Jena Cutie

In Defense of Wheat


The critical fruits in Eden go unidentified except through association with the strangely Conceptual trees (Knowledge of Good and Evil, Life). The best an artist or anyone else can do is determinedly describe the fruits as “merely definitively round,” justification being their minimal definition is elliptical. Almost no evidence is available to positively clinch, into an even relatively small bunch, possible answers to the inquiry: Holy and inimitable, what are these fruits?

The first fruit, crop of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, has a broad pick of candidates. Top of the list, thanks to Milton, is the apple—malum whose taste brings mălum. This is the habituated answer: look around, hello, boys, see Adam’s apple. Next follow more exotic suggestions: pomegranate or figs, citron, wine-grapes, carob, nightshade. Even wheat makes the cut—which seems, of course, like a stretch. This apparent lemon of an option has the flimsiest justification of all: “Rabbi Judah says it was wheat, since a child does not know how to call ‘father’ and ‘mother’ until it has had a taste of corn.” This extremely literal argument holds that wheat somehow induces knowledge and power of recognition in babies, rather than incidentally developing contemporaneously as a matter of timing in the life of an infant. Not much in the way of exacting symbolic correspondence. Not just bread but anything solid a toddler might eat is subject to the same logic.

More importantly, does Judah think wheat is a tree? The Talmud explains “in view of the opinion of R. Judah, who maintains that wheat is a kind of tree”—so, short answer, yes. Imagining wheat as a tree is kind of ridiculous; generosity is required to see much in common between a field of wheat and an apple orchard. But then there is a salient pun, htis time the phonic overlap not with “evil” but “sin.” For in Hebrew, wheat is khitah and sin is khet; this is enough to continue to entertain the wheat idea.

Still, it is indecipherable, the slippage involved in identifying wheat as the fruit by means of reasoning involving bread—something like giving a defense for the apple interpretation through a refrain about apple pie. This hints at worthiness. With some confidence, one might lodge the claim that Eve and Adam were not baking bread in the garden. As a thought experiment, wonder where they would have gotten fire to makeshift an oven. Lightning? Or a Lucifer match would do the trick. Like the apple, if wheat was the forbidden fruit, when humans first ate the wheat, they presumably ate it raw.

Some part of the knowledge Eve and Adam receive in the wheat version of the story is a revelation of the idiocy baked into the transgression. A recognition of the silly impulsiveness of eating raw grass like cattle. Differently but similarly I recall myself at four years old shoveling Nesquik powder into my mouth on the first occasion alone with the canister and experiencing the overwhelming, stupefying shock and shame reaction to the immediate parching bitter taste. The sudden awe for my mother who knew (great wisdom of gods!) that it was not good to eat (except with milk) but whose commandment I undermined.

The canonical unfeasibility of following an unelaborated command—the “don’t do this because it is bad” absented from buttressing notions of why it is bad or what “bad” even means. A parent cannot reference this or that particular variation of bad before a child has experienced either it or its cognates, and demonstration would be cruel and out of the question. Same in Eden: the full rationalization (not the “you will die” but “you will die because ____”) is preempted by the fact that including it would implicate the information the rule against eating was supposed to obscure.

God has a history of not wanting anyone to be like him, and he deals with Eve and Adam precisely how he does Lucifer: accept you are not God or be cast out. The problem is reflectivity or reflexivity. Paradoxically humans could not know they were acting like the Devil until they knew it when the fruit of the tree told them in their mouths, and once they realized it was too late to stop being devils. The discovery illuminates the usurping (non-wheat specific) and bestial (in the sense of idiotic, very wheat-specific) nature of their truancy. What results is total astonishment from exposure to an earlier occluded dimension of human personality.

You reread Ulysses and realize Stephen Dedalus is totally partial to the wheat theory; for a delightful moment this surprise stops you almost dead. Stephen’s words: “Eve. Naked wheatbellied sin.” There is a doubling of metaphors. Simultaneously, woman’s sin is impermissibly depositing in her belly the raw material of wheat and also as corollary making in her belly the first bread of wheat, in the sense of the expression “to put a bun in the oven,” in other words, once Adam and Eve discern each other’s bodies they straightaway conceive a child: “Spouse and helpmate of Adam Kadmon: Heva, naked Eve. She had no navel. Gaze. Belly without blemish, bulging big, a buckler of taut vellum, no, whiteheaped corn, orient and immortal, standing from everlasting to everlasting. Womb of sin.” (Note: Irish corn is wheat.)

