Vampiric Words

Ruth Bernard Yeazell

  • The Hunger Artists: Starving, Writing and Imprisonment by Maud Ellmann
    Virago, 136 pp, £7.99, September 1993, ISBN 1 85381 675 2

When Jane Fonda told an interviewer for Family Circle some months ago that she was heavier than she had previously been but also ‘more comfortable’ with her body, Associated Press duly relayed the news to the world. ‘I don’t weigh myself anymore,’ the 57-year-old Fonda announced, explaining that after two decades of ‘going for the burn’ when she exercised and of binging and purging when she ate, she had decided that there was something unhealthily obsessive about her relation to her flesh. Social critics troubled by the fact that the last twenty years have also seen a dramatic rise in reported cases of anorexia and bulimia, especially among young women in the US, may wish to believe that the ever-canny actress and entrepreneur will once more set a trend. But a cautionary note is in order. As Susan Bordo suggests in Unbearable Weight, her recent study of our collective fixation on thinness – discussed here by Carol Gilligan (LRB, 10 March) – this would not be the first time in current memory that popular magazines heralded a turn toward a ‘softer’ or rounder look for women, only to continue advertising the same taut and rigorously pared-down bodies in their pages. In fact, as Bordo shows, the ideal female form has actually been growing thinner over the last few decades: not only is the model in a 1990 Maidenform advertisement considerably slimmer than her counterpart of 1960, but the same body type who dreamed she took the bull by the horns in her Maidenform bra thirty years ago has now been relegated to the special category of the ‘full figure’. Asked whether they would rather gain 150 lbs or be run over by a truck, 54.3 per cent of young women in a recent Esquire poll chose to be flattened by the truck. No doubt the fact that such questions are asked reveals as much about our culture as the pseudo-science of the results. Still, Esquire’s young women obviously have something in common with the respondents to a previous survey cited by Bordo, over a third of whom replied to the question of what they feared most in the world: ‘Getting fat.’

Maud Ellmann’s The Hunger Artists had already appeared when Jane Fonda announced her latest incarnation, but if one were to extend the associative logic by which Ellmann interprets the actress’s earlier metamorphoses, Fonda’s liberation from the scales would be seen as an uncanny anticipation of Clinton’s subsequent lifting of the trade embargo against Vietnam and a confirmation that the US had finally put the trauma of the war behind it. In the opening pages of her book, Ellmann describes how she returned to the country in 1978 after an absence of nearly a decade, to find that the anti-war protesters of the Sixties had become ‘the health fanatics’ of the Seventies. ‘In a sense the war had come home, for now it was our bodies that were under siege, rather than those of the Vietnamese; and only the most unremitting vigilance could save us from the chemicals bombarding us from every supermarket shelf.’ Fonda’s career offered an exemplary instance of this transformation, and in the obsessive physical activities of the former activist Ellmann finds all the signs of a neurotic compulsion to repeat:

For the rhetoric of fitness resonates with disconcerting echoes of the war in Vietnam and suggests that the forbidden pleasures of American imperialism have resurfaced in the very discourse of their exorcism. For instance, the diet that Fonda recommends, ‘high-fibre, complex-carbohydrate, low-animal-protein, low fat’, corresponds to that of the pre-war Vietnamese peasant; as if we could atone for the defoliation of that country by stuffing our own bodies full of leaves. Similarly, the emphasis on ‘fibre’ suggests that the failing moral fibre of America might be rescued by heroic mastication of the indigestible integuments of vegetables ... Fonda’s injunction to ‘go for the burn’ serves at once to expiate and to relive the napalm raids on Vietnam; and it hints that the sacrificial rites of exercise are not so much a way of fending off the end of the world as of enjoying the apocalypse now. The fire this time, however, takes the form of an internal conflagration, for ‘the burn’ is a privatised apocalypse, as cheap and easy as fast food, or, more precisely, as a fast fast. In general, the rhetoric of self-improvement in America conceals an underlying drive to self-destruction, just as its narcissism masks a deeper nihilism.

