Gabriella Ripa di Meana: Figures of Lightness. Anorexia, Bulimia, Psychoanalysis

In inventing his “new science,” Freud, ever pragmatic, started from what existed, and from what official science had discarded: the dream, the slip of tongue, the incomplete act, symptoms which represented the uneasiness of that time. In short, psychoanalysis was woven from strong threads rarely, if ever, used by others. Thus was Freud able to calmly guarantee (or threaten?) his students with “decades and decades of incessant theoretical work.”

In this sense, Gabriella Ripa di Meana’s Figures of Lightness provides an example of how, even today, Freud’s legacy can and should again be taken up. With rigorous theoretical elaboration, with that humor which transforms rigor into style, with understanding clinical work as an adventure for the psychoanalyst and, therefore, with not drawing back from the unheard-of with which one is sometimes confronted.

In fact, “Anyone can live for three days without bread, but no one can live even a single day without poetry” (Baudelaire). And yet, today, gads of anorexics and bulemics are wandering about without either… in search of whom? or what? Figures of Lightness is above all an attempt, while preserving intact the “mystery which animates and underlies these subjects’ pathology,” to investigate their unique subjective position and psychic structure without violating their soul and meaning-that is, with lightness. Leaving to religion and science the mystery of the soul and meaning, and to psychoanalysis the ethical duty to penetrate its own clinical practice, made up of surfaces and not of depths. A clinical practice which starts from that particular practice of the speech which the analytic cure is.

Only through a certain diffidence to the ideological siren of “postmodern pathology,” can we, Ripa di Meana suggests, begin to understand “how it is that anorexics and bulemics-who adhere to the point of coinciding with the surrounding culture and environment-appear as hypermodern, yet unhappy, creatures.”

Furthermore, the term “postmodern” itself more than anything else signals the difficulty to designate a beyond modernity, the lack of name to denote it, which recalls a substantial “dereliction” of objects: “Objects decay before they can be used, because they too quickly become noticed. And thus, no longer have any worth. They can withdraw intact, essentially unconsumed.”

Figures of Lightness seems to suggest that, if there has been a passage from the structure of hysteria, which intrigued Freud, to the clinical practice of anorexia, this passage also regards a “change of guard” brought on by our civilization: from hyporealism to hyperrealism. Whereas Victorian society, wrapping itself in reserve and in the unspoken, kept a role of mystery for the sexual object, our society seems to reserve that role for the object of oral satisfaction.

But working on the contrary: by displaying it, showing it… in a continuous, albeit vain, attempt to abolish the mystery of subjectivity, in a denial of the real and of its enigma.

And so, if the hysteric structure requires psychoanalysis-a “talking cure” as Anna O. defined it-the anorexic structure actually attempts to cancel the psychoanalyst, against whose listening the anorexic sets an obstinate faithfulness to the symptom itself and to the subjectivity guarded therein. Seeming to say, as Ripa di Meana emphasizes: “I am anorexia and bulemia, I am the identity that makes me exist. A deaf person surrounded by deaf, I am bound to my symptom for which there is no possible good judge.”

But, at the same time, the unconscious anorexic theory, the theory of the absolute lightness of being, offers the analyst its own particular complicity. Captivated by the analytic method which, as Freud taught, proceeds by a peeling away as does sculpture, the anorexic paradoxically offers the analyst the opportunity “to carry out her job, or rather her ethical mandate, in an essential and spare way.”

On one condition, though: that the analyst knows how to sustain that light indifference of being that must, more than ever, accompany her in listening to the question and to the anorexic symptom. A symptom which is quite often an effect or a perversion of the meaning. In fact, “in analysis one is cured of meaning…”.

Ripa di Meana gives us a theory of the structure and of the position of the analyst faced with the anorexic-bulemic cure. Distancing herself from that entire psychoanalytic tradition that seemingly recalls a “paraphenomenology” of the cure-touch, the right distance between analyst and patient, the analytic attitude-but also from that sort of interpretive delusion founded on meaning to which the analyst, caught up in the dictates of hermeneutics, is too often reduced.

The clinical practice referred to in this book is certainly drawn from the analytic practice, but not hers alone. And the imaginary and narcissistic question about the distorsions of the anorexic’s body is explored even through a reading of famous paintings, such as those by Magritte (La grande guerre, Le genre nocturne, etc.), through which some key element, which come into play in the narcissistic construction of the image, is explored. Or, Georges de la Tour’s melancholy and dusky Three Magdalenes, or Hieronymus Bosch’s Tryptich of Delights, with their representation “of a driven circuit certainly comparable to that of the anorexic-bulemic”, in a violent and simultaneous mixing of a primitive orality and anality.

Precisely the catastrophic self-image found in anorexia and bulemia pushes for a clinical practice that attempts an alchemy between theory and painting. As Ripa di Meana emphasizes: “The evocative aspect and the invention of these images can accompany us into the heart of an unconscious cognitive experience, as happens in great works of art. Sometimes art (and, in this case, what is better than the language of the eye?) can narrate with the precision of a sign or the intensity of a stylistic feature that which a theoretical argument seems instead to complicate rather than reveal or clarify”.

