The shop probably sold all kinds of things. But to me it was always the sweet shop, and I would go there on those perfect summer holiday afternoons which always seem oddly endless when I look back on them, perhaps because they belonged to a time before I thought about time, and before I realised that without really wanting to or choosing to I was going to grow up. I’d walk up the main road, and into the shop, and the popular sweets, which sold for just one penny each, sat in tiny mountains on cheap plastic trays right there on the counter. When I think about it I must have spoken to ask for the sweets that I wanted but for some reason, in my memories, the whole ceremony takes place in silence. I would point solemnly at the trays and the shopkeeper, whose face I can’t even remember, would measure out portions of his sugary treasure. And I would walk home in the sunshine with the sound of cars thrumming past, and the straight ribbon of the main road stretching to an indistinct termination in the distortion of a heat haze, and I would peer into my little paper bag that was crisp but already crumpling in my hand. Inside the bag my sweets lay glistening like gemstones: emeralds, rubies, yellow sapphires, and amethysts; miraculous,  glowing, parti-coloured crystals.

Haribo Gummy Bears. Image from Wikipedia.

Haribo Gummy Bears. Image from Wikipedia.

One of the reasons that I loved sweets as a child was that they just didn’t look like normal food. Food as such was often boring, or unpleasant, or associated with dreary moral commands pronounced by the representatives of adult authority: eat what is good for you, be grateful for the fact that there’s plenty of food for you to eat, and don’t ever dream of wasting anything. But when I ate sweets I ignored those tedious injunctions, suspended the law, ignored considerations of morality or frugality or health, and became pure drive. I was just a chewing, sucking, slurping thing, utter orality, concerned only with the unrestrained enjoyment of improper pleasures. At the same time the very appearance of sweets suggested that they came from somewhere beyond this dreary old world of sublimated desire and the dictatorial commands of grown-ups, from a realm governed by fantasy and magical possibility. Sweets were not grown, or baked, or cooked in any way that I understood but seemed instead to have been produced in some totally inscrutable fashion, perhaps by an act of alchemical transmutation. Hard translucent pastilles and soft, bright gels. How on earth, I wondered, had they been made?

The Chocolate Room in Willy Wonka's Factory. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Tim Burton, 2005.

The Chocolate Room in Willy Wonka’s Factory. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Tim Burton, 2005

In my infant imagination sweets belonged to another, more miraculous order of nature, to an alternate reality whose laws were far more fluid and fun. This is the basic idea that animates Roald Dahl’s famous novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, in the sense that Willy Wonka’s personal paradise is a little universe to itself with its own laws and logic. The factory is an hermetically sealed environment yet its boundary is porous enough that a child with a golden ticket might still leave the grubby streets of his daily life behind and find himself in a Land of Cockaigne where the rivers flow with chocolate. To me sweets suggested that such a topsy-turvy utopia really could exist. They told me that there was a stranger and more brightly coloured world hidden behind the surface of reality -tantalisingly out of reach yet waiting to be discovered – which could also mingle, somehow, with the dreary normality of the everyday. And in my mind, at any rate, an important part of the magic of sweets lay in their optical appeal: in the sheen and shine that came off them, in the way that their surfaces could gleam as if they had been meticulously polished, and in the play of light glancing from sparkling frostings of sugar. You could stare into sweets as if they were jewels and get lost in transparent depths of orange, red, and green, or perhaps imagine, as I sometimes did, that they were condensations of exquisitely clear juices squeezed from unknown fruits. The sweets made by the English company Fox’s, seemingly ubiquitous when I was a child, were actually called ‘glaciers’ and evoked fantasies of unmelting, brilliantly-hued ice.

