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Francine Prose
New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
$17.95, 108 pages, ISBN 0-19-515699-4.

Stephen M. Steck
Université de Montréal

Cher Holt-Fortin
SUNY Oswego, Oswego NY

Stephen M. Steck
Université de Montréal

In David Fincher’s 1997 film Seven, a meticulous serial killer assumes the role of God’s unwanted messenger in order to eliminate perpetrators of The Seven Deadly Sins. Upon his capture, the mutilated line between guilt and innocence fades when an officer ridicules “madman” logic:

Detective: Wait a minute; I thought all you did was kill innocent people?
Killer: Innocent? Is that supposed to be funny? An obese man, a disgusting man who could barely stand up? A man who if you saw him on the street, you'd point him out to your friends so they could join you in mocking him? A man who if you saw him while you were eating, you wouldn't be able to finish your meal?

Exit Hollywood. Or as Francine Prose contends in Gluttony, keep your eye on that mutilated line since contempt for the glutton is always locatable somewhere between guilt and innocence. Although Prose does not bother with films such as Seven, she does poignantly blend history, religious doctrine, philosophy, literature and popular culture in an effort to create a holistic guide to the subject at hand. She even serves up a palatable answer as to why one of God’s victim-per-vice messengers would view the glutton as an ultimate sinner by explaining that “the principal danger of gluttony was thought to reside in its nature as a form of idolatry, the most literal sort of navel gazing, of worshipping the belly as a God” [p. 3]. But to comprehend the glutton’s role in a postmodernist world inextricably bound to consumption remains an impossible feat until we recognize that today’s sinner is our own imagined scapegoat, or devil, or hero. And for this very reason, contends the author, stigma accompanies gluttony's own equally “intriguing and paradoxical history” [p. 3].

Prose is a well-known writer and editor, and Gluttony is the second installment in the New York Public Library and Oxford University Press’s Seven Deadly Sins Series. As with Joseph Epstein’s preceding book Envy, Prose’s work does not offer a mundane chronological account of a deadly sin’s history but rather an interconnected telling of both ancient and modern-day overindulgers. Beyond a rehashing of philosophical and theological origins, timeless works of literature serve to highlight contradictory opinions of the glutton, as double-edged in nature as the sin in question. Prose writes:

For unlike pride, envy, wrath—sins we can wholeheartedly condemn, sins that are hard to love—there’s something about the serious glutton (or in any case, some serious gluttons) that inspires a certain respect for the life force—the appetite—asserting itself in all that prodigious feasting. It’s not unlike our secret feelings about various Don Juans and Casanovas; even as we understand the compulsive quality of their behavior and the destructive effects it has on their hapless lovers, we can’t help feeling a grudging regard for so much sheer energy. [p. 86]

In her introductory chapters, Prose attempts to answer the pivotal question of whether or not gluttony should even qualify as a deadly sin. To do so, she impartially renders the findings of dissimilar philosophers, including the fourth-century Desert Father Evagrius of Pontus (“whose ascetic regimen in the wilderness was at once a protest against the sin of gluttony” [p. 9]) and the sixth-century Pope Gregory the Great (“the pioneer enumerator of the seven deadly sins” [p. 7]), in an effort to provide at least two dominant explanations as to why early theologians found gluttony so seriously offensive:

The first principal objection to gluttony is that worship of the senses in general and of the sense of taste in particular turns our attention from holy things and becomes a substitute for the worship of God […] The second theory is that gluttony makes us let down our guard, weakens our moral defenses, and thus paves the way for lechery and debauchery, an argument that seemed especially cogent during those centuries when the term “gluttony” signified not only excessive eating […] but also overindulgence in drink. [p. 14]

