Sex, money, and food as spiritual signposts in Doris Betts's Sharp Teeth of Love.
A commitment to verisimilitude is not, however, Betts's only reason for writing explicitly about sex, even as she enters her seventies. "If anything, I've gotten more frank with time;' she confesses. "It's an advantage to get older. Now you have gray hair, and nobody's nearly so shocked, except that they thought with age you'd get over it! [...] I also find students somewhat surprised that we senior citizens even remember sex--they really think after 35 you're dead from the neck down anyway" (Greene 63-64). When such students express surprise about the frequency and candor with which she addresses the subject, Betts has a ready reply. "My answer is usually to quote C. S. Lewis," she explains, "who said God made the pleasures. For me sex is a part of the celebration of life. I can imagine vivid lives that lack sexual fulfillment, but it seems a shame, a waste, to me, deep down" (Greene 63-64). Although many Christian readers will affirm Betts's view, some will nevertheless question the persistence with which she depicts single characters' sexual experiences. Why in particular, they might ask, would a Christian write so uncritically about the sexual activity of even her never-married protagonists?
Betts's most recent novel, The Sharp Teeth of Love (1997), provides the most complex and satisfying answer to that question. Sharp Teeth carefully examines its lapsed Catholic heroine's attitude toward sex alongside her attitudes toward money and food to reveal the material world's theological significance. As the book's central character, Luna Stone, develops an understanding of the roles sex, money, and food play in healthy human relationships, she finds herself also moving toward spiritual redemption. Whether Luna's changing sexual, financial, and dietary behaviors make possible her budding faith or the reverse is difficult to determine; instead of arguing for a causal relationship, Sharp Teeth uses the triad of sex, money, and food to suggest that physical and spiritual wholeness are all of a piece.
While grounding her protagonist's eternal salvation in such earthly matters may surprise some church-going readers, Betts is mining a deep tradition in Christian thought. Quaker theologian Richard Foster acknowledges in Money, Sex, and Power: The Challenge of the Disciplined Life that while many Christians regard subjects like prayer and worship as possessing "an aura of spirituality," they regard sex as "terribly 'secular' at best." Considering sex alongside money and power, Foster asserts that "as we come to these 'secular' issues we are treading on holy ground. To live rightly with reference to money and sex and power is to live sacramentally" (xi). Often, such a sacramental understanding of earthly things is associated with Catholicism, as Andrew Greeley explains in The Catholic Myth: The Behavior and Belief of American Catholics (1990). Greeley, a novelist, sociologist, and Roman Catholic priest, argues that "Catholics are more likely to imagine God as present in the world and the world as revelatory instead of bleak" (4). He elaborates:
Much that is thought to be distinctively Catholic results from this distinctive style of imagining--the importance of community, institution, and hierarchy; the emphasis on ritual and ceremonial; the interest in the fine and lively arts; devotion to saints, angels, holy souls, and especially the Mother of Jesus; reverence for statues and images; the use of blessings, medals, and prayer heads. (4)
Peter Quinn explores the effect of this impulse on fiction in his 2002 essay "The Catholic Novel: Fact or Fiction?": "Truly Catholic novels embrace the utter carnality--the all-inclusiveness--of the Incarnation. They don't find sexuality in bad taste" (21). While he acknowledges that Protestant writers can share Catholic concerns, Quinn asserts that Catholic fiction affirms the material world in a way most Protestant fiction does not.
Other thinkers have noted these differences, as well. Poet W. H. Auden offers a helpful comparison of Protestant and Catholic attitudes toward materiality in his 1943 essay, "Greatness Finding Itself," arguing that "Protestant piety [...] attributes less spiritual importance [than Catholicism] to the flesh. Whatever views one may hold for or against fasting and corporal penance, such practices indicate a belief that the body is a partner with the soul in the spiritual life" (83). More recently, Eleanor Heartney has compared Catholicism's and Protestantism's effects on the visual arts, arguing in "Blood, Sex, and Blasphemy" (1999) that the provocative work of photographers such as Robert Mapplethorpe and Andres Serrano springs from their Catholic upbringings. She explains that while all Christian traditions affirm Jesus' physical incarnation, death, and resurrection, the Catholic emphasis on transubstantiation in the Eucharist yields a distinctive appreciation for matter:
All of this is of course in stark contrast to the Protestant emphasis on biblical revelation as the primary source of God's truth. Since the Reformation, Protestants have tended to regard the Catholic practice of venerating Christ and the Saints through richly ornamented religious statuary as a form of idol worship. Sensual imagery and sensual language are seen as impediments, rather than aids to belief. The body and its experiences are things to be transcended.(36)
Heartney goes on to link public outcry in the 1980s and 1990s against such figures as Mapplethorpe and Serrano to the "enduring legacy of our Puritan heritage" (36). While The Sharp Teeth of Love invites neither the kind nor the level of controversy surrounding the photography Heartney analyzes, Betts's fiction's carnality, evident in her treatment of sex, money, and food, exhibits a sacramental "Catholic" sensibility that takes some readers by surprise.
