This Pig Which Is Not One*

by Rosemary Stuffing


“What is important in the work,” declares Pierre Macherey, in his A Theory of Literary Production, “is what it does not say” (87). Of few works is Macherey’s formulation truer than Mrs. Walter Buchanan’s Piggy—a work whose very paucity of utterance may be seen as paradoxically freighted with a wealth of corresponding implication. Nevertheless, even in a work of such (it must be added, deceptive) simplicity, the utterance itself cannot be ignored; for it is only from the shape, the structure of that utterance that the (perhaps more telling) silence which surrounds it derives its configuration. And in this regard it must be conceded that the text of Piggy in some respects poses more questions than it answers.
     At first sight, Buchanan’s text would seem to have little (at least in sheerly aesthetic terms) to recommend it. While its editors have tried to present it in the most positive possible light, describing the rhymes, for example, as “only seldom. . . forced” (Bailey and Bentley 8), their enthusiasm needs to be located in its socio-political context. What, after all, at a time when Canada’s national identity is increasingly under threat from the forces of nascent separatism and aboriginal demands for self-government, is represented by the recovery for the canon of yet another text by a white, anglophone (albeit female) author? Under the circumstances it is difficult not to see it as constituting yet another desperate attempt on the part of the cultural establishment to shore up its hegemony. Objectively considered, Piggy, with its four square rhythms, its often awkward diction, would seem less a plausible addition to the canon, than a work whose charms (such as they are) are akin to those of the more specious manifestations of folk art: the equivalent, in verbal terms, of Lowry’s stick figures or of Newfoundland lawn ornaments.
     Yet the latter evaluation also poses problems; indeed, for all its (superficial?) allure, its apparent objectivity may be seen as masking a dangerously simplistic analysis—for on closer interrogation, the text begins to reveal a bewildering array of fissures and disjunctures whose subversive implication is such as to call into question whether Buchanan’s overtly faux-naif utterance is not itself a mask for a very different project—a project having as its goal nothing less than the subversion not only of gender roles as traditionally conceived, but also of the very economic base by which they are sustained.
     What needs to be stressed at the outset is that the pig is gendered: while, as feminist critics have rightly pointed out, the attribution of animal characteristics (“foxy chick,” “ditch pig,” etc.) to women is a common reductionist strategy, the pig is almost invariably, in the present socio-cultural context, seen as symbolically male. To be a pig is to indulge in a characteristically male violation of established standards of decorum; to be a male chauvinist pig is to manifest bestial insensitivity to the being and sensibilities of the female; surely it is scarcely coincidental that it is by the term “pigs” that the forces of law and order which secure the maintenance of patriarchal hegemony are commonly known. And, lest there be any doubt in this regard, it is clear from Buchanan’s text that the pig is not merely symbolically, but specifically male: not only is the pig referred to throughout as “he” and “him”; he is also described as “a gent,” with such characteristically male attributes as having a keen sense of duty, and taking responsibility for “money affairs,” including the reduction of mortgages.
     Yet while superficially approving of the male subject of her discourse, it is this distinctive maleness which Buchanan’s text interrogates, and ultimately subverts. To begin with, it is clear that Buchanan is keenly aware of the contradictions inherent in what Luce Irigaray refers to as the “dominant scopic economy” in which woman is relegated to the passive object of the controlling male gaze (Irigaray 101). In implicit condemnation of the male double standard, Buchanan repeatedly stresses the pig’s lack of that very visual appeal which the male seeks in the female: the pig, we are told, “hasn’t much beauty about him”—a feature emphasized by her subsequent reference to him as “no beauty.” Paradoxically, in fact, for all its emphatic maleness, the pig possesses one characteristic that Irigaray identifies as specifically female: like woman, the pig “finds pleasure more in touch than in sight” (101), and it is noteworthy that Buchanan is at pains to emphasize the pig’s notoriously tactile propensity to “dig” and “root” in the earth—although at the same time she underscores the characteristically male destructiveness attendant on the pig’s unrestrained pursuit of its appetites, leading it to “loot” the symbolically female “gardens” in whose maternal soil it seeks to immerse itself.
     Yet, in a stunning reversal of traditional gender dynamics,1 Buchanan makes this primal act of male violation the starting point of a process in which is enacted, not the subjection of woman to the controlling male gaze, but rather the subordination of the male to a countervailing and distinctively feminine tactile economy. For not only is Buchanan’s pig “a gent,” he is also agent—agent, as it transpires, of his own destruction. And Buchanan’s depiction of this process, masked though it is by her refusal of the linear, sequential narrative discourse to which the reader is normally habituated by the (male) logic of reason, is worthy of closer examination.
     Buchanan’s striking image of destructive male power does not, in fact, occur until halfway through the poem; it is immediately followed by a depiction of the woman’s pursuit of the “Brute,” a pursuit which, though unsuccessful, is significantly accompanied by her use of the Irish colloquialism, “bad cess to the cratur’.” Buchanan’s editors remark on her “macaronic” use of Scots dialect elsewhere in her work (Bailey and Bentley 9), but her deployment of another variant of Celtic diction in this specific context is surely more than merely macaronic; rather, it may be seen as indicative of the profoundly dialogic quality of Buchanan’s imagination. What both Scots and Irish dialect have in common, of course, is that both constitute the distinctive utterance of ethnic groupings who have been dispossessed by the patriarchal authority of British imperialism. In expressing feminine anger in the context of such marginalized discourse, Buchanan may be seen as resorting to a Bakhtinian other-voicedness, a hybrid utterance which paradoxically re-empowers the hitherto silent victim. Indeed, as becomes clear in the following stanza, Buchanan’s articulation of woman’s anger has in fact a distinctly prefigurative character—for what follows constitutes an abrupt reversal of the hierarchy of authority: in place of the female victim’s fruitless pursuit of the violating male, we are presented with a scenario in which the male becomes the helpless victim of his own appetites.

