March 2010

Barbara J. King

features

Seduced by Oyster (And the Reaktion Books Animal Series)

“The oyster, raw food of both epicure and savage, from the sea, looking at the same time both like an open wound and sexual organs, reminiscent of the translucence of flesh and bodily fluids, sits on that border between culture and nature and between male and female, between land and sea, between cooked and raw.”

Passages like this one, nestled in the midst of a chapter called “Oyster Flesh: Desire and Abjection,” show why I’m addicted to London-based Reaktion Books’s Animal Series. Oyster -- like the counterpart volumes Ape and Penguin that I’ve greedily devoured already, and presumably like the Whale, Elephant, and Cat editions basking on my bookshelf-in-waiting -- offers sumptuous portions of natural and cultural history so surprising and visually gorgeous that readers will never again see the book’s focal animal in the way they had before.

Oyster was a litmus-test book for me. Why wouldn’t a long-term gorilla watcher fancy a book called Ape? And who can resist a good Penguin story? Both those volumes, written by John Sorenson and Stephen Martin respectively and newer than Oyster, seize on humans’ relentless anthropomorphizing of animals. From the film-world of King Kong and March of the Penguins to an insistence on seeing ourselves reflected in the smart acts of chimpanzees and comic antics of tuxedo-clad rockhoppers, there’s an instant resonance with these animals.

But… oysters? Can we, in looking at them, discover a recognizable presence, a potential partner in the dance of animal-human relating?

Rebecca Storr notes early on the oyster’s strange impenetrability to the human gaze: “Unlike the mammals in this series, the oyster does not map onto the human form: it has no recognizable head, legs, eyes, mouth, skin, hands or arms. As a sea creature, it is quintessentially alien to the human form and to human experience.”

Despite this challenge, Storr shows how the oyster has become much more than a slippery, briny treat for the human tongue. Because of its closed-up sealed-off nature, the oyster signals solitude; at the same time, because of the fluidity of its sexual nature, it tantalizes with boundary transgressions. Given these twin associations, the fact that the oyster stands for gluttony should be no shock: it’s alone and mysterious, yet capable of embracing maleness-and-femaleness in a single life. Is it any wonder that we eat oysters to celebrate and to seduce?

Oyster eating stretches back into prehistory and ranges across continents and social classes. Charles Dickens in The Pickwick Papers describes oysters as food for the poor, yet oysters were staples at Roman feasts and in seventeenth-century Europe, where “the Prince of Conde’s steward fell on his sword after a basket of oysters arrived late for his master’s lunch with Louis XIV.” Storr cogently traces what oysters, oyster eating and oyster cultivation reveal about social class and racism in American and European history.

Happily, Storr’s account includes a rigorous awareness of oysters as living beings, more than mere playthings for the human palate. Complementing the natural history (and the cultural history too) are Reaktion’s trademark luminous illustrations. The Pacific oyster and the flat oyster exhibit different appearances and reproductive habits. Though “its body is shut between two concave limestone doors,” the oyster is a prolific reproducer. “Unimaginable numbers” of eggs and sperm spew out at once, a key survival strategy in the harsh world of the seabed.

And it’s not only more oysters that oysters create. Pearls are the only gems that are animal-produced. The pearl chapter flashes from Shakespeare’s pearl-based description of Helen of Troy in Troilus and Cressida to Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, and from the horrid Spanish-enforced slave trade in Venezuelan island pearl divers to the use of pearl buttons to subvert class-specific fashion trends, sparkling as it goes.

As fascinating as the oyster’s productive capacities are its abilities to change sex. “The oyster is never quite sexually fixed,” writes Storr. For its first year of life, an oyster is male, but then “matures” (oh beautifully loaded verb!) into femaleness. Sex flux by no means stops there, however, because “the oyster may change its sex up to four times a year controlled by some mysterious synchronicity or the vagaries of water temperature or salinity.”  

A whole chapter, “Oysters, Sex and Seduction,” riffs on lusty topics, its thrust summed up in a sentence: “Think of oysters, try not to think of sex.” Here as throughout the book, poems and literary excerpts add greatly to the reader’s enjoyment, as do quotable flotsam and jetsam that range over the movie Spartacus and the career of Elvis Presley’s cousin, Evangeline the Oyster Girl.

But let us revisit the oysters themselves. What might it feel like to be seized from the sea, carried into a city and consumed alive, sliding down a person’s throat to the site of a hellish digestion? To us, it’s a memorable act of ingestion, whether or not we agree with Thackeray’s thought that it feels like “a living baby” sliding down. Nineteenth-century French animal advocate M. Moquin-Tandon imagined the oyster’s perspective. His writing reminds me of J. M. Coetzee’s rendering, in The Lives of Animals, of the thoughts of the chimpanzee Sultan. Sultan, while captive and undergoing various intelligence tests involving suspended bananas and so on, wonders what he has done to deserve his fate. Not an apt analogy because the chimpanzee is sentient and the oyster not? Or because the ape is only captive and not consumed? Arguable points, but I’m not so sure. Suffering is suffering. (Note: The book’s appendices include oyster recipes and a listing of oyster bars.)

The fabulous Animal series offers Fly and Fox, Tiger and Owl, and much more. (Hoping for a buffalo book to come.) If each volume pleases as much as does Oyster, I’ll soon need a new bookshelf built. Storr parses people into three types according to their oysterish sensibilities: “Those who love oysters, those who are indifferent to them and those who are passionately revolted by them.” Love and revulsion, yes, but indifference? I defy anyone to emerge from a reading of Oyster with indifference intact.

Barbara J. King goes visual!