Unlike the artists Heartney discusses, however, Betts was not reared Roman Catholic. She grew up in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian denomination and now teaches Sunday school, serves as alternate organist, and occasionally preaches in a much less conservative Presbyterian Church, USA, congregation in Pittsboro, North Carolina. She nevertheless admires much about the Catholic tradition, comparing it favorably to her native Calvinism:
I have a son who is taking instruction, and I'd probably convert to the Catholic Church if not for the fact that my mother would perish on the spot since she still thinks the Pope is the Antichrist; and I'm just not up to that. The advantage of writing about Catholicism is its very real visible symbols and rituals. Calvin wanted to get all idolatry out of the church: the net result is that Presbyterians have these plain, white, unadorned churches, which aesthetically have omitted that longing in human beings for music, for kneeling, for chanting, for lighting candles. These things seem to me a way of making the body do what the heart is inclined to do. (Greene 65)
Her admission helps explain why The Sharp Teeth of Love seems so Catholic in subject and focus.
When the novel opens, 28-year-old Luna Stone, an illustrator, is traveling across the United States with her botanist fiance, Steven, during the spring of 1994. A recovering anorexic, Luna flirts with relapse as she moves toward marrying the self-absorbed Steven. Spiritually hungry, Luna muses about baptism and the Eucharist but finds Steven, whose background happens to be Associate Reformed Presbyterian, incapable of conversing with her about such subjects. In addition to being a disappointing conversationalist, Steven is an equally unsatisfying lover, financial partner, and dining companion. When she finally exits her sterile relationship with the nominally Calvinist Steven (prompted in part by her reflections on elements of her own Catholic tradition), Luna arrives at a sort of a via media--learning to love a Lutheran named Paul Cowan.
Although Luna thinks at first that her lovemaking with Steven is the most satisfying element in their relationship, Betts makes clear the superficiality of the two characters' physical connection. Luna finds Steven's good looks and confidence dazzling and marvels that he pays her romantic attention. Having moved often in childhood and suffered from depression in college, Luna has had few friends and no boyfriends before meeting Steven. The book's first chapter describes Luna's vulnerability before meeting him:
She told herself that alone was not lonely, though she was surely the oldest living virgin in the southeastern United States, but it seemed to her then that she was content to be so; she envisioned her female organs nestled inviolate above her intact hymen. Untroubled, easy to draw. She got out a hand mirror and held it between her legs. Instantly, though she could remember only fragments of Catholic liturgy, there flashed into Luna's mind: Inter faeces et urinem hascinur. That's what we're born between, all right. And then came a great longing that someone would love her body some day soon, that very part of her body, love also her soul, that she would be able to act out the first Latin verb she ever conjugated: I love, you love, he loves. (18)
Thinking of her mother's miserable marriage to her philandering military officer-father, however, Luna squelches her longing for a life-partner and resolves to create a calm and creative life alone. "Soon," she thinks, "she would be able to afford the mortgage on a small Chapel Hill house and furnish it only to suit herself, then add one dog and two cats; she would cultivate a circle of good-humored women friends to take trips with, to shop and play bridge among" (18). But Steven shows up at her door, looking for someone to illustrate his dissertation manuscript, and the two soon become lovers. He subsequently accepts a teaching post at the University of California, Riverside, and asks Luna to marry him before they head west. Steven admits that he told the hiring committee he was already married and informs her, "With a wife like you, I'll probably go up the ranks faster." Although she teases him about appearing less likely to flirt with coeds if he is married, Luna suspects that Steven will eventually leave her "for some vivacious ex-cheerleader" (30).