But then with a will he will come to us still
     And thrive if we give him attention;
If his trough we but fill with plenty of swill. . . .

Where, in the preceding stanza, the male pig violates the maternal garden, here the maternal promise of nourishment lures the male—but to what? At first it might appear that Buchanan evades the issue, since in the next stanza she shifts to a discussion of the pig’s financial utility; it is, in fact, elsewhere in the discursive machinery of the text that the answer is to be found. For the fate of the pig, lured by the promise of “plenty of swill,” it turns out, is nothing less than to become a source of food itself: to provide nourishment to the female from whom he seeks nurture. Indeed, Buchanan has so structured her text that the pig has already been consumed prior to the narrative sequence just alluded to; its fate, in other words, is inescapable.
     Yet Buchanan is not content with a mere reversal of roles, with the inversion of traditional power structures: what her editors refer to as her “irreverence in the face of the patriarchal order” (Bailey and Bentley 12) goes still further. While the lines “There’s the head, and the feet, and the carcase complete, / And we oft eat as much as we’er able” may be taken as suggestive of a despairing acknowledgment of the apparently inexhaustible extent of patriarchal power, which, try as women may, can never be wholly erased, Buchanan immediately follows with a devastating indictment of the contradictions inherent in the dominant phallic economy by which patriarchy is sustained. While the primacy of the phallus as “the only visible and morphologically designatable sex organ” (Irigaray 101) may be taken as a given within the context of existing male hegemony, that primacy is itself rendered problematic, as Irigaray herself observes, by “its passage from erection to detumescence” (101). And it is to this that Buchanan is surely alluding in the opening of the third stanza:

And there’s lard—snowy lard—sometimes soft, sometimes hard,
     And we use it when doing our baking.

