The Oysters of Locmariaquer
Now that we have accepted our senses again as the broad and winding path to life itself, we still puzzle our poor heads over which ones to trust and which to dismiss. Just how much does seeing, for instance, penetrate our sensuous and moral universe? Or how much do things merely viewed block us forever short of a complete experience of the object? A few neo-Freudian critic-philosophers worry seriously over it. They tell us that the faculty of vision has usurped our sensory system, because it equips us to discriminate “that thing out there.” Painting refines the visual organs and tends to eliminate the need to hold and to heft. We look only, and refrain from touching. Hearing follows close behind sight as the other take-over faculty. The rest of our senses are going to rack and ruin, and we should all look to our bodies before we lose them. It’s something to think about.
Yet there are signals up that indicate a radically different weather. A recent and authoritative scientific monograph asserts that our sense of smell remains as keen as that of a hunting dog and needs only to be brought down near the scent to develop its latent powers. The appeal of the palate was never steadier if we judge by the count of cookbook titles rather than by the dishes that reach the table in the neighborhood Chez Joe’s. And I cannot help interpreting the flag-waving sexuality that has invaded several layers of our post-capitalist culture as a limited investigation of the sense of touch. Who knows? Perhaps it is even becoming stylish again to make love in the dark.
In the midst of this widespread and confused reaffirmation of the sensuous world, I am particularly grateful for two recent creations. One is the magnificent eating sequence in the film Tom Jones. The gusto with which they sniff, suck, tease, bite, squash, gulp, slurp, and spew a dozen succulent courses tells us all we need to know of the pleasure Tom and his light-o’-love hope to find in one another’s bodies. The other is a sturdy, unconventional piece of writing by Eleanor Clark, The Oysters of Locmariaquer. In both cases we must come prepared to commit all our senses—considerably more than five, that is.
Miss Clark’s book belongs to a class of one; her own Rome and a Villa approaches as close as any other but does not really compare. There is no conveniently labeled genre into which it fits. Because of its structure, The Oysters of Locmariaquer calls to mind a quickly braided multi-colored rope in which the strands enmesh and enfold and enhance one another in perpetual reappearance. Not twisted, mind you. This is the genuine article: three strands plaited by loving hands. First, the history, biology, ecology, culture, and dégustation of the Ostrea edulis or “flat” oyster. It was consumed in such great quantities in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that its natural beds nearly disappeared along the entire Atlantic coast of Europe except where the state stepped in. Hence, the bitter tears wept by the walrus in Alice in Wonderland while he did his part in proper style, dozen after dozen. Today thanks to a few heroes of science and commerce little known before this book, the delicate animal flourishes again in Brittany and may even be raised in the United States if current experiments turn out satisfactorily. The second strand relates the robust lives of the people of Locmariaquer, the principal locality in the world for the collection and nurture of naissin or larvae. This portion of the text reads like a historical novel in the present tense. Young and old in this village inhabit a lingering world of Celtic folklore, Catholic saints and feasts, and commercial risks—plus the annual invasion by twentieth-century tourist in July and August. The third strand, binding the other two, yet never merely filling in, contributes the rich reflections of a mind in which knowledge means sympathy, not distance.
Near the beginning Miss Clark remarks that our time sense has gotten out of kilter.
The old feel of it is gone and the new one hasn’t anywhere near caught up with what we know since what we know got expanded too suddenly, like objects in dreams. We are not sick, just insecure, with a bad footing in between recorded human history, which looks either too small or too big for comfort depending on one’s mood, and some vague apprehension of astronomy. The oyster will help to put us straight. Beneficent Oyster! all minds bless you, all minds can comprehend you, after a fashion.
Thus the strands wind around and into one another and draw tight until we are reading a text far stronger than the mere arithmetical sum of its sinews. It is the style that permits this shift from anecdote to scientific exposition to unfettered rumination. Time after time one discovers that the best passages are those which, abandoning all semblance of plan, drift off on an unexpected side trip. Miss Clark describes a phone call to a nearby museum that has no phone; the account begins as documentary and ends as hallucination. The confession of her “private sense” of the Middle Ages sheds new light on Henry Adams. The long passages she translates from La Villemarqué (the Breton equivalent of Macpherson and properly given a higher literary rating) convey the bardic ring of his verse. Under the circumstances authenticity seems a spurious question. Miss Clark shrinks before nothing because writing, sheer writing, provides a form of courage. And of truth.
