Storyglossia Issue 34, July 2009.

Anorexia Nervosa In Literature And Art

by Anna Sidak


Why is it when one sees a Duchess in a diet commercial she's always a Before Duchess, never an After? Do I imagine this? I stepped aside from the wedding rehearsal and sidled past a decorator person absorbed in winding garlands from here to there.



These names together mean something, should mean something: Bartleby, Twiggy Lawson, Modigliani, Maasai, Akaky Akakievich Shoenik, Isak Dineson, "The Hunger Artist," Karen Carpenter, Audrey Hepburn, Bobby Sands, The Thin White Duke, Mahatma Gandhi, The Virgin Suicides, "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze." None totally involuntary participants; pride involved and, occasionally, certain substances.

Here, at the start of the 21st century, all too corporeal in the western hemisphere and with something terrifying in the offing, the desirable human form—although we turn away from depictions of starving babies—remains that of the slender aesthete lacking in passion, lust, appetite, and thought to reflect the pursuit of a spiritual goal. I forgot to mention Native American Vision Quests, perhaps there is something to the spiritual-goal idea.

Twiggy Lawson, a popular London model of the mid 1960s, hated this look of herself for herself, although no one knows what she saw. Those suffering from anorexia nervosa typically see themselves as overweight and revel in challenging the means by which we live; in flinging aside the imperative of life while euphoric from retiring without dinner. In this state, they are in control and, not only that but perfect; that is to say, not fat. Often young and often female, traces of this anomaly, this denial of human cravings, may be found in certain saints and other religious figures.



In an instant, I was outside in the middle of a flower garden, choosing gazanias for a bridesmaid bouquet. Perhaps they were primroses; in any event, for the bouquet I was scripted to catch later on. Wardrobe suggested the bride could toss her gloves and let Special Effects take over, but I'd no desire to do an outfield stretch for a pair of used white gloves. Here among the flowers, in my sleeveless lime shift, I may have looked more like a praying mantis than a bridesmaid. We were all thin, everyone there to rehearse—a pun if you drop the prefix—a rehearsal for death, the bride in chaste hooded satin with a long, long train. No one stood without support, sometimes hidden by our gowns, sometimes not.

The groom not yet in evidence; I understood he'd wear black tie, white shirt and would arrive by ambulance on a gurney wound with ribbon for the final shot. The gurney would dump him next to the bride like a load of sand, his back to the wall.



Nevertheless, one of the first personalities of this nature to receive full-blown treatment in literature was a man, a man old enough to be out and about and on his own: Herman Melville's 1853 "Bartleby, the Scrivener," of whose "cadaverously gentlemanly nonchalance . . . lean reclining form . . . so thin and pallid . . . haughtiness . . . austere reserve," Melville (b. 1819 - d. 1891) spoke in wonder, for Bartleby "preferred not to" until it cost him life. His exit line: "I prefer not to dine today," said Bartleby, turning away. "It would disagree with me; I am unused to dinners."



Who hasn't observed a child refuse his dinner, push the plate aside, upset the water glass with a spoon and exhibit total lack of interest in food as other than something to be dumped onto the tray of his high-chair or thrown against the wall. I myself never touch breakfast, appreciate a small lunch, and only revel in dinner if beguiled by conversation.

Later, I expect to attend the reception to be held in tents on the grounds of the estate owned by the bride's parents. The bride's parents allow peacocks free range, chain their dogs. Had I been polite to the bride when we were at school together, I'd be the one in violet silk. The other three are to wear green, purple, orange. We represent the four winds: foul play, malfeasance, fornication, death.

The director, less than gentle, moved us around to obtain an effect. Should he touch me again, I shall scream.



Nikolai Gogol (b. 1809 - d. 1852), it is true, had earlier written of this sort of attitude in "The Overcoat" (pub. 1835), but it is generally agreed his point would have been the powerlessness of the individual in czarist Russia, rather than hunger, hunger always a given in one of Akaky Akakievich Shoenik's status. The story, therefore, revolves around the sensitivity to slight of this gentleman as his right to an overcoat becomes an ironclad belief, this belief enduring through death and, preposterous as it may sound, beyond. Nevertheless, while reading "The Overcoat" one may hear the single-minded footfalls of Akaky Akakievich as he runs through the streets; or see him dash down an alley, a fine new coat flowing out behind, followed by some shouting petty bureaucrat in shirt sleeves.

The literary example after "Bartleby, the Scrivener" and "The Overcoat," and also male, is "The Hunger Artist," published in 1922 by Franz Kafka (b. 1883 - d. 1924).

Kafka's nameless Hunger Artist was never allowed to fast for more than forty days, the limit of public interest. By then, he felt he had the hang of it and always wished to continue. Yet invariably, when a crowd had gathered, his extreme condition only hours short of death was proclaimed to be the result of the fast. He, however, maintained it was the fast's premature end causing his legs to buckle, faintness, nausea. Soon enough, interest in hunger artists disappeared and he was allowed to disappear into the straw of his cage—fasting to his heart's content—while declaring he had only fasted, "Because I couldn't find the food I liked. If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else."



