Eating, as a highly culture-related activity, functions as one of the main indicators of cultural difference. Byron, having the advantage of frequent travelling and his incredible social fluidity, is able to comment and understand different eating habits of various cultures. Byron’s preoccupation with food and eating in his private life leads to the frequent use of food and eating habits in his writings. He uses the trope of eating to make observations about cultural diversity, and also to comment his own culture, to attack its conventions, and to ridicule Western constructions of a non-European or non-Christian “other”. Byron has also a fascination for the religious treatment of food in various religious systems. He is aware of the dangerous boundaries of different cultures which are forbidden to transgress.
The term “eating disorder” implies a deviation from what is understood in Western culture as a norm or order. Eating disorder therefore implies a rebellion against what a society perceives as a norm. Several recent studies on Byron’s own eating disorder have shown that Byron suffered from anorexia nervosa. However, as anorexia is understood as a learned behaviour, it is argued that Byron’s anorexia could not be interpreted only as a matter of beauty, as there was no social pressure imposed on him to equate beauty with thinness, but, rather, as a textual practice that Byron uses to rebel against Western society and its conventions.
“He resolved to keep down to eleven stone, or shoot himself.”
Edward John Trelawny
George Gordon Noel Byron was born on January 22, 1788 to a corpulent mother and a handsome father. Catherine Gordon was poorly educated, unattractive and timid, but also the sole heiress to a fortune deposited in Aberdeen bank shares, salmon-fishing rights, and lands, which made her a perfect match for Jack Byron, a man of extravagant manners, an enthusiastic admirer of women and excessive gambler, who was constantly in short of money. Their marriage was unhappy and after frequent arguments, John Byron left the family and died in poverty one year later, aged thirty-six (Eisler 9 – 16).
For the major part of his childhood, Byron was surrounded only by women – the household consisted of his mother, the maid and female members of his mother’s family. Byron did not forget his absent father, on the contrary, he admired him and idealised him (Eisler 21). The relationship with his mother was very difficult. Byron was terrified by Catherine’s outbursts of anger that changed very quickly into tenderness, love and care. The violent character of their relations was worsened by the fact that Byron inherited his mother’s stubbornness and quick temper. Inconsistent behaviour of his mother convinced Byron of the unreliability of women, and he began to be afraid of them (Eisler 17). Due Catherine’s upbringing the sixteen-year-old Byron was painfully shy and deeply anxious adolescent with a nervous habit of nail-biting (Eisler 68). But even the most severe criticism of his mother could not destroy Byron’s warm nature, high spirits, and irresistible charm - common features in Byron family.
Inconsistent behaviour was not the only trait that Byron inherited from his mother – like her, Byron had tendency to obesity. Byron’s resemblance to his mother in this particular aspect made him hate his own corpulence even more. His lameness prevented him from sports requiring speeds and up to the age of eighteen he had been overweighed. By the autumn of 1806 he weighed 14 stone 6 pounds (90 kg) and his height was 5 feet, 8½ inches (174 cm) (Baron).
His first attempt to lose weight coincided with his literary debut which brought him a great success and popularity and Byron started to perceive his weight problems more intensively (Eisler 119-120). Byron saw his weight as a major defect in his image of a romantic hero he set out to create. He was determined to transform himself to a new persona. From November 1806 to April 1807 he was on a crash diet that was prescribed by a well-known physician Benjamin Hutchinson (Eisler 120). The diet included exercise, hip baths, and medicine, it also required the elimination of all malt liquor and white wine, animal food was allowed only once in a day, no supper was permitted except a biscuit. Hutchison also suggested that Byron should change his sleeping habits. Byron became obsessed with his dieting and kept some of his friends informed about its results (Eisler 121). In his letters he provided them with all the details about his food intake:
I have lost 18 LB in my weight […] since January […] by violent exercise & Fasting, as I found myself too plump. – I shall continue my Exertions, having no other amusement, I wear seven waistcoats, and a great Coat, run and play at Cricket in this Dress, till quite exhausted by excessive perspiration, use the hot Bath daily, eat only a quarter of pound Butcher’s meat in 24 hours, no Suppers, or Breakfast, only one meal a Day […], by these means, my Ribs display Skin of no great thickness. […] I grow thin daily […] I shall reduce myself to 11[stone] & there stop (Baron).
By April he had lost twenty-three pounds. When the new term in Cambridge began in February 1807 Byron’s transformation was already completed: “My Hair once black or very dark brown, is turned […] to a lightChestnut, nearly approaching yellow, so that I am metamorphosed not a little. […] I find I am not only thinner, but taller by an Inch since my last visit, I was obliged to tell everybody my name, nobody having the least recollection of my visage, or person”(Baron).
All his fellow students were astonished by the change of his appearance. Nevertheless, it was difficult during his studies to stick to his drastic regime – Byron was engaged in conviviality with his fellow students and stayed up until four in the morning and played hazard (Eisler 135), he also invited his friends to dinners during which many bottles of wine were consumed (Eisler 129).
Byron’s coming of age was celebrated heavily by his friends at Newstead, but Byron himself spent the day alone in London, where he interrupted his strict regime to enjoy eating bacon, eggs, and ale (Eisler 162-164).
After receiving M.A. degree, Byron decided to travel to the East. Before leaving he organised a farewell celebration at Newstead that is reported to be of an orgiastic character. Byron and his company indulged in endless rounds of horseplay, heavy drinking and dressing-up as monks. Their usual hour of getting up was one in the afternoon and the breakfast was not finished before past two. The main meal was served at four and was followed by Byron’s favourite ritual – a human skull filled with burgundy was handed around. The company dined between seven and eight and their evening lasted till three o’clock in the morning (Eisler 173-174).
