The Daily Heller: The Udder Truth About Milk

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He’s a successful cartoonist (“Leviathan”), graphic designer, musician (Go Figure), author (Kew. Rhone.), blogger (Blegblog) … and for his next act, Peter Blegvad has become a grade-A lactose expert. His forthcoming release, Milk: Through a Glass Darkly (September), is a book on the elixir that brings joy to everyone from kiddies to kitties. (Well, personally, I’m lactose intolerant, as is arguably approximately half the planet.)

Milk is not a visual book, but the words that Blegvad selected—quotations from famous milkaholics and milkaphobes—do justice to the liquid of life and give the beverage its due.

For 50 years you have collected quotes on the subject of milk. Why?
I was 20. Painfully immature. That’s when I first read about Alfred Hitchcock putting a light in a glass of milk to make it luminous (in Suspicion). The image of the glowing glass haunted me; it seemed portentous, as if it contained a message for me to decipher. Collecting quotes about milk was a way of making it talk. Gradually the quotes confirmed my sense that milk—even without a light in it—was an uncanny substance. In all cultures it has been wreathed in myths and taboos. The message the glass contained didn’t take long to decipher: I had to grow up (an initiation I dreaded). As William Empson put it: “I remember believing I should have to die in order to grow up, and thinking the prospect very disagreeable.” Having understood that, I suppose I might have stopped there, but collecting quotes had become a pleasurable habit. Most of the hundreds now in my files were acquired by chance rather than by design. When I came across one in the course of my general reading I’d jot it down and add it to the hoard. This ensured that finds were rare enough to seem oracular and fed my obsession. Over the decades I used selected quotes in song lyrics, in comic strips, articles and radio plays, but I always had the idea of someday organizing them in an epic cento, a literary mosaic, which would offer the reader a full immersion in the White Stuff. With this book I’ve finally taken the plunge and tried to do that.

Tell me that you are not lactose intolerant
I was a coeliac baby, allergic to milk. Now I tolerate it but don’t like it. Milk: Through a Glass Darkly isn’t likely to boost milk sales.

How do people feel about milk? Its substance, color and consistency?
Milk has long been promoted as healthful, but I think “ambivalent” is how most people feel about it these days. Ambivalence seems appropriate given that there are so many milks “interior to milk,” from ambrosia to poison. It’s thought by some to feminize males and to infantilize adults who drink a lot of it. It’s erotically charged by association with the breast and by its relation to sperm as a white bodily fluid. Its whiteness conveys both the purity and innocence of new life and the vacuity and emptiness of death. Milk’s duality is what engages the imagination, the “dual participation of desire and fear, a participation of good and evil, a peaceful participation of black and white” (Joanne H. Stroud, foreword to Water and Dreams by Gaston Bachelard).

Other than birth and growth, does milk have any more substance for yesterday and tomorrow?
As I say, it has as much substance for death and decay as for birth and growth. Which is what makes it interesting (numinous) for me and for many of the authors quoted in the book. Does it have “any more substance for yesterday and tomorrow”? Hmm. Quotes from Aristotle and other ancients confirm that it had plenty of substance back then. As for tomorrow, I don’t know. But personally I hope that by creating this book and releasing it into the world I’ll finally be weaned.

How is your book organized?
The words aren’t mine, but the organization of the quotes is. Sometimes they cluster around a shared theme, but even when the structure is less obvious they’re sequenced to create a kind of conversation, a call and response full of echoes and reflections, a verbal kaleidoscope. It’s nonlinear, rhizomatic, but I think the flow has direction, and I hope momentum is generated by what David Shields describes as “the subtle, progressive buildup of thematic resonances” (Reality Hunger).

You’ve written and you’ve designed, drawn. You change your media as often as I do my underwear. What determines how you approach your content?
Over the years I’ve had various pieces about milk published, all of them illustrated, some profusely. When I first proposed a book about my milk obsession to publisher and designer Colin Sackett, I imagined it would be. too. But, as Colin pointed out, pictures would interrupt the flow; they’d distract from and dilute the cumulative effect of the words. I totally agree. (There are only three illustrations in the book, two photographs and a monotype all dating from the 1970s). So, the approach for Milk: Through a Glass Darkly was determined by the quantity and quality of the quotes. Rather than using them merely as references in a work of my own, I felt the quotes deserved to be the work. Instead of the monotony of my own voice, I wanted the harmony and dissonance of many other voices.

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