The Gothic Female And The Wicked Anorexia Nervosa

The Gothic Female And The Wicked Anorexia Nervosa
Copyright © Photograph by Andrei Oprinca

Jack Morgan’s ‘The Biology of Horror’ (2002) argues that “the horror literature tradition is an aspect of our mental life in which our physiological constitution is most notably implicit, that horror is essentially bio-horror.” Moreover, Gothic implies the body in both its horror and its terror. Jack Morgan goes on to posit that “in the gothic, the nexus of the supernatural and the natural is corporeality.” The themes that the Gothic is concerned with, the representations of horrific scenes of imprisonment and death, of characters, literally ripped apart, and the atmosphere of claustrophobia and terror that is constructed by this literature, reconnect the reader with his or her natural mortality and vulnerability.

The Gothic evokes feelings that overwhelm the reader, overwhelm thought; this is how it achieves the sublime aesthetic that Edmund Burke discusses in his ‘Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful’ (1757), a text which was very influential to the early Gothic aesthetic. Ann Radcliffe, in her posthumously published essay ‘On the Supernatural in Poetry’ (1826), distinguishes between horror and terror by aligning terror with the sublime. She suggests that terror is “indistinct or obscure,” while horror is “distinctly pictured forth.” Ann Radcliffe continues: “Terror and horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes, and nearly annihilates them.” Horror, then, is an explicit confrontation with death, perhaps similar to the effects of “danger or pain press[ing] too nearly.” Horror produces a physical reaction as it “contracts” the flesh, while terror is also physical as it intensifies sensation and “awakens the faculties.” Edmund Burke discusses the ways in which “Our minds and bodies are so closely and intimately connected, that one is incapable of pain or pleasure without the other,” but “the bodily organs suffer first, and the mind through these organs.” The body and mind must combine for us to understand and thus to experience pain or pleasure; the sense is felt in the body and then relayed to the mind1. Thus, although the sublime is considered to be a moment of spiritual transcendence, mental expansion and release, it is still fixed within bodily sensations which create this psychological experience.

Jack Morgan suggests that the “everyday physical life” and the fears of pain, death and disease create “another kind of reality” which horror represents. This horror centres upon what might happen to the body and the ways in which the mind that inhabits this body reacts. Gothic literature, however, with its attraction towards the supernatural, may appear to salve or compensate for the dissipation and destruction of the body by gesturing toward an existence after or beyond the physical. Spectres, haunting, demons and immortality, all convey the notion of life beyond the physical and material, yet, the Gothic debunks these fantasies. In ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ (1794) Ann Radcliffe’s supernatural coalesces in the figure behind the black veil, which is actually a memento mori, an image to remind the viewer of their physical mortality. Charles John Huffam Dickens’ ‘Miss Havisham from Great Expectations’ (1860-1) haunts Pip and her half-brother Arthur, her ghost even seems to cause Arthur’s death, yet it is the image of her ruined body which returns. The ghost is not “real,” but the rehearsal of her image, an image which resonates in her physical manifestation of death-in-life. Matthew Lewis’ ‘Ambrosio from The Monk’ (1796) confronts Satan, but rather than suggesting life after death, this text ends with the image of prolonged physical torture; death is not the release of the body but the inability to escape eternal physical pain. The Gothic is a body-centred mode and, as Deborah Lupton in ‘Food, the Body and the Self’ (1996), a socio-cultural examination of food practices, writes: “Food and eating are central to our […] experience of embodiment.” In this project, the ways in which appetites control and transform the body will be engaged with through its two extremes: starvation and cannibalism. How the female body becomes a subject within this mode and how the male body is objectified are central issues. In the Gothic texts engaged with here, subjection and objectification are expressed through taste, hunger, food and its denial.

The Gothic draws attention to the ways in which ideology and culture are consumed. This literary form is figured as an edible object, and its themes concern the permeability of the flesh, miscegenation through ingestion and the horrific and erotic possibilities of the oral. Steven Bruhm in ‘Gothic Bodies: the Politics of Pain in Romantic Fiction’ (1994) discusses how the Gothic creates the “immediacy of the body2” through the spectacle of physical pain. Eighteenth-century Gothic texts are particularly interesting in relation to how they represent the fear of and fascination with the flesh. Roy Sydney Porter explains that “the period [eighteenth-century] brought such an earnest raising of the thresholds of embarrassment and shame, so as to hide, deodorize, cleanse, purge, exclude and expel those multitudinous aspects of the flesh and of bodily functions experienced as psychosocially threatening, disgusting and dangerous.”

What is repressed, and denied, what is excluded, expelled and cleansed returns in the sub-terrain of the Gothic, where the “threatening, disgusting and dangerous” belong. The Gothic is the perfect breeding ground for the glutton because, as William Miller notes, “Gluttony requires some immersion in the dank and sour realm of disgust.3” Male characters embody this self-destructive excess of appetite, and it devours them, as it will be shown in further articles, while the female character is starved as an expression of the fear of female appetite, discussed in here. The “multitudinous aspects” of the flesh are vividly displayed as its appetites expose, illuminate, and foreground materiality. Gothic as a genre deals with what is felt rather than thought, with feelings as opposed to reason, and this emphasis on sensation and physicality “haunted” the ideology of the Enlightenment with its characteristic focus on rationality4.

