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Home :: Archive :: 2009 :: January ::
SBReviews_1: The Culture of Obesity in Early and Late
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 20.0031  Tuesday, 20 January 2009

From:       Hardy M. Cook <
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Date:       Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Subject:    SBReview_1: The Culture of Obesity in Early and Late Modernity


SBReview_1: Elena Levy-Navarro.  _The Culture of Obesity in Early and 
Late Modernity: Body Image in Shakespeare, Jonson, Middleton, and 
Skelton_.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.  ISBN-13: 
978-0-230-60123-9; xi + 238 pp. US$74.95.

Reviewed by Arthur Lindley, Institute for Advanced Research, University 
of Birmingham


Since I will be making some rather critical observations about this 
book, let me begin on a positive note.  _The Culture of Obesity_ is an 
extremely ambitious work, one that attempts an analysis of the obesity 
crisis in contemporary America and links that crisis to a survey of 
(mostly) major works of early modern English literature from _Piers 
Plowman_ to Ben Jonson. If its scope is too great for two hundred pages 
of text, that length may have been imposed by the publisher. Its stated 
intent is to present a partisan case and to provoke disagreement. In 
that, it certainly succeeds with me. If you regard fairness and balance 
to be things fit only for Fox News, this may well be the book for you. 
Considered strictly as polemic, at least the chapters on the _Henry IV_ 
plays and Ben Jonson are worthy of a place on a longish list of 
recommended reading that includes alternative points of view.

This work is, essentially, a grudge with a book of essays attached. Its 
primary purpose is cultural: to "transform our political and aesthetic 
commitments" (p. x). That statement can be counted as fair warning:

I make no pretenses toward writing a study that is objective. Rather, I 
seek to write a history that is rooted in our own historical moment as I 
understand it. I also intend my history to intervene in our historical 
moment. (1)

Any literary criticism that may be involved is secondary to the task of 
writing a history and analysis of what she sees as the suffering and 
resistance of fat people in history. This polemic drives the criticism, 
shapes it, and with some frequency misshapes it, just as it drives a 
"constructionist fat history" that is as remarkable for its omissions as 
for its distortions.
	
Levy-Navarro's basic thesis can be simply stated. Our culture-she claims 
universality but her focus is exclusively American-is governed by a 
"representational regime" (30) that privileges and normalizes thin 
bodies while stigmatizing fat ones. We are currently undergoing a "fat 
panic" (1) about a purported obesity epidemic that is, in fact, a 
dehumanizing moralistic attack on the fat (and indirectly on the poor 
and non-white who are more likely than middle-class whites to be 
overweight). Under this regime, "the fat body is marked, stigmatized, 
and understood to be the emblem of our collective excess" (30). What we 
take to be a health crisis-the fact, for example, that 66% of Americans 
are now classified as overweight-is an illusion fostered by government 
propaganda disguised as medical science to promote the authority of what 
she calls "thin elites" (9). This arrangement, in turn, reflects a 
pervasively ascetic culture of "reproductive futurism" (23) in which 
straight Americans habitually defer gratification in the name of their 
future children while punishing the fat and gay for appearing to enjoy 
themselves. The roots of this "lean, mean," militaristic culture lie in 
the Reformation and in the protestant valorization of discipline, 
self-containment, and progress. The emergence of this tyranny-and this 
finally brings her to the body of the book-can be traced in a small 
selection of literary texts from the sixteenth- to the mid-seventeenth 
century: Skelton's _Elynour Rummynge_; Shakespeare's _Henry IV, Parts I 
and II_; Middleton's _A Game at Chess_; _Bartholomew Fair_ and the later 
(i.e., the pudgy period) poems of Ben Jonson.
	
The problems with this argument, as you may already have gathered, are 
legion. Anyone who thinks Americans habitually sacrifice the present to 
the future has not watched the Bush administration running up 
trillion-dollar debts to finance its wars of choice. For that matter, no 
consumer culture ignores the present in the way she says ours does. 
Consumption is about consuming now; it is about just doing it, because 
"you only go around once in life." It only promotes deferral when it is 
selling insurance, pension plans, and sub-prime mortgages.

