Paradise Lost; Bulimia, Anorexia and Drug Addiction

By Camporesi, Piero | UNESCO Courier, May 1987 | Go to article overview

Paradise Lost; Bulimia, Anorexia and Drug Addiction


Camporesi, Piero, UNESCO Courier


Paradise lost

Bulimia, anorexia and drug addiction

UNTIL modern times, melancholywas always regarded by Western medicine as the worst enemy of a "well-ordered', harmonious life, in which the humours were perfectly balanced, especially in the blood, which was held to be the very "food of life'. It was possible to govern the body and maintain its balance by keeping a rein on desires, by a wise and prudent administration of the "treasure of life' on which the quality and length of human existence depend.

The key to life was thought to lie in thephenomenology of nutrition, in the mysterious "faculties' and "virtues' of food. Natural scientists of the old school saw clearly that the body was responsible for its actions to none but itself--neither to moral standards nor to religious laws. The ancient Delphic precept "Know thyself' was extended to cover knowledge of the physical as well as the inner life. Governance of the passions was united to control over the body's hidden drives and rhythms and over the world of desires and needs. Self-knowledge meant taking good care of oneself.

In this conception of the well-balanced,consciously ordered life, the only limitation on the enjoyment of pleasures was that prudent, carefully controlled balance of the biological and physiological functions which was the basis of physical wisdom.

At the centre of this system of vigilantself-regard was moderation in eating, or dietetics, which became the absolute arbiter of the fate of the body and the harmony of the mind. The delicate balance of the four humours, on which the marvellous edifice of the human body reposed, could be upset not only by foods which were unsuited to the individual "temperament' or by ignorance of the "nature of foods', but also by incorrect proportions and by an unreasonable excess or insufficiency of certain foods.

If that balance was upset, the hell of thedisorder and corruption of the humours opened up before the feet (and in the blood) of the immoderate man who was hungry or the exhausted man who had no appetite. The moderate, balanced nourishment of the body, which governed the balance of the mind, was upset by such extravagant forms of alimentary deviationism. The destabilization of the healthy diet caused irreparable harm to the governance of the soul and psyche. It is no accident that our forebears thought that the paradise of delights was identical with unspoiled, incorruptible Eden where the perfect moderation of the humours--before Adam's fall brought the scourge of imbalance and immoderation into the world--warded off both sickness and evil. Paradoxically, however, dreams of Eden or the dread of falling into the infernal abyss provoked a short circuit in the form of food neuroses and upset the delicate system of the physiological order.

Even today, the dietary pattern and thefragile mechanism of self-control can be disturbed either by alienating fears or by excessive, inordinate desires. When this happens, compensatory or renunciatory attitudes towards food are bound to be produced.

The appetite for sweet, sugary thingsthat appeal to the senses, and the pleasure of gormandizing, are greatly stimulated by the unconscious desire to recreate artificially the Eden-like happiness of our dreams, and to recapture in some way the delights of the honey, manna and milk enjoyed by our remote ancestors. The uncontrolled bulimia of high-calorie diets is caused by the tormenting dream of re-creation. It is due to a desire to retrieve, through the consumption of restorative, invigorating nutrients, a place in paradise lost, to take refuge in the uncontaminated, contented womb of Mother Earth, to counteract the squandering of life during the daily round, and to exorcize the grim uncertainties of the future by means of food.

For centuries, the vain hope of beingable to prevent entropy and the dissipation of heat and energy has kept alive the myth of the tonic, the fortifying cordial, the miraculous elixir of youth which will restore the life-force and bring back lost happiness. …

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