God’s reprimand elaborates what it means to be cursed by what brings you low. Adam is cursed by the ground—among the likely forbidden fruits, only wheat comes from the ground—from whence he ate: “Cursed be the ground because of you; by toil shall you eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you. But your food shall be the grasses of the field; by the sweat of your brow shall you get bread to eat” (Gen. 3:17-19).

Wheat as the taboo fruit ruins Eden momentarily. Beautiful bole and branches exchanged for a gangly weed. Shiny, low-hanging globes swapped for husked berries. Yet it does symbolic work, loading the garden with masculine imagery: wheaten stalk is a unity of shaft, rod, stick in the mud, pin—all phallic.

The stalk suits. And for the purposes of fertile metaphor, the existence in language of phrases like “bun in the oven” reveals the fruitfulness embedded in the notion of wheat. Then there is, more literally, the issue of the fruit of wheat, the wheatberry, which is recast in Ulysses thematically as a sweet of sin, tantamount to Leopold Bloom’s understanding of womanhood. Observing that wheat cannot be without straw, so “wheatberry” becomes at all times synonymous with “strawberry,” and the tie between forbidden fruit and sweet strawberries looms large for Bloom, both in relation to his daughter Milly, whose exclusive scent as a baby was strawberries and cream, and whose maturing similarity to her mother, Molly, at the age sixteen, agonizes Bloom throughout the day and according to the adage: “the way to daughter led through the mother, the way to mother through daughter.” Same thought another way: “Molly. Milly. Same thing watered down. Her tomboy oaths. O jumping Jupiter! Ye gods and little fishes! Still, she’s a dear girl. Soon be a woman.” But retreat for a spell longer back into Biblical scenery, not to spill the punch early. Two more stops for wheat must be indulged in Genesis time.

The significance of wheat billows out from Eden—in phase two it appears in Cain’s motivated murder of his brother. What if Cain’s parents had not committed a vegetable sin? If they had lapsed into carnivorous sin—like Odysseus’ men violating Helio’s oxen, or Buck “Fuck” Mulligan’s version of the same, copulating with all the women/cattle on the island farm Omphalos—had they merely eaten any of God’s animals, would God have rejected Cain the farmer’s vegetable offering for Abel the shepherd’s offering of meat?

After driving humans out of Eden to keep them from the Tree of Life, it seems God seeks further to keep them from the immortality fruit by favoring livestock over agriculture. Presumably, Cain could by luck accidentally cultivate the Tree of Life as he cultivates other plants that existed also in Eden.

Also possible is that Cain brings God precisely the fruit of the ground that precipitated his parent’s exile. The fruit, as Eve observed with the serpent’s prompting, was good to eat; man is not condemned to (eventual) death because the fruit is poisonous, but because God did not want him eating it. If Cain’s offering was in fact wheat, God’s reaction is knee-jerk: God is not so kind as to allow the original symbol of human insubordination to be returned to Him in exchange for His blessing.

Whether God’s behavior is an effort to habituate man to an out-of-Eden carnivorous lifestyle, or an example of quixotic favoritism for the boy who does not prick God’s pride, the whole thing backfires. Both jealous of God’s respect and disgusted by Abel’s slaughter of animals—which was prohibited in Eden—Cain does not keep his brother alive. An inscrutable inversion of allowances occurs between stories: in Eden, the first humans can eat all fruits except from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and cannot eat any of the animals; once they are expelled, forcibly circumscribed from the Tree of Life, however, humans can eat animals and, if they please, continue to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. So long as humans do not know of evil, they do not eat the animals; that development follows only after man is wicked for the first time.