As her doubts about him grow, Luna reflects on their first sexual encounter. The experience was painful for her, "though she had kept that to herself" (68). She and Steven have never learned to communicate honestly about sex, as their first night on the road illustrates:
But while the day's drive had often seemed tense, that night in Knoxville, [...] after giggles in a motel bed that would vibrate and groan if fed coins, and midway in a porno film the motel piped onto their TV screen for five dollars, both Luna and Steven found themselves starved for sex, almost violent in their desire. All that week he had been clearing out the desk where he had worked as a teaching assistant, selling science textbooks; all week she had packed clothes, carried scarred thirdhand furniture to the street [...] with no energy left for lovemaking [...]. Now Steven flung her across the bed as if she were some kidnapped Sabine woman, and in the flickering video light, the noises he made got left behind as her own voice climbed to a high, wild panting sound that started fake but ended real. (9-10)
The vivid description shows just how hard Luna has to work in the relationship, from hauling furniture to feigning sexual pleasure.
Luna keeps working at trying to be satisfied with Steven while they drive west, even as his selfishness becomes increasingly difficult to overlook. She senses that his caresses are careless; he "yank[s]" her to him in a hug early in the trip, and later "his arm went around her and sort of shook her shoulders" (4, 69). Even his movie-star good looks begin to trouble her as she gazes at him and wonders whether a dimple like Steven's would have made Attila the Hun handsome or whether David Koresh might also have had blond hair and blue eyes (12). Disturbed by her own growing sense of disloyalty, Luna attributes her edginess to hormones and thinks that more sex with Steven will straighten her out:
Luna was sure her [...] black mood [...] would have been quickly cured if they could only have made love right away, in daylight, half dressed and noisy, so fast she would end uncertain whether she'd had an orgasm or just an adrenaline rush. Her body was prescribing sex, reminding her how much better accord they had in bed than out; but unfortunately her body had also been notifying her of menstrual cramps for the last hundred miles. This probably explained her moodiness, which had been piped to her brain straight from the ovary. (61-62)
Luna is not, however, responding merely to a dictatorial ovary; instead, her entire being is frantically urging flight from her fiance.
Steven also blames PMS when he and Luna quarrel that night, but his own insensitivity strikes their relationship's death knell. When Luna teases him over dinner about his developing obsession with hotel slot machines, Stephen accuses her of being stingy. In fact, Luna has supported him for months. Irritated by her reminder that she also does his typing, Steven retorts, "This has been coming on ever since I fucked you the first time and found out you'd been saving it for your old age. That should have told me plenty about stinginess!" (67). Stung, Luna leaves the restaurant. Until that point, Betts writes, Luna had "thought Steven appreciated the fact that she'd waited for him" (68).
Although she is ultimately unable to forgive Steven for dismissing her surrendered virginity, Luna has long ignored his taking her financial generosity for granted. The novel's early pages hint broadly of his greed: Steven asks whether Luna bought film for his camera (a gift from a former lover); she finances their van; he pays neither for her illustrations nor for his share of rent when he moves into her apartment (3, 5, 23). Luna knows that Steven still accepts an allowance from his parents (60), yet he repeatedly asks her for money on their trip (22, 50, 62). She has paid for her own Christmas gift from Steven, as well as for the lavish graduation party he threw for himself (65, 66). Although Steven tells her that he does not expect his new employers to pay him for several months, Luna stumbles across a generous uncashed check for travel expenses from Riverside (75). Of course, she has a financial secret, too; she has not mentioned a check from her father because "Steven would have wanted to spend the bonanza on fancier hotels en route" (45). Luna has learned that over the bankbook, as in the bedroom, she cannot tell Steven everything.
While disagreements about sex and money are standard fare for many couples, Luna and Steven seldom actually disagree. Instead, she gives, uncomplainingly, and he takes, ungraciously. Especially at the dinner table, Luna loses out. As they drive across the country, she eats less and less. At breakfast in their Knoxville hotel, he accuses her of "not eating a thing but fruit" but then offers, "I'll eat that if you don't want it" (11, 12). Over enchiladas in Montrose, Steven again helps himself to Luna's meal before she rushes from the table, gagging, upon hearing a radio report of the Branch Davidian compound fire (30, 31). Afterward, she scrutinizes herself in her hotel room mirror, wondering about her bra size: "Still thirty-four? Maybe a thirty-two. She had lost weight again since Steven moved in. Even he complained sometimes that her hipbones made him feel he was lying on coat hangers" (34). While he sleeps, she listens with distaste to the whistle of his breathing. "Fat," she thought. "Whale. Blowhole" (34). Even earlier in the trip, she examines his profile while he is at rest: "He had been gaining weight this spring while she got thinner; from this angle she saw that his cheeks and chin were fuller" (11). Steven's swelling as Luna shrinks signifies his parasitism and her own submission to it.