Fox's Glacier Fruits

Fox’s Glacier Fruits

Asides from offering the Dionysiac frenzy of a sugar rush, sweets are visually delicious. More specifically, many sweets offer the sort of visual pleasures that are often associated with decidedly non-edible substances such as precious stones, minerals, and crystals, and thus belong to a long tradition of foodstuffs which have given to food a lustrous inorganic beauty, blurring the boundaries between incommensurate orders of matter. On his website the food historian Ivan Day showcases extraordinary examples of food like this such as spherical ‘balette’ jellies, perfect crystal balls reflecting pinpricks of light and made according to a recipe from Theodore Garrett’s 1892 Encyclopaedia of Practical Cookery.

Nineteenth-Century Balette Jellies. Image from Ivan Day's Historic Food Website.

Nineteenth-Century Balette Jellies. Image from Ivan Day’s Historic Food Website.

Day’s website also includes pictures of an elaborate champagne jelly from the Encyclopaedia which is supposed to mimic the architectural form of Gothic towers. But this delectable spectacle also strongly resembles the distinctive prismatic spires of quartz or rock crystal, particularly in Garrett’s original illustration. These jellies offer us the fantastical opportunity to somehow taste crystal, to savour luscious polychromy, to eat transparency.

'Gothic' Champage Jelly from Theodore Garrett's 'Encyclopaedia of Practical Cookery', 1892.

‘Gothic’ Champage Jelly from Theodore Garrett’s ‘Encyclopaedia of Practical Cookery’, 1892. Volume III, p. 332.

‘Here’s goblet-glass, to take in with your wine | The very sun its grapes were ripened under: | Drink light and juice together’. In Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s 1851 poem Casa Guidi Windows, the sunshine which has ripened the grapes of a delicious wine can be consumed not in the wine itself but in the scintillations created by deeply-cut glass crystal, so that it is the refractory dazzle of the goblet which makes it possible to ‘drink light’ and  to understand what is it is like to taste the sun. The jellies and aspics pictured on Day’s website are just part of a very wide range of different materials, ice and glass, crystals and gemsstones, which have provoked a profound fascination with transparency and luminous radiance, gleaming smoothness and sumptuous colour. But they also help to realise the fey conceit of Browning’s verse and promise that we can ‘take in’ these visual effects, delight in the feel of them on our tongues, ingest and digest them. Sweets, I think, do a similar sort of thing, and have an especially close relationship to crystals and to crystalline effects thanks to the long-standing use of crystallised sugar in their preparation.

Indian Misri or 'rock sugar'. Image from Wikipedia.

Indian Misri or ‘rock sugar’. Image from Wikipedia.

Developed at first on the Indian subcontinent, the refining of sugarcane juice into crystals led to the invention of the first kinds of sugar candy, created by cooling supersaturated sugar solutions into large, irregular crystals. Used in the production of traditional sweets like Iranian nabaat – golden and perfumed with saffron and with a history stretching back over a thousand years – this technique is also the secret behind more modern inventions like American ‘rock candy’ with its lurid mineral-like formations.

Modern American Rock Candy. Image from Wikipedia.

Modern American Rock Candy. Image from Wikipedia.

Like nineteenth-century balette jellies, such candy offers us something not quite found in nature and the ability to taste crystals or unadulterated colour. When talking of such sweets, for example, it often makes more sense for us to say that we prefer ‘the red one’ or ‘the green one’ rather than strawberry or apple flavour, since the candies only bear only an unreal and fluorescent resemblance to fruits and other foods.

The relationship between sugary sweets and the crystalline is visible too in quite a different historical context, in the paintings of the seventeenth-century artist Georg Flegel, many of which which depict a variety of foods completely encrusted with glittering crystals of sugar.

Georg Flegel. Still Life With Bread and Confectionery. Early Seventeenth Century.

Georg Flegel. Still Life With Bread and Confectionery. Early Seventeenth Century.

Georg Flegel. Still Life with Desserts and Sweetmeats. Early Seventeenth Century.

Georg Flegel. Still Life with Desserts and Sweetmeats. Early Seventeenth Century.

