“Elle Nash’s GAG REFLEX: An (All Too) Human Response to a Nietzschean Sickness,” a review by Charlene Elsby

The first time I saw Elle Nash actually in motion (as opposed to in the static images on social media), she was a presenter on a panel with Kerry St. Laurent, B.R. Yeager, and Burial Grid, hosted by Gallery A3 (on Zoom). The discussion was good, and they covered many significant things about interdisciplinary collaborations (art and literature, literature and music, art and music), but it was also disconcerting because whenever Nash spoke, I couldn’t shake the invasive thought that Parmenides had been reincarnated into the body of the only female member of a punk band. At one point, her prowess as an editor came up (she edited B.R. Yeager’s Negative Space, Apocalypse Party 2020) and specifically her ability to “see around corners,” to which my new monomania responded that Nash’s ability is that she isn’t constrained to a subjective point of view at all, but may perhaps embody the omniscience of a daimon, trapped in a physical form insufficient to its capacities. (It is possible to see around corners, if one is already on both sides.)

My reading of Gag Reflex elicited the same cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, it’s a very human story of one teen girl’s experience with eating disorders. The text is presented as a LiveJournal, complete with the “Current Music” feature. The narrator Lucy chats with other girls online, detailing food combinations in which they would like to indulge, if only they weren’t so committed to disorder. Sometimes the combinations are disgusting, and we’ll come back to that. The narrator records her daily calorie intakes and calls it “fasting” when zero calories are consumed. She’s involved with a boy named Brian, but she prefers Mike, when Mike isn’t with his girlfriend.

I think it’s fair to say that there are assumptions people make about eating disorders, and that some of those assumptions are: (1) that the disorder is related to low self-esteem; (2) that the decreased self-esteem is related to how attractive the sufferer perceives themselves to be; (3) that this altered perception is created by a toxic culture in which women especially (but also men; see Peter Rosch’s Future Skinny) are made to feel unworthy, unless they meet an unattainable standard of beauty established by the patriarchy and disseminated to impressionable young minds through Instagram (formerly, women’s magazines).

But I wonder if this view of eating disorders isn’t also tainted by the same externally imposed stereotypes. It doesn’t coincide with my experience of friends with eating disorders. It doesn’t explain how an eating disorder will emaciate a human, making elbows and knees thicker than arms and thighs. If the idea really were to become attractive, and the standard of attraction is established by various media outlets, and this is the result, then somewhere in this purported explanation of what is going on, something has gone terribly wrong.

It makes me think that under the façade of Nash’s relatable story replete with humanity, there isn’t something metaphysical going on. Something about the incongruence of a soul with its human form, to which the Medieval philosophers referred when they claimed that a human soul would seek out a body suitable for its purposes. Something that hints at a beyond and also indicates a very human resentment at the soul’s confinement to materiality. Something Elle Nash means when she writes in “Hit Me Baby One More Time” (a short story in Little Birds from Filthy Loot, 2021): “I prefer the internet because I don’t like having a body.” The phrase recalled for me a discussion I had with a friend from the past, about how to go about an eating disorder with intent and rationality. She was debating about whether or not to throw up a recent meal, and I was insisting that she should have thought of that before she consumed anything, that whatever she was going to do, it had best be intentional. I asked how small she planned on getting, and she expressed it like this: “I want to take up only as much space as is necessary to express a point of view.”

And this isn’t an unfamiliar sentiment. In the popular culture depictions of future stages of humanity, we see many examples of a species evolved beyond the requirement of a material body. Entities of pure energy or thought that exist everywhere and nowhere. Rationality divorced from the finitude of the human form, free to finally roam. To see the other sides of corners.

Near the end of Gag Reflex, I think this is where Nash is going. And it makes me wonder if what we’re socially defining as an eating disorder isn’t an expression of what Nietzsche also called a sickness—the human tendency to declare the material world unreal and to prefer some other, immaterial realm to which we in no way have access. Nietzsche theorizes in Twilight of the Idols that the sickness began with Socrates, and that humanity itself has embodied the illness since Socrates’ time. That the whole of the species is ill, resenting itself and its physicality, idealizing the rational immaterial. The evidence for that illness is Christianity, the salve that humanity applies to its ill spirit, in order to defray the damage it might otherwise cause with its perverted tendencies to resent the world and life itself. The perverted desires are apparent in Nash’s presentations of what her characters desire in Gag Reflex: Cheez-Its with Italian dressing; buttermilk and crackers; the desire for food perverted into something else after the artificial imposition of a limit (like how the church makes sexual perverts by forbidding the normal expression of sexuality).

On the other hand, we may decide in favor of the Socratic characterization of the situation. Where Socrates is depicted by Plato in the Phaedo, he presents an argument for a realm above the material by pointing specifically to our material deficiencies. We see two sticks and declare them equal, despite knowing they are not, not exactly. Socrates asks, if not from the sticks, from where are we able to retrieve this notion of equality? He declares that the material thing, by presenting as a deficient form of something better and more perfect, turns our soul toward that better and more perfect thing. We at once recognize, in the material, what a thing is and that it is deficient, and we infer the existence of that more perfect thing, without which we would not be able to recognize the deficiency. (We only recognize deficiency if something better exists to which this thing is deficient.)

Elle Nash says in Gag Reflex, “i want to be a cold, steel ball, large enough to be hollow bells and compartments inside so i sing when i’m moved,” and I am not sure that’s a metaphor. I am convinced that she’s a connoisseur of the human desire to be something other than it is. I’m not sure there is anything better to be.

Gag Reflex, by Elle Nash. CLASH Books, June 2022. 180 pages. $16.95, paper.

Charlene Elsby received her PhD from McMaster University working on Aristotle’s concepts of truth and non-being. She is the Vice President of the North American Society for Early Phenomenology and General Editor of Phenomenological Investigations. Her fictional works include Hexis, Affect, and Psychros.

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