The two characters' pathological relational patterns are fascinating in their own right, but Betts shows sex, money, and food to be far more than relationship markers when she has Luna leave Steven in Reno. The unhealthy financial and sexual behaviors Luna has developed with him coalesce with her eating disorder, which Betts continues to explore in detail. When asked about how she connected the three elements in the writing process, she replied that "the money was mostly accidental. And the sex [...] there are ways to have sex that are entirely selfish, instead of mutual giving and pleasing" (Greene 64). While its relationship to sex and money were largely serendipitous in the writing process, food itself was always in the foreground, she explains:
Mostly you stumble across [such a relationship]. You have a vague sense. You've often written way past something, and then you think, "Oh, I see what I did way back there. Good! Good for me! [Laughs] Or you realize, "Oh, I didn't fix that, but I could." Either reaction is possible. The food references were easy because of the cannibalism, because of the transubstantiation of the Mass, because of the anorexia, and because women serve food to men. But nourishment and love in general and spiritual, "charity," that emphasis is C. S. Lewis all over again. That comes from his novel Till We Have Faces and his book The Four Loves. (Greene 64)
Betts's willingness to situate Sharp Teeth's treatment of nourishment within Christian tradition shows just how conscious she is of the subject's profound spiritual implications.
Initially, Luna's story resembles other contemporary accounts of severe anorexia. Details of her disorder emerge one at a time, with the first clue appearing on the first page of the first chapter, "Food For Thought." Deliberating over whether to discard her journal or bring it on the drive to California, Luna opens it to the day's date: April 16, 1993. "Since she'd left the hospital," Betts writes, "almost all the pages were blank" (3). Thinking irrationally of human sacrifice over a contentious breakfast with Steven, she panics: "That kind of selective memory frightened her. She never wanted to go back to the hospital again. Into her numb mouth she put some grapes and washed them down with orange juice" (14). Throughout their trip, Luna battles her rival fears of fat and emotional collapse.
Although her relationship with Steven has exacerbated her condition, Luna's eating disorder developed long before she met him. Paul Cowan, the would-be Lutheran seminarian with whom Luna later builds a much more satisfying relationship, speculates that there must "have been spells of anorexia since she was fifteen or so, perhaps the result of a father she could never satisfy" (169). In the novel's second chapter, "A Ghost of Her Former Self," Betts shifts from third-person narration to first-person, permitting Luna not only to strike out on her own but also to describe the worst phase of her own disease. During the fall of her junior year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she had been caught in the crossfire between her demanding father and her needy mother. While her parents moved toward divorce, the already-fragile Luna moved toward emotional breakdown. Staying in her empty residence hall after exams in December, she became a vegetarian, "but there weren't many vegetables in the room and the cafeteria was a long way off" (87). She fended off a sexual assault by her roommate's boyfriend and had no other visitors. By the time her resident advisor alerted the university's mental health staff about her refusal to leave the building for Christmas break, Luna weighed only 80 pounds. After threatening to jump from her dormitory window, she had to be hospitalized for the spring semester.
Betts has drawn Luna's background carefully, making her a prime candidate for anorexia as Rudolph Bell describes it in Holy Anorexia. He writes:
The typical anorexic girl comes from a two-parent family of middle- or upper-middle-class status. Her mother has read all the correct books on how to be nurturing and loving without smothering the child's initiative. Her father, an ambitious, upwardly mobile, and driving individual, often participates actively in establishing the household's norms. On every matter of consequence to them, they have an opinion: obesity is ugly, unhealthy, and lower-class [...]. How is it that a good girl raised by well-meaning and concerned parents becomes so dangerously ill? [... T]he girl always lived for others, judged herself by their standards, and let them define her identity. Raised to strive for perfection and to seek approval from narcissistic parents, she is now able to set for herself a daily, relentless, physically torturing challenge, one over which she alone has control. The immediate cause of her desperate choice may be a lower than expected grade at school or it may be the onset of bodily maturation [...], or it may be a disgusting sexual encounter, but it is the underlying psychological need to gain a sense of self that is the essence. (18-19)
Certainly, Luna has tried since college to find a sense of her self, and only in ditching the fiance who is as controlling as her father is she able to launch that search in earnest.
