The third-century Patristic author Origen thought that in the beginning all the angels were entirely free of corporeal matter. They spent their time circling around God, concentrating on him, thinking of nothing but him. But some of them grew distracted, and began to fall away, and as they fell they grew sluggish and heavy. The more distracted they became from the divine source of their being, the heavier they grew.
But they did not turn into stones or clods. If only! Instead, they were endowed with a different sort of bodies, precarious bodies that could only remain in existence to the extent that they also remained in perpetual exchange with the world around them, taking it in, turning it into self, and excreting what could not be transformed. “That alone is dead, which eateth not,” wrote the 16th-century iatrochemist Paracelsus. He describes eating as a perpetual replacement of the matter of the body, matter that is perpetually in the course of being burned up. Whereas stones have their identity secured by the fact that their parts remain in more or less stable cohesion with one another, living bodies remain the same bodies, or at least the bodies of the same individuals, only to the extent that they have new matter, food-matter, continually passing through them, like the water through a fountain.
It is in this respect, the English Epicurean philosopher Walter Charleton wrote in the 17th century, that “nutrition is but generation continu’d,” the perpetual re-creation of the corporeal substance that is always in the course of burning up and dying out. Stones have their being from their parts, and in order to keep being they only have to keep sitting there. But a living body is a delicate balance. Its parts have their being only through the sustained performance of an elaborate dance. Keeping a body alive is more like keeping plates spinning, or like juggling balls in the air, than like guarding some precious jewel in a safe. This condition of our animal bodily existence can give rise to a sense of virtuosity when we feel we are on top of things, keeping the plates spinning fluidly, leaping over hurdles, doing youthful handstands; but it can also seem a particular sort of bondage: keep the damned things spinning, no matter how weary it makes you, or you will die.
Why it is precisely this sort of corporeality that should be our punishment for turning away from the divine is something that is never explained by Origen or anyone else. If, as the Pythagoreans taught, the body is a prison, why does it not simply hold the soul within constant, unchanging, stone-like walls? Our punishment is plainly more Sisyphean than simply carceral, though unlike Sisyphus, condemned to the eternal repetition of a brute task, we are expected to eternally maintain a fragile balance. What a strange predicament this is is something that has gradually retreated from view since the 17th century, when mechanical analogies for the functions of the body first became available. Soon enough, the work of the stomach would come to be comprehended in terms of the work of the factory, and both of these would come to be thought of in terms of mere efficiency (one wonders, though, whether in our post-industrial era we will ever begin to hear more fashionable, information-based or cybernetic accounts of what it is stomachs do). Today, there is a right way to run the work of the digestive system, there are good 'fuels' and bad ones, and children are taught to believe from an early age that if they simply master the rules of healthy eating, of right fueling, of sound industrial management, then there is nothing irreducibly or in principle problematic about this work that has been assigned to them.
It may be that an older form of wisdom speaks to us through proverbs, the sort of wisdom that reeks of grandparents and people even older, that announces 'you are what you eat' as an existential truism, for example. But this sort of wisdom is for the most part drowned out by chatter, about good carbs as opposed to bad ones, about the exalted ideal ratio between carbs, proteins, and fats, about whether food should be free of some negative element or other, whether it should be raw or cooked, whether it is fitting that animals be slaughtered to produce it. And all of this chatter takes place in the mode of facticity: it is put forth as if it were entirely science, and had nothing to do with culture. The striving upper middle class thus avoids McDonald's not because it is where poor fat people go, but rather because the food served there is 'unhealthy', a term that can only conceal its normativity under a thick coat of false consciousness. And thus urban subcultures emerge that condemn gluten, or that advocate a diet based principally upon meat à la Tartare, as if there were no logic of social distinction at work, as if it were simply the case that their way of eating is the correct way, the natural way, the way cavemen ate, the way we ate before we were corrupted by the Agricultural Revolution, by modernity, by supermarkets, or some other hypothetical loss of innocence.
There is no more awareness in either the bourgeois or the Bohemian expressions of this chatter than there is in traditional folk cultures, with their highly prescriptive conceptions of how one ought to eat, that 'the natural' is a contested category, that in nutritional matters as in everything else, grand gestures and elaborate programs that spell out how to live in accordance with nature are at least as artificial as everything else we come up with. Whole Foods occupies a different cultural space than the McDonald's a few blocks away; both are however equidistant from Nature. But it may be that all this moral chatter masquerading as scientific truth, all this unending spelling out of the facts of the matter about how human bodies naturally nourish themselves, is just what enables us to carry on without having to address the real problem that underlies and gives rise to all this talk: that there is no correct formula, and that a body in constant need of nourishment, even when it is well nourished, even when it is nourished as perfectly as is naturally possible, is still a body in a curious predicament, that is always balanced on the brink of annihilation, and whose life is perpetual death.