As her study proceeds, Prose does not rely upon Christian doctrine for the overarching picture of gluttony’s shape-shifting condition. Be it the principles and warnings set forth by Evagrius and Gregory or the evocative antics performed by Rabelais’s Gargantua and Chaucer’s Pardoner, Prose notes that while the Middle Ages and early Renaissance saw harsh condemnations of the glutton, the Industrial Revolution and "eighteenth-century rationalism" [p. 33] saw this sinner as an emblematic wearer of vitality. Set to such a backdrop are the first-hand experiences of the nineteenth-century industrialist Diamond Jim Brady (“who was said to know that he had eaten enough when his belly had swelled to span the distance that, at the start of the meal, he’d left between his stomach and the edge of the table” [p. 39]) and the more recent example of twentieth-century vocalist Carnie Wilson (who “underwent laparoscopic gastric bypass surgery, an operation that was viewed live and in real time by 250,000 people” [p. 81]). That a beauty-driven culture consumed by body image steadily replaces those relentlessly divine condemners of old remains more than plausible. In this regard, our culture is hypocritical by design, for we choose to ignore the most serious issues at hand. Prose explains:

What goes without saying is how far we’ve come from the image of devil tempting the sinner with pies and cakes, plying the glutton with the joys of the table as a substitute for—a dangerous distraction from—the more profound rewards of the spirit. For all the intensity of the medieval debate about the nature of predestination and free will, no one seems to have doubted that the glutton had a choice concerning when, what, and how much to eat—how far and how vehemently to resist the devil. At the same time, early philosophers had remarkably little interest in why the glutton overate—or perhaps it was merely assumed that the glutton liked eating. [p. 60]

The book’s subsequent focus becomes a concentrated blending of the contemporary biological and psychodynamic elements that contribute to the glutton’s stature and status. Drawing upon Kim Chernin’s exploration of female self-loathing in The Obsession, as well as Dr. Benjamin Wolman and Dr. Stephen deBerry’s findings in Psychological Aspects of Obesity, Prose weighs the “genetic factors” and "socio-economic and cultural influences” [p. 59] prior to pointing out that a glutton's physical weight is dwarfed by the psychological burdens thrust upon them by peers. It is therefore fitting that a final warning is directed at the truest source of evil: “However one praises or condemns this problematic and eternally seductive deadly sin, one thing seems clear: the broad, shiny face of the glutton has been—and continues to be—the mirror in which we see ourselves, our hopes and fears, our darkest dreams and deepest desires” [p. 94]. In other words, the mutilated line between guilt and innocence was never there to begin with.

Cher Holt-Fortin
SUNY Oswego, Oswego NY

Supersize it! All you can eat! No carbs. Low carbs. Low fat. Positively Gargantuan proportions. An epidemic of fatness. What is going on? Gluttony, one might answer. Though in a diet-obsessed culture that would be, on the surface, an odd response, but in America food is complicated.

In a book based on a lecture series on the Seven Deadly Sins hosted by the New York Public library, Francine Prose briefly explores the evolution of the concept of gluttony from sin to psychological illness in Western thinking. While the “seven deadlies” don’t exist as a list in the Bible, they evolve in Christian theology in the early centuries. Pope Gregory describes five ways gluttony reveals itself: “Too soon, too delicately, too expensively, too greedily, too much” [p. 5]. For the modern eater, perhaps only the last would seem to be gluttony. In a period when food was scarce, eating well would seem to be an odd sort of sin. But in the fourth century, the ascetic Evagrius of Pontus defined gluttony this way:

Gluttony is the mother of lust, the nourishment of evil thoughts, laziness in fasting, obstacle to asceticism, terror to moral purpose, the imaging of food, sketcher of seasonings, unrestrained colt, unrestrained frenzy, receptacle of disease, envy of health, obstruction of the (bodily) passages, groaning of the bowels, the extreme of outrages, confederate of lust, pollution of the intellect, weakness of the body, difficult sleep, gloomy death. [p. 10]

While these might be the effects of gluttony, the real sin lay in pleasure. The enjoyment of food and eating, of gratifying the body’s animal need seems to be the essence of the sin. The early Church viewed such pleasure as a kind of idolatry, of worshipping the body more than the soul and of being more concerned with the physical and the immediate than with the spiritual and the eternal. At the same time, St. Benedict in writing his Rule for monasteries must have taken into consideration the place food and its consumption played in the social ordering of any group of people living together. He was also aware that food was not a fixed resource and needed to be regulated for the good of the community. There is a sense in his Rule that gluttony is sinful because it causes dissension and want in the community. In this section of her book, Prose demonstrates the medieval attitudes toward gluttony with quotes from the Church fathers and from secular writers such as Chaucer. Dante and Bosch create specifically unpleasant hells for gluttons.

