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The Fleshy Side of the Mind

Small Acts of Disappearance by Fiona Wright Cover
Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger
by Fiona Wright
Giramondo
224pp
$24.99 AU
Published September, 2015
ISBN 9781922146939

Hunger and writing have a long and intimate connection. From Emily Dickinson who ‘had been hungry all the years’ to Kafka, whose account of a professional fasting artist in ‘A Hunger Artist’ has often been read as a metaphor for his own relationship to both writing and food, literary history abounds in writers who fast, and those who imagine their writing as a kind of starving. Feminist critics Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar have argued that the prevalence of starving women in nineteenth-century fiction—from Catherine in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights to Lady Kit in Maria Edgworth’s Castle Rackrent—is linked to their authors’ unstable position as women in a male-dominated literary tradition. Bohemians, meanwhile, invented the starving artist, a primarily male character who embodies the renunciation thought to be at the heart of the writerly project. So pervasive is this link that Maud Ellmann has suggested it goes to the nature of writing and hunger themselves: ‘We do not starve to write, but write to starve,’ she claims, ‘and we starve to affirm the supremacy of lack, and to extend the ravenous dominion of the night.’

Small Acts of Disappearance, a collection of ‘essays on hunger’ by poet and critic Fiona Wright, is a graceful and intelligent interrogation of the intersection of hunger and writing. Taking the author’s history with anorexia as its jumping-off point, Small Acts is both an experiment in the writing of hunger and a thoughtful reflection on literature’s relationship to starvation. As the essays move restlessly between cities—Colombo, Berlin, Sydney—and between moments in the author’s life, Wright uses the lenses of literature, medicine, history, and literary criticism to probe the embodied experience of hunger and its grim attraction.

Wright’s attention to the physicality of hunger gives this collection its peculiar oscillating tension. One of the refrains of the collection’s first essay, ‘In Colombo’, is the gap between embodiment and what she calls abstraction. It is the problem posed by her relocation to this much poorer country. There, hunger moves from ‘something abstract in the wider world’ to ‘something many-faced, insistent and ever-present’. But it also expands beyond the specific experience of hunger to encompass a broader difference between Sri Lanka, where ‘the small mechanised tasks … had all been performed by quiet men in meticulous uniforms … had all been physical and bodied,’ and Australia, where such tasks ‘now were strangely abstract’. The opposition between abstraction and embodiment, understood in this first essay as a difference between East and West or rich and poor, becomes considerably knottier as the collection progresses. The book as a whole reveals itself to be a project of understanding the embodied, of weaving together abstraction and embodiment, hoping that each will illuminate the other.

This problem—how to escape the body while living within it, how to think abstraction with embodiment—is, in many ways, the problem of hunger. This is why many theorists of hunger, particularly those who approach it with an interest in its literary or cultural dimensions, argue that the logic of hunger is fundamentally ascetic: a reduction or mortification of the body that aims to transcend its limitations or do away with its worldly foibles. This is the argument made by Daniel Birnbaum and Anders Olsson in As a Weasel Sucks Eggs, who see in writers’ fascination with starvation their ‘hunger for another food’. It’s also closely related to Maud Ellmann’s claim, in The Hunger Artists, that writing and literature have an inverse relation, that the more one starves, the more compulsively one produces writing. For these theorists, hunger is a process of disembodiment, a wearing away of the body in favour of a spirit or word imagined as purer and cleaner. Wright cites both these critics in her list of sources, and the ascetic impulses that underpin starvation are omnipresent in these essays. ‘Teresa’s hunger,’ she writes of the protagonist of Christina Stead’s For Love Alone, ‘is a sacrifice of the physical to bring her close to a metaphysical ideal.’ And some pages later: ‘Hunger is, I think, always an attempt to transcend the body, to become something more.’