Like the book as a whole, this is quick, witty and largely unpersuasive. Indeed, there is such high-spirited satire in Ellmann’s portrait of the Sixties generation that a reader may wonder how seriously she intends the claim that fibre diets compensated for defoliation, for example, or that ‘going for the burn’ represented an unconscious impulse to mimic the apocalyptic destruction of napalm. Yet even when she approaches her subject more solemnly, Ellmann does not seem especially concerned to persuade the reader of anything – apart, that is, from her own lively way with a metaphor. In her coy phrase, The Hunger Artists represents ‘a relatively svelte addition’ to the genre of contemporary studies of anorexia, previous instances of which, she implies, have weighed in rather heavily. There is no question that Ellmann’s book is elegantly thin, and that her pointed sentences can sometimes be impressively sharp. But if Caroline Bynum’s Holy Feast and Holy Fast (1987) ‘owes its very splendour to its intellectual voracity’, and Joan Brumberg’s Fasting Girls (1988) is yet ‘more engorged with references, as if it were compelled to lick the data clean’, The Hunger Artists comes dangerously close to starving for evidence altogether. Taking ‘disembodiment’ as her theme seems to have licensed in the author a certain airy disregard for anything that would too closely resemble substance in the argument.

For human beings, at least, the act of refusing food potentially carries as many contradictory meanings as the act of consuming it. So polysemous is hunger, Ellmann suggests at one point, that a particular act of self-starvation can only be understood within the context of the culture that produced it. Despite this sensible premise, The Hunger Artists offers little in the way of sustained cultural analysis, preferring to construct its ‘phenomenology’ of self-starvation by freely jumping the boundaries of nation, religion, historical period and gender – not to mention the ontological divide between fictional hunger artists and real ones. As her immediate association of Fonda’s exercise routines with apocalypse by napalm might suggest, Ellmann thinks of anorexia less as a cultural phenomenon than a metaphysical one. A psychiatrist’s report of a patient’s nightmare characteristically prompts her to speculate that ‘there is something more eschatological at stake in self-starvation than the fashionable taste for slenderness or the equally fashionable ideology of “self-control”’ – rationalisations, Ellmann believes, which ‘explain away the strangeness of this discipline of disengendering. To discover what it means to live starvation, to undergo the ineluctable invasion of the void, it is necessary to explore the realm of fantasy.’

Since Ellmann wishes ‘not to find the cause of self-starvation but to follow the adventures of its metaphors’, she finds literature a more valuable resource than statistics or even case histories. Though she draws briefly on the testimony of British suffragettes, American anorexics and Irish hunger strikers, among other starving persons, she is just as likely to cite Wuthering Heights, Kafka’s ‘The Hunger Artist’ or J.M. Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K. But more is at issue in this literary approach to anorexia than the figurative concentration of poetic language or even than the apocalyptic imagination of certain writers. For words and food, in Ellmann’s account, are profoundly related, and the will to write mysteriously opposes yet imitates the will to starve. Wittily dismissing castration as ‘too small a sacrifice, too mild a violence, to account for the initiation of the body into language’, she proposes to replace a Lacanian poetics of lack by ‘a more encompassing poetics of starvation’. The ‘vampiric relationship of words to flesh typifies the literature of self-starvation,’ she announces in her opening chapter: ‘The thinner the body, the fatter the book.’ Yet she also insists on a ‘darker logic’, according to which ‘writing voids the mind of words just as starving voids the body of its flesh, and both express the yearning for an unimaginable destitution. We do not starve to write,’ Ellmann declares, ‘but write to starve: and we starve in order to affirm the supremacy of lack, and to extend the ravenous dominion of the night.’

