Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Gluttons for Punishment and Punishment for Gluttons

The third circle of hell seems especially relevant for our age, since it is the Circle of the Gluttons. No sooner do we solve the problem of hunger, than we have an epidemic of obesity. This is a perfect example of how man, in his fallen state, cannot long remain in a condition of static balance and harmony. That is, he is either (unconsciously) descending or (consciously) ascending.

Or, put it this way: if you're not rising, then you're falling. Trying to maintain a static balance between those two cosmic tendencies is like trying to stand perfectly still on a tightrope. We can will upward or downward, but we cannot will stasis, - which is really a kind of deadness -- so long as we are in the world.

We think of hell as a fiery place, but this particular corner is said to be cold, wet and sodden: eternal rain / Accursed, cold and heavy / Thick hail, dark water, and unending snow / Come pouring down athwart the murky air -- / Their quality and cadence never changing -- / Upon the putrid earth.

Upton writes that "the punishing rain is a parody of real mercy," and that the gluttons "experience God's mercy and grace as dirty kitchen water; they reject mercy because they are disgusted by it."

In psychoanalytic parlance, this is the realm of orality, which is our first post-uterine neuro-developmental stage. Clearly, our first orientation to the world is via the mouth. Freud, because of his positivistic and scientistic bias, looked at this stage in wholly mechanistic terms, as if it were just a question of instinctual discharge. In other words: baby is hungry; baby seeks breast; baby suckles; baby is content, or at equilibrium (or alternatively, frustrated, enraged, and at disequilibrium, which an infant cannot long tolerate without blowing a circuit).

Long story short, this view has evolved considerably over the decades. First of all, babies are not machines that seek dissipation of tension. Rather, they are persons right from the start. That being the case, they primarily seek a relationship (one cannot say "relationships" at this early stage, since the infant does not have the capacity to abstract from the flow of experience as such). Thus, our first relationship is via the mouth, but a relationship is very different from an instinctual discharge.

D.W. Winnicott was perhaps the most sensitive theorist of infant development. Long story shorter, it is not just food that is imported during the oral stage, but love, trust, containment, taking and giving pleasure, and the general ability to dissolve into boundary-less love in an interpersonal context -- all is symbolically attached to the food, which is precisely what makes food so much more than it is.

I haven't kept up with the research, but in graduate school, things like anorexia and bulimia -- and disordered relationships to food in general -- could be easily traced to profound disturbances in the mother-infant dyad (for example, the aptly titled Starving to Death in a Sea of Objects: The Anorexia Nervosa Syndrome).

Now, there is no question that a kind of grace is operative in infancy. But the grace flows in two directions, a fact to which any normal mother can attest. There is a flow of grace, a "reciprocity dance," between the partners, in a kind of expanding circle of love. And importantly, all of this takes place in the realm of being, which will become the background of any later "knowing."

Another important theorist, R.D. Fairbairn, discussed what occurs as a result of maternal deprivation or impingement during this phase. He called it the "schizoid position," which may essentially be thought of as a private, closed-off world that serves as a kind of defensive sanctuary.

Importantly, when he is "rejected" by the mother, the infant feels that his own love is bad or tainted. Thus, this defense actually defends others from one's own "toxic" love. In other words, the emotionally enclosed schizoid person is not primarily protecting himself, but others. Their love feels "damaging" to them.

Another outcome of problems at this stage can be the false self, which one might think of as a self-created maternal container for the true self. The false self hovers over and protects the vulnerable true self (all unconsciously, of course). It is an adaptation to a disappointing or frightening world.

If all goes relatively well (or "well enough"), the infant is ushered into an expansive but non-persecutory space, which becomes the background of being. Grotstein describes it as

"a joint enterprise from the mother's and infant's imagination to allow for the latter's playing and imagining. It is vouchsafed [a] space which is both guaranteed and protected but is also free for playful expansion, discovery, and rehearsal. Later it becomes internalized as a space between the world of internal objects and of symbolic object representations. Utmostly, it is the place where illusion... occurs. It is the locale of the creative act and the 'spontaneous gesture.'"

Here is a slightly more mythopoetic description by the same author:

"The 'blessed' infant shoves his playful little hands into the primal soil of nothingness and chaos and, in time, he imagines forms emerging from them which he claims as his own unique creation.... The sense of secure 'I'ness is thus launched, and the infant can claim his own existence, history, and destiny. That is, by creating the world and then exploring what he has created -- and then discovered -- in it, he has developed an origin, a self-continuity, a 'going-on-being.' He is then ready for the world he did not create but which created him..."

In contrast, the "cursed infant" is victimized by "the intergenerational strife which mother (and father) project into him, 'cursed' by lacking a holding-containing environment, a matrix, a background presence of primary identification, 'cursed' by a heredity of perverse chromosomes, and/or 'cursed' by the failure of his imaginary mental life to make benevolent mythical sense of his dilemma." This is the mind-parasite infested person, whose freedom is sharply curtailed.