The Renaissance with its Puritan revolutions and the introduction of rationalism in the eighteenth century and thence into the period of the Industrial Revolution sees a radical refocusing of “human imagination” [p. 3] that allows us to consider the delights of the physical world. Indeed, the rising wealthy bourgeoisie delighted in showing off their worldly success. Lavish dinners and prodigious eating openly expressed pleasure in satisfying the appetite for physical pleasure. The Puritans reminded us of the traps of the flesh, but they came too late in history to reclaim gluttony as a sin. Instead, their legacy of restraint and perhaps even asceticism, managed to disassociate eating and pleasure.

In American culture, gluttony is now a medical issue or a social sin. Legendary eaters such as Diamond Jim Brady are no longer thought of as role models. Their modern counterparts are those people who literally eat themselves into their houses and have to be removed (for medical care) by taking the doors off the house. These stories make the news from time to time, allowing all of us to feel better about ourselves; at least we aren’t that fat. No one thinks of those unfortunates as eaters who love food. Instead we define them as “sick,” dependent, self-destructive. At the same time they are condemned as weak willed, self-indulgent, and lazy. Without a cultural concept of eating as pleasure, our culture deforms the appetite from the beginning. Witness a few years ago, middle-class parents who wanted to put their infants on low-fat diets, to ensure they would not grow up obese. The child’s appetite was from infancy to be formed to avoid fat in its many forms. Unfortunately, the human brain needs fats to develop and those parents were warned that they could damage their child’s intellectual ability by seeking to manage its body.

Our diets are sold as “health” measures, when in reality they are aimed at the American/Western ideal of thinness. The wages of sin, in our culture, are not eternal damnation but real time damnation. No one in this culture desires to be fat. So commercialism and a Puritan hangover combine to create an industry of dieting, denial, and failure. At the same time anorexia spreads among teens. Prose asserts:

But now that we are more likely to believe in some form of free will, we are paradoxically more willing to believe that eating or not eating is a response to something that happens outside of ourselves, something that was done to us, and that we must struggle to overcome. [p. 61]

At the same time fat people are fat because of moral laxness. Why else would Overeaters Anonymous use a 12-step program, which involves admitting one’s sin, i.e. identifying as an overeater to a group? And so, as Prose points out, they come full circle to the sin of gluttony. Look at the way we talk about food: good foods, bad foods, indulgence, sinfully delicious. On the other hand low-fat, low-calorie, low-carb foods are touted as guilt free. We understand overeating, too much. But what about too delicately? What about our friends who can only eat certain things? We all know them, the people who demand the menu when invited to dinner, those who bring their own food, who can’t eat this or that, not for medical reasons or religious reasons, which would be outside the definition of gluttony. Selfish and self-indulgent, these people also represent gluttony by privileging the private Self over the social Self. In this group are also those who indulge in what C.S. Lewis calls the glutton of nicety. We know them. I am one. Rather than drink instant coffee I will go without. Folger’s? The store brand of coffee? Surely you jest. Such swill would never cross my lips (though I am less fussy about tea). Not only is this gluttony, it is learned gluttony, not simply overindulgence. This type of “delicacy” is driven by the need for status, at least in part. Good coffee and good food taste better. But knowing the good things confers social currency and allows one to indulge that private Self again. Does this differ in essence from the gluttony of my friend who brings her own food? Not really. In each case the offender, if I may, considers her choice to be better than the choice of someone else. Indulgence, then, is perhaps an essential part of gluttony.

Francine Prose gives an overview of the history of a complex subject. She is stronger on the modern manifestations of gluttony than she is on the medieval idea of gluttony, perhaps because we are less convinced of the reality of sin and more conversant with the modern repercussions of obesity. Reproductions of artwork depicting gluttony or the hell that awaits a glutton are included as are a brief bibliography and an index. In Gluttony, we have the “lite” version of the history of a sin we have all, upon occasion, committed.



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