During his travels in the East, Byron showed exceptional social fluidity. Among the men who accompanied him were John Cam Hobhouse, his close friend from Cambridge, and William Fletcher, his valet (Eisler 176). Unlike Hobhouse and Fletcher, who were constantly complaining about the local food and the lack of hygiene, Byron was excited by the novelty and otherness (Eisler 189). When exploring the everyday life of ordinary Albanians, Byron, Hobhouse and Fletcher met Albanian mountain men. Because of the incredible adaptability of Byron, the visitors became very quickly part of their community, and on the second day of their stay, they sat cross-legged on the floor with their host, eating grapes, smoking pipes and joking (Eisler 211). Byron’s ability to adapt to the food of other cultures was in the contrast to his companions, who refused to eat pilaws and perpetually lamented over “beef & beer” (Jones 251-252). Byron was proud of himself that he did not have any problems with the unvarying diet of eggs, fowl and grapes (Eisler 219). Before his departure from Greece, Byron informed his mother: “For a long time I have been restricted to an entire vegetable diet, neither fish or flesh coming within my regimen, so I expect a powerful stock of potatoes, greens, & biscuit, I drink no wine” (Baron).
After his return to England in 1811 and the publication of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Byron became a number one celebrity of London. Being in the public eye, he was very particular about his slender, black-garbed figure and pale face. Byron’s introduction to London high society took place at the house of Samuel Rogers, who invited him for dinner. Rogers was fascinated by Byron’s starvation diet:
I asked Byron if he would take soup. No, he never took soup. - Would he take some fish? No, he never took fish. Presently I asked him if he would eat some mutton. No, he never ate mutton. I then asked if he would take a glass of wine. No, he never tasted wine. It was now necessary to inquire what he did eat and drink; and the answer was ‘Nothing but hard biscuits and soda water.’ Unfortunately, neither hard biscuits nor soda water were at hand; and he dined upon potatoes bruised down on his plate and drenched with vinegar (Eisler 308).
Byron was obsessed with his dieting and recorded all the payments for all his food and drinks (Baron)
After his wedding with Annabella Milbanke, Byron suffered from depression and drank heavily (Eisler 453). He rarely dined with her, as he did not like seeing women eat, or to have their company at dinner:
I am sadly out of practice lately, except for a few sighs to a Gentlewoman at supper who was too much occupied with ye fourth wing of her second chickento mind anything that was not material. […] I only wish she did not swallow so much supper, chicken wings – sweetbreads – custards – peaches and Port wine – a woman should never be seen eating or drinking, unless it be lobster sallad & champagne, the only true feminine & becoming viands (Baron). Alcohol consumption only worsened Byron’s ill-treatment of his pregnant wife. It was his half-sister Augusta who tried to reduce his drinking habits as she did not approve his habits of excess, starving and drinking (Eisler 471): “I am quite convinced that if he would condescend to eat & drink & sleep likeother people he would feel ye good effects – but you know his way is to fast till he is famished & then devour more than his stomach in that weak state can bear - & so on” (Baron).
After his unsuccessful marriage, Byron left England for good. He met Percy Bysshe Shelley in Geneva in 1816. The two became friends and soon they were inseparable (Eisler 515). Shelley had a difficult relationship with food, too. Edward John Trelawny describes his eating habits: “He seldom ate at stated periods, but only when hungry – and then like the birds […]. His drink was water, or milk if he could get it, bread was literally his staff of life; other things he thought superfluous” (Trelawny 54).
Byron and Shelley met Trelawny in Pisa in 1822 (Eisler 692). Byron often gave opulent dinners for his new friends, but he himself, as he had put on weight recently, lived on green tea, hard biscuits and soda water (Eisler 694). Trelawny was taken aback by the dramatic contrast between Byron’s diet and three or even five-course meals of his friends. Trelawny comments Byron’s dieting:
His terror of getting fat was so great that he reduced his diet to the point of absolute starvation. […] He said everything he swallowed was instantly converted into tallow and deposited on his ribs. He was the only human being I ever met with who had sufficient self-restraint and resolution to resist this proneness to fatten. […] I remember one of his friends saying ‘Byron, how well you are looking!’ […] but he added ‘You are getting fat’, Byron’s brow reddened, and his eyes flashed - ‘Do you call getting fat looking well, as if I were a hog?’ and, turning to me, he muttered ‘The beast! I can hardly keep my hands off him.’ […] I don’t think he had much appetite for his dinner that day, or for many days. […] Byron said he had tried all sorts of experiments to stay his hunger, without adding to his bulk. ‘I swelled’, he said, ‘at one time to fourteen stone, so I clapped the muzzle on my jaws, and, like the hybernating animals, consumed my own fat.’ (Trelawny 43-44).
On July 13 1823 Byron, Trelawny, and Fletcher embarked on ship heading for Greece, where they set out to fight against the Turks in the war of independence (Eisler 726). There, in the town of Missolonghi, after great suffering, on April 19 1824 Lord Byron died. The cannons of Missolonghi fired a farewell salute to pay hold to their hero. Few days later came Trelawny to see the corpse. It was only then that he realised how unnecessary it was to torment such beauty by starvation: “Few marble busts could have matched its stainless white, the harmony of its proportions, and perfect finish; yet he had been dissatisfied with that body. […] Where had he seen the face or form worthy to excite his envy?” (Trelawny 197)
Eating Disorders in Don Juan
“Ah, what a poet Byron would have been had he taken his meals properly, and allowed himself to grow fat – if nature intended him to grow fat – and not have physicked his intellect with wretched opium pills and acrid vinegar, that sent his principles to sleep, and turned his feelings sour! If that man had respected his dinner, he never would have written Don Juan.”
