Was my mom not choosy enough? She did choose to have a child. She chose to feed him lamb chops with mint jelly. She chose to leave my father. She chose to be a psychiatric nurse. She chose to give me a time out when I knocked over stupid Geoffrey’s block tower. She chose to give sponge baths to the hopeless and filthy. She chose to take up tweezers and pluck the lice one by one from a homeless man’s festering scalp when they had lived there so long as to burrow under the skin.
But she never fed me Jif, and I never made her a peanut butter sandwich. Perhaps if she had been more discerning. I could have spread Jif on white bread, carried the sandwich on a plate with blue stripes out to the bus stop, ridden the bus downtown and walked the last three stained and wailing blocks to the hospital, walked right into the psych ward, and offered the sandwich to her over the edge of the tin tub where a homeless man slumped in the grip of sedatives. She would have smiled at me, a smile that speaks of boundless love and pride, and makes your heart swell, like a plagued scalp, with yearning to feel just like that. Just like that smiling woman. God, it would be wonderful to feel like that.
Then my mom would wipe the parasites off her surgical glove and pick up half the sandwich.
Jif, did my mom’s choices not live up to the standards you expect? I don’t think you understand what peanut butter really is, Jif. Peanut butter is a doorway to the sublime. We stand in front of the shelves that rise ten feet in the air, stacked to the ceiling with jars of peanut butter, and we don’t think how it takes seven hundred and seventy two peanuts to fill each jar, how in grocery stores all over our proud country people not at all like us buy five hundred million pounds of peanut butter every year. That’s three hundred and eighty six billion peanuts. No, in reaching for that limitless commodity on the grocery store shelf we try to grasp a feeling outside of ourselves and our tarnished experiences.
It’s like Jean-Francois Lyotard tried to explain in Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime:
“Above and beyond the formal qualities that induced the quality of taste, thinking grasped by the sublime feeling is faced, in nature, with quantities capable only of suggesting a magnitude or force that exceeds its power of presentation. This powerlessness makes thinking deaf or blind to natural beauty.”
Do you understand, Jif? You, you and Skippy and Shedd’s and Peter Pan and Smucker’s Goober brand—oh, especially Smucker’s Goober brand—you so overpowered my mother’s mind that when she looked at that homeless man’s scalp she did not see a community of families that had found shelter and food and warmth, she saw something she could not grasp, so she reached for it with her tweezers.
She could not choose how she saw the lice. She could not choose whether or not to be in love with my father anymore. She could not choose the color of my hair, or the shape of her smile. Magnitude and force, Jif, that’s what you’re trying to jar. But you can’t, at least, not alone. Even though you might imagine a world with no peanut butter other than Jif, you need all those other brands, all those other colorful labels. Otherwise the customer would just be accepting the inevitable every time they bought peanut butter, and that’s not being choosy.
So you have this impossible goal, and yet you keep going, keep mashing billions of nuts into formless paste and portioning it out in comprehensible units, as if you could make the boundless imaginable. It’s not going to work, Jif. Peanut butter has an intractable momentum; every day you need more empty jars to contain the excretions of your machines, don’t you?
Maybe I was wrong about you. Maybe you’re just as gripped by the sublime, just as helpless in its jaws. Maybe you tell us we can choose because you want to believe that yourself.
Lay off my mom, Jif.