But ascesis is a tricky thing: ask Saint Anthony, desert father and founder of the Christian ascetic tradition, who is most widely remembered as the subject of paintings and stories depicting fleshy, outlandish revelry, ostensibly the riotous depictions of his temptations in the desert. Ascesis, as Anthony could tell you, paradoxically foregrounds the body. For all that hunger imagines itself to be an act of disembodiment, a denial of the body and its fleshly demands, its effects are quite different. In hunger, the wasting body becomes hyper-visible to others. The person who starves cannot stop thinking about it. The mind itself shows its fleshy side, physically changing under the pressure of bodily deprivation. As Wright observes, ‘The metaphysical is impossible without the physical, though hunger desperately tries to convince us otherwise.’

This double-edged quality of hunger—its reassertion of the body at just the moment that it seems to be vanishing away, and the stubborn imbrication of body and mind as part of a process that seems most paradigmatically to uphold the Cartesian dualism—is one of the major preoccupations of Small Acts of Disappearance. It also, in its attentiveness to the body, marks one of Wright’s points of distance from many other theorisations of hunger. Ellmann’s influential account of hunger, for instance, opens with a ‘warning’:

This book … is concerned with disembodiment, not bodies; with the deconstruction of the flesh; and with writing and starvation as the arts of discarnation.

Wright’s account of the nature of hunger’s affinity to writing is markedly different:

I know now that the impulse I have to starve comes from exactly the same place as my impulse to write: hunger, like writing, is a mediator. It stands between me and the world, between my self and the things that might cause it harm. Hunger is addictive, and it is intensely sensual.

Far from imagining hunger as an art of discarnation, Wright seeks to give it body, simultaneously remarking on the physicality, the sensuality of the experience, and objectifying it as something outside of herself, material enough to protect her from the world. Her notion of hunger as mediator brings to mind Katie Green’s recent graphic memoir of anorexia, Lighter than my Shadow, which conceives of the illness as a roiling black scribble that shadows the young protagonist and sometimes engulfs her, an image at once embodied and abstract, exteriorised and intangible.

Readers of Wright’s poetry might not be surprised by this attentiveness to the physical. If her essays refuse the notion of hunger as discarnation or disembodiment in favour of something more immersively physical, her poems have likewise always suggested a writer interested in writing against language’s discarnation, in seeking ways of making writing approach and hold the body. The vivid, stripped-back clarity of her first collection, Knuckled, attends obsessively to what she calls, in her poem ‘West Coast’, the ‘brutally specific’. Her poems are animated by finely observed details but also by a sharp sense of what these details feel like, against the skin and in the body. If writing is a kind of mediator for Wright, then its mediation, like that of hunger, works through the body. And yet, as she writes in Small Acts, these early poems themselves sometimes feel ‘strangely disembodied’, in the sense that ‘there was no self within them’. The physicality of this early poetry is a third-person embodiment, always happening to someone else. In this sense, the essays of Small Acts flesh out the physicality of Wright’s early poems, returning them to the first person.

In both the essays and the poems, hunger’s capacity to ‘let me stand clear and separate and intact’ is a product of the particular modes of attention that writing, like hunger, produces: attention to the physical, the sensual, the embodied. ‘In Miniature’, the fourth essay of the collection, takes up this question through a meditation on the kinds of attention and craft that smallness demands. The miniature most obviously at stake in this essay is the starving body itself, as it shrinks into conspicuousness, but here, as elsewhere, the dynamics of starving are overlaid with the processes of writing. The attention that the starving body attracts is shadowed by the attention that it produces as it focuses on the ‘accrual of small, odd things’, exhibiting the ‘detail-oriented thinking’ characteristic of starving minds. But details are also, as Wright worries, ‘the stuff and substance of my poetry, my craft’ and the horror that haunts this essay is that hunger’s relationship to her poetry might turn out to be less analogy than causality: ‘it’s hard even to contemplate that my writing, the very thing that kept me sane, might be based on nothing more than cognitive pathology’. The fact that Wright continues to write and publish poetry in recovery suggests this fear is not well-founded, and in a recent interview for the Sydney Review of Books, she has clarified that hunger and writing ‘aren’t dependent on each other, they’re just driven by the same anxieties’. But behind the anxiety-provoking suggestion of strict causality sits a more interesting claim: that her poetry, at least her poetry of the Knuckled era, is, in a formal sense, a literature of hunger. And more generally, if she is right that detail ‘makes the worlds we write specific, poignant and, in essence, poetic’, that poetry itself might be—in part or potentiality—the genre of hunger, the genre most oriented towards the kind of detailed observation that hunger fosters.

