Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Lure of Magic in Popeye's Spinach

I remember, when I was eight or nine, watching Popeye cartoons on TV and being utterly captivated by Popeye’s relationship to spinach. Every time he got into a fight with the brutish and bullying Bluto, and was getting the shit kicked out of him, he would produce a can of already opened spinach, gulp it down, and in seconds acquire preternatural power and thrash Bluto into submission. The spinach clearly possessed magical powers. But the spinach my mother put on my plate did not have the same effect. There seemed to be a crucial difference between cartoon spinach and actual spinach. I did get the idea: spinach is good for you. But I didn’t like spinach, it tasted quite awful, and it didn’t affect me the way it affected Popeye.

Popeye’s spinach taught me some valuable lessons. One was that life as it is imagined is far better than life as it is actually lived. You achieve your desires in cartoons and fantasy. The good guys always win in cartoons and fantasy. You do not achieve your desires in real life, at least not always, and not without a great deal of effort, shrewd strategy, persistence, and sometimes a little cunning, if not downright dishonesty, and the good guys do not always win. Nevertheless, I never stopped searching for the real life equivalent of Popeye’s spinach. The whole idea of fantasy is to goad you into a quest for higher understanding and redeem life’s shortcomings with illuminations of what might be a higher reality.

Popeye’s spinach wasn’t food. Not really. We all know what happens when we eat food. Very little. We satisfy our hunger, which is nice, it’s a form of immediate gratification and immediate gratification is wonderful, I’m all for it, but we don’t burst into powerhouses of illimitable force and preternatural ability. We converse, daub our mouths with napkins, have another sip of wine, pay the check, do the dishes, resume a normal life. Until, a few hours later, we get hungry again.

We also satisfy nutritional needs, which is boring, which is like getting socks for Christmas, but that’s why we eat. That’s the whole general point of putting food into your mouth and chewing it. It turns into glucose and protein and fuels your normal functioning. In other words, it’s what keeps us alive. But that’s not why some of us prefer hamburgers to broccoli, or Perigord truffles to potato chips. Nutritional rewards are not on my mind when I sit down to a bowl of ice cream.

Popeye’s spinach, it occurred to me when I got a bit older and began experimenting with drugs, was more like a drug than a food. The whole division between what constitutes a food and what constitutes a drug remains a little hazy to me. This fuss over doping in the Tour de France, for instance, confuses me. What’s wrong with enhancing your athletic ability with anabolic steroids, Tetrahydrogestrinone or Modafinil?

According to Gary Wenk, a Professor of Psychology & Neuroscience & Molecular Virology, Immunology and Medical Genetics at the Ohio State University and Medical Center, “In truth, anything you take into your body should be considered a drug, whether it’s obviously nutritious or not. As you will see, even molecules that are clearly nutritious (such as essential amino acids like lysine and tryptophan—available in bulk at your nearest grocery store) exhibit properties that many of us would attribute to a drug.”

Imagine, then, if a Tour de France bicyclist were busted for eating a steak the night before hitting the pedals on the next stage of the competition, or if yogurt or broccoli were considered a form of doping, not to mention Popeye's preternatural spinach.

Ingesting anything into your body with the anticipation of a happily empowering event smacks of magic. One thinks of manna, love potions, magical elixirs.

Magical elixirs function as a form of divine intervention, transforming a feeble mortal being into a being of tremendous power and godlike ability. One of the more renowned is The Philospher’s Stone of medieval alchemy. According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica:

The stone, also referred to as the "tincture," or the "powder" (Greek xerion, which passed through Latin into Arabic as elixir), was allied to an elixir of life, believed by alchemists to be a liquid derived from it. Inasmuch as alchemy was concerned not only with the search for a method of upgrading less valuable metals but also of perfecting the human soul, the philosopher's stone was thought to cure illnesses, prolong life, and bring about spiritual revitalization. The philosopher's stone, described variously, was sometimes said to be a common substance, found everywhere but unrecognized and unappreciated.

The magical elixir I’ve been experimenting with lately is called Iskiate, and is a concoction of chia seeds and fruit juice popular among the Tarahumara Indians of northwestern Mexico. Chia seeds are presumed to enhance running endurance. If they do, the effect isn’t working on me. I took some today and they did nothing to enhance my performance, which was miserable. I was unable to complete three miles. They seemed to help when I first began taking them, several weeks ago, but that, I believe, was the placebo effect. I believed they were helping, and so they helped. I continued to believe they were helping today, too, but they didn’t. The placebo bubble has burst.

It occurs to me that I am misconstruing the message of the Popeye cartoons concerning spinach. Popeye ingests it, to be sure, pouring the leafage into his gullet with robust cartoon glee. But the essence of the spinach is its distaste.

There is a cartoon in which Olive Oyl takes Popeye’s four nephews to Popeye’s restaurant - specializing exclusively in spinach, of course - where Popeye works as chef, clucking cheerfully at his grill behind a counter as his nephews, all identical in age and size, plunk their little bodies down on four stools. Popeye prepares to make them some spinach, and they vigorously object. They loudly demonstrate their preference for Wimpy’s Hamburger Haven, across the street. They want nothing to do with spinach. Popeye regales them with two stories in which he triumphed over Bluto thanks to the magical properties of spinach. The four nephews, finally convinced that they will benefit from eating spinach, eat it up and burst into energy, overpowering Popeye and Olive Oyl and wrapping them up in an anchor and running across the street to enjoy hamburgers.

The magic property of the spinach is due, in part, to overcoming one’s dislike of its flavor and ingesting it for its virtue. The implication is clear: one must master one’s superficial pleasure seeking in order to arrive at the true beneficial property nature has craftily hidden in uninviting vegetables such as spinach.

But why does Popeye have such anatomically strange arms? That puzzled me, too, as a kid. Those skinny little biceps culminating in enormous forearms.

Or the ever-present pipe. That can’t be healthy.

Pipe and forearms aside, Popeye has a had a long and illustrious career, appearing in comic books, television cartoons, arcade and video games, hundreds of advertisements, coffee mugs, action figures, and boxer shorts, and will enter the public domain in 2025.

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