I am over two weeks into my butchering experience in France, on my third butchery blog post, and yet I have not been able to really write about the experience yet. Why has it taken me so long to even attempt to do so?
Remember I said that this blog would be about everything between blood and bone? I really meant it. The closest answer I can give as to why writing about it has been so difficult also comes in the form of a question, one I came across in the beginning of John Berger’s Pig Earth: “A reader may ask: what is the writer’s relationship with the place and the people he writes about?” After which, Berger attempts to suss out his relationship with the farmers with whom he lives in France–the farmers from whom he learns, and the farmers about whom he writes.
“I have never thought of writing as a profession,” Berger writes. “It is a solitary independent activity in which practice can never bestow seniority. Fortunately, anyone can take up the activity. Whatever the motives, political or personal, which have led me to undertake to write something, the writing becomes, as soon as I begin, a struggle to give meaning to experience. Every profession has limits to its competence, but also its own territory. Writing, as I know it, has no territory of its own. The act of writing is nothing except the act of approaching the experience written about; just as, hopefully, the act of reading the written text is a comparable act of approach.”
“To approach experience, however,” Berger continues, “is not like approaching a house. ‘Life,’ as the Russian proverb says, ‘is not a walk across an open field.’ Experience is indivisible and continuous, at least within a single lifetime and perhaps over many lifetimes. I never have the impression that my experience is entirely my own, and it often seems to me that it preceded me. In any case, experience folds upon itself, refers backwards and forwards to itself through the referents of hope and fear; and, by the use of metaphor, which is at the origin of language, it is continually comparing like with unlike, what is small with what is large, what is near with what is distant. And so the act of approaching a given moment of experience involves both scrutiny (closeness) and the capacity to connect (distance). The movement of writing resembles that of a shuttle on a loom: repeatedly it approaches and withdraws, closes in and takes its distance. Unlike a shuttle, however, it is not fixed to a static frame. As the movement of writing repeats itself, its intimacy with the experience increases. Finally, if one is fortunate, meaning is the fruit of this intimacy.”
Since arriving in France, I have struggled, daily, with the feeling that I should be both writing about my experience (or at the very least thinking about it on the level of narrative and story) and quite simply experiencing my experience. Small and large. Like and unlike. Near and distant. I have been unsure how to do both at the same time—it’s an inner battle with the realm of the meta that has come to define me over the years. But Berger’s image of the loom has been a calming one.
After my encounter with Berger’s metaphor, my minor and rather unarticulated recent obsession with the word “cleave” began to make more sense. As a transitive verb, to cleave means:
1) to divide by or split, as if by a cutting blow
2) to separate into distinct parts; especially into groups having divergent views
3) to subject to chemical cleavage.
As an intransitive verb, it means:
1) to split especially along the grain
2) to penetrate or pass through something by or as if by cutting.
But one can also cleave to something. Cleave can also mean:
1) to adhere firmly and closely or loyally and unwaveringly.
When I write about an experience, I dissect and carve in order to become both closer and further away from the experience. Sometimes it merely distances me, often in an unpleasant way. Sometimes it brings me uncomfortably close, in a pleasurable way. (There is also even something about the dual meanings of cleave that have something to do with love, but I’m still learning how to articulate that too.)
Meat and bone cleave to each other until I greet their intersection with my knife. I separate the two in order to have something else to cleave to: the taste of jambon, the smell of saucisson, the tenderness of filet mignon. There is blood leftover to use for the boudin. There is fat waiting to be used for confit, rillette and pâté. But, well before all of this is rendered and prepared, there is the relationship between human and pig in the moments before the pig’s death.
At the center of each of these acts, there is, in essence, a complicated cleaving.