The Anorexic Aesthetic: An Analysis of the Poetics of Glück, Dickinson, and Bidart
Rigl, Alexandra Haley
My argument acknowledges the complex liminal space within which the artist creates—one in which art may constitute an act of self-assertion or a deliberate pattern of self-sabotage, among other non-symptomologic, aesthetic purposes. Anorexia is a disease of contradiction. Through attentive discipline and deprivation, it provides a kind of indulgence through perceived power. This conjuring of self-control leaves the anorexic feeling overcome by impotence. Anorexia is a disease of the mind that attempts to divide the body from the self, to acquire an identity through the act of renunciation. The anorexic ironically thrives and creates through the very act of self-annihilation. Paradoxically, the compulsion undergirding anorexia is to become visible by disappearing—contradictorily emaciating one’s self in an effort to recreate the body into a form so confronting that it cannot be ignored. I suggest that the integrated fields of literature and medicine provide the theoretical and analytical means to posit a kind of anorexic aesthetic: neurosis (metaphorically and stylistically) embodied in writing and, more specifically, anorexia nervosa embodied in poetry. While I choose to explore the rendering of anorexia in poetry, I by no means celebrate eating disorder as a gateway to creative genius or suggest that the anorexic style necessitates a disordered poet at its core. Quite to the contrary, I analyze this stylistic trend in the work of three “anorexic poets,” a term which I operationally use in a stylistic rather than a diagnosing sense. The experiential histories of the poets I choose to analyze vary: first, Louise Glück, officially diagnosed with anorexia nervosa; second, Emily Dickinson, a known ascetic whose apparent anxieties parallel those associated with anorexia nervosa; and, lastly, Frank Bidart, occupying the narrative persona of a woman officially diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. Each of these poets’ works embodies in its own way the vast contradictions built into the contrarian impulses of anorexia and the complex processes by which the margins of often harshly self-disciplined expression are continually redefined. I analyze the poetic aesthetics of these representative authors’ works, allowing each chosen reading to interact with the symptomology, therapy, and neutralization of disorder. In doing so, I deconstruct instances of both “anorexic” poiesis and mimesis throughout the respective collections.