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April 8, 2008

John the Baptist, raw and cooked

It occurs to me that a structuralist anthropologist could make hay out of Matthew 3:4 ("And the same John had his raiment of camel's hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey.")

As I understand it--barely--the distinction between raw and cooked is one of the central oppositions that creates the structure of any culture, according to the pioneering anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. He notes that human beings are capable of eating a very wide range of things either raw or cooked. What is considered edible varies enormously by culture. But the distinctions of raw/cooked and edible/inedible always exist and create a whole set of rules and norms by which people live. The category of the raw is always associated with the natural and often with the dangerous or forbidden. The cooked is associated with culture and with fitness for human consumption. Thus people are never to be cooked. In some cultures, pigs can be cooked; in others, not. In some cultures, you must cook fish to make it edible; in others, it can be eaten raw (but elaborately prepared). The cook is always a borderline or "liminal" figure who selects what to prepare and thus transforms it from a raw to an edible state. We then take the food into our bodies and make the natural into the human.

So what of John the Baptist? He is a wonderfully liminal figure, bridging the Old Testament and the New. Catholics see him as a Hebrew prophet who dies before the Crucifixion and can never take communion (which is eating the body of Christ); yet he recognizes Jesus as savior. He comes from civilization but wanders in the desert alone like a beast. The two items that he eats are especially interesting from a Levi-Straussian perspective. Honey is a carefully prepared ingredient, but it is made by bees in their elaborate society, not by humans in ours. We don't heat it to prepare it for our consumption, but eat it "raw." And locusts are generally considered inedible, although John subsists on them. He ends up with his head on a plate, but served raw at Salome's table. Most interestingly of all, John's main function is to pour water on Jesus' head to transform him and begin the new dispensation. That sounds a lot like cooking.

When a particular story happens to fit a theory perfectly, we cannot conclude that the theory is right. The story of Paolo and Francesca is a beautiful fit for Jacques Derrida's idea of logocentrism, but that doesn't vindicate Derrida. It is, however, satisfying to find a perfect illustration of a major theory, even one so out of fashion as structuralism.

April 8, 2008 12:10 PM | category: fine arts | Comments


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