What Is Consuming You (2018). Text for performance. Performed at Jupiter Woods Party and Art Night London (both 2018). 

CW: eating disorders, anorexia, ideation of whiteness 

This text is a collage of citations from various sources that have been all turned to the first person. The construction of femininity and its intersection with illness / the aestheticisation of illness and the fetishisation of whiteness, thinness, youth, weakness / the correlation or inheritance of anorexia and tuberculosis / femininity as being determined as weak, as white, as thin, as privileged, as sick.

It seems to me I can never give up longing and wishing while I am still alive. There are certain things I feel to be beautiful and good, and I must hunger for them. [1] I have a feeling that it never was intended that I should live long. [2] Sentimentality. The inertia of the emotions. They are not light, buoyant—I am sentimental. I cling to my emotional states. Or do they cling to me? [3]

 

I am of a refined nature, I am thin and possess a matching fineness and superiority in taste. [4] You are disintegration, febrilization, dematerialisation; you are a disease of liquids – the body turning to phlegm and mucus and sputum and, finally, blood – and of air, of the need for better air. [5] You are eating yourself up, being refined, getting down to the core, the real you. [5] You are understood as a manner of appearing: it becomes rude to eat heartily. [5] If my grandmother says I look well, so healthy and with such round cheeks, I feel ill and bloated. Her ideal of beauty comes from another era. I do not wish to be associated with food. [6]

 

My mother improved her manners by losing her appetite. [3]

 

A connection is therefore created between my sensibility, and those tendencies explicitly viewed as feminine. By virtue of this association, I not only fall prey more easily to illness, but as a quality of feminine sensibility, sickness becomes an integral part of my identity. [4] The link between purity and suffering leads to an elevation of my consumptive thinness and nervous sensibility. Sensibility defines not only my personal feelings and emotions but also the physical manifestations of those sentiments. [4]

 

Even my complexion offers insight. Pallor and blushes are taken as evidence of the intensity of sensibility and transparency of my emotion. The transparency of skin and whiteness of complexion become ever more important as an explicit aspect of beauty. Transparency takes on a spiritual or character-defining quality that grows in significance. [4] Whiteness of complexion. Whiteness. You make the body transparent. The X-rays, which are the standard diagnostic tool, permit one, often for the first time, to see one’s inside – to become transparent to oneself. [5] Sentimentalists insist that I am incapable of hiding my emotions, which makes me constitutionally transparent. As I progresses through the various stages of chronic illness, the layers of my personality soften, illuminating my true character, which has the added bonus of elevating me spiritually. I express my emotions in the form of swoons, tears, and, most importantly, in illness. [4]

 

You love too hard. It occupies the centre and squeezes out your strength. [7] Without you, I’m nothing. [8]

 

I must try to love without imagining—to love the appearance in its nakedness without interpretation. [1] There is something pure and undubitable about the notion that eros is lack. In amorous langour, something keeps going away; it is as if desire were nothing but this hemorrhage.[9] Such is amorous fatigue: a hunger not to be satisfied, a gaping love. I want you to love me. If you are, however, totally devoted to me you do not exist any longer and I cease to love you. And as long as you are not totally devoted to me you do not love me enough. Hunger and repletion. [1] It becomes rude to eat heartily. [5] 

 

I have a peculiar delicacy of texture and colour of skin, a precocity of intellect, a clear brilliancy of eye and a graceful tenuity of figure, forming in all the most attractive appearance of the human youth of both sexes. White skin, red cheeks and lips, [4] “voice like honey,” “porcelain skin,” “waterfall of tears”. [10] I am so beautiful I am unnatural; my beauty is an abnormality, a deformity, for none of my features exhibit any of those touching imperfections that reconcile us to the imperfection of the human condition. [11] Medical references to me consistently describe me as slight, thin, delicate and slender in the make, with a narrow chest, projecting clavicles, and shoulder blades that gave the appearance of wings. [4] Since health is out of style, if an illness does not occur naturally, I affect the trappings of sickness. [4] I might develop a ‘morbid delight’ in inactivity and in the constant attention I receive. [12]

 

I want to melt into thin air, vanish like a fugitive essence that dissipates the moment it comes into contact with food. Pale and delicate and thin, and forever passing out even if I do nothing all day. [6] Sensibility involves a more refined type of suffering by those in the middle and upper classes and becomes one of the ways in which the middle class separates itself from the lower orders and constructs its own identity. [4] My character is a superior one: sensitive, creative, a being apart. [5] To wish to escape from solitude is cowardice. [1] It is only by falling ill that I can find the right kind of solitude, in which to invent my future self. [12] Disease is what speaks through my body, a language for dramatising the mental: a form of self-expression. [12]