It is difficult not to see this as an expression of derision, not simply of male authority, as vested in the primacy of the phallus, but more specifically (as indicated by the locution “snowy lard”) of white male authority. Yet what reveals the full extent of Buchanan’s subversive critique is the fate of the phallic lard—for, as she says, “we use it when doing our baking.” Not only is the lard erased—transformed by the baking process into something no longer recognizable as itself—but this process is itself the prelude to another cycle of consumption: the lard becomes part of something else to be eaten. Most tellingly, though, this transformation/erasure of the phallus takes place in an oven—notoriously a distinctively female symbol (witness the vernacular expression “a bun in the oven”). Not only does Buchanan deliberately undermine phallic primacy, she does so in a manner which, by its emphasis on the process of consumption, both evokes and simultaneously satirizes the longstanding male fear of the vagina dentata.
     Yet Buchanan is too much the realist to suppose that the erasure of phallic authority is a practical proposition in the light of the socio-political realities of the time in which she is writing. The apparently insatiable character of male sexual appetite is ruefully acknowledged in the fourth stanza, where we are told that the pig “always keeps doing his duty.” At the same time, however, we are left in no doubt as to the extent of her resistance to patriarchal authority, which is nowhere clearer than in the final stanza, where the pig is referred to as “a corker.” Buchanan’s editors gloss this expression as “Something very striking or astonishing; something that puts an end to discussion. . .” (Bailey and Bentley 26). Yet this is surely to miss the point: for what else is a “corker” but that which corks? Buchanan’s pig is compared, in other words, to a cork, the stopper of an aperture. And given the profusion of phallic references elsewhere in the text, there can be little doubt as to the nature of the aperture to which Buchanan refers. Though writing in the early years of the century, Buchanan may be seen as anticipating Irigaray’s analysis of the process whereby woman’s sexuality is denied by the “violent intrusion. . . of the violating penis” (100). The phallic pig becomes the stopper not only in the sense of that which blocks an aperture, but in the kindred sense of that which “stops” the woman’s capacity for autoerotic satisfaction.
What, then, does Buchanan’s text not say? Notwithstanding the provocative richness of Piggy’s interrogation of gender relations, it is noteworthy that, despite a number of references to the pig’s economic value, the text exhibits a curious reticence in its refusal of a broader economic analysis in the light of which these references might be seen as constituting a coherent pattern. Which is not to say that Buchanan does not reveal a keen awareness of the nature of the economic realities by which she is surrounded.2 Indeed, in her references to the pig, not only as a source of food, but also as a commodity with clearly defined economic value—relieving “cares in our money affairs,” convertible into cash whenever “there is a shortage,” and assisting in the reduction of mortgages—Buchanan seems to hint at a grasp of the crass realities of commodity fetishism which goes beyond anything which the text overtly states. It may perhaps be too much to claim Buchanan as a Marxist, but it is not without interest that it was precisely the contradictions inherent in the capitalist system of agrarian exchange that led to the conversion of that greatest of all Socialist artists, Bertolt Brecht, whose research into the workings of the Chicago Wheat Exchange (interestingly enough undertaken in the course of his work on an unfinished play entitled Joe P. Fleischhacker), convinced him of the correctness of Marx’s analysis of the workings of capitalism. In his poem Als ich vor Jahren, Brecht testifies to the shattering impact as “the thought that / Their way of going about it won’t do / Filled me completely” (263). Yet while one searches in vain for so explicit a statement in the works of Mary Buchanan, her very silence in this regard may be taken as highly suggestive, given the sophistication of her grasp of the realities of gender politics. Indeed, Buchanan’s very refusal of an overt economic analysis in this context may be seen as central to the success of her presentation of the pig as both a symbol of male sexuality and a commodity—for what emerges from this plural signification ultimately constitutes a devastating critique of the reification of sexual relations within a system of capitalist exchange.
     Piggy, then, for all the deceptive simplicity of its surface, remains a work rich in contradictions. In both its enigmatic utterance, and in the equally suggestive silence by which the text is surrounded, Buchanan’s work highlights the inequities of gender relations and the crass economic exploitation which constitute the underpinnings of late capitalism. Indeed, in the shifting symbolism of the pig, Buchanan may be seen as strikingly prescient in her awareness of the relation between the two. In the context of current socio-political realities Piggy is far more than simply a historical curiosity; its re-publication, indeed, can only be seen as desperately timely.

* “Ce cochon qui n’est pas un,” Cahiers du bif 5 (hiver 1992): 20-28; trans. by the author.


  1. In her use of the pig to interrogate conventional sexual stereotypes, Buchanan may be seen as prefiguring the practice of later, much better known writers, e.g., Aldous Huxley. Rosemary Stuffing claims that in Huxley’s early drafts of the notorious opening scene of Eyeless in Gaza, where a dog falls from an aeroplane onto a couple making love on the roof of a villa in the south of France, the dog is in actual fact a pig. Of particular relevance is the fact that the aerial visitation (whether canine or porcine) occasions a dramatic reversal of conventional sex roles: the male partner abandons his life of mindless promiscuity, and becomes a convert to pacifism; the female, by contrast, joins the Communist party, and becomes an uncompromising advocate of armed revolution (Aldous Huxley: Novelist 142). Also worthy of mention in this context is Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Heaviness of Being, in which the philandering hero receives his comeuppance when he is crushed to death by the 350 pound wife of a Bratislava pork butcher. [Editor’s Note] [back]
  2. I am indebted to Deborah Chitterling for this insight. See Deborah Chitterling, “The Piper’s Son: Patriarchy and the Metaethics of Pork Production” (171). [back]

Works Cited

Bakhtin, M.M. The Dialogic Imagination. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.

Brecht, Bertolt. Poems 1913—1956. Ed. John Willett and Ralph Manheim. London: Eyre Methuen, 1981.

Buchanan, Mrs. Walter. Piggy. Ed. Susan Bailey and D.M.R. Bentley. London: Canardian Poetry P, 1991.

Chitterling, Deborah. “The Piper’s Son: Patriarchy and the Mataethics of Pork Production.” Proceedings of the Scottish Institute of Animal Husbandry, LIII:2, (1990): 168-85.

Engel, Marian. Boar. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1976.

Irigaray, Luce. “This Sex Which Is Not One.” New French Feminisms. Ed. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Coutrivon. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1980.

Kundera, Milan. The Unbearable Heaviness of Being. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986.

Macherey, Pierre. A Theory of Literary Production. Tr. Geoffrey Wall. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978.

Stuffing, Rosemary. Aldous Huxley: Novelist. London: Athlone P, 1980.