Even literature offers the author the occasion, sending back echoes of the unconscious, to explore the particular logic of the “no” which shortcircuits the anorexic-bulemic subject. From Cordelia’s “nothing to say” which refuses to satisfy the paternal orality, setting off in Lear that implosion in which the bulemic system splits, producing effects of subjective anorexia-to Susanna’s “No, father, no” in Diderot’s The Nun, with which she attempts, crossing the void, to reach her Beyond, her subjective individuation. And yet again, with Melville’s splendid story Bartleby the Scrivener, we are introduced into the dimension of the “no” as excess of identity. So that a certain caricature of desire is sketched. In fact, if the desire of man is the desire of the Other, as Lacan says, the anorexic and the scrivener Bartleby offer us an unbearable spectacle “of someone who prefers to liquidate herself/ himself without any motive and without knowing it, rather than to surrender to the desire to deny oneself duties, needs and waiting for the Other”.

The author thus identifies four different logics of denial that can define the nosological binomial of anorexia-bulemia as a “mixed polymorphic psychopathology”:

  • melancholic anorexia, in which foreclusion, as failure of the act of subjective inscription, determines the always vain attempt to reach the essence of Being, the “limit point of the lost object and subject”;
  • hysterical anorexia which acts by means of the mechanism, identified by Freud, of removal, that is, through a suspension of the Oedipal Law, that law which is at the same time invoked by these anorexic subjects, and which Ripa di Meana defines as “the light Law of the Name-of-the-Father”;
  • fetishist (splitting) anorexia, founded on that psychic mechanism that Freud calls Verleugnung (disavowal). Through disavowal of the Other’s castration, thus of the perception of an external reality, the subject can, partially and at the cost of a psychic splitting, maintain his belief in the existence of a maternal phallus. In this way, “the fetishist anorexic usually makes what she eats, as much as what she doesn’t, the object of an exaggerated and perverse cult by which she enjoys herself, and at the same time tears herself to pieces, in the name of a fear of castration”;
  • obsessive-compulsive anorexia, lying somewhere between isolation, cancellation, and denial. In this case, we find a strong denial, Verneinung, which Freud in his 1925 essay defined as that psychic mechanism which allows the unconscious matter of a representation or of a thought to penetrate in the conscience without there being any acceptance of the removal.

The effect of this anorexic construction founded precisely on that triad of “isolation, cancellation and denial” is a “defeated Narcissus who compulsively eats and vomits everything he finds”. A style of “no” which also reflects on its telling which, in an analytic context, will echo a particular disinvolvement and irresponsibility, immersed in an “all-encompassing and expulsive climate of discourse where much is stated without emotion, and scrupulously controlled”.
Yet, the thread holding together the complex theoretical plot of this book is Ripa di Meana’s reproposal of Lacan’s structures of discourse. Because an analyst cannot limit herself to simply understanding the logic within which a psychopathology takes place-in our example, the different logics of negation that aid us in tracking down the anorexic-bulemic pair as a whole-but must succeed in tracking down something of the supporting structure. For example, it can be quite difficult in certain analyses to distinguish between an hysterical anorexia and an hysteria with anorexic symptoms. To carry out the cure, an analyst must entrust her resources to the possibility of a differential clinical method on the structures of discourse.

This is because an analysis is essentally an experience of discourse. It is a process that corrects or subverts the examined discourse, insofar as the discourse actualizes for each one of us an existing fragment of the structure of language in which the function of speech is explained. For this reason, and without contradicting himself, Lacan can affirm indifferently both that “the unconscious is structured like language”, and that “the unconscious is the discourse of the Other”.

The importance of Ripa di Meana’s book lies in its determination of a precise structure of the anorexic-bulemic discourse, a discourse that can be compared as much to that of the hysteric as to that of the analyst. In particular, the anorexic discourse appears to result from an overturning of the hysterical one. For example, where “the hysteric subject talks and directs the discourse, asking the Other (S S1) the initials of its own identity, the anorexic subject is silent, letting itself be represented by that mere nothing (a) that makes itself the cause or stimulus of the Other’s knowledge (S2: Mother or Science). And yet: if the hysteric poses a condition of impossibility between the object cause of her desire and the knowledge that could contain it, in the anorexic the object, which is in this case the semblance of the subject, finds herself in an impotent relation with respect to the knowledge of the other because, despite its failures, this link is the only one possible.

This structural investigation allows a better understanding of the clinical questions (linked to the particularities of the question, to the analyst’s place in the cure, to the unique passional montage of fantasies) proposed to the anorexic.
But furthermore, this investigation also permits some crucial questions to be answered, for example: why does the anorexic rarely turn to a psychoanalyst at the first symptoms, considering that anorexia has for some time been recognized as something “mental” or “nervous”? Responding to this question, Ripa di Meana indicates the various stages through which the anorexic passes before turning to analysis. Above all, the medical discourse allows the suffering subject to recognize the statute of “illness” and so, in some way, to find, or invent, an existence for the “unknowing” anorexic, opening to her a new dimension of knowledge. Thus, in encountering the psychotherapeutic discourse, she can begin to articulate the request for a cure to the point of producing an hystericization of her discourse. In fact, in the greater number of cases, a certain attention to the emotional-symbolic aspect is determined, thereby introducing the anorexic subject to the enigma of her own Identity. And so, at the limit point of this discourse, the request for a cure can be articulated analytically, having passed through stages which transformed it from an illness into a sign, and from a sign into an enigma.

The anorexic can now face the analytic cure and the transformations it can bring about. On one understanding, though: that, within the structure of the analytic discourse, the heretofore unbearable burden of her existence can finally be laid down-“the indifference of the cause, the void of the loss, and the lightness of the drift”.


Translated from Italian by Claudia Vaughn

Share This Article

European Journal of Psychoanalysis