Flegel’s sweetmeats trouble categories, in part at least because it is often difficult to tell exactly what lies beneath their sugary coatings. They are obviously much at home in the world that they are a part of, a world of shining delicacy and delicacies, the pleasures of both looking and consuming, glossy poached fruit, syrups, wine, and glass. But at the same time they stand out and don’t quite fit, look absolutely unlike the other kinds of food on display, take the cool inorganic gleam of the wine goblets and intensify it into the vivid frostiness of diamonds, fusing the appearance of the edible and the inedible. While we might know that we are looking at a table laden with sugary dainties the sweets look very much like bejewelled trinkets or ornaments, and in places Flegel emphasises the faceted and angular qualities of the sugar crystals, which wink light yet create jagged surfaces which seem almost too sharp to eat.

Flegel detail 1

Stressing the similarities between sugar and other kinds of crystal – not just gemstones but finely made, elaborate glassware – the paintings remind us that like these other goods sugar was also a rare and expensive commodity in seventeenth-century Europe. Indeed the paintings make sugar’s visual, crystalline dazzle  into an incarnation of the same enchanting value shared in common by all the commodities on display, suggesting that if the sweets offer the opportunity to eat scintillating brightness then that means that they embody not only a luxury you can consume but, in a way, the consumption of luxury itself, the ability to revel in the taste and experience of pure richness. So here sugar makes literal the almost magical pleasures of consumption at the dawn of the age of capitalism.

Sweets also partake of the strange, supernatural powers that have been ascribed to crystals since ancient times, powers of healing, destruction, and transformation. In Flegel’s art those powers were turned into the sensuous charm of the commodity, which over the past few hundred years has taken over the world. But they have also taken rather more innocent forms as well. In another of Roald Dahl’s well-known novels, James and the Giant Peach, the child hero meets an odd man who asks him to look inside a ‘small white paper bag’. Within the bag, like sweets from the cornershop,

James could see a mass of tiny green things that looked like little stones or crystals… They were extraordinarily beautiful, and there was a strange brightness about them, a sort of luminous quality that made them glow and sparkle in the most wonderful way.

Admittedly this little old man, who appears out of nowhere, is more than a little creepy (‘“Come close to me little boy”’, he whispers to James, ‘“Come right up close to me and I will show you something wonderful”’). But the ‘tiny green things’ he gives to James, at once sweets and crystals, will nevertheless lead to all of the boy’s adventures and allow him to escape from the tyranny of his sadistic aunts Sponge and Spiker. The old man’s instructions even involve dissolving the crystal-sweets and drinking the resulting solution like a potion. James fails to follow these instructions but, of course, things turn out alright in the end. And the crystalline beauty of the magical objects, the ‘strange brightness’ and ‘luminous quality’ that makes them ‘glow and sparkle in the most wonderful way’, heralds their fantastical ability to flout the laws of mundane reality and to remake the world in fabulist, utopian terms.

A Rock Candy Geode. Made by crystallising a solution of coloured sugar to resemble a natural mineral formation.

A Rock Candy Geode. Made by crystallising a solution of coloured sugar to resemble a natural mineral formation.

I wrote before that sweets are ‘visually delicious’. But it might be better to take something of a step back and to say that there is a visuality of sweetness, one which reveals the complicated relationships that have often existed between sweets, crystals, and a variety of optical effects, and which suggests that in letting us fantasise about eating the inedible sweets also promise the fulfilment of our fantasies as such: encouraging us to luxuriate in the blandishments of the commodity, whose satisfactions are endless yet leave one unsatisfied, or to dream of a world cleansed of labour, politics, and complexity, a different order of things which conforms to the desires of our better natures and which accedes to the power of magical thinking. For centuries taste has been given a pretty humble part to play in ideas about the body and sensation; even the famous eighteenth-century gastronome Brillat-Savarin described it as the most ‘primitive’ of the senses. But sweets show that there is a high seriousness to eating and tasting even in what might be considered to be their most naive and infantile forms, and suggest how taste might help us to think about some of our visual pleasures and preoccupations, and about our recurring fascinations with glister, glitter, gleam, and glow.

