So I’ve been thinking more about temporal drag (an idea borrowed from Elizabeth Freeman – see my earlier post), this time in relation to narrative — how narrative crosses time, performing the pull of the past upon the present. Temporal drag in narrative can solder wormholes between eras, producing a vertical layering of temporalities that, in being made to run parallel, refuse anachronism, refuse progress. An example would be Octavia Butler’s Kindred which through a time travel portal forges links and adjacencies between slavery-era U.S. and the present, two seemingly discrete periods that in the narrative are simultaneous; in this approach to time Butler exposes ways in which the present is continuously affected by, suffocated or haunted by, a past that is not past because the present continues to revive it — rejecting the master narrative of progress. Science fiction often does this explicitly through mechanisms like Butler’s portal. Then there’s temporal drag produced via appropriation, via rewriting, revising. These strategies work in different specific ways to produce complex ties across time, bending time, if you will — but that image already presumes linearity.
Susan Terris’s Nell’s Quilt, published in 1987, is a young adult novel set in 1899 that charts the rise and rise and approaching fall of protagonist Nell’s anorexia. This book may seem like a random choice until I tell you I’ve been studying eating disorder narratives. This particular ED narrative is of interest to me because it uses temporal drag to connect different periods through recognizable pathology. (I use the word ‘pathology’ uneasily, am still figuring out how to discuss pathology, or perceived pathology, or ‘pathology,’ with a critical view of the idea itself — open to suggestions for how to do so more elegantly.)
In 1899, when the novel is set, there was no such thing as anorexia as we know it, or as readers in 1987 would have known it: a distinct and recognizable set of behaviors with a complicated etiology and serious bodily consequences first officialized by the DSM in 1980. Eating disorders did not spontaneously emerge in the 70s and 80s, of course, as Joan Jacobs Brumberg has shown in Fasting Girls: The History of Anorexia Nervosa — they’ve been around, first (to my knowledge) documented in the 13th-16th centuries connected with women fasting fastidiously out of religious devotion. Eating disorders, and anorexia has received the most attention probably because it’s the most visible, have come and gone in waves, with one such wave occurring in the late 19th century in the US, England, and France. In the time of Nell’s Quilt, laypeople (and most physicians) knew nothing of eating disorders as eating disorders: Nell’s symptoms are incomprehensible, in fact she’s diagnosed as neurasthenic, and her family rejects what they see as her selfishness, weakness, and stupidity. (Hmm, these attitudes sound familiar — are we sure we’ve moved past them?)
Nell is a young woman stuck in time, living with her family who are struggling to make ends meet on a farm in New England. She can see a future on the horizon: she is both proud and deeply envious of her grandmother, who lived an independent life in Boston, where she was active in advancing women’s rights; and Nell dreams of joining the feminist struggle herself. But she can’t get out of her situation, which seems regressive even to her: she’s faced with an unwanted marriage proposal she feels pressured to accept because her marriage would alleviate her family of much of its debt. Nell’s feminist consciousness develops throughout the novel — she understands that her father is treating her as property because of her gender (“I was the collateral for Papa’s loan”); she resents the unfairness of her best friend Rob being able to go off and explore the world while her own future is limited to either staying on her farm, or marrying and going to live on her husband’s farm, where she’ll be expected to mother his daughter from a previous marriage. Rather than step into either of these futures, Nell stops eating.
Nell’s anorexia is a protest, and the novel treats it as such, is sympathetic to Nell’s situation and the unfair economic and social hierarchies that determine her life. In 1987, the time when Terris was writing the novel, anorexia/EDs were all over the media after Karen Carpenter’s death in 1983, and psychologists and the general population were only just beginning to understand the epidemic, often playing blame-the-anorexic, or sensationalizing them when they weren’t being stigmatized. By moving to the past — to an era where the future of women’s rights was on the horizon, where progress seemed inevitable — within a ‘post-feminist’ context in which so many of these women were giving their power over to eating disorders, Terris implicitly connects the two eras. Her insertion of contemporary, ‘post-feminist’ pathology into a past of emergent feminist potentiality produces a dissonance that suggests that the past is not quite past — sure, “progress,” but not clear or simply progress, the work is not, will never be done — and that makes a case for anorexic behaviors as a reaction, and a legitimate one at that, to sexism both in Nell’s time and in Terris’s.
Pulling from Freeman again, this time her essay on erotohistoriography, I’ll revise her question, which is concerned with queer practices of pleasure, to suit my own interrogation: “how might [dangerous or ‘pathological’ body management practices], be thought of as temporal practices, even as portals to historical thinking?” (59) What does it mean to link historically specific pathologies via narratological temporal drag? What does it mean to recuperate Freud’s case study of Dora, for instance, as Gina Frangello does in My Sister’s Continent, reviving and revising Dora’s pathology, refusing to see it as over, as historic, as no-longer-conscious? And how might these issues relate to Johannes’ notion of atrocity kitsch? I’m thinking of the sensationalism of a lot of eating disorder narratives, especially the early ones which tend to both exploit and condescend to eating disordered individuals.
I know I said I’d further discuss Muñoz, how his critique of queer utopia relates the past to the future but I’ll save that for a next time, dot dot dot. Meanwhile, from Todd Haynes’ Superstar (full movie available here):