook in Edible Arrangements, Blake did write a short public-facing piece about how the cookbook complicates our understanding of literary modernism.

As Blake writes in her book, the relationship between queer theory and what Blake calls “critical eating studies” is undertheorized. To do her work, Blake draws on Kyla Wazana Tompkins book Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the 19th Century, a study of the racialized politics of eating in 19th century cultural production. Blake builds on and expands Tompkins’ concept of “queer alimentarity,” or “the sensuality and eroticism that can be located in the act of eating” to examine the non-heteronormative worlds made visible by the queer pleasure of eating in the 20th century.

The modernist period is exciting for Blake because “it’s super queer,” she shared. “So many of the writers that are important in the modernist period are some kind of gay or trans. These identities are starting to become culturally legible, and they’re often circulating in these communities that spring up around salons and literary coteries. So queer people are thinking and writing together and meeting up in exchanging ideas in ways that aren’t necessarily about where they’re from originally. We have the airplane, we have transcontinental travel, and we have a lot of people who are moving to places where it’s safer to be gay, mostly specifically to Paris…So for me, that’s a really exciting place to be thinking, because you have all these queer people talking to each other.”

Throughout Edible Arrangements, Blake is continually interested in how food and eating shifts relationships, as well as our own (at times, sexual) relationships to and with food. While reading, I immediately thought of similar examples in queer film. Julie consuming sugar/trying to consume her ex in Je Tu Il Elle; the way Queen Anne devours ostentatious displays of food–and, metaphorically, her female lovers vying for power and attention–in The Favourite (2018); how Elio masturbates with a peach in Call Me By Your Name (2017), and then is both horrified and moved when his love interest Oliver attempts to eat it.

“There’s a whole stone fruit situation,” Blake said, laughing, when I brought up Call Me By Your Name. (Fruits of various kinds are a recurring object of analysis in the book.) Blake has thought about the repeated scenes of Adéle eating spaghetti in Blue is the Warmest Color (2013) in a similar way. While Blake’s book focuses on modernist literature, her analysis of how it depicts embodied relationships with and through food certainly applies to other forms of experimental queer art. This is the mark of a great academic text: when its ideas can illuminate new ways of understanding objects beyond its purview.

Blake’s next book, tentatively titled Against the Love Plot, examines the work of queer women writers in the 20th century who “write against marriage by writing about marriage.” She explained that these writers, “frame heterosexual marriage in unrealistically positive terms, and they do so in ways that we can read as queer-coded or organized through the kind of structural logic of queerness, but they also offer a model for how it might be improved from the norms of their era.”

Clearly, Blake is still fascinated by early-to-mid 20th century queer literature, and she hopes her readers will be too. “It’s easy to think that things are queerer now than they were then, and in some ways, the opposite is true,” she said. In the contemporary moment, “there’s so much anxiety about how to be queer in the right ways. There’s a freeness and an experimentation in a lot of this early queer writing that I think we could learn from, and that is really exciting and just really fun to read.”

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Lauren Herold

Lauren is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Kenyon College, where she teaches Women's and Gender Studies and researches LGBTQ television, media history, and media activism. She also loves baking banana chocolate chip muffins, fostering cats, and video chatting with her sisters. Check out her website lcherold.com, her twitter @renherold, or her instagram @queers_on_cable.

Lauren has written 16 articles for us.

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