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On Cheese and Surrealism

October 16, 2014

It is a cold, dreary Thursday, which to me is more than enough of an excuse to snuggle deep into the couch with a glass of Valençay rouge and a few slices of mimolette. For those readers not familiar with the name, la mimolette is a traditional cow cheese proudly produced in Lille, France. It is bright orange with a dry, hard crust, and is said to have been Charles de Gaulle’s favorite.



It is also illegal here in the United States, which makes my afternoon nibbling in my oversized sweatshirt and striped purple socks a very rebellious thing to do.


The US government imposed an import ban on the mimolette in April 2013 after the Food and Drug Administration declared that the mites in its rind, injected during the production process to give the cheese its distinctive flavor, made it ‘unfit to eat.’ Today, with the exception of a few milder versions that producers have been able to weasel into the country, the United States of America sleeps soundly knowing it is safe from the evil fromage.


I can think of another agricultural product that was declared a health hazard and banned by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics a short while back in American history: hemp, often confused with its sister plant, marijuana. Up until the beginning of the twentieth century, hemp was used to make 80% of all textiles, fabrics, clothes, linen, drapes, bed sheets, and almost all paper, canvas, ropes, and sails. This all changed abruptly when the 1937 Prohibitive Marijuana Tax Law made it illegal to grow or use hemp in the United States. The claim: it was a dangerous and powerful narcotic that promoted criminality. The truth: it was a cheap, natural fiber that commercially overshadowed rivals like cotton and a new and heavily subsidized synthetic product: nylon. (More on the criminalization of cannabis here)


Moldy cheese, bad. Bubble-gum glazed donuts flavored with high-fructose corn syrup, good. Hemp, bad. Cotton, good. It must be, it’s the law.


Laws were created to safeguard and reconcile individual and collective freedoms, and to direct human behavior for the greater good of society. Ancient Greek philosophers believed that a good person is one who will do what is lawful. It was they who first linked the concept of morality to legality, an association that is carried on to this day: if it is legal, it must be moral.


Except that laws can be untrue, unfounded, and unjust. They can be used to further personal interests, silence opposition, and incite violence. Nuremberg and Jim Crow are painful examples of just how dangerous reducing morality to law can be.


Perhaps that is why those very same Greek philosophers who lauded the value of laws in defining social morality also emphasized the importance of distinguishing between appearance and reality, ‘or between what superficially seems or appears to be the case and what a thorough rational investigation reveals.’ Thousands of years later, in the aftermath of World War I, that idea was expanded into a revolutionary cultural and political movement called surrealism.


The surrealists, a group of philandering writers and artists headed by André Breton, sought to ‘deepen man’s understanding of what comprises reality. Breton called for the “great refusal” of what is taken for existence in order to evoke and cultivate the dream element within the experience of everyday life.’


Of this group of great artists that included Marc Chagall, Paul Eluard, Max Ernst, and Tristan Tzara, my favorite is René Magritte. In his paintings, Magritte challenged the viewer to look beyond words and images and question his or her perception of reality. One of his most famous works is this one:



Ceci n’est pas une pipe. This is not a pipe.


He was right. It isn’t a pipe, only an image of a pipe. The painting is adequately named ‘The Treachery of Images.’


The eye is selective and subjective; we see and believe what we expect to. Our perception and analysis are subtly directed by culturally engrained habits of viewing and interpretation. The older we grow, the less we question and the more mindlessly we conform. And according to Breton, we will be held accountable for that ‘when the world comes up for trial.'


The truth, to quote Wilde, is rarely pure and never simple. What is right is not always legal, and what is legal is not always right. Of course, this could all just be the wine talking. I’ll go get some more cheese.



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