Cruelty against animals, the abuse requisite in transforming animal flesh into meat, is codified in Cain’s sin. Many cultures have creation anecdotes that mark man’s payment for the evil of animal murder. (Sanskrit scholar Wendy Doniger describes a Vedic text from 900 BCE that tells this story: “In the beginning, cattle had the skin that humans have now, and humans had the skin that cattle have now. Cattle could not bear the heat, rain, flies and mosquitoes, and asked humans to change skins with them; in return, they said, ‘You can eat us and use our skin for your clothing.’ And so it was.”) This is the essence of the mark of Cain, the start of an “organized forgetting or misunderstanding of abuse” of animals and a “dissimulation of necessary cruelty” in the form of sacrifice and torture. Typically men sacrifice animals to their gods to forgive themselves for making animals suffer. Yet Cain rises up against his sibling in retribution for animal murder anyway. He makes man (namely his brother) pay for taking license to kill animals, but God, in punishing Cain for his vengeance, legitimizes animal murder in the future. For once Cain is cursed—“Cursed shall you be by the soil that gaped with its mouth to take your brother’s blood from your hand. If you till the soil, it will no longer give you its strength. A restless wanderer shall you be on earth”—Cain must, if he wants to live, as he can no longer work the land, eat meat. Like his parents (doomed to eat bread), Cain is doomed to subsist on what brought him low (animals).

In the third phase of wheat there is a turning point. Jumping forward to the Christ story, inheritors of original sin are rectified by what brought Adam low—this happens in the Christ sacrament.

While in Eden, wheat is a kind of totem, inedible. A totem is any material you cannot eat, not because it is poisonous, but partly because it is raw, and wholly because to eat it would be to eat yourself or your father or betray the divine in your body or your father's body. ‘Raw’ is not only raw but where God and the father are located—for the act of baking bread is hitched to transubstantiation, the phenomenon of begetting a child, wherein a father turns his straw into bread by incorporating it into woman’s watery womb. Back in Ulysses, Molly and Bloom’s failure to successfully deliver a healthy son—especially with the son-as-messiah theme—sets up a version of the Christ story where Bloom is a failed Jesus (this comes to pass completely in the Circe episode).

In the Christ story, Jesus transforms himself, without woman, into bread. This bread, which does not contain the germ of original sin, instead contains the yeast of salvation. He feeds it to his disciples. The bread is divine and infiltrated with the Father through his Son, yet it is good to consume. This is a paternity riddle. Christ is cleaved from man's Father, but his transmogrified body is made not begotten. Two symbols of paternity are amended by a cipher of non-paternity. Christ’s bread therefore does not qualify as totemic. It is not a symbol of paternity: the double positive, by voodoo, goes triple negative. And not only is Christ edible, but eating his body is not cannibalism, since before he is eaten, he is miraculously transformed into bread, and there is not an ounce of flesh, generically speaking—in this special case—in bread.

The communion ritual, in which Christ blesses his body over the table during the Last Supper, contains the solution to another riddle that arises the subsequent day: Why does Christ have no broken bones when he is brought down from the Cross? Because his body-turned-bread is broken, preemptively, in advance, with gusto, at the dinner table the night before. Even in the face of subsequent adversity and abuse, there is nothing left to break, and after the crucifixion, his dough rises again.

Stephen Dedalus also suffers hostility (struck level to the cobblestones by a blow from Private Carr in Nighttown). He, too, arrives, after castigation, without a single bone broken (though, Nelson-like, he one-handily injures his palm): “BLOOM: No, no, no. I have his money and his hat here and stick. CORNY KELLEHER: Ah, well, he’ll get over it. No bones broken.” This unmistakable linkage with Christ affirms Stephen’s power to redeem Bloom—first replacing Boylan as Molly’s professional singing partner, second by serving as new pillar for Bloom’s mnemotechnic, which otherwise habitually warps in masochistic spirals between Rudy and Molly.

However, in the hour that precedes this reveal, Bloom gets the opposite treatment. Far from redeemed, he is (superficially) extinguished, his heart trouble provisionally vanquished, stopped organ briefly untouchable (according to his own logic) before the Nymph restores him under the Yews: “—I am the resurrection and the life. That touches a man’s inmost heart. —It does, Mr Bloom said. Your heart perhaps but what price the fellow in the six feet by two with his toes to the daisies? No touching that. Seat of the affections. Broken heart. A pump after all, pumping thousands of gallons of blood every day.”