 

I look at you and I want to be delicate and weak forever, never to have that strong flab packed around my hips and thighs. [13] Connoisseur of unreality as I am, I cannot bear the crude weight, the rank smell and the ripe taste of real flesh. [14] Hanging over the band of my knickers. Swelling to twice its size unless I’ve fasted the whole day; then the upper half of the tummy is acceptable, but the lower part is still too big. I still have a fundamental hatred of it. It’s the home of gluttony, always hungry, always wanting something. Forever having to be pulled in. It makes the brain a slave, forcing it to think continually of for, cooking, shopping, everything as fatty as possible. It wants butter, butter, butter. Cream. Fluffy, sweet, yeasty dough. Fatty cheese, rich sauces. A bottomless barrel. [6] Don’t let yourself go. [15] I want to eat all the other objects of desire. [1]

 

I’ve always tucked indulgences away from others’ sight. [10] A large part of the pleasure in eating come from doing it in private; I don’t want anyone watching me. [6] I differentiate between desire and need. Between want and must. [16] But I am eaten up with desires, with rage, with hate. [17] My great affliction, which began with infancy and will accompany me till death, is that looking and eating are two different operations. Eternal beatitude is a state where to look is to eat. [1]

 

Don’t let yourself go. [15]

 

Cause everybody cries, and everybody, hurts, sometimes. [15] I fear that my feelings will resemble everyone else’s. This is why I want to dismiss sentimentality, to assert instead that my emotional responses are more sophisticated than other people’s, that my aesthetic sensibilities testify, iceberg style, to an entire landscape of interior depth. [10] Dress, then, is something more than the necessity of climate, something better than the condition of comfort, something higher than elegance of civilisation. Dress is the index of conscience, the evidence of my emotional nature. It reveals, more clearly than speech exposes, my inner life of heart and soul. [4] I want you to see how the bones in my chest and shoulders stick out, and how skeletal my arms are, and I want the sight of this to tell you something I couldn’t begin to communicate myself: something about pain. . . an amalgam of buried wishes and unspoken fears. [18] What do I flee when I retreat into metaphor?  [10]

 

I was laughing raucously. You would have preferred me to be sad. [19] I was ravishingly beautiful. Even my extreme slenderness seemed like a grace. [19] You had never seen, nor shall you see, any one so beautiful as I was on that day; it was as though the exquisite perfection which was always mine had taken possession of me completely. [20] It was glamorous to look sickly. [5]

 

The heart is strange; you were almost happy about my illness. [19] When you returned, I was lying in front of the fire, my teeth chattering with cold. You took me in your arms, undressed me without making a movement, and carried me all frozen into your bed. [19]

 

I am, I thought, a tragedy: a character that you come to see act: now and then you give me my cue that I may make a speech more to your purpose: perhaps you are already planning a poem in which I am to figure. [21] Love needs reality. What is more terrible than the discovery that through a bodily appearance you have been loving an imaginary being. It is much more terrible than death, for death does not prevent me from having lived. [1] It is equally possible, through fantasies about me, to aestheticise my death. [5] That is the punishment for having fed love on imagination. [1]

 

The desire must die away, then, the desire for the in and out, the up and down of erotic love, which is symbolized in breathing. [22] I’m so into you, I can barely breathe. [23] And with the desire the lungs die away. . . the body dies away. . . because desire increases during illness. [22] If I had any chance of recovery, this passion would kill me. (Keats quoted by Sontag) I do not feel strong, and I am growing thin. At last this terrible malady is certain. [24] Your symptoms are nothing but a disguised manifestation of the power of love; and all disease is only love transformed. [25]

 

I feel a familiar wariness. Not just at the familiarity of these metaphors—bone as hieroglyph, clavicle as cry—but at the way they risk performing the same valorisation they claim to refuse: ascribing eloquence to the starving body, a kind of lyric grace. I feel like I’ve heard it before: I am still nostalgic for the belief that starving could render angst articulate. I used to write lyrically about my own eating disorder, taking recourse in bone-as-language, documenting the gradual dumb show of my emergent parts—knobs and spurs and ribs. But underneath this wariness I remember that starvation is pain, beyond and beneath any stylised expression: there is an ache at its root and an obsession attending every moment of its realisation. The desire to speak about that obsession can be symptom as much as cure; everything ultimately points back to pain—even or especially these clutches at nostalgia or abstraction. [26]

