Fables of the Belly in Early Modern England
DOI link for Fables of the Belly in Early Modern England
Fables of the Belly in Early Modern England book
In our current eagerness to establish political readings of early modern texts -an eagerness whetted by the dearth of such readings in New Criticismwe have allowed political concerns to consume a range of other discourses through which individuals in the period attempted to comprehend their experience of the world and to wring meaning from it. Among these discourses is the historically contingent blend of physiology, psychology, and ethics that constitutes the period's medical understanding of the complex relations between corporeal process and dispositional inclination. In early modern England, the individual consumer was pressured by Galenic physiology, classical ethics, and Protestant theology to conceive all acts of ingestion and excretion as very literal acts of self-fashioning. The stomach, the organ that accomplishes digestion, provides a particularly intense focus of inwardness because it is the part of our body that makes its needs felt most
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frequently and insistently. It demands to be filled at least a couple of times a day, and to be emptied at least once. When these demands are not met, the entire organism suffers. The exigencies of the stomach require the individual to confront on a daily basis the thin yet necessarily permeable line separating self and other. The purpose of this essay is to explore some of the legends formulated in the period to explain digestion, that magical yet mundane moment when dead animal and vegetable matter is ingested to sustain life, when something alien is brought into the self and something alien is excreted by the self, when, as Edward Reynolds suggests, the object of appetite is rendered the source of repugnance. I Far more involuted, conceptually and physiologically, than the voracious orifice of indiscriminate consumption immortalized by Comus, the belly god of Jonson's Pleasure Reconciled to Virtue and of Milton's A Masque, the stomach occupies a central site of ethical discrimination and devotional interiority in early modern culture.