William Makepeace Thackeray
In the following chapters the eating disorders that are depicted in Byron’s masterpiece Don Juan are discussed. As eating disorder is understood any eating behaviour that deviates from what is perceived by Western culture as a norm or order. The eating disorders range from the most common forms of disorderly eating such as undereating and overeating, or, anorexia nervosa and compulsive eating, respectively, to what is viewed as the most extreme and dangerous eating disorder of all – the consumption of a dog and cannibalism. Religious and cultural factors that play a part in the acceptance or tabooing of certain eating habits, and the punishment that follows the transgression of the forbidden boundaries, are also discussed.
The aim of this chapter is to show that particular eating behaviour may be beneficial or harmful as the individuals exercise power over themselves and others through their eating choices.
Drawing upon the idea of Robertson-Smith and his concept of totemic systems, this chapter focuses on the one of the extreme eating disorders in canto two in Don Juan, where Juan is forced to kill his dog in order to survive. It is argued that the consumption of the dog is a totemic dinner that Juan has to perform in order to gain the strength of his father, a dinner that enables him, in fact, to survive.
Several critics point out that the Byronic Don Juan is more feminine both in his appearance and manners than any of his predecessors (Paglia 352, Eisler 612). He is depicted by Byron as “slight and slim, / Blushing and beardless” (8.52), “silent and pensive, idle, restless, slow” (1.87). From the very beginning of his life, Juan is under the influence of his mother, “a learned lady” (1.10) and a zealous Catholic. Juan’s father, Don Jóse - “a true Hidalgo […] / A better cavalier ne’er mounted horse” (1.9) - is carelessly involved in numerous sexual relationships and does not share his wife’s interest in intellectual debates. The union of his parents is unhappy and the only thing they have in common is their love for their only son. Because of their unrelenting aversion to each other, they decide to get divorced; but, the end of their marriage is facilitated by Jóse’s death by slow fever.
Although Juan is the sole heir of his father, he does not immediately take up his position and role in the society. Not only does his mother keep guard the property Juan has inherited, but she also chooses the tutors who provide Juan with his education. It is she who decides what Juan is allowed to read and what he is not: she sticks to languages, arts, sciences, and religion. To limit distractions she separates him entirely from all the women: “He studied steadily and grew apace […] / Half his days were pass’d at church, the other / Between his tutors, confessor, and mother” (1.49). Juan is therefore totally and solely under her influence.
The first sexual relationship Juan experiences is also connected to his mother. Although she separates Juan from all the women, she allows one of her good friends, Donna Julia, to take care of him. Julia cannot resist temptation and – despite being married - begins an affair with Juan. Even though Juan’s mother is shocked when the true character of their relationship is revealed, she might be happy with the choice of her son, as she admires and likes Julia for her moral qualities. Had it not been for Julia’s prior marriage, Juan’s mother might have accepted son’s girlfriend: however, because she wants to avert public scandal, she sends Juan away from Seville.
Standing on the deck of the ship heading for Leghorn, Juan is overwhelmed by extreme sadness and starts to weep for his lost lover, and for his mother, too. At this point, there are no indications of Juan’s transformation to a fearless traveller and a careless admirer of women as his father used to be. Juan becomes sea-sick and is not brave at all: “(For God’s sake let me have a glass of liquor; / Pedro, Battista, help me down below.) / […] Oh, Julia! – (this curst vessel pitches so)- / Beloved Julia, hear me still beseeching! / (Here he grew inarticulate with retching.)” (2.20).
Because of the gale, the ship sank in the end, and several people of the crew, among them Juan and Pedrillo, his tutor, are saved and crowded into boats, and the prospect of reaching any shore seems to be small.
Within three days, the shipwrecked crew had eaten up all of the supplies they had; and, on the fifth day, the men, outraged by hunger, suggest that Juan should kill his spaniel to provide them with food. Juan thus kills his dog which originally belonged to his father. At first, Juan refuses to participate in eating the dog; but, on the next day, he eats one of the fore-paws. From this point onward, Juan is transformed into a fearless traveller, an ardent lover of numerous women, and a hero who experiences the horrors of wars and enslavement. Symbolically, it is not the dog that he is killing and eating, but a substitute for his father.
Robertson-Smith points out that the clans of a totemic system are named by an animal or plant that was chosen by them. The totemic animal cannot be killed, except on some highly specialised occasions. On such occasions, the totemic animal is identified with god, killed and consumed. The main purpose of such a meal is to secure the members with the totem–god and to gain his life-giving force. Robertson-Smith draws his theory upon the Bedouins’ habit of killing and eating a camel during particularly severe conditions in the desert (Skalicky 61). Besides this, Sigmund Freud suggests that “we consider ourselves justified in substituting the father for the totem animal” (Kristeva 56).
Juan’s dog is a spaniel and thus, at least linguistically, is connected to his Spanish father (Gigante 126), the “true Hidalgo” (1.9); hence Juan identifies the dog with his father. He eats his father to assimilate his strength and wisdom. Eating his father helps him to gain his powers and abilities. The rest of the shipwrecked crew partakes of the dog as well; but, for them, it is just a meal. That is why his companions are not endowed with any special powers.
Through this symbolic act, Juan has identified himself with the values of his father, and finally liberating himself from the control of his mother who will no longer exercise any power over the phases of his life and over his choice of lovers: notably, his future mistress will be a non-Christian. In the following cantos, Juan is no longer the timid adolescent, “a pious mama’s boy” (Eisler 612), but undergoes a true transformation – he manages to escape from slavery, to fight in the siege of Ismail, to rescue a Muslim orphan.