Today, then, though food is on everyone's mind, as a culture we plainly lack the conceptual resources for reflecting on the bodily condition that food sustains. Many people would have no use for these resources anyway, for they do not experience this condition as peculiar at all. They thrive in the dancing of it, even believing that they are their own choreographers, that their parts fit together in the way they do as a result of their own free design. And their bodies grow beautiful and excellent, at least for a while, and even when they eventually grow tired of dancing, some of them do not complain, or even question the conditions of their existence.
I was never one of these creatures. Anyone who has ever seen me on a dance-floor will be able to confirm that I have no idea what to do there. But what most of them will not have observed is that this unknowing is my general condition. My everyday way of being in my body is really no different from my rarely seen dance moves. In various periods of my life, I have, by force of will, attempted to just ‘get into it’ --a revealing expression--, and have even succeeded for short stretches of time in convincing myself that I was in fact into it (the most joy I have ever felt in a single moment featured a soundtrack by a certain Coolio--something about riding along in a fantasy--with me and three other attractive young people flailing around in a cramped 106th Street apartment, in the summer, it must have been, of 1996). But in the end I have always returned back to my true condition, the one described in Origen’s fable of the fate of God’s distracted angels.
I do not believe in God or sin, but no exercise of intellect will ever rid me of the feeling that my body is a punishment for something, and that the only possible absolution lies in striving to return to some original undistracted state, to stay focused on that thing the body-dancers have forgotten.
Animals, for their part, still do not know that when they are eating, they are eating calories. Animals just eat. Yet they too can be put on a diet, can have their corporeality compromised. Studies of earthworms, pigs, dogs, monkeys, and all the way up the chain of being to humans have shown that, when fed on a regular diet of 20-25% less than the ordinary caloric intake for the species in question, a creature will on average live longer than those of its conspecifics that are left to eat whatever they like. This datum has served as the scientific justification for the new so-called 'calorie-restriction movement', whose members are typically not teenage girls, but middle-aged men, high-achieving professional men, the sort of insufferable tight-assed perfectionists you might also find running marathons.
The calorie-restrictionists insist that for them there is no such thing as 'dieting'. This word calls to mind the amateurishness of recidivist Jenny Craig clients, who respect an alimentary regime in the same way Sunday painters might dabble in aquarelles, without any real expectation of selling a canvas, let alone of bringing anything truly beautiful into existence. The calorie-restrictionists are, by contrast, professionals, and their commitment is for the longue durée. They recognize that maintaining a low weight is a quantitative science, and not alchemy. One loses weight by reducing the number of calories consumed relative to the number of calories burned, not by recourse to preparations from açai berries and other such elixirs. They also seem to understand what most Americans do not: that a calorie --in contrast with phlogiston and sundry other hypothetical entities adduced in the past to explain the innate heat of bodies-- is a pure abstraction, a unit of measurement of energy, and not a substance that can be physically separated from food. The calorie-restrictionists are in this respect the heirs to Lavoisier: no-bullshit calculators of the bodily economy of energetic input and output.
But if they excel in chemistry, their moral cosmology is fairly disappointing. In perfectly Manichaean fashion, one of the prominent links on their website spells out the various respects in which their movement contrasts with anorexia as light does with darkness (the society's symbol is a radiant sun). Thus, for example, as we learn from one restrictionist website:
Anorexia: I am bad.
Calorie Restriction: I am good.
Anorexia: Hidden and secret.
Calorie Restriction: Open and public.
Anorexia: Focus is weight.
Calorie Restriction: Focus is calories.
And so on. The last of these distinctions seems momentarily to its authors to drift too far in the direction of the unhealthy and unbalanced. Thus while cautioning that you should not be "obsessed with the scale on your bathroom floor," but instead with the one on your kitchen counter, they rush to add "that 'obsessed' might not be the word you want to aim for." If you are going to obsess, "the kitchen scale is probably better than the bathroom scale. At least you're in the right room!" It is as if the Manichaeanism collapses momentarily, and the authors acknowledge that, in spite of the cheery veneer, any life project that requires its adepts to eat less than their bodies tell them to eat cannot be only about radiant, bright-futured health, but must also have a share of the dark and anorexic force that is its official opposite.
In their bivalent breakdown of the various respects in which they differ from anorexics, the restrictionists fail to notice a third path, distinct from both their own glorification of health and longevity, and from the gloom-and-doom rejectionism of the anorexics, and much more deeply rooted in human history than either of these. This is a path that would more naturally present itself to a person with a predisposition to some sort of eating disorder who is lucky enough to be born into a deep-rooted religious tradition, rather than the secular individualism of both the anorexics and the restrictionists.
I have in mind askêsis, the path of the ascetic, which has nothing to do with either healthy self-cultivation or unhealthy self-absorption, but instead with concentrating upon that thing from which, on a certain understanding, we’ve been distracted. It is by rediscovery of this path, this calling, that we become able to place the desire for weight loss within its proper context, to understand it as a consequence of our metaphysical predicament, and not of glossy magazines and the advertising industry. This is, precisely, the predicament of embodiment.
Excerpted from a forthcoming essay.
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