On Gluttony

Dante, in his The Divine Comedy writes of a hell, where the three-headed hound Cerberus guards the gluttons as they are condemned to “lie in the mire.” In Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, Cleopatra is said to “prorogue (Antony’s) honour” with “sleep and feeding.” Pompey sees an “amorous surfeiter” in Antony, and thinks that the insatiable appetite of his has now weakened his military prowess.

Likewise, gluttony is a common theme in children’s literature. The “enormously fat” Augustus Gloop in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is punished when, while gulping from the chocolate river, he falls into it and gets sucked through a pipe that links to the fudge room. Augustus’s fate is ruined by the same gluttonous habit that wins him the golden ticket.

On television, we aren’t spared from the dramatization of this excessive desire either. It is a subject of curiosity how something so horrifying could intrigue us at the same time. As much as feeling repulsed by the sight of someone gorging on a large quantity of food, there is this voyeuristic tendency that compels us to watch. This is probably why eating competitions are successful in attracting both the contestants and audiences alike. And how internet celebrity Donna Simpson rises to stardom by maintaining a website where her fans pay to watch her eat.

One of the most graphic ways of portraying gluttony on television is Monty Python’s Mr. Creosote, played by Terry Jones. In a classy French restaurant where patrons dine with the piano playing in the background, in walks a monstrously obese Mr. Creosote. His entrance to the scene puts the talking-fish in the aquarium in a frenzy and causes some discomfort among the patrons. It is, however, a French restaurant where customers are the epitome of polite society. Despite the presence of this bizarre guest who has just wobbled in, everything resumes and guests continue with their meals.

Alas, his presence soon proved to be more than just incongruous. As soon as Mr. Creosote is seated at his table, he starts vomiting buckets. He misses his aim at the bucket a few times and creates puddles of vomit on the floor. Some restaurant workers hurry to clean them up, but most efforts are in vain as Mr. Creosote continues with his vomiting, and this time, showering the poor workers with his murky stuff.

And, this is not the end of making the guests’ (also our) stomachs turn. At the end of his meal, where towers of plates and bowls now dominate his table, Mr. Creosote explodes, causing the restaurant to “rain” with his vomit. Guests start running for the exit, retching with disgust.

It is easy to recognize the cause of this disaster – Mr. Creosote’s insatiable appetite, his ballooned body, his vomiting, they all point to one reason: Mr. Creosote is a glutton. He overindulges and becomes a hazard not only to his own body, but also to the people around him.

As it is Monty Python, it is meant to entertain and for us to have a good laugh. Well, not quite. Quentin Tarantino is said to have found the scene nauseating and disturbing.

In contrast, in J.M. Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K, the protagonist’s appetite is intensified by desperation and exhaustion instead of greed. The story takes place in war-torn South Africa, where food is scarce and survival is a question of chance rather than will. Though weak and famished, K manages to talk himself into bare-hand hunting, followed by a messy butchering of a goat with the help of only a penknife.

Telling himself that he “must press through to the end” and he “must not relent,” K throws his entire weight upon a tribe of goats, with the aim to capture a slow and unlucky one among the many. The captive goat initially “bleated again and again in terror; its body jerked in spasms.” K, with his hands clenching around its neck and his knees gripping the goat’s body, presses its head under the mud until its snort and tremor finally cease.

What follows is more barbaric than the hunt, as Coetzee describes in vivid details how K butchers and cleans his kill: “He slits the belly and pushes his arm into the slit; he expects blood-heat but inside the goat encounters again the clammy wetness of marsh-mud [remember how he kills the goat by drowning it in mud; the goat must have swallowed the mud in its struggle, thus causing its stomach to now bloat with it].” With “his hands and sleeves full of gore” K then hangs the dismembered carcass from the ceiling, which soon attracts a swarm of flies. The goat begins to stink and K ends up burying the remains.

In his less hungry thus less delirious state, he learns that he should not have killed such large animals. Instead, he makes himself a sling-shot using a Y-shaped stick, the tongue of an old shoe, and strips of rubber, and learns to hunt for small birds in the trees – a much simpler and cleaner meal as compared to the earlier humongous feast that proved too much for him to handle. K’s bad judgment is, therefore, prompted by a natural need rather than hedonistic gratification.

Similarly, Roxane Gay’s memoir Hunger tells of a psychological trauma that manifests itself into an appetite. As a way of responding to her being gang-raped at the age of twelve, Gay seeks security from food. Her fatness becomes a solution, a safe place, where “no one can get you.” Overeating, ironically, grants Gay a sense of control, by losing herself in food.

Eating becomes a means of escapism for Gay. She eats in order to blot out the memory of her rape. By making her body repulsive, Gay thinks that she could keep men away. At her heaviest, Gay weighed 577lb.

Whether it is motivated by irresponsibility such as Mr. Creosote, insecurity like Roxane Gay, or hunger pangs such as Michael K, gluttony tells more of what lies within than without: it tells of an inner gulf that is too wide to fill.

“Comedy too can sometimes discern what is right,” says Aristophanes’ Dicaepolis. Mr. Creosote fits into a stock character whose purpose is to satirize social follies – in this case, the habit of excessive eating. The ending of Mr. Creosote’s story is, without a doubt, an exaggeration. No human body will ever explode like how Mr. Creosote’s body does due to overeating. Hence, we are able to laugh at Mr. Creosote’s fate, but at the back of our minds we know that by exposing Mr. Creosote’s failings, there is a message behind it. Mr. Creosote behaves without calculating the consequences; he acts without regard to what is right for his body, thus he is wanting in conscientiousness.

Stories like Hunger and The Life and Times of Michael K, on the other hand, rely on their cathartic effect for their moralizing purpose. K’s fate in Coetzee’s novel is a consequence of a country at war. His obsession with hoarding food is, therefore, forgivable and appeals to our sympathy. It tells how our judgment is often susceptible to our bodily ailments. The practice of mind over body is often easier said than done. However, as the story progresses, K’s survival instinct becomes more adaptable. Besides the use of a sling-shot to hunt birds, K also learns to grow and harvest pumpkins. K’s ability to implement a makeshift tool such as the sling-shot and his cultivated patience to savor food that his “own labor has made the earth to yield;” K has finally triumphed and evolved. He is no longer the man of wild instincts but one who is analytical and patient. On the night as he held his first pumpkin in hand, moved by the fragrance of the first fruit of his labor, K begins to pray: “For what we are about to receive make us truly thankful.”

In Hunger, eating excessively proves to be a false means of solace for Gay. She eventually realizes that as she eats in order to forget, her body has in fact, become “a cage of my own making.” Her body has grown to the extent where “nearly everything physical is difficult,” and finally, her greatest fear is realized when she is told from an x-ray that her “ankle is very, very broken.” In an attempt to escape the entrapment of a bad memory, she falls into another. Through her broken ankle, Gay then comes to many realizations. She begins to see her body differently and tells herself “that one day I would stop feeling this quiet but abiding rage about the things I have been through at the hands of others.”