This idea of identification a man with a dog is not entirely unknown to Byron, for Byron himself had a great fondness for his dog, Boatswain, and was inconsolable after his death. Byron expresses his extreme sadness in verse:
But the poor dog, in life the firmest friend,
The first to welcome, foremost to defend,
Whose honest heart is still his master’s own,
Who labours, fights, lives, breathes for him alone,
Unhonoured falls, unnoticed all his worth,
Denied in heaven the soul he held on earth:
To mark a friend’s remains these stones arise,
I never knew but one, and here he lies. (Eisler 161)
Benita Eisler comments the event: “In eulogizing his pet, the poet’s sorrow turns to self-pity; he is Boatswain” (161). Byron showed the verses to Hobhouse, who mocked Byron’s tendency to exaggeration and his excessive self-love by changing Byron’s ending to “here I lies” (Eisler 161).
Juan is the only man in the shipwrecks to survive: all the others, except for four, perish. When the boat gets nearer to shore, they all start swimming to get there, but only Juan is endowed by such strength, powers, and protection that he manages to survive. By killing his dog Juan reiterates the death of his father; by the ritual dinner party, in which he consumes the dog’s flesh, Juan gains his father’s strength, a strength which will help him to survive.
Due to the colonial expansion that reached its peak during the Romantic period, the British were exposed to cultural diversity that spread both anxiety and fascination for the exotic territories. Their anxieties were displayed in the trope of cannibalism that became a great phenomenon in the Romantic writings. Cannibalism was a fearsome practice associated with the “savaged, degenerative and primitive” inhabitants of those exotic regions. Because of the extreme hunger and starvation that occurred during the Romantic era in the West, the practice of cannibalism was a subject of great debate and the fear that similar incidents could occur in the West was perceived as realistic. The occasions of cannibalism among shipwrecked sailors were also known to Western public (Kitson, “‘The Eucharist of Hell’”).
Usually, two forms of cannibalism can be recognised – ritual cannibalism, when the eating of human flesh is a symbolically loaded occasion, a part of a ceremony, in which the cannibals assimilate the strength of their victim (Kitson, “‘The Eucharist of Hell’”). During the Romantic period, it was associated with the exotic “other”, lustful, revengeful and superstitious “primitives” (Kitson, “Sustaining the Romantic and Racial Self”, 79). The second form is called survival, or white cannibalism and it happens at sea. European sailors resorted to it as a response to the want of supplies after the shipwrecks. Whereas the latter is well-documented and undoubtedly did occur, the anthropologists are quite sceptical about the extent and significance of the ritual cannibalism (Kitson, “‘The Eucharist of Hell’”). Nevertheless, the Western public constructed the exotic cannibal as a main distinguisher of cultural difference and of a racial and moral degeneracy (Kitson, “Sustaining the Romantic and Racial Self”, 79).
The revelation of the consequences of shipwrecks produced international scandals, but it also incited a great amount of sympathy among the public and the mode of behaviour became socially acceptable (Gigante 120). The British were familiar with the accounts of shipwrecks, particularly with that of the French frigate LaMéduse (Gigante 118). The accounts of two of the survivors of LaMéduse, published in 1816, include madness, mutiny, massacre, and cannibalism that followed the wrecks. They recollect how the survivors “fell upon the dead bodies with which the raft was covered, and cut off pieces, which some instantly devoured” (Gigante 120). The narratives were scandalous, but they also made the public imagine what they would do in the same situation. “We beseech you, do not feel indignation towards men who are already too unfortunate” (Gigante 120). Reading such emotionally-driven narratives, the public felt compassion for the sailors and survival cannibalism was viewed as behaviour that was necessary to adopt if one wanted to survive.
The shipwrecks narratives were also undoubtedly known to Byron and he used them to depict both the physical and emotional suffering of death at sea in his canto. A friend of John Keats reports: “Keats took up Ld Byrons Don Juan & singular enough he opened on the description of the Storm, which is evidently taken from the Medusa frigate & which the taste of Byron tryes to make a jest of” (Gigante 123-124). Byron also drew upon Sir J. G. Dalyell’s Shipwrecks and Disasters at Sea (1812) (Kitson, “‘The Eucharist of Hell’”) and upon memoirs of his own grandfather John, who survived a shipwreck off Patagonia, and his Narrative, where he recollects his experience of being forced to eat the skin and paws of his dog (Eisler 8).
The case of cannibalism as depicted in Don Juan occurs among the civilised Europeans and therefore it should be interpreted as survival cannibalism. But Byron makes a lot of references to Christianity and the killing of Pedrillo is so symbolically loaded that it cannot be read in other respects than as a case of ritual cannibalism. Byron ridicules the colonial dichotomy between the civilised and the savaged. Byron destroys the notion of Western superiority and non-Christian barbarism by attacking Western civilisation at its heart (Gigante 127).
Byron calls his ship Trinidada and thus makes connection to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity and the Eucharist (Gigante 127), which is by a lot of non-Christians viewed as cannibalism (Kitson, “‘The Eucharist of Hell’”). The Catholics take the Eucharist literally as the flesh and blood of Christ and Andrew MacGowan speaks of the early Christians as of “the ancient cannibals par excellence” (Kitson, “‘The Eucharist of Hell’”). Jocelyne Kolb remarks that “without the doctrine of transubstantiation, Byron’s account of cannibalism is unthinkable” (105).
