Tag Archives: Alison Lurie

Food as a focal pleasure in children’s literature and children’s lives.

“It has been suggested that in classic children’s literature food replaces sex as the principal source of excitement and sensual pleasure…it might even be said that when food in children’s books is inedible or unavailable, it is the emotional equivalent of bad or denied sex is an adult novel. One of the reasons Alice in Wonderland is something unpopular with young readers may be that all Alice ever has to eat is drugs disguised as food.” –Boys and Girls Forever: Children’s Classics from Cinderella to Harry Potter (Alison Lurie), page 176

I’d like to expand that to suggest that food may generally for a sensual focal point for (many) contemporary children in the same way that sex is a sensual focal point for (many) contemporary adults.

The above is particularly interesting in light of something a teacher said to me about four months ago when I started my volunteer work with kids. “If you can’t get them to write about anything,” she said, “get them talking about food. Kids love to talk about food.”

At the time I interpreted her comment as derisive – I assumed that she was suggesting that children are one-dimensional, in part because they obsessed with ostensibly prosaic sensual pleasures like food. (I tend to get quite irritated when I think adults are belittling children; I vividly remember being a kid, and how much I hated being talked down to and treated as a lesser creature.) Regardless of the intent of the teacher’s comment, I have since realized that she’s right – kids do love talking about food. They love talking about what they ate, what they are going to eat, what they would eat if it were available, what the food is like. The 4th/5th-grade kids I work(ed) with have come up with some impressive and original food metaphors to use in their poems. However, I never understood why they seemed to enjoy discussing food. While food is necessary and often pleasant, I don’t find it a sustainable conversation topic.

However, then contextualized as the main sensual focus of the prepubescent, the food obsession of many kids seems not only understandable, but also more complex than I imagined. It also suggests that sharing food can be more intimate than imagined. Unfortunately, I can’t remember much about lunch-time swaps during the time before adolescence, but I do recall that sharing food could be used to forge friendship (though sometimes that friendship was temporary or conditional) and prove affection to close friends.

The main problem with the food-as-primary-sensual-pleasure thesis is that food is generally used in the context of platonic intimacy, whereas sex is used in the context of non-platonic intimacy. Each type of intimacy has a different cultural significance, suggesting that the comparison of the two is inherently limited.

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“Many people…believe their deepest impulses to be evil.”

“It may seem odd to some that a self-confessed sadist should also be a pacifist. But it should be remembered that [T.H.] White was revolted by his own sadism; and war, for such a person, must seem doubly horrible, because it allows the acting out or at least witnessing of forbidden fantasies. It is also terrifying because of the possibility that one may be the victim rather than the perpetrator of deliberate cruelty. Like many people who believe their deepest impulses to be evil, White extended this belief to others, with the result that, as Sylvia Townsend Warner writes, ‘ he was basically afraid of the human race.’” –Don’t Tell the Grown-ups: Subversive Children’s Literature (Alison Lurie), page 162 (italics mine)

The “deepest impulses” described above can more accurately be called compulsions. The trouble with suffocating exploration of compulsion – in thought, not in action – is that it limits the possibility of any relief from the obsessive desires (in White’s case, sadism). Most compulsions are expressions of something deeper, truer, and more unconscious.

I’m not advocating for the acting out of sadistic fantasies, just for self-examination, which can so often lead to realization and relief.

T.H. White is an ambiguous but sympathetic character. Deeply lonely, fearful of himself and others, probably self-hating. Those very qualities – moral complexity, understanding of internal struggle and dark or violent urges – are the things that make his books and characters interesting.

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