More troubling is an attitude toward science that resembles nothing so 
much as climate change denial. Levy-Navarro wants to get beyond what she 
calls "mere objective data" (27) because queer theory has taught her 
that data -- especially data you do not want to hear -- is just a form 
of rhetoric. Inconvenient facts are habitually dismissed. Statistical 
studies do not show things, they "are made to" show things (25). Words 
like 'proof' and 'health' habitually appear in scare quotes. "[T]hose 
biomedical experts who give 'sound medical reasons for watching weight'" 
(21) are mentioned only to be dismissed. In a way that will strike many 
foreign readers as peculiarly American, the only thing that ultimately 
matters is feeling good about yourself. Fatness is just a "cultural 
construction" (30) and only wimps worry about longevity (see p. 5). If 
there are no objective definitions of health, if fatness carries none of 
the medical consequences implied by a clinical term like obesity, then 
the only possible reason for calling anyone overweight is to make them 
feel bad. Of course, if you are literal-minded enough to believe that 
having a body mass index more than '30' lowers your life expectancy by 
as much as ten years and greatly increases your chance of suffering 
heart disease, stroke, bowel cancer, breast cancer, type-2 diabetes, 
arthritis, hypertension and (at the very least) elevated serum 
cholesterol, you may find her argument at best silly and at worst 
pernicious. As someone who has recently survived an entirely 
non-rhetorical heart attack directly traceable to being overweight, I 
would opt for the latter judgment.
	
Levy-Navarro's cultural history, unfortunately, is not much better than 
her science. It is not true, for example, that thin bodies are 
customarily unmarked. Think of the negative connotations that attach to 
a term like "fashion model," only beginning with anorexic. Skinny male 
bodies are marked as unhealthy and/or non-virile. While American popular 
culture indeed stigmatizes fat people (as the recent work of Eddie 
Murphy reminds us), it also contains a long line of iconic lovable ones, 
from Oliver Hardy through Fats Waller and Jackie Gleason to Seth Rogan. 
Those may not be sufficiently defiant, heroic examples for 
Levy-Navarro's taste, but they do suggest that the culture's attitude, 
like Hal's toward Falstaff, is considerably more complex than she is 
willing to admit.

As she regularly reminds us, however, she does not intend to be 
objective, much less fair or comprehensive. Her readings of individual 
texts, though considerably better than her reading of contemporary 
culture, reflect that attitude. _A Game at Chess_ is treated as a 
pro-protestant, anti-fat treatise; all the other texts are treated as 
subversions of anti-fat prejudice. She has great difficulty getting away 
from the idea that any text is not, however covertly, polemical.

The most interesting of several ambitious chapters argues that 
Shakespeare privileges Falstaff's "fat-witted" humanity over Hal's cold 
militarism in the Henry IV plays. Like those other chapters, it is 
marred by Levy-Navarro's eagerness to subordinate critical analysis to 
fat activism and wish fulfillment. She insists throughout on a danger 
that Falstaff does not pose and a virtue he does not possess. Contrary 
to her repeated assertions, he never threatens to "absorb" or even 
"obstruct" Hal (see, e.g., 89) and Hal cannot seriously imagine that he 
does. The arc of their relationship is from the promised rejection in 
Hal's first soliloquy in Part I-and the mockery that precedes it-to the 
fulfillment of that promise at the end of Part II (and beyond that to 
Jack's death in exile at the beginning of Henry V). Any audience is 
expected to know that mythic history. If they are ever tempted to forget 
it, Hal is there to remind them. "Banish not him thy Harry's company," 
cries Falstaff at the climax of the greatest of the tavern scenes. "I 
do. I will," replies Hal, speaking for the present and the future. 
Falstaff is always already rejected. He is not a threat to Hal, though 
Hal is certainly one to him. And, by the way, it is not warmth and 
companionship that the future Harry rejects in Eastcheap. Pervasively, 
what happens in the tavern scenes are baiting, cheating, sponging, and 
manipulation. Hal is simply better at most of those nasty arts than his 
companions. Falstaff, for his part, makes it clear to those willing to 
listen that he will throw anybody under the bus to preserve his 
relationship with the prince. "Banish Poins," banish them all, he 
pleads, but not me. If Levy-Navarro does not hear that plea, it is 
because she is too busy listening for a kind, fat, feudal contrast to 
her lean, mean villain, a tendency that reaches an ironic climax when 
she denounces Hal for paying the Hostess what Jack owes her (98-9). Mrs. 
Quickly, she thinks, would rather be cheated "warmly" than paid coldly. 
Fat chance.