After the shipwreck, Juan, the passengers and the crew are placed into a long boat. The men are hungry and exposed to cruel conditions, in which they adopt primitive and barbaric forms of behaviour and their animal appetite is awaken. “Give us more grog […] Juan answer’d, No! / ’T is true that death awaits both you and me, / But let us die like men, not sink below / Like brutes” (2.36). They have unwisely eaten all their supplies up during the first three days of their shipwreck. Then Juan’s spaniel is killed and consumed and then they resort to cannibalism. As they are unable to reach the decision on who should be sacrificed, they make lots from paper of Julia’s love letter to Juan. The lot falls on Pedrillo, Juan’s tutor, who is “a Catholic in faith” (2.76). Pedrillo’s sacrifice resembles that of Jesus (Gigante 129). An innocent person is chosen to save lives of his fellows. Byron places the killing and the consumption of Pedrillo on “the Sabbath or seventh day” (Gigante 128), “The seventh day, and no wind” (2.72) and it is evident that he uses the motif of crucifying Jesus: “He [Pedrillo] died as born, a Catholic in faith, […] / And first a little crucifix he kiss’d, / And then held out his jugular and wrist” (2.76).
But Pedrillo’s sacrifice is useless, and all those who partake of the human flesh go mad and die. Juan, who previously hesitated to eat his dog, refuses “even in extremity of their disaster, / Dine with them on his pastor and his master” (2.78) and saves his life.
Why the consumers of Pedrillo’s flesh go mad and raging, while the men of La Méduse, who did partake of the human flesh, survived? In this respect Byron draws on Dalyell’s narrative. Philip Martin argues that Byron accepted the widespread idea that the human flesh eaters become degenerate and mad (Kitson, “‘The Eucharist of Hell’”). For Martin, the shipwreck is an example of Byron’s political discourse. Martin regards Byron’s account of cannibalism as “an Enlightenment version” (Kitson, “‘The Eucharist of Hell’”). Enlightenment conception understands cannibalism as a sign of degeneracy. Charles Darwin, at the beginning of his academic career, viewed cannibals as racially degenerated (Kitson, “Sustaining the Romantic and Racial Self”, 79). Byron thus, in Martin’s view, draws on this conception and punishes the white cannibals.
Danger of Pollution
Juan, together with the other “three or four” men (2.78), refuses to partake to Pedrillo’s flesh, but those who do, end up tragically:
And foam, and roll, with strange convulsions rack’d
Drinking salt-water like a mountain-stream;
Tearing, and grinning, howling, screeching, swearing,
And, with hyæna-laughter, died despairing.
Their numbers were much thinn’d by this infliction
And all the rest were thin enough, Heaven knows;
And some of them had lost their recollection,
Happier than they who still perceived their woes;
But others ponder’d on a new dissection,
As if not warn’d sufficiently by those
Who had already perish’d, suffering madly,
For having used their appetites so sadly. (2.79-80)
Why does Byron punish those who ate the human flesh? Christine Kenyon Jones points out that Byron is “highly conscious of European taboos” (259) about eating habits. Byron is also aware and fascinated by the religious restrictions imposed on food (Jones 258). In Judeo-Christian tradition the eating of a dog or cannibalism are viewed as dangerous and impure eating habits. Mary Douglas in her 1966 book Purity and Danger argues that both danger and power are attached to deliberate transgression of the boundaries that are forbidden in particular cultures (21). She goes on and says that in all cultures “there are different kinds of impossibilities, anomalies, bad mixings and abominations. Most of the items receive varying degrees of condemnation and avoidance” (Douglas 167). In the Judeo-Christian context eating the human flesh is seen as particularly polluting, so it was only natural that Byron punishes those who crossed the forbidden boundaries of their culture. Byron himself refers to the act of eating Pedrillo as “pollution”.
Then lots were made, and mark’d, and mix’d, and handed
In silent horror, and their distribution
Lull’d even the savage hunger which demanded,
Like the Prometheus vulture, this pollution (2.75).
The danger of pollution can, however, be to some extent eliminated by rituals of purity (Douglas 2). As Professor Harper points out: “The process of eating is potentially polluting, but the manner determines the amount of pollution” (Douglas 32). Although the shipwreck survivors participate in a highly polluting and dangerous act, the killing of Pedrillo is made in ritualistic way that could possibly reduce the amount of pollution and its subsequent punishment. The killing of Pedrillo takes on the pattern of Jewish ritualistic slaughter. Byron became familiar with Judaism and its practices in 1814, and perhaps even earlier, when he was writing lyrics to music of Isaac Nathan, a Jew, who believed to have rediscovered some of the ancient Hebrew melodies (“Judaism: Byron’s Passovers and Nathan’s melodies”). In Jewish tradition, blood is an extremely polluting substance. In order to make the meat from animals pure, the animals have to be slaughtered by a professional butcher, who bleeds them to death by a single cut made by a special knife with which trachea and jugular vein are cut. The animal should feel so little pain as possible (Roden 33).
Pedrillo is killed by a surgeon with his instruments. Even though a surgeon cannot be compared to a professional butcher, he is, in fact, a professional as well, he is well-versed in anatomy and knows precisely where to cut. He also possesses his highly specialised instruments. Pedrillo is killed and feels the smallest amount of pain:
The surgeon had his instruments, and bled
Pedrillo, and so gently ebb’d his breath,
You hardly could perceive when he was dead.
He died as born, a Catholic in faith,
Like most in the belief in which they’re bred,
And first a little crucifix he kiss’d,
And then held out his jugular and wrist. (2.76)
But, even such measures do not prevent the eaters of Pedrillo’s flesh from punishment. Is the ritual useless, or does Byron use it to make the allusion to Jesus’ crucifixion more intense, when he lets Pedrillo being killed by a Jew as well?
Rescued man by a female figure on an isolated island is a commonplace in literature and it goes back to the Greek mythology and the story of Odysseus and Circe. In the stories with such a motif, the female figure uses highly specific devices of her own to gain power over the man and to reverse the traditional roles ascribed to men and women. Mervyn Nicholson calls the logic of such narratives “power poetics” (44) and the woman, who provides the man with food he cannot resist, the “Tricky Female” (46). The compulsive character of the food she prepares for him associates seduction and love (Nicholson 47). The man’s developed dependency on her food and the woman herself leads to the loss of his identity, obsession and enslavement. (Nicholson 53).