That Luna's disorder develops and recurs in response to unhealthy personal relationships makes her seem a typical twentieth-century anorexic. Uncharacteristic of most accounts of late twentieth-century anorexia, though, is the religious component of Luna's condition. Describing the "disgusting sexual encounter" that triggered the worst episode of her disorder--the attempted assault by her roommate's boyfriend--Luna recounts,
I heard myself yelling out to Jesus, Joseph, and Mary [...]. I asked him if he knew that when Jesus ascended into Heaven his circumcised foreskin was the only fleshly part of him left on earth, and that a piece of it became a relic in one of the churches where women could kneel before it and pray for pregnancy. He said he didn't want a thing to do with pregnancy and left quickly. (87)
in this passage, the quick-thinking Luna seems to see herself among the countless virgin saints whose prayers delivered them from rape. Her speech echoes the writings of Catherine of Siena, famous for her own extensive fasting and for her declaration that "we do not marry Christ with gold or silver but with the ring of Christ's foreskin, given in the Circumcision and accompanied by pain and the shedding of blood" (Bynum, Holy Feast 175). Later in the novel, Luna mentions Catherine, who she says "yearned to live off the Host alone and would thrust twigs down her throat to make herself vomit" (137). Luna mentions a second such holy woman when she reflects on her half-hearted suicide attempt during college:
A nice woman leaned out of a nearby window to talk to me earnestly about something that concerned her. I envied her passion. I asked if she knew about Angela of Fogliano [sic], who dined solely on roses and tulips and took her only fluid when nuns would brush water over her lips with a feather. Probably she never decayed, I said, like the rest of us will. (88)
Luna also tells Paul that while she was in the hospital, she informed "the doctor that when Saint Veronica fasted she would stop on Fridays and eat five orange seeds for the five wounds of Jesus. Don't you love it? [...] They even thought the gallstones of Saint Clare were the symbols of the Trinity" (86). Yet another connection between Luna and the tradition of the lasting holy woman is her given name, Madeline Lunatsky Stone. Luna is only her nickname; Steven calls her "Mad Lunatic." But Madeline is a derivation of Mary Magdalen, whom Caroline Walker Bynum describes in Holy Feast and Holy Fast as "the saint most closely linked with fasting, owing to the version of her legend that circulated in the Middle Ages and attributed to her a fast of many years in the desert near Marseilles" (81). Through this web of allusion, Betts links Luna to a long line of Catholic saints as well as to the contemporary figure of the anorexic girl.
Bynum's Holy Feast provides a useful framework for considering the way food functions in Sharp Teeth. In her study, Bynum examines accounts of food abstinence among thirteenth- and fourteenth-century religious women and asserts that the causes of their apparently anorexic behavior were quite different from those of their twentieth-century counterparts. While sociologists and psychologists speculate about today's over-achieving parents' imposing too much control over their adolescent daughters and fashion magazines' teaching teens to despise their developing curves, Bynum explains that medieval women did not starve themselves primarily because they wanted to get out from under their parents' thumbs. And in the famine-ravaged late Middle Ages, thin was definitely not "in." In ways that modern Westerners can scarcely fathom, Bynum writes, "food was [...] a fundamental economic--and religious--concern" (1-2). She suggests that to compare modern anorexics' attempts to control their bodies through dieting to medieval women's fasting is to fail to recognize the latter group's complex of food-related behaviors, of which fasting was only one component. She points out that "feeding others and eating God were also central" (220). Betts depicts that same triad--fasting, feeding others, and feeding on God in the Eucharist--in The Sharp Teeth of Love. While Luna is clearly a late-twentieth-century woman, Betts's treatment of her relationship to food reveals a deeply religious sensibility rooted in medieval Catholic women's mysticism.