The video game 'Candy Crush'.

The video game ‘Candy Crush’.

The visual allure of sweets continues to take different forms, for example in the computer game Candy Crush, which combines the glossy beguilements of sweeties with the marvellous clarity of the liquid crystal display and the pleasurable smoothness of the touch screen. The levels of the game, which is known for its absurd addictiveness, are notionally set in a variety of saccharine wonderlands and have spawned a host of imitations which for the most part replace sweets with gemstones or with lucent jellies, reiterating the historical simpatico between such things.

The Computer Game 'Jelly Splash'

The video Game ‘Jelly Splash’

So if they are part of a long history which has to do with the evolving meaning of all sorts of materials and sense impressions, from rose quartz to fruit drops and from pure transparency to shining brilliance, then sweets also contribute to the on-going development of this history in an age of new technologies and materials: they are helping to shape, and to raise questions about, new kinds of experience and enjoyment in the age of the digital, new versions of old obsessions and new kinds of commodification in the era of iPads and Android operating systems. They are a reminder of all the ways that our pleasures and our selves can be remade yet in many ways remain the same. They suggest that if we live in an extraordinarily complex and grown-up world then perhaps, at the same time and in some sense, we never really grow up at all.

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I don’t have any shoulders.

That might sound a little silly but it’s true. I have shoulders, of course, but they are barely worthy of the name, flimsy things whose existence draws attention to their bizarre lack of presence. My shoulders don’t look as if they could actually ‘shoulder’ anything, and so in a way they appear incapable of fulfilling their own function. I don’t have any shoulders.

Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, has shoulders. Look at them!

Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin

The internet, as we probably all know, abounds with pictures of Putin in situations like this. Swimming, riding, hunting, shooting, quite often gratuitously bare-chested, the Russian premier announces his vigour and dynamism to the world as he disports himself in the great primaeval wildernesses of his motherland. And in this particular image his indomitable energy appears to a large extent to be concentrated in his impressively developed shoulder muscles. Those flexing deltoids clench to send Putin’s arms arcing out of the river in the difficult motions of the breastroke, bunching together in an expression of exultant vitality. And in the frozen moment of the photograph they even seem to keep him hanging impossibly amidst air and water, as if he were on the verge of taking flight in a spray of white foam: as if he were possessed of some strange, slightly-more-than-human strength.

Leonardo da Vinci. Anatomical Studies of the Shoulder. 1510-1511

Leonardo da Vinci. Anatomical Studies of the Shoulder. 1510-1511.

Thanks to Vladimir Putin I began to wonder a bit about shoulders. We have long been aware of the physical complexity of the human shoulder, as anatomical sketches by Leonardo da Vinci attest. But their function in language and culture is just as complicated. We can shrug our shoulders, for example, in a gesture which has subtly different meanings in various parts of the world. If in England the shrug connotes indifference or befuddlement or placid acceptance then in France, as the Trésor de la langue française states, it can also express mépris, contempt, or quelque autre sentiment, some other feeling. The English designate this use of the shoulders a ‘Gallic shrug’ and seem to feel that there there is something peculiarly, unforgivably French about its combination of haughty condescension and carefully studied ambivalence. So if the shrug is mutually intelligible in both England and France then it can also make us aware of the differences between the two nations. The shrug both unites and divides cultures.

In English and French shoulders are also identified with acts of strenuous labour and bear all sorts of burdens from the physical to the metaphorical, moral, psychological, and spiritual. In Greek myth the Titan Atlas was condemned by Zeus to hold the sky up from the earth upon his shoulders and thus became a symbol of heroic endurance, and in English we can say that someone ‘carries the weight of the world’ upon their shoulders. To speak of shoulders in this manner is to suggest that if some of us can cope with the tangible and intangible weights that we all have to ‘shoulder’ throughout our lives then some of us, unfortunately, are simply not strong enough. Shoulders and the act of shouldering thus become symbols not just of resilience and fortitude but of weakness and failure, a fact that is perhaps particularly explicit in French as it is actually possible to say that a person ‘does not have the shoulders’ to deal with a situation. Under the entry for épaule the Trésor cites a passage from Balzac’s 1846 novel Cousin Bette, which uses exactly this sort of language: ‘[c]e fut le succès, mais le succès comme il vient à Paris, c’est-à-dire fou, le succès à écraser les gens qui n’ont pas des épaules et des reins à le porter’. If the metropolis of Paris provides an environment in which certain individuals can thrive, then it is also a madhouse in which others are crushed to death because their shoulders simply aren’t sturdy enough to survive the trials and tribulations of modern life.