As women are associated with the role of food preparer in the vast majority of cultures, food has become one of their most effective – and sometimes the only – form of manipulation with their environment and families, especially fathers and husbands. (Bynum 189-190). The role of food suppliers is held to be subordinate, and also less prestigious than that of men’s role of consumers (Nicholson 48), but, “to prepare food is to control food” (Bynum 191), and women therefore possess an important tool to threaten the traditional values of a male-dominated society. The Tricky Female looks innocent, powerless and “intensely erotic” (Nicholson 47), but, in the end she destroys the independent identity of the man.
As the only survivor of the shipwreck, Juan gets to the shores of the Eastern Islands, where is found and rescued by Haidée, the only daughter of a pirate Lambro, and her maid Zoe. Haidée seems to be innocent: “She was all which pure ignorance allows” (2.190), sexually attractive: “Short upper lip-sweet lips! that make us sigh” (2.118), and helpless: “A virgin always on her maid relies” (2.131). Haidée is pretty and wears expensive clothes: “Her girdle sparkled, and the richest lace / Flow’d in her veil, and many a precious stone / Flash’d on her little hand” (2.121), however, her beauty is not only innocent, but also frightening, because all her wealth comes from the illegal activities of her farther, who is also involved in the trade with humans (Stabler 150).
The girls decide to place Juan in a cave and provides him with food – breakfast that is made by older and more experienced Zoe: “I can’t say that she gave them any tea / But there were eggs, fruit, coffee, bread, fish, honey / With Scio wine, - and all for love, not money” (2.145). Despite not even tasting the food, as he is still sleeping, Juan’s dependency on Haidée, and his already lost power over himself, is clearly evident from his sleeping position: “and he lay beneath / Hush’d as the babe upon its mother breast (2.148), […] [Haidée] watch’d him like a mother”(2.158). Male degradation into the role of a baby symbolises the lost of his status, and shows his total dependency on the woman (Nicholson 49). The image of breast-feeding is equally powerful form of human union as sexual intercourse, but, in this case, it is the woman who is put in the power position (Nicholson 49). Being overcome by Haidée’s power Juan is not able to control his behaviour anymore: “[Juan] would have slept again / But the fair face which met his eyes forbade / Those eyes to close” (2.149). Haidée is aware of the power of the food and orders him to eat: “she told him […] that he was faint, and must not talk, but eat” (2.150).
Being famished for several weeks, Juan feels “a most prodigious appetite” (2.153), and cannot stop himself eating up breakfast. Compulsive eating is one of the ways to win control over the man and reverse the power relations between the man and the woman (Nicholson 48). Compulsive eating is also the first step to seduction (Nicholson 55). It is Zoe, who is “less in love” (2.145), who realises the danger of compulsive eating and makes Juan stop. On the contrary, Haidée, who wants Juan to be her lover, wants him to eat as much as possible: “[Haidée] would have fed / Him past all bounds, because she smiled to see / Such appetite” (2.158).
Juan and Haidée begin a relationship which seems idyllic. Haidée does not allow Juan to lower the intake of food that is now – when her father is reported to be dead, and she has overtaken the care over the household and the island itself – explicitly “her” food, from “her” island, from “her” own sources, which makes the food even more powerful. She uses excessively all the money of her father to supply Juan with delicious and sweet food that accompanies their sexual pleasure:
The dinner made about a hundred dishes;
Lamb and pistachio nuts-in short, all meats,
And saffron soups, and sweetbreads; and the fishes
Were of the finest that e’er flounced in nets,
The beverage was various sherbets
Of raisin, orange, and pomegranate juice,
And fruits, and date-bread loaves closed the repast
And Mocha’s berry, from Arabia pure,
Cloves, cinnamon, and saffron too were boil’d
Up with the coffee, which (I think) they spoil’d. (3.62-63)
Their self-indulging love and unbounded sexual appetite are visualised in their luxuries eating manners.
Haidée feeds Juan carefully in order not to lose him or her power over him, which would have serious consequences for her. Due to the logic of power poetics that she employs, the cultural roles are reversed. She takes control over the situation and makes Juan dependent on her. Juan is therefore put in the subordinate position. But, the subordination is traditionally associated with the role of food supplier, and as such, Juan becomes food himself (Nicholson 57). He is being consumed by Haidée: “She sits upon his knee, and drinks his sighs” (2.194) But, what is more, Juan is the only source of her power and life.
Compulsive eating has serious consequences for both. It leads to Juan’s enslavement and the loss of his identity. When Haidée’s father suddenly comes home, and finds his daughter together with Juan, he is outraged and orders other pirates to send Juan to the slave market in Constantinople, “wounded and chain’d, so that he cannot move / And all because a lady fell in love” (4.51). There, on the instruction of sultana Gulbeyaz, Juan is bought and secretly brought to the palace. Because Juan stays in the women’s part of the palace, he is forced to wear female clothes and suppress his identity. He introduces himself as Juanna and is called such for the rest of the Oriental canto.
The logic of power poetics and compulsive food has tragic consequences for Haidée, too. It is Juan who keeps her alive, and on losing him, she dies: “the power seem’d gone for ever” (4.68).
Haidée’s behaviour that she adopts immediately after Juan’s departure could be interpreted, as Peter W. Graham suggests, as anorexia nervosa (120). He argues that she shares several features that are typical of an anorectic, even though she previously enjoyed happy moments at the banquet with her lover.