Luna's fasting, the first of the three food-related practices Bynum explores, is unlike that of her medieval counterparts in two important ways. First, for Luna, as for so many twentieth-century anorexics, food abstinence has offered an illusion of control in the midst of emotional chaos. Bynum asserts that fasting enabled medieval women to assert real, not illusory, control over their circumstances. She explains:
Far from substituting control of self for control of circumstance or destroying ego and body while attempting to direct the attention of others toward them, women's food practices frequently enabled them to determine the shape of their lives--to reject unwanted marriages, to substitute religious activities for more menial duties within the family, to redirect the use of fathers' or husbands' resources, to change or convert family members, to criticize powerful secular or religious authorities, and to claim for themselves teaching, counseling, and reforming roles for which the religious tradition provided, at best, ambivalent support. (Holy Feast 220)
As an educated late-twentieth-century American adult of some means, Luna has considerably more freedom than medieval women had to make decisions about marriage, career, and faith, and she does act decisively--if slowly. Second, Luna's condition is not overtly religious in nature. Repeatedly, Bynum argues that women in the Middle Ages regarded fasting as a significant devotional practice, and Luna states explicitly that she is a lapsed Catholic.
Despite these differences, Luna's food abstinence has a noteworthy similarity to that of medieval religious women: it prepares her for a remarkable visionary experience. A number of the women Bynum has studied saw powerful visions, and she explains that that their food practices yielded "paramystical phenomena of the most bizarre and exuberant sort" (Holy Feast 4). Having experienced her own secular form of fasting, Luna experiences her own paramystical phenomenon. When she finally abandons Steven in Reno, she takes refuge in nearby Donner State Park, camping where members of the ill-fated Donner Party starved in the winter of 1847. As she drifts off to sleep on her first night in the campground, Luna sees Tamsen Donner, who had been cannibalized after staying behind to nurse her dying husband rather than leave with a rescue party. Luna describes her vision of Tamsen:
Her dark hair was parted in the middle and pulled back; the face, half in shadow, seemed small boned, nose and chin sharp. We were about the same size, though I had not been that thin for a long time. Yet, how strange that her phantasm should assume bodily form at all if Lewis Keesburg's body had barely survived by digesting hers! The resurrection of the body, Christians say. Well, lots of luck. As if this wry thought had splashed her with acid, Tamsen's gray ghost began to disintegrate. (95)
The novel describes three more appearances by Tamsen Donner, appearances that frustrate Luna more than they frighten her. She wants to know why the pioneer woman stayed with her husband when she knew that he would die and she might, as well. When Luna tells her, "You should have gone over the pass with your daughters," Tamsen retorts, "Till death do us part." To that, Luna responds, "I don't know much about the kind of love that requires such sacrifice" (145). Although she is fond of her own mother and dutiful toward her father, Luna has never experienced the strong sense of connection that must have informed Tamsen's choice. As a daughter and as a fiancee, she has always seen herself in a kind of isolation.
She is, however, beginning to learn about community and about sacrificial love, thanks in part to her encounters with Tamsen. Tamsen fed others, Luna muses: "[O]ne man had eaten her time and her strength and her nursing care while another one--though he always denied it--had possibly eaten her flesh" (74). The pioneer woman's story illustrates for Luna in horrifying fashion medieval religious women's second food-related practice: going without in order to share food with others. Bynum asserts that "giving away food is so common a theme in the lives of holy women that it is very difficult to find a story in which this particular charitable activity does not occur" ("Fast, Feast, and Flesh" 3). She quotes Saint Augustine to explain their perspective: "'Above all be mindful of the poor so that you lay up in the heavenly treasury what you withhold from yourselves by a more frugal mode of life. The hungry Christ will receive that from which the fasting Christian abstains'" (Holy Feast 35).
Luna, too, feeds others. Although Steven had, in effect, taken food from her, she learns after leaving him to share food with others. First, however, her own appetite returns. Setting up camp, she realizes, "[P]eanut butter sandwiches and juice tasted good outdoors; good; I was all right; I was not losing appetite. In fact, I was hungrier than usual" (92). Next, she shares her food and later her secrets with Sam, a runaway who has escaped a child prostitution ring. On the night of Luna's first encounter with Tamsen Donner, Sam pilfers her peanut butter, jelly, and bread to make himself a sandwich. Luna waits for him to return the next night, urging him to drink her milk and eat the candy bars she has stored inside a roll of paper towels. Slowly, she wins Sam's trust, and in Chapter Three, "The Carnivores," they befriend Paul, another drifter. Luna offers to share their trail soup with Paul, to which he adds his beef stew. The next night, Paul contributes fruit. Luna observes, "Gradually, without planning, our campsites adjoined and then combined. We three went hiking, ate meals, sat dreamily staring into campfires" (138). Before long, they relate as a family of sorts.
