Last month the New Yorker published a short story called Cat Person, which went viral as part of the ongoing discussion of relations between the sexes. It’s a good read – you can access it here if you’re one of the six people who haven’t read it, or one of the two people who don’t have an opinion on it.
If you’re like me* then on first reading you’ll have struggled to get past the end of the first paragraph, which mentions Red Vines – which we immediately infer from context to be a kind of confectionery.
Here’s the thing. I really like sweets. To the extent of having them organised into a clear hierarchy at all times. (For example: Celebrations go Malteasers – Galaxy – Galaxy Caramel – Snickers – Mars – Bounty – Milky Way.) Maybe this comes from having two brothers, which necessitated swift decision-making when a tub of chocolates was being passed round at home.
I dutifully read the rest of the story, but the only issues my mind was willing to grapple with on this first pass were related to the revelation of the existence of Red Vines. What are they? What do they look like? What do they taste like? How much do they weigh? (Since the context is that of a cinema sweet shop, that latter point comes into play at the pick & mix stand.) From the name, I guessed that they might be like strawberry laces but thicker – it seemed like a strange choice of snack for a grown man, but that was fairly clearly an inference that the author intended the reader should draw.
Luckily, as with all my innermost thoughts, the first thing I did was to post this question on Twitter, and only a day or two later a friend duly presented me with a box of Red Vines. Consequently I am able to inform you that they do look like thicker versions of strawberry laces, but the taste is considerably different – as a taste-texture combination they are something like a Ralgex-flavoured condom.
Clearly, therefore, the type of snack chosen by some sort of psychopath. Bingo! I felt ready to proceed onto the second and subsequent paragraphs of the story.
In fact, if I paid more attention to TV on the rare occasions when I’m actually watching it then I’d have had this Damascene moment a lot sooner. In the series Fringe there’s a quite brilliant piece of double character work by the Australian actor John Noble, portraying two versions of a scientist named Walter Bishop – the series is set in parallel universes (it’s science fiction, did I mention that?), and so each actor is required to play the same character whose circumstances have diverged at some earlier point. It’s a very scientific measure of acting ability, and Noble is stunning as both Walter Bishops. Anyway, the Walter Bishop in the show’s principal universe is clinically insane, and one of the ways in which this is delineated (by contrast with sane Walter in universe number 2) is his predilection for – you’ve guessed it – Red Vines.**
I have to admit that my experience reading Cat Person was not atypical of my life as a reader. I’ve read every single Maigret novel, and yet I couldn’t tell you a single detail about any of the plots except that he often goes into a bar for a marc, and they are always ordering beer and sandwiches from over the road when they’re in the middle of an long interrogation (come to think of it that probably just means anything over 10 minutes).
Thomas Hemsley always claimed that years spent singing, as well as the time and effort spent studying and thinking about singing, caused an overdevelopment in the part of the brain concerned with the mouth – teeth, lips and tongue included. This, he speculated, was at least one of the reasons behind the connection between singers and food. It’s a plausible theory – I can’t think of a singer who doesn’t have a passion for eating, drinking, cooking, or combinations thereof. It may also be why you’ll still see some singers smoking more often than you’d expect (which is obviously never), and why – based entirely on anecdotal evidence – singers are excellent kissers, although I’ll largely leave that to you to explore further if I may.
(By the way, Hemsley also used to claim that singers eating a lot was entirely acceptable since in a typical performance a singer would burn more calories than a coal miner during a day’s work. Now, I’m the last person to tell people how to do their jobs, but I might suggest that if a singer is expending more energy during two hours on stage than a collier on a 12-hour shift, then they might want to consider calming down a little.)
Come to think of it, characters in opera are often required to eat and/or drink during a scene – it doesn’t happen in every opera admittedly, but when you take into account that it’s the one thing we’re literally not able to do while carrying out our job, then it makes absolutely no sense for operas to take place during mealtimes at all. It seems that composers and librettists share their singers’ oral fixation.
Which brings us to Freud, who as you might expect had rather a lot to say on the subject of oral fixations. It should be no surprise to you either that Freud was inclined to think that all this was to do with experiences in very early childhood – you can read more about it here.
So which is it – if Freud is right, perhaps infants with an abnormal experience of breast feeding are more likely to go on to become professional singers? Or do we go with the Jones-Hemsley theory that it’s the experience of singing which leads to a more general oral fixation?
Not wanting to leave you hanging, I asked a friend who is a clinical psychologist for her verdict. Her thoughts on Freud: “Some good concepts, twisted by him being a misogynistic sex-obsessed man of his time.”
And what about Jones? “Well. You’re not a misogynist.”
So there you have it. Jones 1, Freud 0. I’m off to crack open a box of Red Vines to celebrate.
* NB you’re probably not. Be grateful.
** Since writing this I’ve learned that The Big Bang Theory also deals with this subject, Red Vines being Sheldon Cooper’s confectionery of choice. (It’s quite likely I’ve also seen this and immediately forgotten about it. I don’t watch TV very closely, you may have gathered.) Red Vines = sociopath must be a whole semester on the standard American Creative Writing course.