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.

Thanks, Wikipedia.

9 thoughts on “Bread & Circus

  1. infinitedetox August 16, 2009 / 12:36 am

    This is f’in awesome. Great detective work!

  2. steven August 16, 2009 / 8:30 am

    Interesting history of the phrase, but Bread & Circuses is a chain of natural foods stores throughout the greater Boston area (Google on the phrase to see), the type of store I’ve been patronizing for most of my adult life. They exist all over the world. They’re in every city I’ve ever lived in: Boston, New York, Amsterdam, New Orleans, Providence, rural Northeastern Connecticut, and here in South Florida.

    His use of the term “microbotic” is him flaunting a malapropism for “macrobotic,” which, for one thing, stands for the idea that processed foods – like white flour, for instance, or white rice – are less nutritious because the nutrients in a kernel of grain or even a piece of fruit are most highly concentrated under the skin or husk. So that’s what’s meant by whole foods.

    It’s alright to satirize it but recognize a prejudice for what it is. He calls French Canadians “frogs” throughout the book. It’s not shocking but don’t look for any intelligence in it.

  3. Daryl Houston August 16, 2009 / 10:03 am

    Steven, I established early on that it’s a real store name. Still, given the origin of the phrase and its particular relevance to certain themes in the book, why pick that one in particular rather than some other store found throughout other cities? Wal-Mart is everywhere too, you know.

    If Wallace wasn’t trying to call attention to the name, I don’t imagine he’d be so explicit about it. I suppose one could argue that he’s trying to establish a sense of place, but he does that in plenty of other ways, and if these stores are all over the world as you suggest, then they’re hardly a distinctive feature of the Boston-area landscape.

    I mostly wrote about this because it’s another example (a la the Coatlicue thing) of a little reference that it’d be really easy to skip over but that actually has associations that enrich the text in a way, or at any rate that demonstrate how carefully pretty much every tiny little detail in the book is picked out.

    Don’t confuse Wallace’s prejudices or satires with those of the narrator. The word “frog” does not appear in the text of Infinite Jest (if Amazon’s “search inside” feature can be trusted).

  4. infinitetasks August 16, 2009 / 3:14 pm

    It’s amazing that we’re 600 pages in and the narration issue is still perhaps the biggest mystery. Well, maybe mystery isn’t exactly the right word, since I don’t expect a “revelation” to-come, but it is in any case a very sophisticated voice. The plethora of intentional errors (thanks to Ray Gunn at Love, Your Copyeditor, we can now call these eggcorns, malaproprisms, and cocography) keeps this wonderful distance/tension between the characters and the playful, wry, sly, comedic, brilliant narrator.

    I like the Bread & Circuses digging you’ve done, though its fair that you’ve characterized some of them as “possible associations,” “neat coincidences,” and “less probable,” in individual and specific cases. The more I read both your work and Detox’s, the more sense I have that it is not DFW’s imagination that is fractalized or Serpinskied, it is the human cosmos (if that looks like an odd phrase, I mean it intentionally) of which he is a part (an admittedly visionary one). He doesn’t have to think all the triangles within triangles; he just has to attend carefully to his own patterns and keep the lustrous description of phenomena flowing. The associations will emerge as we dig, as we attend to the myriad and expanding connections between his world and our own.

    And then, ultimately, we will see our world change for us. In my case, Gravity’s Rainbow was one of the first books after which the entire world had changed. There have been a couple since then, but IJ is doing the same. So yes, go for it, keep pulling the fractals out, extending them back into our world, and worry not about authorial intent. (Last note: to give up on a metaphysical commitment to authorial intent is not to permit a text to become an interpretive free-for-all, as there are still norms of criticism and evaluation of authorial context that must be adhered to, argued about etc. But you know all that…)

  5. steven August 19, 2009 / 11:46 pm


    I agree with you about the “circus” part, but not about the “grain dole.” The style has already been dubbed “hysterical realism” for a reason: because the novels are “excessively centripetal. The different stories all intertwine, and double and triple on themselves. Characters are forever seeing connections and links and plots, and paranoid parallels.” In my opinion, spinning off these additional highly-dubious connections (Orin as a “southern star,” for example) just add to the hysteria.

    Sporting events, whether gladiatorial contests or football games, are often depicted in fiction as palliatives for the masses. For example, in Brave New World, the citizens are programmed to love nature so much that they want to leave the city on the weekends, however, that presents so many problems for the authorities that, instead, they’re programmed to hate nature but to want to leave the city to attend spectator sporting events in the country and then return home.