One of the major causes of anorexia nervosa, is intense parental love of an energetic and demanding parent (Graham 120). Haidée, as the only child, has experienced a tender care of her father, who is a powerful pirate and practically the single ruler of the island. As his sole heiress, she enjoys high social and economical status (Graham 120): “[she was] as princess of her father’s land” (3.72). Being a pirate of cruel manners: “[he] scuttled ship or cut a throat” (3.41), it could be presumed that he asserts his authority in the domestic affairs, too. When Lambro is away from home, Haidée is not restricted to his rules any more: “Then came her freedom […] / So that, her father being at sea, she was free” (2.175). She begins a relationship with Juan and during father’s absence, she becomes a woman. She and Juan indulge in heavy feasting: “the dinner made about a hundred dishes” (3.62). When her father turns up, he sends Juan by a slave ship to Constantinople to get rid of him. As a consequence, Haidée refuses to eat and starves herself to death.
During Haidée’s growing up, her relationship with her father is plenty of loving care and she has no need to question his way of life and his values. She identifies with him and enjoys all the privileges she has from her familial bond. The jewellery and luxurious and decorated clothes she wears, as well as the feasts she organizes, come from the illegal and inhuman trade of her father (Stabler 150). Lambro takes it for granted that she will be the heiress of his property and lands, and that she will continue with his legacy. Haidée adopts the male values and identifies with the masculine, and as an anorectic she abhors the traditional roles of women and regards herself as superior to them (Heywood 31). Her role of a girl that has grown up on an isolated island is strongly emphasised and she is excluded from all the womanhood and women’s social roles. What may a woman of Western society expects from her life?
A thankless husband, next a faithless lover,
Then dressing, nursing, praying, and all’s over.
Some take a lover, some take drams or prayers,
Some mind their household, others dissipation,
Some run away, and but exchange their cares
Few changes e’er can better their affairs,
Theirs being an unnatural situation (2. 200-201).
But none of these apply to Haidée, because she “was Nature’s bride, and knew not this” (2.202). Haidée does not want to be part of the female world and identifies herself with the masculine. Even physically, she does not resemble a typical female as she is “tall beyond her sex” (4.43). Her father has had a great influence on her, and formed her in such a way to accord with his male demands:
Your nature’s firmness-know your daughter’s too.”
How like they look’d! the expression was the same;
Her father’s blood before her father’s face
Boil’d up, and proved her truly of his race (4.42-44).
As food is so central to women, it is also their effective way of shaping their lives. Through their abstinence of food, they can effectively criticize, manipulate, or convert their family members (Bynum 220). When Haidée’s father sends Juan away, she does not have any more accessible form of protesting against his behaviour than that which is connected with food, which has been for centuries a woman-dominated area: “It was far more difficult to flee one’s family, to deny a father’s plans […] than it was stop eating” (Bynum 191). The image of a family is strongly associated with commensality – eating together. To refuse commensality is to refuse the family’s values (Bynum 223). With refusing father’s meal, Haidée also refuses all his money, comfort, security, and social status. “Her father watch’d, she turned her eyes away” (4.64).
During her father’s absence, Haidée falls deeply in love and experiences her first sexual relationship. Her father will not be the first man in her life anymore. What is more, she is pregnant and when Lambro turns up she is ashamed by his humiliation. Graham argues that her following starvation is her attempt to “remain the mirror of her father” (121). By starvation she wants to deny her womanliness, sexuality and fertility. But, she is also outraged by her father’s cruel behaviour and by the loss of her beloved person. As she resembles her father so much, she feels guilty for Juan’s enslavement and tries to destroy all the likeness to her father by starvation, thus she minimizes herself.
Haidée also shares other features with anorectics. It is the deeply rooted fear of her body and sexuality. Western tradition views the female body as “inherently evil, desiring, fleshly” (Heywood 54). Haidée’s starvation is her attempt to forget all the cultural designations that are attributed to the female body. She feels guilty for her previous uncontrollable sexual appetite and aberrant eating. By not eating she wants to purify her body. Fasting is her means to discipline her body that previously run out of control in feasting and sexual desire. Haidée punishes herself for enjoying sexual pleasure, and not eating is the most effective means to achieve it, “for the stomach and the genitals are close together” as Peter the Chanter warnes (Bynum 216). By starving herself she attempts to make her body pure again.
Anorectic behaviour helps girls to gain control both over themselves and circumstances. Haidée is distracted by the loss of her beloved Juan and by the fact that she does not have any power to control the circumstances. She realises that she is not able to control or influence any turbulent events that happen in her life. Haidée is afraid of the loss of control over her future and chooses starvation, because she knows that she cannot control nothing else than her eating manners. She chooses not eating as there is nothing else she could choose.
“I was born to opposition.”
Several psychiatrists have recently diagnosed Byron’s eating disorder as anorexia nervosa (Jones 250). The term was launched by the British physician William W. Gull in 1868 (Furst 5). Today, the illness is associated with adolescent girls who attempt to accede to beauty requirements of slimness (Heywood 18). In this view, anorexia is viewed as a learned behaviour.
If anorexia is a culture-related, learned behaviour, what makes Byron, the “sex-hero” (Paglia 347) of 19th century England, when “great George weighs twenty stone” (Don Juan 8.126), starve himself and live only on biscuits and soda water? Byron’s obsession with food and his horror of obesity cannot be simply a matter of beauty. Like his contemporaries, Byron, too, equated thinness with unhealthiness and poverty (Eisler 120). That he did not associate thinness with beauty is evident from his comments on his famous lover Caro Lamb. Byron complained that Caro’s figure “though genteel, was too thin, wanting that roundness that grace and elegance would vainly supply” (Eisler 335). Also in Don Juan Byron expresses his taste: […] Dudù’s form / Look’d more adapted to be put to bed. / Being somewhat large […] / Yet of a beauty that would drive you crazy (Don Juan 6.41). Being slender was unfashionable in an age that admired opulent female attributes. Though Byron shared the taste of his contemporaries, his eating habits were in the contrast to lavish meals that were consumed in Regency England. If Byron’s abstinence from food is not connected with beauty, it must have a more serious function – and not only in his life, but also in his texts.