Hunger in this reading emerges as a non-narrative experience, one that accretes through detail, through the piercing individual moment. In front of the miniature, or in the experience of starving, ‘Time thickens’; in this arrested state, ‘We can’t be touched or hurt, but we also cannot love, take risks, or change or learn’. In this thickening temporality, in other words, plot becomes impossible. We inhabit the present moment in its fullness, but also in stasis. This distended time, which produces an exquisite attention to the object before us, which moves generously through space and even through and within the individual moment, is the attentive, exquisite time demanded by the lyric poem, whose brevity permits a thickness, a slowness.

And yet, when Wright turns to literature to help her analyse and understand hunger, as she does frequently throughout these essays, it is overwhelmingly narrative forms to which she turns. Poetry appears in epigraphs, in abstract terms, and implicitly through the poets who stud these pages, but the texts that Wright lingers over and delves into are novels: Christina Stead’s For Love Alone, Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet, Carmel Bird’s The Bluebird Café, John Berryman’s Recovery/Delusions. Narrative offers Wright ‘the shock of recognition’ and these novels become models through which she examines the physicality and the sociality of hunger. As she retells these stories in ‘In Books I’ and ‘II’, she interweaves her own experiences with those of the young women of the novels, shuttling back and forth between them to flesh out a composite image of the experience of hunger, supplemented in the second essay by medical accounts of starvation. Reading and re-reading narratives of hunger allows Wright to pick out the threads that hold this experience together and to flesh out an understanding of what has been happening to her. If poetry approximates the mindset of starvation, narrative, perhaps because it stands at a greater distance from this way of thinking, makes the experience itself intelligible. Indeed, from the early days of psychoanalysis onwards, the transformation of inchoate suffering into narrative has been central to many forms of psychotherapy: for many, stories are the antidote to mental illness.

‘In Group’, which follows the two ‘In Books’ essays, however, questions these tentative steps towards making starvation intelligible. This essay reads Berryman’s unfinished novel Recovery as the exploration of a mind that won’t stop narrativising itself, and that, in its endless, excessive attempt to find meaning, renders all possible narratives implausible. As Wright wonders at the beginning of this essay:

At what point does imagination tip into self-deception, at what point does narrative slip from being the best system we have for making sense of the world into sheer delusion?

The problem that Berryman and Wright confront is a problem that J. M. Coetzee has raised in an essay on confession: it is ‘the problem of ending … when the tendency of self-consciousness is to draw out confession endlessly’. Coetzee follows Dostoevsky in suggesting that the possibility of ending must come from outside: that it must come, ultimately, from grace. Berryman’s death, which interrupts the composition of Recovery, ensures that his novel offers no such redemptive solution, but instead simply what Wright describes as ‘an unintentional but radical inconclusiveness, a denial of the three-act structure that biography is often made to fit’. Because it doesn’t end, Recovery attempts but never completes the ascetic transformation of self into narrative.

Something similar could be said for Small Acts of Disappearance itself, which stubbornly resists the anorexia memoir’s impulse to narrative. Ranging widely over a decade of Wright’s life, these essays instead participate in a less narrative-driven tradition of life writing, one typified by Montaigne’s use of the essay form to conduct a searching interrogation of the self. Like Montaigne, Wright makes no attempt to transform this self-portrait into the ‘three-act structure’ of biography. Instead, what we learn of the chronology of Wright’s illness—its emergence in part as a product of a physical illness, its entanglement with her travels and her studies and her friendships, her halting and painful move toward recovery—is revealed piecemeal. Indeed, with their searching, recursive examination of the experience and implications of hunger, these essays share something of poetry’s distension of time. If there is a narrative here, it’s not so much given by the author as assembled by the reader, after the fact.

