Thursday, May 06, 2010

Anorexia and Autonomy

Rudolph Bell's book Holy Anorexia is an important example of the fruitfulness of cross-disciplinary study in religion.

His study probes the theological, historical, and psychological meaning of extreme fasting behaviors in medieval women whose asceticism was usually seen as evidence of holiness. Avoiding the facile ascription of mental illness to these women ("Oh, they must've been, like, anorexic or something!"), he nonetheless takes his cue from current psychiatric evaluations and treatments of (modern) anorexia nervosa.

Anorectic behavior comes about in response to an intricate yet convoluted web of signals a modern girl (anorexia generally arises in females and during adolescence) receives in regard to her appearance. Thinness (and physical beauty more broadly) is one of a few traits consistently approved and rewarded in young females, yet the steps that a girl might take to achieve those rewards may prompt correction, disapproval, or intervention from parents or such other authorities as educators or medical caregivers. The twin incentives of societal approval and parental opposition feed the anorexic girl’s choice to control her own body through self-starvation—all the more so as her successes in weight loss and self-assertion mount.

Analogously, a medieval woman had fewer avenues of expressing or embodying holiness than were available to men, and the ascetic practices which might identify a woman as holy could just as easily have been viewed as evidence of heresy or demon possession as of beatitude. The “holy anorexic” is confirmed in her path of self-starvation both by the ascription of holiness conferred on account of her suffering and by the suspicion aroused by her extreme practices of asceticism, especially where that suspicion is allayed or countered through divine intervention.

The struggle for autonomy looms large in Bell’s renarration of these saints’ vitae. While his efforts to offer a psychoanalytic reading of these women are unimpressive—particularly in the absence of any serious or consistent engagement with the problem of collaborative authorship present in virtually all of these texts—his identification of the persistence of themes of self-assertion in the face of parental, religious, or social conflict is helpful.

When one is obliged to suffer the removal of one’s autonomy—whether in the form of a forced marriage, opposition to taking religious orders, or physical or sexual abuse—choosing another form of suffering—starvation, disfigurement, isolation—functions as a reassertion of one’s autonomy. The relationship between suffering and consent is inverted, transforming utterly the meaning and experience of them both. In the first case, the injury is all but identical with the removal of choice; in the second, the retrieval of autonomy is identical with the (chosen) injury. That the chosen suffering is further rewarded by its association with otherworldliness, whether of the divine or demonic sort, only amplifies the sense of transformation.

Despite his misstep in attempting to psychoanalyze historical figures with fragmentary, consciously scripted, and/or heavily edited literary works as his only evidence, Bell's work is enormously important for his having probed this intersection of autonomy and suffering. Many modern discussions of suffering (and its relief) are dependent on inchoate assumptions about exactly this relationship, and any work that prompts a more intentional examination of the topic is worth a read.

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