Leslie Heywood in her 1996 book Dediacation to Hunger introduces an idea of “anorexic logic” that is characteristic of Western culture, and can be traced back to classical philosophy. Anorexic logic rejects and despises female flesh, values mind over body, thin over fat, white over black, masculine over feminine, individual over community. Heywood argues that it is because of this logic that “there are reasons why a ripple of fat tissue over the ribs or the protrusion of a stomach is the source of anxiety, self-loathing, unreasonable fear” (Heywood xii). As a consequence of anorexic logic, Western culture is dominated by binary oppositions, and the dichotomy between masculine and feminine, flesh and spirit, white and black, heterosexual and homosexual, is strongly articulated. Due to the devaluation of the female body, women resort to anorexia because it is slenderness what makes them look like men. Anorexia therefore allows, if only for a while, to forget the gender identity (Heywood 46). Anorexia, as the result of the “white, upwardly mobile, masculine worldview” (Heywood 57), attempts to make the demarcation between masculine and feminine less distinct. Heywood also examines several modernist texts that are, in her opinion, based on anorexic logic, and suggests the idea that the female disease has been transformed to male textual practice (56)
Byron is trapped in the binary oppositions that Western culture imposes on him. Both in his private life and in his works, he is constantly working with such dichotomies as East and West, Christian and non-Christian, religion and atheism, civilised and savaged, mind and body, masculine and feminine, heterosexual and homosexual, fat and thin.
There is no doubt that Byron is influenced by anorexic logic, he values mind over body or masculine over feminine, and the binary oppositions are frequently discussed in his texts. However, though being male, white and member of dominant culture, it is not him, who defines anorexic logic. Rather, he behaves in a way that a woman in a male-dominated culture does, he resorts to anorexia to make the male/female, heterosexual/homosexual, East/West, Christian/non-Christian divides less distinct. From his anorexic position, Byron is able to destroy the binary oppositions and ridicule the traditional Western dichotomies between the civilised and the savaged, when, in Don Juan, the civilised Europeans partake of human flesh, or between masculine and feminine, when Juan is dressed as a woman and no one notices it, or, between Christian humanity and peacefulness and Islamic tyranny as the British are associated with beef-eating and bellicosity, while the Muslims with asceticism and softness.
By mocking the binary oppositions, Byron is constantly fighting against them. But Byron’s imprisonment in them continues even after his death. Benita Eisler says that “there is a Byron for everyone” (761). And indeed, few poets have been usurped by so many opposing groups: “He has been claimed by Labour politicians, queer theorists, and specialists in manic depression; in matters of belief, he has been shown to be atheist, agnostic, and a defender of orthodoxy; a true cosmopolitan and the most English of poets; a misogynist who gave voice to women’s ‘She condition’ with a sympathy rarely heard in his own day – or ours” (Eisler 761).
For the poet with a long-lived fascination for abominations, the Western male/female, homosexual/heterosexual, East/West divides which express the idea of “either – or”, is too strict. Byron’s anorexia is his form of rebellion against Western society and its order that does not allow any in-between positions and where “none were permitted to be neuter” (Don Juan 2.75). Anorexia is for him, as for other anorectics, an attempt to create an alternative space, in which one can, at least temporarily, avoid the male/female, white/black, heterosexual/homosexual divides (Heywood 13). “The anorexic body functions as a disavowal of gender or as a postponement of choice between masculine and feminine” (Heywood 46). Anorexia provides Byron with protection from the Western divides and offers him an alternative space, in which there is no need to define his sexual or gender identity, as anorexia gives him “the illusionary horizon of an ungendered space” (Heywood 46).
Byron’s anorexia is his way to reject Western dichotomies. From his anorexic position, Byron also destroys the fundamental dichotomy in the history of Western culture – that of being and non-being. From the Western perspective, you have to choose – to be, or not to be – there is nothing in between, take it or leave it. However, Byron refuses to choose: “‘To be, or not to be?’ – Ere I decide, […] / For my part, I’ll enlist on neither side” (Don Juan 9.16). By using his own eating disorder, Byron subverts the Western social order.
This thesis examines eating disorders both in Byron’s private life and in his masterpiece Don Juan. As eating disorder is understood any form of consumption that deviates from what is perceived as a norm. The eating disorders depicted in Don Juan range from common anorexia nervosa and compulsive eating, to extreme eating disorders such as the consumption of a dog and cannibalism. The consumption of Juan’s dog is interpreted as a totemic dinner by which Juan assimilates the strength and wisdom of his father. Partaking of human flesh is viewed as a case of ritual cannibalism as the killing of Pedrillo resembles Jesus’ crucifixion. By bringing the association of cannibalism and the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, Byron destroys the colonial dichotomy between Christian superiority and exotic barbarity. As Byron is highly conscious of taboos about eating habits, all the men who partake of the human flesh perish. Douglas argues that the transgression of forbidden boundaries of particular cultures is dangerous, and followed by punishment. Juan’s feasting on Haidée’s island is viewed as compulsive eating which will result in his seduction, enslavement and the loss of his identity. Haidée’s behaviour that she adopts after Juan’s departure is viewed as anorexia nervosa which is her attempt to punish herself for her previous feasting and sexual desire, and also an attempt to protest against her father and his values.
Byron’s own eating disorder is interpreted as anorexia nervosa, but, it is argued, that his abstinence from food is not simple a matter of beauty, rather, it is a textual practice he uses to destroy the Western dichotomies, and his way to rebel against the social order.
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