To put this another way, the essays of Small Acts of Disappearance are less a narrative of anorexia, than an account of its halting, imperfect and unachieved narrativisation. ‘In Hindsight’, the final essay in the collection and the first to address anorexia memoirs directly, brings this process out most clearly. While the title of this essay seems to promise a kind of closure through retrospectivity or even to imply that the experience of illness itself is behind her, hindsight in this essay doesn’t herald an ending so much as an incomplete process of return and revision. Thus, for example, the refrain that Wright uses throughout the collection to signal the innocence of her pre-anorexic self—‘I didn’t know what lay ahead’—returns in this final essay, stripped of its capacity to fence off a prelapsarian subjectivity: ‘I didn’t know what lay ahead, but I seem to have been already writing myself into an anorectic body’. This studied interrogation of the self-mythologisation permitted by narrative is characteristic of the essay as a whole, which seeks out the ‘elisions in the narrative’ that lurk ‘in the shadows of the story that I’ve told myself’. This self-conscious rewriting, like Berryman’s restless self-narrativisation, puts narrative itself into question, highlighting the self-serving and self-deceptive motivations that inevitably shadow the stories we tell of ourselves.

In its very self-consciousness, ‘In Hindsight’, like all the essays of Small Acts, seeks not just to narrate but also to theorise the complex experience of anorexia. Its halting construction of narrative serves as a platform for reflection and analysis both on Wright’s own experience and on the larger literary, cultural and social questions at stake. By shuttling between narrative and analysis, Wright undoes the opposition between patient and expert on which the clinic is premised, positioning the writer as the third term in this relationship, one capable of inhabiting both sides. As she acknowledges, this refusal to fully inhabit the role of patient has proven problematic for Wright in her own recovery, where her ‘double-consciousness’ and her ‘excellent meta-cognition’ function—like writing itself—as a form of mediation that allows her to exempt herself from too much risk, too much uncomfortable self-scrutiny.

This ‘double-consciousness’ also ensures that Small Acts resists neat generic categorisation. The generic distinctions that divide up writing about eating disorders tend to recapitulate the demarcation of labour in the clinic: through memoir, the patient testifies to her experiences, providing narratives that stand open to analysis; through theory and criticism, experts in turn read these apparently naïve texts so as to elicit larger meanings, broader patterns, turning anorexia memoirs into transparent objects of analysis. Wright’s essays refuse this textual hierarchy, insisting on their dual status as memoir and criticism, therapy and theory. Wright is always a step ahead of her theorist or analyst readers, pre-empting them with her own analysis and theorisations. These essays demand that their readers engage them on equal terms, without subordinating them as evidence for a larger theoretical position. They demand not analysis, but response.

Wright’s readings of other works of literature model the more responsive, egalitarian mode that her essays seem to invite, reading them not as data points or examples but as fellow-travellers and even friends. In this, Small Acts of Disappearance offers a theory of reading as a form of abstracted community, a way of connecting with others in and through their distance and their individuality: she imagines having ‘been in Group, a much smaller more interior kind of Group, with Severance and Berryman’. This readerly community has its roots in an ascetic theory of imitation and textual reproduction. Tracing the history of asceticism in the hagiographies of early Christian ascetics, Geoffrey Harpham argues that ‘ascetic discipline is a science of imitation made possible by the mimetic imitation of texts’. Asceticism, in other words, arises from the exchanges between the starving body, the writing of that body, and its imitation by readers who set out to copy the starving saint. Contemporary anorexia memoirs remain troublingly in thrall to this ascetic logic, and controversies periodically erupt over their potential to act as a ‘how-to manual,’ as one of Wright’s doctors scathingly puts it. But while Wright herself doesn’t read (or write) starvation in order to imitate it, the task of making the self narratable nonetheless allows her, like both the desert fathers and readers of contemporary anorexia memoirs, to find a community in their solitude—with the difference that her refusal of straightforward narrative halts the anorectic or ascetic self’s endless and disturbing proliferation. The imperfection of Wright’s ascetic gesture, the ways in which she doesn’t fully succeed at making the self representable, helps to quarantine Wright’s community of readers at the level of text. Readers of Small Acts might find kinship or empathy with her bodily history of anorexia, but they would be hard pressed to find instruction in the arts of starvation.