Such a person may alternatively "own" a sense of being evil or malevolent in order to "protect" the mother, or plummet "into the abyss," the "'black hole' where he is forever transformed, stigmatized, and doomed."

In other words, these people tend to become either victims or victimizers. Or, they can just become liberals and be both. For the victim feels he has moral license to victimize, while the victimizer must create new sacrificial victims to feed his vampiristic soul. The creation of victims by liberal policy is not a bug but a feature. Without victims, the liberal is stuck in his own private hell.

Way out of time. Time only for a question and a comment. First, could there be a relationship between inadequate parenting -- especially infant daycare -- and a disordered relationship to food, ending in obesity?

And second, I intuited long ago that psychoanalysis was a kind of modern pseudo-religion that provides a new way of talking about some very old realities that were already discussed by great spiritual thinkers of the past. In short, you can really see that Grotstein is talking about a kind of heaven and hell.


julie said...

First, could there be a relationship between inadequate parenting -- especially infant daycare -- and a disordered relationship to food, ending in obesity?

Not that I'm any kind of professional, but I would have to think so. I'd guess it's only a part of the problem, but perhaps not a small one. The experience of eating is so closely intertwined with love and intimacy that an unfulfilled hunger for love in infancy would naturally translate to an unsatisfiable hunger for food, especially for anything considered "comfort food," those things that cause a feeling of warm fullness in the belly and sweetness on the tongue.

Alexander Schmemann said...

In the biblical story of creation man is presented, first of all, as a hungry being, and the whole world as his food. Second only to the direction to propagate and have dominion over the earth, according to the author of the first chapter of Genesis, is God's instruction to the men of the earth: "Behold I have given you every herb bearing seed... and every tree, which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat..." Man must eat in order to live; he must take the world into his body and transform it into himself, into flesh and blood. He is indeed that which he eats, and the whole world is presented as one all-embracing banquet table for man. And this image of the banquet remains, throughout the whole Bible, the central image of life. It is the image of life at its creation and also the image of life at its end and fulfillment: "...that you eat and drink at my table in my Kingdom."

Gagdad Bob said...

Re Julie's comment -- along those lines, Winnicott once said that in order to be "cured," the person first had to give up their pathological means of self-cure.

more Schmemann said...

In the Bible the food that man eats, the world of which he must partake in order to live, is given to him by God, and it is given as communion with God. The world as man's food is not something "material" and limited to material functions, thus different from, and opposed to, the specifically "spiritual" functions by which man is related to God. All that exists is God's gift to man, and it all exists to make God known to man, to make man's life communion with God. It is divine love made food, made life for man. God blesses everything He creates, and, in biblical language, this means that He all creation the sign and means of his presence and wisdom, love and revelation: "O taste and see that the Lord is good."

Man is a hungry being. But he is hungry for God. Behind all the hunger of our life is God. All desire is finally a desire for Him.

julie said...

Re. Winnicott, that makes sense. Along those lines, I've seen it put more recently that in order to break a bad habit it is necessary not only to give up the negative behavior, but also to replace it with something positive.

Re. Schmemann, on a tangent it's notable that in Genesis, first is propagation, then eating. So below in hell the pathologies of propagation (lust) and eating (gluttony) make up the first two rings. I hadn't noticed that before.

Back to gluttony and early development, then, if eating is communion, which in infancy it most directly is, then gluttony is the act of misplacing the communion with others (and ultimately with god) which eating represents, and replacing it with communion with the purely horizontal. Or in a sense, it turns food - or perhaps more accurately the act of consumption - into an idol of sorts, where one craves the feelings brought on by mere matter, because they cannot find those feelings in someOne higher.

Petey said...

Sorry, menyou have only one taste. Whoops, where'd ego?!

mushroom said...

...'cursed' by the failure of his imaginary mental life to make benevolent mythical sense of his dilemma.

There are three piece on First Things about moral imagination this morning. Quoting from Russell Kirk here:

Such imagination lacking, to quote another passage from Burke, we are cast forth “from this world of reason, and order, and peace, and virtue, and fruitful penitence, into the antagonist world of madness, discord, vice, confusion, and unavailing sorrow.”

JP said...

Bob says:

"First, could there be a relationship between inadequate parenting -- especially infant daycare -- and a disordered relationship to food, ending in obesity?"

Of course not.

Infant daycare, parenting, and food are civil rights granted to us by the government and paid for by China.

The problem of obesity, on the other hand, is a result bad people doing bad things. Bad people and bad things can be eliminated through the use extensive legislation and regulation.

Is that the answer you were seeking?

mushroom said...

Food-related good news for Valentine's Day

Gagdad @ work said...

This morning on the radio there was a great theologian I'd never heard of before, named Dallas Willard. Virtually everything he said was in accord with Raccoon dogma. I believe he's an evangelical, which would be good, since it would compensate for our one-sided popery. I don't have time to investigate at the moment, but some enterprising reader may want to check out his books on amazon and report back to us.

Van said...

"Importantly, when he is "rejected" by the mother, the infant feels that his own love is bad or tainted. Thus, this defense actually defends others from one's own "toxic" love. In other words, the emotionally enclosed schizoid person is not primarily protecting himself, but others. Their love feels "damaging" to them."