Elsewhere, the book is marred by great and small omissions, as when 
Hotspur is omitted from her version of Hal's career or the Sons of Ben 
from her account of Jonson's. A larger example is the absence of any 
cited experience of the plays in performance. She habitually talks about 
how audiences "would" respond to a given point (e.g., 106, 179) but not 
about how they "do." The largest omission is, of course, the three 
hundred and fifty years between _A Game at Chess_ and the Zone diet. 
Anti-fat prejudice seems, as a result, to have been passed directly (and 
quite improbably) from Jacobean playwrights and courtiers to 
contemporary nutritionists. When you omit that great space of literary 
and cultural development, you are liable to miss certain obvious facts 
such as that jolly fat men and thin, pinched meanies are perennial 
staples of the "modern" culture, she insists, has relentlessly 
stigmatized the fat and endorsed the thin: Squire Western, Uncle Toby, 
and Mr. Pickwick (not to mention, the Pilgrim Chaucer) on the one hand; 
Blifil and Scrooge on the other. Even sinister fat men like Count Fosco 
in _The Woman in White_ and Sidney Greenstreet in _The Maltese Falcon_ 
play off the expectation that they must be kindly because fat. 
Similarly, you will also ignore that Victorians and Edwardians, like 
modern-day Tongans, regarded fatness as a sign of prosperity and 
success. There was, after all, a time when the king of England was 
Edward and the president of the United States was William Howard Taft. 
If the universal dominance of the thin ever arrived, it must have been 
after that time and not before Henry VIII. If World War I produced a 
demand for a leaner, fitter populace, this demand is more likely to have 
been a response to the culture that immediately preceded it than to 
Jacobean drama.

For the time and research that went into it, this is an unfinished book 
marked by yawning gaps of attention. How, for example, does she write an 
entire chapter on the emergent thin, fat-hating aesthetic of Henry 
VIII's court without asking herself what happened when Henry became the 
most prominent fat man in Europe. What aesthetic is Holbein's famous, 
full-frontal portrait of the king supposed to represent?

For that matter, if she wishes make large claims about Middleton based 
on one very atypical play in a large canon, she needs to refer to some 
of the others. Vindice has a famous speech about skulls as the "terror 
of fat folks." DeFlores is not fat, but his body is literally marked and 
he displays many of the qualities -- defiance, pained 
self-consciousness, a refusal to be confined -- that Levy-Navarro finds 
in fat characters, defiant or otherwise. What does she think the 
connections are?

If, similarly, she wants to derive Shakespeare's attitudes from fat and 
thin bodies in the two _Henry IV_ plays, she should at least remember 
that Falstaff also appears in _Merry Wives of Windsor_ as well as being 
recalled in _Henry V_. What do the middle-class Windsorites think of 
Jack's girth and how does that compare with what his prince thinks? I do 
not necessarily expect her to notice that Hal and Falstaff -- the chilly 
representative of the new age and the superficially generous 
representative of the old one -- are replayed by Octavius and Antony, 
but I would certainly expect her to comment at some point on Caesar's 
preference for "fat, sleek-headed men" over the likes of lean and hungry 
Cassius. Mostly thin and generally angry Hamlet, come to that, has a 
plump, placatory, non-combatant antagonist.

In all these cases, great inverted pyramids of generalization about 
authors, periods, and indeed Western Civilization are being erected on 
small points of reference. When an author bases an account of the entire 
"premodern" (aka medieval) period on a dubious reading of one passage in 
_Piers Plowman_ -- in which she insists that Gluttony is not fat because 
"gret" could (also) mean strong (42) -- then some spoilsport like me is 
going to remind her that there are a fat Monk and a thin, choleric Reeve 
among the Canterbury pilgrims and that the former's bulk is moralized in 
a way she claims does not happen until the sixteenth century. I might 
also remind her that Robyn the Miller, Harry Baillie, and Geoffrey are 
all plump and ask what she thinks that tells us. What Levy-Navarro does 
not have to say about the nineteenth century is as nothing compared to 
what she does not know about the Middle Ages.

She is, however, intermittently capable of shrewd and thoughtful 
analysis. If she filled the gaps in her "fat history," she might write a 
book that is persuasive rather than merely argumentative. That task 
would require a much longer narrative, but eliminating the extraordinary 
wordiness and repetition that marks this one would free a great deal of 
space-perhaps fifty or more pages. In the present work, no point is made 
concisely and every point is repeated endlessly.  A single phrase -- 
"wealthy, plump plebeians" -- may be repeated four times within two 
pages (136-7), as if the reader had the attention span of Justice 
Shallow. Palgrave should find an editor who is willing to edit. This one 
has done Levy-Navarro no favors. The result is a very fat thin book.


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