As Bloom endures this first panacea—his dispatch in toto to the grave—his masochistic alter-ego, Bello, impersonates Molly and Milly, who mock his imminent undertaking: “BELLO: We’ll manure you, Mr Flower! (He pipes scoffingly) Byby, Poldy! Byby, Papli!” Their assurance tells Bloom that what remains of him aboveground (a flower) will be diligently fed with what remains undergrounds (his own corpsemanure): “I daresay the soil would be quite fat with corpsemanure, bones, flesh, nails. Charnelhouses. Dreadful. Of course the cells or whatever they are go on living. Changing about. Live for ever practically. Nothing to feed on feed on themselves.”

Thereby doomed to an eternity of eating his own shit, Bloom supplicates before Bello. “BLOOM: (Clasps his head) My willpower! Memory! I have sinned! I have suff ...” What he regurgitates here, under pressure, are Molly’s invented backronyms: “Letters on his back: I.N.R.I? No: I.H.S. Molly told me one time I asked her. I have sinned: or no: I have suffered, it is. And the other one? Iron nails ran in.” (The actual meanings are ‘Jesus’ and ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.’) But like a dog chained to his vomit, or a dog returning to vomit, Bloom, victim of mnemotechnic, cannot help but return to his own sin. Toxic memories instill in him a sense of responsibility for Rudy’s death. With abiding willingness he accepts the buck Molly passes him.

The tragedy surrounding baby Rudy extends the constellation around wheat, through the figure of Leopold’s recently dead friend Patrick “Paddy” Dignam, whose name “paddy” means “rice in the straw.” Taken in conjunction with another idiomatic usage of straw in Ulysses (Mina Purefoy is described as “womansbody after going on the straw” in a passage that continues “Stand and deliver. Password. There’s hair. Ours the white death and the ruddy birth”). As wood shavings sop up spilled beer in a bar, straw and hay are very absorbent, and cheap enough to be used as mattresses material for women about to deliver (think nativity scene): “in the straw” is in labor, “out of the straw” is recovery from babybirth. Since Rudy succumbs while Molly is still recovering from labor, where Dignam and Rudy align symbolically is that both are essentially “dead in the straw.”

And to close the loop in on Molly, her straw is put by Boylan on cocksure display: “(Lenehan in yachtsman’s cap and white shoes officiously detaches a long hair from Blazes Boylan’s coat shoulder.) LENEHAN: Ho! What do I here behold? Were you brushing the cobwebs off a few quims? BOYLAN: (Seated, smiles) Plucking a turkey.” If Molly is Boylan’s turkey, since she must be married to the same, that makes Bloom the turkey in the straw (from the song popularized by George Washington Dixon). The turkey is a caricature in blackface, a figure of nonsense and humor. Beyond a doubt, the good doctor Dixon diagnoses Bloom as the Turkey in the Straw: “He is practically a total abstainer and I can affirm that he sleeps on a straw litter and eats the most Spartan food.” Laconic, indefensible and liable to be martyred, part straw man and part straw dogsbody, Bloom is a sitting duck, defenseless against Boylan’s advances and usurper’s abuses.

Amused by the overtly indefensible position of Bloom’s adoration for Molly, the siren girls burlesque: “LYDIA DOUCE: (Her mouth opening) Yumyum. O, he’s carrying her round the room doing it! Ride a cockhorse. You could hear them in Paris and New York. Like mouthfuls of strawberries and cream.” The sirens shift into the SLUTS. Bloom’s fanciful illusions are self-consciously self-indulgent, see the conclusive prognosis from Dr Dixon: “I appeal for clemency in the name of the most sacred word our vocal organs have ever been called upon to speak. He is about to have a baby.” Bloom answers: “BLOOM: O, I so want to be a mother.”