So the language of shoulders often reflects a belief that we are not all equal or at least that we are not all equally capable. The physical condition of our shoulders provides a means of thinking, in a very particular way about the nature of society and indeed about the nature of existence itself. Shoulders seem to say that if some us have our heads firmly on our shoulders then some us, sadly, do not, and that if some of us are fit for life then some of us are doomed to ignominious and contemptible failure. A duty or an obligation, meanwhile, might fall upon our shoulders owing to the incompetence of others and to the fact that their shoulders were just too feeble to handle the task at hand. If in French as well as English it is possible to have one’s head on one’s shoulders (‘[ê]tre realiste, bien équilibré, plein de bon sens’) then to be ‘sur les épaules’ means ‘to be ruined’. Shoulders thus embody the possibility of both physical and psychological well-being and decrepitude, existential contentment and abjection. Through shoulders a pseudo-medical language of health, vigour, and muscularity, enervation and infirmity, helps to paint a picture of a crassly Darwinian reality in which the weak are condemned to sink – a shame, really, but what can one do? – while the strong, like Vladimir Putin of Russia, are free to swim to their heart’s content, and to glory in their own dynamic potency as they surge through life’s turbulent waters.


I have thought too much about Vladimir Putin’s shoulders. Who spends this much time thinking about shoulders anyway? There’s something wrong with me. I’m wasting my time. I’m going to hell.


My little obsession with shoulders slumbered, for a while, but it woke up quite recently with tiny bright eyes, snuffling at the air, while I was looking at an ominous painting by Edgar Degas, exhibited under the name Interior in 1868 but often and more tellingly known as The Rape. Art historians have come up with all sorts of theories to explain what is going on in this picture: the aftermath of a sexual attack (there is perhaps a streak of blood upon the bed), or a man’s sordid assignation with a prostitute, or a scene from Émile Zola’s 1867 novel Thérèse Raquin. But no matter how you read the painting at least one thing seems pretty certain, which is that the woman’s state of undress and the skin of her shoulder – glowing warm and soft in the light of the bedroom lamp – serves as a symbol of her appalling vulnerability to the man who looms over her, his body blocking all access to the door behind him. Since the woman’s face is barely visible, turned away and obscured by shadow, her shoulder actually appears to be the most eloquent and expressive part of her body. It ‘speaks’ somehow about the unbearable situation which she has no choice but to bear, whatever it might be. It draws our attention to the sordid, claustrophobic nature of the world in which she is forced to live and from which she cannot escape.

Edgar Degas, Interior, 1868

Edgar Degas. Interior. 1868.

It’s unlikely that Degas ever meant his painting to be a clarion call for female liberation. But that single bared shoulder, slipping from the dishevellment of a loosened bodice, emblematises not just the predicament of an individual woman or the status of women in nineteenth-century France but the failures and inadequacies of our own time. Part of the point of the painting, really, is that we would not be especially surprised to find a woman in this sort of situation in either the nineteenth, twentieth, or twenty-first centuries. The shoulder thus serves as a reminder that gender-based violence is still very much with us and that if gender politics have changed radically since 1868 then they still haven’t changed anywhere near enough. However the shoulder signifies more than historically contingent, continuing inequalities between men and women. It represents a world in which inequality and exploitation have been inscribed all the way down into the heart of things: a world which insists on thinking about everyone and everything things in terms of strength and weakness; a world governed by very particular decisions about who exactly should be weak and who should be strong; a world shaped by the relations between those who possess power and those who are powerless, and by ideas about what those relations look like.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Lady Lilith, 1868

Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Lady Lilith. 1868.

