Bread & Circus
Having grown up in the South, I had never heard of a Whole Foods Market until I ventured out to California on business a few years ago. I had certainly never heard of a little store named Bread & Circus (which Whole Foods bought in 1992), and I guess I assumed it was a made-up name when I encountered it in Infinite Jest. It never occurred to me to really think about the name at all until tonight. It’s the sort of thing that’s pretty easy to gloss over, though Wallace gives us a couple of clues that maybe we ought not to. First, on page 478, as Gately is driving to get special vittles (I’m from the South, see) for Joelle and opts to go the long way and hit the B&C rather than the Purity Supreme Pat Montesian had suggested, we see this little digression:
Bread & Circus is a socially hyperresponsible overpriced grocery full of Cambridge Green Party granola-crunchers, and everything’s like microbiotic and fertilized only with organic genuine llama-shit, etc.
Just a couple of pages later, we’re told that Bertraund Antitoi is in the back of his shop “eating Habitant soupe aux pois and bread with Bread & Circus molasses.” Recall that the soupe aux pois is the centerpiece of a discussion Steeply and Marathe have had pertaining to duty and pleasure. And now flip forward to just a little beyond the spoiler line (p. 623 — no spoilers to follow, I promise) and yet another mention of the “upscale Bread & Circus.”
Wallace just kind of keeps sneaking in these little references to the store, and though I had previously kind of glossed over it as an unimportant store name, it finally dawned on me during my reading tonight that it was a familiar phrase. Some old Roman guy had said something about the public’s being happy as long as they were provided bread and circuses. After a quick search online, I had my reference:
This phrase originates in Satire X of the Roman poet Juvenal (c 200). In context, the Latin phrase panis et circenses (bread and circuses) is given as the only remaining cares of a Roman populace which has given up its birthright of political involvement. Here Juvenal displays his contempt for the declining heroism of his contemporary Romans. …
Juvenal here makes reference to the Roman practice of providing free wheat to Roman citizens as well as costly circus games and other forms of entertainment as a means of gaining political power through populism. The Annona (grain dole) was begun under the instigation of the popularis politician Gaius Sempronius Gracchus in 123 BC; it remained an object of political contention until it was taken under the control of the Roman emperors.
Spanish intellectuals between the 19th and 20th centuries complained about the similar pan y toros (“bread and bullfights“). It appears similarly in Russian as хлеба и зрелищ (“bread and spectacle”).
With this information as a backdrop, it’s hard not to think that Wallace used the name Bread & Circus with a sort of volition, given the name’s source material’s relevance Infinite Jest‘s treatment of spectacle/entertainment and its relationship (within the O.N.A.N. political arena in particular) to heroism (or duty to the state, as I take it to mean for Juvenal). It’s also interesting to note the following tidbit about the above-referenced politician Gaius Sempronius Gracchus:
Politically Gaius’ most farsighted proposal was the ‘franchise bill’, a measure which would have seen the distribution of Roman citizenship to all Latin citizens and the extension of Latin citizenship to all Italian allies. This proposal was rejected because the Roman plebeians had no wish to share the benefits of citizenship, including cheap grain and entertainment.
How can one not think about the alliance Gentle and Tine are trying to forge with Mexico and Canada, this latter of which (if we can believe Marathe) largely rejects the bread and circus-type ideals America is known for?
Also of interest and a possible association (though I wouldn’t go very far out on a limb to defend this) is an old Star Trek episode entitled Bread and Circuses, of which part of Wikipedia’s synopsis runs as follows:
Spock and McCoy must face off against Flavius and another gladiator, Achilles, under a set of studio lights, television cameras, and an obviously fake backdrop of a Roman combat arena. The whole scene looks more like a violent game show. The battle begins as Spock quickly overpowers his opponent, and when McCoy is in trouble, Spock nerve-pinches his opponent ending the fight to a hail of boos and hisses from a pre-recorded “crowd”. Spock and McCoy are taken back to the slave pens and Kirk is taken to stand execution which will be televised live
Of even less probable relevance but still fun to mention is the fact that there’s a Toad the Wet Sprocket album (their debut) entitled Bread & Circus featuring songs titled “Scenes from a Vinyl Recliner” (makes me think of the attache) and “Pale Blue” (all the blue in Tavis’s office). The engineering and mixing of the album were done by one David Vaught (the Vaught twins). And the band name comes from a Monty Python sketch called “Rock Notes,” in which Eric Idle speaks of an imaginary group with the same name. I’m not familiar with the piece, but there are other Monty Python (MP initials again) references in Wallace’s novel, so I thought it was a neat coincidence or whatever.