At his sorceress’s strongest, he can imagine his own line of eight strong sons. The sluts, as ever impertinent and irreverent, spoil the vision: Reminding him what he’s lost—“Looking for something lost in a past life,” in this case, “the pin of his drawers,” inveterate pun on penis, because since Rudy’s death he has not been able to “keep it up” (his dick, not his drawers). The loss of his voluntary virility after Rudy’s death interprets Bloom’s fascination with involuntary erections in dead men, who like Christ on the rood, all die on the gallows with an unbroken bone (I don’t mean their necks): “violent ganglionic stimulus of the nerve centres of the genital apparatus, thereby causing the elastic pores of the corpora cavernosa to rapidly dilate in such a way as to instantaneously facilitate the flow of blood to that part of the human anatomy known as the penis or male organ resulting in the phenomenon which has been denominated by the faculty a morbid upwards and outwards philoprogenitive erection in articulo mortis per diminutionem capitis.” A bit long-winded, but like the friend of the citizen says, Bloom can talk for an hour about any man’s stalk of straw—“if you took up a straw from the bloody floor and if you said to Bloom: Look at, Bloom. Do you see that straw? That’s a straw. Declare to my aunt he’d talk about it for an hour so he would and talk steady.” But let’s return to the sluts, who singsong:

O, Leopold lost the pin of his drawers
He didn’t know what to do,
To keep it up,
To keep it up.
BLOOM: (Coldly) You have broken the spell. The last straw.

The straw that breaks the camel’s back splits him in half. Bifurcates his humps. A ball-busting operation. The Bloom-camel appeared earlier:

Beside her a camel, hooded with a turreting turban, waits. A silk ladder of innumerable rungs climbs to his bobbing howdah. He ambles near with disgruntled hindquarters. Fiercely she slaps his haunch, her goldcurb wristbangles angriling, scolding him in Moorish” then “The camel, lifting a foreleg, plucks from a tree a large mango fruit, offers it to his mistress, blinking, in his cloven hoof, the droops his head and, grunting, with uplifted neck, fumbles to kneel.”

This parable is an undoing. It reverses Eden. The drooping fruit does not travel from the snake to Eve to Adam. Instead Eve’s husband (Adam, in camel garb) passes it to her leap-frog-style. So the blame for original sin is also reversed: the buck jumps from Adam to Eve, from Turkish Molly in Paradise back to Bloom.

The ineluctability of blame brings us around to the main issue, which is that though we can all make bread but we can’t all “make bread.” Even Bloom who, half man (Leo) half woman (Paula), has all the necessary machinery, cannot complete the trace of wheat from stalk (organ) whose germ (semen) makes bread (baby) that emerges under a fine thatch (pubic bush) onto hay (midwife bed), and stops its movement in the bellybutton screw (heap of straw) of his male heir.

This is the principle of “making” versus “begetting.

In the first place, there’s Adam and Eve (and their children) who are made by God but not begotten by Him. Only Christ is begotten by God, “from only begetter to only begotten.” Man is formed from dirt, but God gets Christ with Mary (in fact, Christ and Stephen are both consubstantial sons of Mary—though different Marys). “Making” is about construction or manufacture and transformation of substance A into substance B ( i.e. think “nutsteak”). “Begetting “ is procreation, sex act, substance cleaving to substance.

Like Adam, Stephen sees himself as having a father, but he does not view himself as having been begotten by him: “I was too made not begotten. By them, the man with my voice and my eyes and a ghostwoman with ashes on her breath. They clasped and sundered, did the coupler’s will. From before the ages He willed me and now may not will me away or ever.” Though Stephen admits He cannot be done away with by his father, he hides from Simon, and will not return home, even with the Tower is usurped, though he does not seem able to explain his reasons for self-inflicted exile. And though Stephen admits that “in the spirit of the maker all flesh that passes becomes the word that shall not pass away,” yet he is devastated by “aquacities of thought and language,” passing like water under a bridge, impossible to hold.

There are more multiple echoes of Eden. As Adam shares God’s language, Stephen shares his father’s voice. As Adam tastes the fruit of Paradise; Stephen samples intellectual life in Par(ad)is(e). As Adam hides from God, Stephen hides from his father’s house.

Here is an admission of sin; a duplication of shame. But there is a difference. The wheat Adam eats is good to eat, substance of sustenance, and although after the fall he has to sweat to fill his belly, he does not go hungry. Stephen refuses to eat anything of substance, yet he knows more than he can fill his belly with. But knowledge is not food, despite the name of the tree. If Adam is tempted to be as gods by eating wheat that gives man knowledge; Stephen is untempted waiting for knowledge that will give him wheat. “Still no-one can give what he hasn’t got.” There is nothing God can’t give; there is plenty Simon cannot.

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