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Rumbles by Elsa Richardson review – gut reaction

Rumbles by Elsa Richardson review – gut reaction

Some people, observed Samuel Johnson, “have a foolish way of not minding, or pretending not to mind, what they eat. For my part, I mind my belly very studiously, and very carefully; for I look upon it, that he who does not mind his belly, will hardly mind anything else.” And while we are minding our belly, our belly minds us: so, at least, we are encouraged to think by modern hymns to the wisdom of the enteric nervous system and the gut microbiome, to which all manner of marvels are increasingly attributed.

Here, then, is a book-length exercise in minding the belly: a vivid cultural history of changing metaphorical, political and scientific visions of our guts. The stomach is a-flutter when we are in love, and the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, though not for laparoscopic surgeons. (That phrase was apparently coined by the 19th-century American journalist Fanny Fern.) But our guts are also cerebral: the Greek physician Galen first observed that the stomach seemed to possess its own kind of intelligence, and to trust your gut is to tune into a more reliable source of truth. Donald Trump is here marvellously quoted as insisting that his gut can tell him more than other people’s brains can.

The author, a health historian, displays a touch of that academic tic whereby a book constantly narrates that it has just talked about something and is going to talk about something else next, but she is an engaging writer and adeptly traces a network of fascinating changes in ruling metaphors. “Today we speak in ecological terms – adverts for probiotics encourage us to nurture the microbial garden within – but in early modern Europe the stomach was imagined as being more alike to the bustling kitchen of a great country house, while 18th-century physicians fussed over it as a nervously afflicted invalid and through the Victorian period it was frequently condemned as an irascible foe, an enemy within implacably opposed to its owner’s comfort.”

In the long-running fable of the body politic, meanwhile, the digestive system has been two opposed things in series: first, an unruly populace to be kept in its place by a wise head; then the site of authentic proletarian value. The 20th-century American philosopher Stanley Cavell, discussing such metaphors in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, concluded splendidly: “No one is in a position to say what the right expression is of our knowledge that we are strung out on both sides of a belly.”

For some, our ungovernable guts have always stood in the way of progress and humanity’s perfection, both technological and spiritual. The 17th-century hermit Roger Crab became famous for his ascetic diet of “herbes and roots”: only vegetarianism could lead to godliness. A prominent Victorian doctor, meanwhile, denounced the stomach as a “strangely wicked and ungrateful” organ that was “implacably opposed to man’s progress and comfort”. In the early 20th century, vivisectionists discovered new facts about the machinery of digestion by means of horrific experiments on living dogs in packed lecture theatres, and suffragists on hunger strike were force-fed by violence.

Women in particular, Richardson shows, have long been the focus of worries about digestion. Many accusations of witchcraft in the early modern period centred on allegations that women had spoiled food or milk; centuries later, constipation became coded as a particularly female complaint, to be cured by such quasi-medicinal products as Bile Beans (an Australian laxative introduced in 1899, to keep female customers “healthy, happy & slim”) and Kellogg’s cereals, which according to one 1930 advert for All-Bran would preserve a woman’s “bloom of youth” by keeping her regular. Contrariwise, to “have guts” in the sense of being tough is primarily thought of as a male virtue, while “intestinal fortitude” (coined by an American doctor after watching a football game in 1914) came to describe the warfighting capability of a nation’s men.

Now, however, our guts are peaceful: the alimentary system has been colonised anew by the wellness-industrial complex, with its probiotics and experimental faecal transplants. Dr Johnson might be tickled to learn that to mind one’s belly has become a cornerstone of mindfulness.

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Source: theguardian.com