The motif of one naked female shoulder, I realised, occurs in a fair few paintings from the nineteenth century. One example is Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Lady Lilith, also painted in 1868. Another is André Brouillet’s 1887 Jean-Martin Charcot, Un Leçon Clinique a la Salpêtrière. Charcot, sometimes known as the father of modern neurology, was famous for his studies of hysteria – a word derived from the Greek word for ‘womb’ and associated since antiquity with female biology – and in Brouillet’s painting he is busy demonstrating his theory that hysterical women were especially susceptible to hypnosis. The woman falling away into a dead faint under Charcot’s influence is supposed to be the so-called ‘queen of hysterics’ Blanche Wittmann, whose arm curls behind her in a manner that suggests some sort of seizure and whose shoulder is conspicuously exposed in contrast to all those male bodies enclosed in crisp black jackets. As in Degas’ painting, although in a rather different sense, it’s a question of vulnerability. This shoulder, perhaps freed from Blanche’s clothing in anticipation of her fit, reveals how thoroughly the nineteenth century could ‘construct’ woman as constitutionally pitiable and supine, simultaneously nerveless and convulsive, incapable of thought and speech and quite literally requiring the support of a man to keep her from total collapse.

Pierre Aristide André Brouillet. Jean-Martin Charcot, Un Leçon Clinique a la Salpêtrière. 1887

Pierre Aristide André Brouillet. Jean-Martin Charcot, Un Leçon Clinique à la Salpêtrière. 1887.

Neither Blanche’s shoulder nor the painting as a whole invite us simply to sneer at the nineteenth century, or even to contemplate the misogynies of our own time. They ask us why the world that we inhabit needs to be so profoundly imbalanced, split between those of us with the authority and self-confidence to determine the nature of things and those of us deemed too hysterical, too vapourish, and too weak-minded to cope with the rigours of the real. If they obviously represent the emerging discourse of nineteenth-century medicine then Charcot’s attentive audience also embody all those who, thoughout history, have claimed to occupy the privileged position of Truth and whose cool, calm, collected gazes have defined and judged other individuals, other groups, other ways of living and being. By this logic, too, Blanche and her exposed flesh stand for history’s others: struggling with the violence of being told what she is or ought to be, she is not simply ordered to shut up but is actively deprived of speech and volition. Hypnotised, classified, pathologised, her identity constituted in the very absence of thought and speech, she is rendered mad even if insanity is perhaps the only sane response to the situation that she finds herself in.


Vladimir Putin rises majestically out of the sparkling water of the river and his shoulders swell to gigantic proportions. He is a Titan. He crushes his enemies between the palms of his massive hands and his eyes burn like suns.


Thomas Eakins. Wrestlers. 1899.

Thomas Eakins. Wrestlers. 1899.

Madly, badly, I speak about shoulders. In a beer garden, through clouds of cigarette smoke, my friends look at one another nervously as I declaim. I say that in Degas and Brouillet’s paintings shoulders contribute to the depiction of an intrinsically violent, unequal reality. But at the same time these shoulders ask why we need to see the world in certain ways and why certain ideas about strength and weakness, or power and powerlessness, have so persistently structured our seeing. Shoulders help me to realise that rather than hitting the gym, taking our supplements, growing big and strong, we need to find a means of moving beyond certain habits of thought and certain fantasies of energy and muscularity. We need to escape all the compromised ways that we have traditionally used our bodies and their physical condition to make meaning, our dreams of endless and indomitable might. I sit back in my chair, my non-existent shoulders slumped. The conversation moves on. But later I’ll walk through the city, and take a bus, and watch the light of the streetlamps flash on black, wet pavements through glass, and continue to think about shoulders.

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