The Gothic body, Steven Bruhm asserts, marks a “return of the body’s repressed fragility and vulnerability” and does so through its “excessive display.” Moreover, starvation gothicises the body as it exposes the body’s interior, its bones, veins and premature decay. Lack of food thus magnifies the fragility and vulnerability of the body and, rather than causing the body to recede; it intensifies its physicality and impact as a spectacle. The starved woman in the eighteenth-century (in sensibility and early Gothic) speaks through her body and manifests her loss and disempowerment through her emaciation. This action is counteractive for the nineteenth-century heroine who desires to suppress her body while the Gothic returns its force and represents the impossibility of mastering the physical. This exemplifies another aspect of Bruhm’s Gothic body: it forces recognition of our “inescapable corporeality.” In ‘The Gothic Body: Sexuality, Materialism and Degeneration at the Fin de Siècle’ (1996) Kelly Hurley discusses the abhuman, the body “metamorphic and undifferentiated”; a materiality of the body specific, she argues, to the nineteenth-century fin de siècle. In this conception of the Gothic body, matter dominates form. It is possible to see how in narratives of cannibalism, the reduction of the body into food privileges flesh over self. The body is described regarding the matter that makes it: bones, skin, and meat. This creates an uncanny detachment from the body but also what Kelly Hurley terms the “vertiginous pleasures of differentiation.”

This pleasure may come from a curiosity to examine the flesh that is both ours and Other. Both of these definitions of the Gothic body inform this study; however, neither of these texts focuses specifically on how appetite transforms the body or how the discussion of appetite creates a confrontation with “the prospect of an existence circumscribed within the realities of gross corporeality.” Kelly Hurley does touch upon cannibalism in relation to the Thing-ness of the body eaten and the dehumanisation of the eaters of bodies. She also discusses the importance of the fear of degeneration in a post-Darwin world. The focus of this study is, however, the importance of female appetite in relation to bestiality and degeneration, precisely the ways in which the Gothic text literalizes these fears in the representation of female cannibalism, whereas Hurley focuses upon sexual degeneration and degeneration in a more general sense.

Edmund Burke describes this relation when he explains the sensation of falling when going to sleep; he states that “the parts [of the body] relax too suddenly, which is the nature of falling; and this accident of the body induces this image in the mind” (1757, p. 176). Ideas are felt in the body and then cause the mind to interpret these sensations. Such sensations as the sudden relaxation of muscles are interpreted as falling, and when the physical senses feel overwhelmed, as Edmund Burke discusses by loud noises, vast visual scenes and strong flavours, the mind interprets this as a mixture of pleasure and pain, of a feeling of immediate danger and of instant liberation: the sublime. Edmund Burke states that sources of the sublime are fostered in ideas that excite “pain, and danger” and these are “the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling” (ibid., p. 86); the mind is given physical sensation; it feels rather than thinks in the sublime moment. The body in pain is the primary source of the sublime in Gothic texts.
This invocation of the body links Gothic literature with “low” culture, as does the Gothic’s preoccupation with food. Jocelyn Kolb in ‘The Ambiguity of Taste: Freedom and Food in European Romanticism’ (1995) discriminate between “high” and “low” texts by their representation of food. She explains that only “low” forms mention food realistically, that “high” forms represent food abstractly or artificially (see Timothy Morton’s discussion of jocelyn Kolb in ‘Cultures of Taste/Theories of Appetite,’ pp. 262-3). This artificiality distances consumption from the body and denotes a closed, sterile presence, rather than the open, permeable materiality of the Gothic body.
The glutton and the cannibal are aligned, and this will also be discussed. There are many female villains, but their relationship with food is generally one of abstinence (see Madame Montoni from Ann Radcliffe’s ‘The Mysteries of Udolpho’ (1794), for example, where her sexual gluttony is punished by starvation, or the Prioress from Matthew Lewis’ ‘The Monk: A Romance,’ who punished Agnes by starving her). Of course, there are exceptions, and perhaps W. H. Ireland’s eponymous character from ‘The Abbess’ (1799) could be seen as gluttonous, especially in her indulgence of wine. The iconography of the devouring male mouth signifies something very different from the eroticised female mouth, and again this is specific to my discussion.
This emphasis on feeling and sensation rather than reason and thought challenges the prevailing philosophy of the eighteenth-century. Kant observes (paraphrased by Ernest Gelner in ‘Nationalism’), that “feelings could not be commanded, they could not be part of our worth and our identity”; thus, a literature, which promotes such rebellious sensation, could only be counterproductive to the current ideology. However, by conveying this dangerous freedom, this fearful lack of boundaries and certainty, the Gothic acts conservatively; the desire, which started as the want to escape from reality, becomes a desire to escape the horrors of fiction and return to reality and the sanctions that dictate reason and moderation.
Sarah Genner
Sarah Genner

Edited and proofread by Sarah Genner, a British Dark Artist who creates obscure home decor and design for fans of horror and skulls.

The Gothic Female And The Wicked Anorexia Nervosa

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