Now that's interesting. Rings true in regards to many people I've known too... I'm assuming it carries forward into adulthood if not resolved?

Also interesting that I don't recall seeing this before, or at least not in this form... that or it just never clicked.


julie said...

There's an article by Willard here. Longish, but starts off promising, talking about metanoia (though he hasn't called it that so far).

julie said...

Also, his main page with more links & info is here.

JP said...

Some of this obesity problem is hyper-sugar; hyper-fatty foods.

I mean, I could sit there all day and eat Krispy-Kreme doughnuts. It's like injecting sugar directly into your veins.

I'm not really a food orinted person.

Unless you consider coffee a "food".

That has more to do with the food product than food itself.

JP said...

And I've hovered at nearly exactly a BMI of 25 or so for a decade, so, at most, I'm barely "overweight".

mushroom said...

JP, for software engineers, coffee is a food group.

The other food group is Mountain Dew.

robinstarfish said...

Huh. How unexpected to see Dallas Willard's name pop up in the OC. I wouldn't have made that connection.

I read The Divine Conspiracy back in 2000 or so. Don't remember why now, except that I was in dire need of red meat back then instead of the tofu that passed for food at the church I was attending, and that book landed in my path. I do remember liking it but at this point I couldn't begin to offer a synopsis, my memory now being even worse than what it never was.

My guess is it would make far more sense to me now, after a steady and sensible diet of raccoon kibble.

Jack said...

Modern day gluttony disguised as sophistication.

Gagdad Bob said...

Robin: I only heard about 20 minutes, not enough to form any deep impression. But it was refreshing to hear a prominent "right wing Christian" who didn't provoke the Jesus Willies....

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

"The creation of victims by liberal policy is not a bug but a feature. Without victims, the liberal is stuck in his own private hell."

Aye. Why languish in their own private hell when trhey can be in charge of a collective one?

Sure, it's still hell but there are perks for those leading the sheeplebats into their much anticipated utopia.
And surely no one in hell will object to hell bein' called utopia.
That's just good PR.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

Gagdad Bob said...
Re Julie's comment -- along those lines, Winnicott once said that in order to be "cured," the person first had to give up their pathological means of self-cure."

Also along those lines: in a horizontal sense that also holds true.

When I worked in the ER as a security guard/janitor the number one problem patients (ie aggressive/combative) were patients that self medicated.
Usually alcohol and/or weed plus whatever else they could get their hands on including many psychiatric meds.

It didn't take long to know which patients were most likely to cause problems if they weren't already.
One thing that was almost always a trigger was when the ER doc refused to give these patients more narcotics.

The same thing happens in the vertical. Probably more often.
How many folks lose their faith (or abandon it) because they no longer feel that spiritual "high?"

It's sad but I have seen many Christians whose soul purpose seems to be to achieve that spiritual high by whatever means possible.

I know because I was one. And like a horizontal addict self medication is never enough and never will be.

God simply doesn't "work" that way. Especially with the attitude that is not seeking Him but rather seeking the effects He can have (or that we might think He can have) on an emotional soul plane.

It's a rude awakening when some Christians come to realize that God is not prince charming nor can He be contained in a faux soul-like needle, pill, powder, herb or drink.

julie said...

Jack, thanks for the article. Some great snippets:

The book Gluttony (2003), one of a series on the seven deadly sins, was naturally assigned to a foodie writer, namely Francine Prose, who writes for the gourmet magazine Saveur. Not surprisingly, she regards gluttony primarily as a problem of overeating to the point of obesity; it is “the only sin … whose effects are visible, written on the body.” In fact the Catholic Church’s criticism has always been directed against an inordinate preoccupation with food—against foodie-ism, in other words—which we encounter as often among thin people as among fat ones.


Since the late 1990s, the guilty smirkiness that once marked its default style has been losing ever more ground to pomposity and sermonizing. References to cooks as “gods,” to restaurants as “temples,” to biting into “heaven,” etc., used to be meant as jokes, even if the compulsive recourse to religious language always betrayed a certain guilt about the stomach-driven life. Now the equation of eating with worship is often made with a straight face. The mood at a dinner table depends on the quality of food served; if culinary perfection is achieved, the meal becomes downright holy—as we learned from Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006), in which a pork dinner is described as feeling “like a ceremony … a secular seder.”

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

IRT victimizers and "you are what you eat":
Victimizers are literally what they eat w2hich is victims.

Of course, as vicartimisers they are blind to the truth that it doesn't hafta be that way.
Not to mention that a steady diet of victims is the opposite of nutritious.

So yes, when one is fixated/obsessed with food of that sort they are what they eat...and they will starve on that diet (which is why there is never enough money to fund the leftist war on "poverty," "hunger," tater tots...see Iowahawk, "healthcare," the "arts"...okay let's cut to the chase because this list is almost endless...reality).

Also why people on the left are never aware of what comes out of their mouth else they would see the irony in their own projections onto folks like us conservatives/classical liberals.