 

Do you not understand that to love you and to be your Victim of Love, the more weak and wretched I am the better material do I make for this consuming and transfiguring love? . . . The simple desire to be a Victim suffices, but I must also consent to remain poor and helpless, and here lies the difficulty. [27]

 

Temptation is the desire to fall, to fail, to faint and to squander all my reserves until there is no firm ground beneath my feet. [28] I feel that I have taken such flights towards the great things that my feet no longer touch the earth. What dominates is the fear of not having time to do everything. It is a fatiguing condition, perhaps, but one is happy. I shall not live long: you know the children who have too much spirits. [24]

 

The beautiful is that which I desire without wishing to eat it. I desire that it should be. [1] My baby loves me, I’m so hungry. [29] I shall not live long: you know the children who have too much spirits. [24] This is what I am taught—that I should be slender and small. I should not take up space. I should be seen and not heard, and if I am seen, I should be pleasing to you, acceptable to you. My body is wildly undisciplined, and yet I deny myself nearly everything I desire. [30] We have to turn all our disgust into a disgust for ourselves. [1] 

1. Weil, Simone Gravity and Grace trans. Emma Crawford & Mario von der Ruhr (2002. London & New York: Routledge)

 

2. Alcott, Louisa May Little Women (2009. London: Penguin Classics) 

 

3. Sontag, Susan Reborn: Early Diaries 1947-1963 (2009. London: Penguin) 

 

4. Day, Carolyn A. Consumptive Chic: A History of Beauty, Fashion and Disease (2017. London & New York: Bloomsbury Academic Publishing) 

 

5. Sontag, Susan Illness as Metaphor & AIDS and its Metaphors (2002. London: Penguin)

 

6. Stift, Linda The Empress and the Cake (2016. London: Pereine Press Ltd)

 

7. Piercy, Marge He, She and It (1991. London: Random House)

 

8. Placebo, ‘Without You I’m Nothing’

 

9. Carson, Anne Eros the Bittersweet: An Essay (1986. New Jersey: Princeton UP)

 

10. Jamison, Leslie, ‘In Defense of Saccharin(e)’ in The Empathy Exams (London: Granta, 2014)

 

11. Carter, Angela ‘The Lady in the House of Love’ in The Bloody Chamber (2006. London: Vintage Random House)

 

12. Dillon, Brian Tormented Hope: Nine Hypochondriac Lives (2010. London: Penguin)

 

13. Gaitskill, Mary Two Girls, Fat and Thin (1991. London: Chatto & Windus)

 

14. Carter, Angela Love (2006. London: Vintage Random House) 

 

15. REM, ‘Everybody Hurts’

 

16. Grant, Stephanie The Passion of Alice (1995. London: Sceptre) 

 

17. Flaubert, Gustave Madame Bovary (2001. Ware: Wordsworth Editions)

 

18. Knapp, Carolyn Appetites: Why Women Want (2004. New York: Counterpoint) 

 

19. Dumas Fils, Alexandre The Lady of the Camellias (2013. London: Penguin)

 

20. Middleton Murray, John ‘Introduction’ in Mansfield, Katherine Journal of Katherine Mansfield (2006. London: Persephone Books Ltd)

 

21. Shelley, Mary Mathilda (2008. New York: Melville House Press)

 

22. Groddeck, Georg The Book of the It quoted in Sontag, Susan Illness as Metaphor & AIDS and its Metaphors (2002. London: Penguin)

23. Ariana Grande ‘Into You’

 

24. Bashkirtseff, Marie The Last Confessions of Marie Bashkirtseff and Her Correspondence with Guy de Maupassant (1901. New York: Frederick A Stokes Company)  

 

25. Mann, Thomas The Magic Mountain (1996. London: Vintage Classics) 

 

26. Jamison, Leslie, ‘The Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain’ in The Empathy Exams (London: Granta, 2014)

 

27. St Therese of Lisieux The Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St Therese o Lisieux with Additional Writings and Sayings of St Therese (212. Veritatis Splendor Publications)

 

28. Bataille, Georges Eroticism (2012. London: Penguin Classics)

 

29. Sleater Kinney, ‘Modern Girl’ 

 

30. Gay, Roxane Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body (2017. London: HarperCollins)