For all its laminated construction and introduction of colorful Breton types, the book clearly gives top honors to the oyster. The fertilized and incubated larvae are spilled out of the mother in the spring in quantities running up to a million. She may then take a rest by turning into a male for the next season, for we are dealing with cyclic hermaphrodites. The larvae that survive flop without exception onto what is referred to as their “left side” when they finally latch onto something. In Locmariaquer they settle onto acres of white painted tiles staked in the tidal zone to receive them. Yet these model homebodies thrive best if they are moved around and can mature in more than one cove. After four years of feeding on plancton, the footless and brainless little creatures are purged in stone basins and trained, yes trained, not to “yawn.” That is, they must conquer their natural instinct to open their shells when taken out of water. Otherwise they could never be shipped without losing all those briny juices.
Now the temptation is obvious. You cannot write very long about such a creature without finding a moral lesson, or at least a comparison with the human situation. There exists a school of French writers responsible for le nouveau roman that instructs us curtly to forget all about that sentimental self-indulgence. Landscape is landscape and animals are animals, and there is nothing sad or triumphant or even significant about anything we can discover in nature. We have no right to inscribe our own feelings all over what we behold and say someone else put them there. Miss Clark has no such scruples; what was once known as the pathetic fallacy runs rampant.
Once “fixed,” as the process is called, the oyster loses its foot and swimming apparatus and will never move again under its own power; an awesome requirement, but then all nature fixes in some fashion, even if only in being existentially “engagé,” and by and large there seems to be about the same proportion of will to chance in human fixations as in those of the sessile mollusc. Freedom, as they say, is relative. What is impressive in the oyster is that it learns this grim lesson so young. It is at this point visible only with a magnifying glass, yet equipped with a secretion such as many humans take half a lifetime to acquire if they ever do, whereby to attach itself in perpetuo to the object of its fancy. That is, barring outside intervention.
This is coasting dangerously close to archness. Quite a few pages are simply boring, others exasperating because the camera never stops moving. But the general effect is that of an extended and endlessly inventive chat from a person of remarkable intelligence who has taken pains to inform himself about everything pertaining to a loosely defined subject. In two specific matters an improvement could have been made. Leonid’s four sensitive half-tone drawings (counting the one on the jacket) serve to bring home how much more might have been done with illustration—more drawings at least and possibly some photographs of the life cycle of the animal in question. And equally appropriate would be some sympathetic attention to other Breton specialties in the category of fruits de mer. True, the plate or Belon oyster has no close competitors, but Miss Clark looks down her nose too much at the superb (and cheap) black and orange mussels and fails to mention the sea-snails, sea urchins, periwinkles, and particularly the toothsome praires. These last, for which I can find no term in English, in their tan striated and symmetrical shells, have a more delicate flavor and firmer consistency than the workaday “Portuguese” that threatens to monopolize the oyster market.
Such objection can be brought because from the very start Miss Clark reveals that she knows the meaning of déguster. The word looks doubtful surrounded by English, but in French it brims over with attractive meanings. You don’t eat these pungent tidbits any more than you gulp a fine old wine. You bring to bear on that moment of complex feelings an attitude of anticipation and memory, a sensuous state of mind that can set us straight all over again about why civilization came about in the first place and how easily it can get away from us. Miss Clark does not say quite that, but that is how I read he book. Why go to school and learn polite manners and travel to distant shores and invent “higher” standards of living if not to bring all these skills to bear on an act in which we savor the pleasure of being alive? Yet the act of love does not offer us the only true path back to the body; that prejudice distorts our birthright. The point has been made before in telling the story of wine production and educated tippling. The history of the oyster and its delights has claims of its own as a source of venerable wisdom—the epic setting of the sea, the perils that threaten its future, and the religious and earthy associations that surround it. Much wit and patience, and all the senses we have, went into making this oyster of a book.