All eating is force-feeding,’ Ellmann discloses at another point. At such moments The Hunger Artists evidently aspires to be the gothic thriller of poetics, inspiring conviction by the very extravagance and counter-intuitive force of its insights. A measure of scepticism is, however, advisable. Does writing really ‘void’ the mind of words, ‘just as starving voids the body of its flesh’? Obviously, this is not a problem to be resolved by biological research but a question addressed to the imagination of writers, many of whom, one might have thought, would have testified instead to the sensation that writing breeds more writing, replenishing rather than draining the mind’s verbal stores. Ellmann herself offers in evidence only the four opening lines from one of Keats’s poems to Fanny Brawne:

Physician Nature! let my spirit blood!
O ease my heart of verse and let me rest;
Throw me upon thy tripod till the flood
Of stifling numbers ebbs from my full breast.

Though the lines do convey the speaker’s yearning to be eased of the pressure of words, a single apostrophe to Nature as a mental leech hardly suffices as a phenomenology of writing.

As for the arresting identification of eating and force-feeding, it is the climax to a brief discussion of Djuna Barnes and another woman, who deliberately permitted themselves to be imprisoned and force-fed in order to identify with the experience of the suffragettes. Ellmann writes:

It is hard to silence the suspicion, unwelcome as it is, that these women are obeying an unconscious wish to be force-fed and to experience the shattering of subjectivity that it entails. Indeed, what makes these episodes particularly harrowing is that they reawaken a trauma familiar to us all. Our first experience of eating is force-feeding: as infants, we were fed by others and ravished by the food they thrust into our jaws. We eat, therefore, in order to avenge ourselves against this rape inflicted at the very dawn of life. The compulsive eater, who feels attacked by food, understands the truth of eating better than the gourmand, who thinks that he is eating by his own volition, or the ascetic, who thinks he can resist the imperative of food. All eating is force-feeding: and it is through the wound of feeding that the other is instated at the very centre of the self.

While there are doubtless babies whose first experience of eating is of a bottle harshly thrust into their mouths – and adults who respond to food as to a hostile invasion – it is hard to reconcile this vision of feeding as universal rape with that of a baby reaching for its mother’s breast, let alone with the initial instinct to suck. That hunger dramatically underlines our dependence on bodies and substances outside ourselves, mocking our fantasies of self-sufficiency, is a genuine insight. But as so often in The Hunger Artists, partial truths are swallowed up by gothic hyperbole.

Even when Ellmann writes about celebrated works of fiction, she can’t resist substituting her own inventions for those of the novelists. Of Wuthering Heights she observes, ‘the themes of hunger and imprisonment are so closely interwoven that they virtually become synonymous with one another. Whenever Heathcliff is incarcerated, Catherine starves; the two motifs converge in Catherine’s eerie cry, “Ellen, shut the window. I’m starving!”’ A footnote helpfully informs us that the ‘starving’ in this context primarily means ‘freezing’. But when is Heathcliff ‘incarcerated’? Far from being locked up when Catherine utters the cry in question, he has just fled the neighbourhood altogether. Unless we are meant to imagine that the mysterious interval of his disappearance included a stint in prison, the only episode that remotely resembles Ellmann’s fantasy is an early scene in which Hindley punishes his foster-brother by shutting him upstairs, while Catherine weeps over her dinner below. Of course one might argue that both lovers yearn to break free of what Catherine at another point calls ‘this shattered prison’ of the body, but that is another proposition altogether.

