Phoebe, The One Who Knows Things, told me that she no longer knew what love meant. Do we ever? Phoebe is worried by how, when you’re ill, you can look at somebody you know so intimately with such apparent lack of feeling. Personal relationships, and the emotions that fuel them, are aqueous and difficult to pin down at the best of times, and, as we know, the brain’s capacity to entertain these subtler aspects of the human experience are switched off as you become more undernourished and your body has to prioritise more vital mental functions. (You can tell I’m a firm believer in the “Mind is Brain” doctrine, can’t you?)
I started thinking about romantic relationships, although that wasn’t what Phoebe meant (probably because she lives with her mother but I live with my wife). Starvation teases out the whole complex of synapses, neural pathways, that make up that complicated tangle of attitudes, relationships, feelings, thoughts and urges, like a fishmonger lifts out the whole skeleton of a fish, then picks out the last pin bones with a pair of tweezers: there’s nothing left. You no longer feel sexual urges, but you also don’t even comprehend attraction in romantic relationships. You really do look at the most beautiful, sensual people with a blank incomprehension. What on earth could induce them to act in this way?
When I was a teenager, enduring puberty, my whole year group had to stand up in our morning assembly because there weren’t enough chairs, the school having recently expanded, and I used to get these involuntary erections. I guess my changing body was running some tests. I grew to dread these assemblies, fearing the random visitations, which couldn’t be hidden as they might if I was sitting down. What if somebody saw? Oh, the shame! Singled out forever as The Boy with the Erections, The Boy with the Massive Schlong. How terrible…
Well, they do say education is wasted on the young. How I would love to have that ability (or that reputation) now. But I’ve put on some weight, as you know, and I’m beginning to experience stirrings of sexual desire. The odd half-erection, on waking, lifts the mood. I relish it.
There is a whole beach on Achill Island that disappeared, due to the vagaries of the currents, in 1984, and returned a couple of years ago, virtually overnight. There was an article in the paper about it one Saturday and it’s an appropriate analogy. There was also a picture of a couple going skinny dipping. You only saw them from the back, but I was suddenly struck by how attractive the girl looked. She seemed tallish and slim but healthily solid, a look I particularly like (odd, given that I’m anorexic) There it was: undeniable, pointless, inexplicable sexual attraction.
But there’s the very problem: this young woman isn’t my wife and I guess one of my issues has always been that I have a low opinion of myself and my self-control. I don’t condemn the impulse. As I said, it exists because it exists, but I probably shouldn’t entertain it and, deep down in the liminal subsoils where the conscious brain blends with the unconscious, I guess I don’t trust myself. Get me drunk enough and I’m not sure I wouldn’t sleep with her if she came onto me. I hope I wouldn’t. The idea currently fills me with horror; I’m terrified of the idea of Jo reading this entry, but I have experience of my former self. There have been many moments in my past, before I met Jo, when the spinning plates have suddenly flipped off and smashed, when the person I was suddenly said “Fuck it! Why not?!” I hope I’m not like that now. I understand, but still sympathetically condemn, such behaviour; I don’t want to be like that again.
Anorexia resists base, physical impulses and appetites. It rejects with the Cartesian dualist’s disgust the body and all its farting, burping, spermy, pooing, spewing, snotty treacherous physicality. With some success, actually: you don’t fart; you rarely poo and when you do it’s a dense, black, odourless product, like sheep dung.
And you don’t feel sexual desire. You chemically castrate yourself. See, my love, I did this for you: Self-control taken just a little too far.