Spice status as a cultural marker, halfway between object and sign, goods and money. Spice in its consumption becomes an index of social value. It is a highly self-reflexive kind of substance-sign: `about’-ness is what it is `about’. However much spice is brought into the realm of intellectus, it also still remains within; the realm of the res as a hard kernel of the Real, a flow of desire. The poetic uses of spice in the Romantic period were partially caught up in orientalism, as is evident in images of spice as a metaphor about poetry itself. The luxurious, highly spiced dinner in Byron’s Don Juan iii (1818-20) includes wall hangings that feature delicate embroidery and `Soft Persian sen- tences, in lilac letters, / From poets, or the moralists their betters’ (iii.lxiv.511-12). The moralisms are ironised in their juxtaposition with the scene of luxury, of which the narrator wittily remarks: These oriental writings on the wall, Quite common in those countries, are a kind Of monitors adapted to recall, Like skulls at Memphian banquets, to the mind The words which shook Belshazzar in his hall, And took his kingdom from him: You will find, Though sages may pour out their wisdom’s treasure, There is no sterner moralist than Pleasure. (iii.lxv.513-20) Pleasure acts as both poison and cure, a phenomenon closely associated with the representation of spice in Milton. The stern message is inscribed into the fabric of the arabesqued wall, the `Oriental’ writing functioning as in De Quincey both as the promise and as the stern message is inscribed into the fabric of the arabesqued wall, the `Oriental’ writing functioning as in De Quincey both as the promise and as the threat of Otherness, as meaning but also as exquisitely embodied signifiers, `Embroider’d delicately o’er with blue’ (iii.lxiv.510). The `sentences’ are `Soft’ and `Persian’, evoking luxury in their literal, tongue-in-cheek materiality. They also evoke the Asiatic, dangerously copious style desired and feared by masculine Renaissance rhetoricians flexing their Arabic-inspired intellectual muscles.
The dinner made about a hundred dishes; Lamb and pistachio nuts – in short, all meats, And saffron soups, and sweetbreads; and the fishes Were of the finest that e’er flounced in nets, Drest to a Sybarite’s most pamper’d wishes; The beverage was various sherbets Of raisin, orange, and pomegranate juice, Squeezed through the rind, which makes it best for use. These were ranged round, each in its crystal ewer, And fruits, and date-bread loaves closed the repast, And Mocha’s berry, from Arabia pure, In small fine China cups, came in at last; Gold cups of filigree made to secure The hand from burning underneath them placed, Cloves, cinnamon, and saffron too were boil’d Up with the coffee, which (I think) they spoil’d. (iii.lxii-lxiii.489-50.
Orientalism as poetic fancy.
In pursuing the association of spice with money and appearance, The Poetics of Spice is informed by Shell’s analysis of relationships between money, language and thought, though it also departs from this analysis. If, as Shell observes, coined money is as metaphorical as paper money, how does it appear so? Is this only a feature of money visible to us, retrospectively, in the wake of the move towards paper money? If the discourses of spice constitute various ideologies, The Poetics of Spice sees the orientalism inherent in its topic’s emphasis on the play of surfaces as part of the ideologies which that topic sustains. Poetics of Spice is meant to be a study of the cultural forms of commodity fetishism.