Similar questions arise in the treatment of Richardson’s Clarissa, the protracted dying of whose heroine prompts an extended comparison with the grim rituals practised in the Irish hunger strike of 1981. Disarmingly acknowledging some obvious incongruities of this conjunction – between fiction and history, women and men, domestic suffering and public action – Ellmann nonetheless offers it as the central exhibit in her account of the affiliations among starving, writing and imprisonment. Like Clarissa, the prisoners in Long Kesh hoped their wasting away would serve as an edifying spectacle, and like her, they achieved their end principally by recording the event in writing. While Richardson’s heroine is deservedly famous for the sheer scale on which she managed to carry out her correspondence, the Irish hunger strikers were reduced to smuggling out their abbreviated communications (or ‘comms’) by secreting them in the orifices of the body. In their case, as Ellmann excitedly reports, ‘letters actually take the place of food, because they occupy the thresholds of digestion – mouth, foreskin, anus – where love has pitched his mansion too, as Yeats might say.’ Though the comparison with Richardson’s novel depends on the assumption that its heroine too stages a kind of hunger strike, the exact cause of Clarissa’s death is a nice question. The Hunger Artists takes for granted that she dies of anorexia, but more than anachronism troubles this diagnosis. Ellmann recalls that ‘she systematically refuses food, and Richardson enumerates each of her uneaten meals with his habitual exhaustiveness’; but while Pamela, as Margaret Anne Doody has shown, dwells with loving concreteness on the satisfactions of the appetite, Clarissa carefully avoids such specificity, purposefully obscuring cause and effect where the heroine’s lack of hunger is concerned. And for good reason to linger over what she chose not to eat would risk too closely identifying her ambiguous death as a deliberate act of suicide. Instead, the Christian heroine eagerly welcomes her mysterious decline, all the while protesting that she has done nothing wilfully to hasten her fate.

Words parasitically consume flesh in Ellmann’s book, and when Clarissa reports to Anna Howe at one point that ‘this dreadful letter has unhinged my whole frame,’ the critic senses the parasites at work. If Clarissa’s ‘frame has been “unhinged” by letters,’ she reasons, ‘this implies that her flesh has been dismantled by her words.’ In fact, however, Clarissa has been ‘unhinged’ by a singular letter (not Ellmann’s slippery plural), and it is hardly her own words which have distressed her: she is alluding to the ‘dreadful’ letter from her sister reporting their father’s curse on his runaway daughter. According to The Hunger Artists, the notorious length of Richardson’s novel is itself a prime example of the vampiric relation between fattening books and starving writers: in Clarissa, as at Long Kesh, Ellmann suggests, ‘the bodies of the starvers dwindle as their texts expand, as if they were devoured by their prose.’ Unfortunately for the vampiric word, however, Clarissa actually writes more when she is in a blooming state of health, her role as correspondent diminishing together with her body in the latter volumes of the novel. But there is no need to worry the relation too closely, since The Hunger Artists simply reverses its terms elsewhere: in Sylvia Pankhurst’s poems, we are told, ‘as in the Irish Hunger Strikers’ comms, the sparsity of words reflects the deprivations of the body.’ According to this rule, Emily Dickinson’s poetry also demonstrates the association of hunger and verbal economy.

As Ellmann recalls Richardson’s novel, ‘the narrative revolves around the misadventures of the post,’ by which she seems to imagine an impersonal bureaucracy whose malfunctioning is all too familiar to readers of Kafka or Derrida. ‘Richardson presents a world in which all subjects are enmeshed in networks of exchange that exceed their consciousness and agency,’ she writes. ‘What controls the actors’ fates is the circulation of the post, as opposed to any merely human power. And just as letters go astray, so the characters’ intentions go awry, distorting the consequences of their words and deeds.’ The post in Richardson’s day may well have been very chancy, but Clarissa seldom uses it. Virtually all her letters are carried by private messenger (she only resorts to the post when a messenger is unavailable); and Richardson makes very clear that whatever mishaps such letters undergo can be traced to the machinations of a single human agent. That agent prided himself on being ‘regardless ... in all I write ... of connexion, accuracy, or of anything but my own imperial will and pleasure’, but even Lovelace might have been pulled up short by another of Ellmann’s casual analogies, this one à propos of the prisoners at Long Kesh. ‘Of course, writing and bombing have a good deal in common,’ she remarks airily, ‘in that both imply the absence of their authors and both depend upon deferred effects: the two converge in the concept of the letter bomb.’ Caveat lector.