Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Notes Towards Day 25: "Unbinding" The Book of Salt

Anne Dalke's picture

I. coursekeeping
* sign-in sheet

* your third 5-pp. web event, on "feminism unbound," is due @ 5 p.m. this Sun

* we will take 1/2 an hour @ the end of class today,
both for you to get into small groups to brainstorm this paper,
and for you to organize into performance groups for next week's "teach-in"

* you also need to schedule a conference w/ me for next week, to discuss
your final project for this course: I've realized I need Monday to read your papers,
so I'll stay home and do that;
here's the sheet to sign up to talk w/ me on Wednesday, Saturday or Sunday next week:
please come with a proposal, and any questions you have about preparing the portfolio.

II. let's turn back to The Book of Salt--
on Tuesday I got us focused on the use of language
(how powerful/how imaginative/how limited/how misleading...),
as well as on the use of images/photographs in the text--no actual ones, but several
famous ones described...we were paying a lot of attention to the VISUAL dimensions of the novel

Today, I want to expand the sensorium beyond the visual
(and then unbind that...but one step @ a time!)


   ...and write a paragraph about what you are experiencing.

   Listen, now, to the "sound" of what salt tastes like...

   The novel is filled with is that accomplished?

   (How does a taste "get into" words...?)

  What is the relationship between the sensation of a taste,
  and the language with which it is described?
  ...which activates our our taste buds?

  What is the relationship between sensations (more generally) and the words which represent them?

  Do you have to have experienced a taste, sensorially, to be able to apprehend it via words?

  Can words give you an experience you have not had?

  III. Salt has many  (sensorial, metaphoric and epistemological) dimensions in Truong's novel:

  "My Madame knows that intrigue, like salt, is best if it is there from the beginning." (177)

  "Salt enhances the sweetness." (185)

  "She had added a spoonful of salt to the water to help cleanse the wound." (201)

 "Before I could taste my mother's milk, I tasted the salt on her nipple" (217).

  "Tell me the word for 'salt'" (241).

 "I charge four times the usual price for a salt print like that one." (246)

And, most summarizingly,

 "Salt is an ingredient to be considered and carefully weighed....The true taste of salt--the whole of the sea on      the tip of the tongue, sorrow's sting, labor's smack--has been lost, according to my Madame, to centuries of culinary imprudence. It is a taste that Miss Toklas insists is sometimes unnecessary...and other is the hinge that allows the flavors of the other ingredients to swing wide open." (212)

One certain thing that salt accentuates about this text: that it's about tasting.
Touching. Feeling.
Expanding the sensorium.

One way to think about The Book of Salt as a feminist text might be that it replaces "the gaze"
with "licking"
(cf. Jane Hedley on Adrienne Rich's love sonnets, in which gazing is replaced with touching....)

(From) Kathy Neustadt, The Folkloristics of Licking (The Journal of American Folklore 104, 423, Winter 1994):
"anthropologists have managed to distance themselves from their own bodies and objectify the bodies of those whom they making our historical and cultural sensory biases conscious, and by exploring new perceptual models of experience and interpretation, we might get a fuller mouthful of truth...."

How do we come to know what we know; how close is "too close"?
And what would a science look like in which knowledge was constituted by the
deeply implicating and intimate experiencing of the Other?

[In] much of what we roughly characterize as "Western thought"...the eyes...are privileged above the other senses....Sniffing, tasting, touching...are so immediate, so intense, so of the body..."stress on the observation of material which discrete items...are experienced at a remove would seem to lie at the core of our
Western epistemology.

...the power inhering in licking as a new mode of epistemology comes from its continuity with, and its presentation and immediation of, the nonlinear, nonrepresentational, nonmediating, "feelingful dimension
of experience"....Licking, as opposed to looking, seeks to recognize and celebrate the existential conditions that all of us--whatever our relative positions in the ethnographic act of "gazing"...are engaged with and must struggle to comprehend.

IV. But what might The Taste of Salt have to do with "feminism unbound"?
How might it be an example of unbinding?...

Read together pp. 185-189--> what is unbound here??

part of Truong/Bình's game here (as Sam suggested on Tuesday)
is underwriting/re-writing/re-vising Gertrude Stein:
what does she look like "on the inside"? --telling her story, uncovering her-->
and also refusing her appropriation of Bình's story:

"I did not give you my permission, Madame, to treat me in this way. I am here to feed you, not to serve as your fodder. ...You pay me only for my time. My story, Madame, is mine. I alone am qualified to tell it, to embellish, or to withhold....This notebook may belong to my Madame, but the story, it belongs to me....A gift or a theft depends on who is holding the pen" (p.215).

But what is the story Bình tells us?

Bình comments on the story Bão told him about the sailor who came from a family of basket weavers:
"A curse...was that man's boundless search or, perhaps, his steadfast belief that there existed an alternative
to the specific silt of his family's land (59).
" a theory of love and redemption....I, like the basket weaver, looked at the abundance around me
and believed that there was something more." (249)

Does an alternative to home exist in this novel? Is there "something more"?

"She thought she was hearing GertrudeStein's laughter....I thought I was hearing my father's voice. She had left
hers behind. I had unfortunately overpacked." (160)

"there is no forgiveness in ancestor worship, only retribution and eternal debt." (196-197)

Wherein lies the space of a more freely imagined life?

"'the mutations of your condition are endless'...the varietal nature of human attraction" (128)

What is the relation of narrative to a life freely lived?
"She appears to the world an empty page inviting a narrative." (158)

"She has a democratic stare....She looks and looks until she sees....Her weakness...lies in
the sheer force of her suppositions...They make her vulnerable in unexpected ways." (157)

"Sorrow preys on the unprotected openings, the eyes, ears, mouth, and heart. Do not speak, see, hear or feel. Pain is allayed, and sadness will subside. best for someone like me." (107)

"I lie to myself like no one else can." (80)

What is the role of sex in this novel? What is the relation of sex to narrative?

"there is no narrative in sex, in good sex that is. There is no beginning and there is no end, just the rub, the sting,
the tickle, the white light of the here and now." (63)

Does narrative BIND or UNBIND? CONFINE or FREE? or BOTH?

The deepest unbinding: language that is not mimetic (Kathy Acker again).
End with Gertrude Stein's Apple, Milk and Orange [from Tender Buttons]

In Lectures in America, Stein said that for her language was “not imitation
either of sounds or colors or emotions” but “an intellectual recreation.” (238). 

V. small group work
get up and find yourselves partners for your final teach-in
 3:15-3:45: in those groups (or subgroups of 3):
 tell each other what you will write about/
 get some feedback about the motivating question/
 the assertion you will make in response to it/
 and the design of how to pursue this claim:
 10 minutes apiece of unremitting advice per project!