    The original Bread & Circus, located in Brookline, is right around the corner from Enfield, but Gately stops off at the Inman Square, Cambridge Bread & Circus (where Pemulis buys the DMZ and takes a circuitous route home). I seem to recall the Brookline B & C, which originally sold natural foods and wooden toys, hence the ironic name.

    The reason that Lucien Antitoi eats B & C molasses with his bread is presumably because Antitoi Entertainent (sic) is also located in Inman Square and B & C is probably the logical place to buy molasses in a largely Portuguese neighborhood.

    Campbell’s Canadian subsidiary acquired Habitant Soup in the 1980s and markets it as “Habitant French-Canadian Pea Soup” in English, not as “soup aux pols,” and it’s produced in Toronto, Ontario, not Québec.

    The reason that Gately stops at B & C is to buy some of the “newcomer” store’s “omelette stuff,” because it will be taken as “a subtle nonverbal stab at unique dietary requests in general,” particularly those of “Cambridge Green Party granola crunchers” [478] a phrase which turns up elsewhere in the novel as “Ludditic granola-crunching freaks.” The page reference is lost in my notes. “Frog” appears somewhere in the book, but more often “Nuck.”

    I’m not sure I agree that it’s always the character speaking. As James Wood observes in “How Fiction Works,” David Foster Wallace “writes from within his characters’ voices and simultaneously over them, obliterating them in order to explore larger, if more abstract, questions of language.”

    B & C also supplies E.T.A. with gluten-free (also called low-gluten) wheat bread, which is bicycled in from Cambridge (presumably because “Luddites” who don’t eat eggs also don’t use cars). As satire it’s funny because “low-gluten wheat bread” sounds like something for fussy eaters, but in reality there’s nothing unhealthy about gluten (it contains all the protein) unless you’re a diabetic or suffering from certain allergies or specific ailments.

    The “rice-bran craze” described in note 110 (p.1006) and subnote d (p.1021) of Avril’s letter to Filbert (Orin), is another example of fussy-sounding dietary preference, however, the bran and germ are the parts of the rice that are removed to make it aesthetically pleasingly “white” (as white as Mount Fuji’s snowcapped peaks and the Emperor’s ermine stole) but they’re the parts of the rice containing all the fiber, B vitamins, and minerals. So rice-bran becomes a “superfood” while white rice has to be artificially “enriched” to have any nutritional value at all.

  6. steven August 20, 2009 / 12:34 am


    Thanks a lot for pointing out the “Look Inside!” feature for this book. It makes things a whole lot easier. I searched on variation of the word and found these:

    “Gately can see they have similar froggy lippy pale foreign faces.” [609]

    “is to be in some basic interior way forever infantile, some sort of not-quite-right-looking infant dragging itself anaclitically around the map, with big wet eyes and froggy-soft skin, huge skull, gooey drool.” [695]

    “a suicidal Nuck cult of Nucks” [560]

    PS It’s interesting that James Wood, in “How Fiction Works,” explains the significance of Robert McCloskey’s “Make Way for Ducklings” (as among the purest examples of irony and what he terms “free indirect style”), the very same novel that DFW refers to in his piece about the Boston Public Garden. It might be worthy exploring the connection between the two.

  7. Matthew Morse August 20, 2009 / 11:41 pm

    As a Cambridge resident, I have a strong personal association with the Prospect St. Bread & Circus (the geography of 2009 Cambridge is somewhat different than the geography of YDAU Cambridge. Bread & Circus is in fact on Prospect St. between Central and Inman Squares). The description in the book is accurate to the store, and I can’t think of any other groceries in the Boston area that fit that description. (Not counting the fact that it has since changed its name to Whole Foods and there are now several other Whole Foods locations that Gately could choose from.) So although I connected the store name to the Roman phrase when I first moved to the area and encountered the store, I did not connect the phrase to the book when the store showed up in the book. The additional layers of meaning are worth exploring, even if it is a happy coincidence.

    Also, I think Steven was saying that the Bread & Circus chain was local to Boston, but that “socially hyperresponsible overpriced grocer[ies] full of Cambridge Green Party granola-crunchers, and everything’s like microbiotic and fertilized only with organic genuine llama-shit, etc.” are everywhere, under different names.

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