If this imagined community of readers is, on the one hand, characteristic of asceticism, it is also a defining feature of the poetry community. In an essay for Overland in 2011, Wright observes that ‘poets and reviewers are the writers who operate more than any other within a tight-knit community.’ And, as she goes on to argue, reviews are important social tools in the building and maintaining of these communities (difficulties created by the uncomfortable intersection of personal and aesthetic judgement notwithstanding). In this context, the critical or review essay is a community-forming genre, one in which the act of reading is made to sustain social ties. If, in the tradition of Montaigne, the essay is one of the quintessential genres of the writing of the self, it is also, in the tradition of poet-reviewers, a genre capable of locating the self within a community.

The challenge of finding and sustaining community assumes a particular importance in the context of hunger, which, as she writes in the first essay of the collection, ‘forces a kind of refusal, a brutal, impenetrable independence, leaves us quite literally unable to break bread and connect with the people in our orbit.’ If hunger denies the paradigmatic social bond of the shared meal, Wright also struggles to enter an alternate community of hunger, refusing to see herself as ‘one of those women’, one of the ‘vain and selfish, shallow and somehow stupid’ anorectics of her imagination. Wright’s hunger is fiercely individualistic; it presses her to imagine herself as isolated and irreducible, outside of social bonds.

If Small Acts of Disappearance has a narrative arc, it lies perhaps in Wright’s relaxation into community, her growing acceptance of the ways in which we are knit together with others. Despite her conviction that she is not ‘one of those women’, in the hospital, among these women, she realises that ‘what we found was solidarity, when none of us had felt solid, somehow, for years’. In her reading of Stead, Bird, Winton, and Berryman, as well as in her digitally mediated mourning of a friend from whom she had drifted apart in ‘In Passing’, she finds similar senses of community, similar kinds of mediated, sometimes textualised solidarity. The community that Wright gropes towards in this collection allows the ascetic practice of forming a community through texts rather than through bodies to become a way of understanding the social nature of this illness.

In a recent essay for Seizure, Wright offers a kind of post-script to Small Acts of Disappearance, an eleventh essay on anorexia that describes her hesitant embrace of a serious romantic relationship. This essay, entitled ‘What She Could Not Tell Him’, shares a kinship with the essays of this collection while going beyond them, passing into a realm where intimacy is no longer unthinkable, and where the aspiration is not towards the mediated communities of Small Acts, but instead to the closer, messier ties of fully embodied romance. The essay concludes:

To show oneself, entirely—this is the real thrill, and the real challenge, of intimacy at any age. And I know now that the reward is not to find someone else as a result, but to come closer, far closer, to finally finding yourself.

The essays of Small Acts of Disappearance thematise the difficulty of showing oneself while still in the process of finding oneself, but in doing so, they establish both gestures as worthy goals. In this, Wright’s essays move haltingly towards a public intimacy, an assertion that, unlike hunger, writing’s mediating role may be used to draw connections and thereby mime, not isolation, but love.

Works Cited

Birnbaum, Daniel, and Anders Olsson. As a Weasel Sucks Eggs: An Essay on Melancholy and Cannibalism. Sternberg Press, 2008.
Coetzee, J. M. Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews. Edited by David Atwell. Harvard University Press, 1992.
Dickinson, Emily. The Complete Poems. Edited by Thomas H. Johnson. Faber and Faber, 1970.
Ellmann, Maud. The Hunger Artists: Starving, Writing and Imprisonment. Viargo Press, 1993.
Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. Yale University Press, 1979.
Green, Katie. Lighter Than My Shadow. Random House, 2013.
Harpham, Geoffrey Galt. The Ascetic Imperative in Culture and Criticism. University of Chicago Press, 1987.
Morley, Rachel. ‘Everyday Intimacies: An Interview with Fiona Wright.’ Sydney Review of Books, October 9, 2015.
Wright, Fiona. Knuckled. Giramondo, 2011.
‘Readers’ Feast.’ Overland Literary Journal, no. 203 (2011).
— Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger. Giramondo, 2015.
‘What She Could Not Tell Him.’ Seizure Edition 2 (2015).