You may wish to ask how do I know these things? One answer would be the wireless internet chip behind my left eye, through which I gain access to what is displayed. No. Seriously, I read. I am gaining an education. My recent sojourn, however—righteous, but a mistake—in the land of the super-attenuated "deprived brain of crucial ingredients," in very small print.

And, believe me, I too should find the pleasures of the table irresistible were I ever to feel the pangs of hunger.

The ambulance pulled up in front of the church and the groom slid out, too pale by half. He slipped his feet into black patent pumps and attempted to stand. The attendants pushed him down upon the gurney. A change in plan: the director seized the groom, dragged him off the gurney, and walked him into the church. Someone helped me to my feet, I followed, and found my mark. "Cut," the director shouted as the groom slid to the floor. "We'll pick this scene up next week." He was angry and no one knew why.



There are representations of apparently this type of sensitive individual in the visual arts. They overwhelm contemporary-fashion illustration as in the sketches of London's Diane Daniels, New-Yorker Renee, and Fern Rose Mitchell of Los Angeles. These artists do not draw figures seven-and-one-half heads tall as once correct, but rather eight to nine heads tall. The effect is elegant, "if you don't mind that length of bone," as Ernest Hemingway (b. 1899 - d. 1961) remarked of the protagonist of "The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber."

The work of Domenikos Theotocopoulos (b. 1541 - d. 1614), informally known as El Greco, is at first glance an earlier example of this sort of distortion. A second look reveals merely a distortion of the relationship of the head to the shoulders, in other words the heads of his figures are too small to belong to real people. "The Knight with His Hand on His Breast" is a good example of this shoulder-to-head incongruity; and curiously, appears to wear dark nail polish. In addition, when limbs are apparent in El Greco's paintings, they are the far-flung and not particularly slender appendages of wide-bodied and broad-shouldered figures and appear to be assembled of mismatched parts; that is to say, the location of a knee as near an ankle as Spain to Portugal while the head of the figure resides in the Balkans.

Amedeo Modigliani (b. 1884 - d. 1920), a near contemporary of Kafka, painted figures bearing a momentary resemblance to the ideal attainment. Viewed at length and dispassionately, they are found to be composed not so much of skin and bone but of volume; typically an egg-like head sits upon a stovepipe neck and so on: a concept from the studio of Constantin Brancusi (b. 1876 - d. 1956) with whom Modigliani had studied until sculpture became too demanding for his frail health.



The reception was well under way by the time I arrived; cameras in place, sound booms overhead; helicopters in the blue, blue sky. The bride and groom lifted the cake knife together. Somehow it missed the cake and inflicted damage upon the bride. Since I'd been her stand-in for a number of other scenes, the director put me in the shot after wardrobe and makeup worked their magic. The following week I filled in again back in the church where the groom and I got married. You know him, I'm sure you do, rather quiet, used to work-out; now lounges all the time, may be ill. He gave me a ring, of course, but this week it's too large.

The marriage all a charade, for I'm madly in love with Prince Robert Philippe Louis Eugene Ferdinand d'Orleans, the impossibly beautiful Comte de Chartres (b. 1842 - d. 1863), who served on General McClellan's staff. Have been informed this is an unhealthy attachment bordering on the morbid. Nevertheless will never remove bookmark from Civil War Favorite Place where first encountered my dear Comte in his tall boots, slender belted tunic with mandarin collar, hatless, and wearing a mild expression. He grasps the hilt of a saber the point of which rests upon the ground.



"The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze" by William Saroyan (b. 1908 - d. 1981) seems at first glance to reveal only a story of involuntary starvation due to lack of funds. No, wait, there is something else and it fits the typical high-mindedness, or stubbornness, of the type under scrutiny (curiously, the protagonist is a writer whereas his predecessors, Shoenik and Bartlesby, were mere copiers): "He might even visit the Salvation Army—sing to God and Jesus (unlover of my soul), be saved, eat and sleep. But he knew that he would not. His life was a private life." And soon, as for all practitioners of this ancient art, "The earth circled away, and knowing that he did so, he turned his lost face to the empty sky and became dreamless, unalive, perfect."



I continue, between assignments, to access the World Wide Web in hopes of more information on the emergence of the particular life-form I may exemplify.



Maasai brought up the latest "Watusi Tribe" CD and the herds which are the wealth of this African people. These herds are composed of medium-size bovines which sport a set of immense up-turned horns like an unstrung bow. The natives described by the Austrian explorer Oscar Baumann in his 1894 Through the lands of the Maasai to the source of the Nile: "There were women wasted to skeletons from whose eyes the madness of starvation glared . . . warriors scarcely able to crawl on all fours, and apathetic, languishing elders. Swarms of vultures followed them from high, awaiting their certain victims."



I am a vegetarian.

Copyright©2009 Anna Sidak

Anna Sidak's work has appeared in Linnaean Street, Paumanok Review, Pindeldyboz, Pig Iron Malt, Gator Springs Gazette, Ink Pot, Eclectica, and other journals.

Interview with Anna Sidak