Mity cheese

Mity cheese

In Brief

Bloom's meditation on cheese in Lestrygonians—"Cheese digests all but itself. Mity cheese"—combines an unscientific bit of folk wisdom with a valid empirical observation. The second of these thoughts becomes apparent when "Mighty cheese," the text in all versions of Ulysses before Gabler's, is corrected to "Mity," and when one watches films of cheese mites that were being shown in UK theaters in 1903. The resulting pun manages to suggest that cheese does eat even itself, making it the perfectly cannibalistic agent in this chapter of voracious eaters.

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According to Eric Partridge (whose scholarship on the point is repeated by Thornton, Gifford, and Slote), the saying about cheese digesting everything stretches back to the 16th century. Gifford helpfully supplies a rationale: "The process of making cheese was popularly regarded as a process of digestion because it involved the use of rennet, a substance derived from animal stomachs and used to curdle milk." The precise wording of Bloom's phrase probably derives, as Thornton first observed, from an 18th century work, Jonathan Swift's A Complete Collection of genteel and ingenious Conversation, according to the most polite mode and method now used at Court, and in the best Companies of England. In Three Dialogues. Published in 1738 as Polite Conversation, Swift's dialogues satirically offer to inform readers about the proper methods of conducting genteel chatter. In a typically banal exchange of witty pleasantries in the second dialogue, the eight characters discuss ordering some cheese with their drinks, prompting Lady Answerall to report an inconsequential bit of popular wisdom: "They say, cheese digests everything but itself."

Joyce found in this saying an image of a foodstuff that is itself a universal eater—mighty cheese! And then he topped it, by giving Bloom knowledge of the phenomenon of cheese mites: tiny arachnids that, unless deterred by oil, cloth, or other coverings, will colonize the rinds of cheeses and sometimes burrow deep into their flesh. The French cheese Mimolette, produced around Lille, is one that benefits from the deliberate practice of such infestation, just as other cheeses gain their distinctive qualities from resident bacteria and molds. Its flavor and texture are significantly defined by mites of the Acarus genus, called cirons or artisons in French.

The presence of little spider-like creatures in cheese was much in the public mind at the time represented in Joyce's novel. A 1903 film of mites moving about a piece of Stilton cheese was banned in Britain for fear that it might harm sales. One of the most important figures in prewar British cinema, the American-born Charles Urban, produced another 1903 film called Cheese Mites that was slightly more invested in narrative presentation. It showed a well-dressed Edwardian gentleman using a magnifying glass to read the newspaper while lunching outdoors. Turning the glass on his cheese, he is astounded to discover a horde of little bugs scuttling across its surface.

With his keen interest in the cinema of his day, Joyce could hardly have failed to notice one film or the other, if only by references in newspapers. In a personal communication, Vincent Van Wyk notes that Urban's film aired at the Alhambra music hall in London in 1903. Wondering whether the film might have also been shown in Dublin, Van Wyk wrote to the film historian Luke McKernan, whose search of the British Newspaper Archive showed that it was exhibited at Kingston Gardens in Dublin on 16 November 1903 "and presumably at other times." McKernan adds that Joyce undoubtedly watched other films produced by Urban when he lived in Trieste.

"Mity cheese," which a typist mistakenly altered from Joyce's manuscript, was his way of referring to these cinematic revelations, but he must also have intended the word to refer backward to cheese's supposed ability to "digest" other foods. Small organisms help cheeses like Mimolette become what they are by a kind of self-consumption, showing their phagic powers to be truly mighty. The pun, if it is one, shows Bloom to be perfectly capable of the kinds of witty compression of meaning that he admires in Molly's "Bass barreltone," and that Stephen indulges in all the time, e.g. when thinking of Moors and Lemaires and pigeons.

JH 2019
The opening pages of Swift's Polite Conversation, in a volume held in the British Library. Source:
Tyrophagus putrescentiae, one of several mite species that colonize cheeses as well as plant leaves and stored grains. Source: Wikimedia Commons.