Although an accident has nearly destroyed Paul's hearing, driving him to the wilderness to adjust to both his hearing aid and his altered vocational prospects, he is a good listener. Luna quickly discovers that "he was easy to talk to, much different from Steven," and even tells him about having been hospitalized for anorexia--something she had never told her former-fiance (138). Luna is amazed to see that he is hiking with the collected stories of Franz Kafka, whose work she devoured during her college health crisis. She remembers that Kafka "beat back his own nervous breakdown by writing four stories, including 'The Hunger Artist'" (133). As she confides in Paul, obviously a kindred soul, Luna realizes that she "felt starved for the tidbits of his childhood, life in Wisconsin, even his Lutheranism--whatever crumb might fall" (144).
Luna's hunger for fellowship grows along with her hunger for food, accompanied by a new capacity for economic interdependence. When Sam's abusers recapture him, she turns to Paul for help in finding him. Paul takes over the narration in Chapter Four, "Wild Game," revealing his growing love for Luna, but Luna is initially too distracted by Sam's disappearance to recognize the extent of Paul's willingness to share his resources. After an evening of dealing with the police and driving around the city, Luna defers to him about where they will stay and how to pay for it. Later, at a hotel in Reno, she tells him, "I didn't mean for you to spend your [...] money; this is my problem, really--," to which he responds, "Hush. Take a hot bath. I'll call the police" (159). The next day, he notices her look of concern while counting money. "We had not discussed details of our dwindling finances--the real intimacy between American men and women--" he recounts, "and I suggested now that it was time we pooled resources and counted up what we had" (175). He offers to get a job, willing to do just about anything: "I could wash dishes, cook hamburgers, lift and carry, and I still had some money left from selling my car" (175). Luna proposes that they leave Reno for a new campground in order to spend their money on gas for the search instead of on a hotel room. They sort through their options together, making finding Sam their common goal.
As he and Luna search for the missing child, Paul tends tirelessly to Luna's needs. He cooks for her, reassures her about her mental state, listens to her tirade against the God who permits Sam to suffer. He wants to make love to her, considering seduction in their Reno hotel room and then at the campground, especially after she has too much to drink:
Maybe it would be therapeutic to get her drunk and take advantage; sex might have kept some of those Catholic women from being such ecstatic brides of Christ. But this was Intimacy Night, not Passion. Talk? Luna almost babbled [...]. At one point we had to pour all our money on a blanket so she could count it and draw up a tentative budget in her diary--demonstrating logic, math, planning. (183)
Paul's desire for her, though strong, is not merely physical; when he realizes just how keen his lust is, he thinks, "Sweet Jesus. The fullness of the reaction made me grin, proud of myself, even of the one-way trip from passion to whatever; also tickled at the link between sex and religion because both carry us outside ourselves, which Luther knew" (170). Perhaps because he, unlike Steven, is capable of thinking "outside [himself]," Paul refuses to take sexual advantage of the ever-vulnerable Luna. He relates that when--in the most unromantic of settings--she does eventually touch him to initiate sex, he says, "'Jesus.' I believe it was a reverent word; it was certainly awed" (210).
Although he and Luna do not speak of marriage during their first sexual encounter, Paul is already thinking in terms of a shared future with her. Concerned that his first attempts to please Luna are clumsy, he hopes, "[M]aybe this first time finesse would matter less than it later would" (210). He is frustrated when she seems unfazed by their intimacy, bewildered by her speedy return to the business of pursuing Sam, though glad to include the boy in his vision of life with her (219). Before tailing asleep that night, Paul prays for Sam, for Luna, and asks God, "Oh, show yourself to me, show yourself, show yourself." He muses that instead of seeing Moses' burning bush, he lies with Luna beside him, "herself burning with warmth" (218).
The passage's suggestion that Luna signifies God's presence in Paul's life is further indication of Betts's sacramental vision. When she challenges him to a theological showdown over the problem of evil, raging that God "should have stepped in however long ago" Sam's captors first abused him, Paul muses, "Did I dare say that for all I knew one deaf vagrant and one furious runaway bride might be God's only healers conveniently nearby?" (172). He and Luna help heal one another, becoming increasingly important physical presences in each other's lives. With Paul, Luna begins to see that lovemaking offers not the escape from conflict it had been with Steven but a physical confirmation of growing emotional and spiritual commitment.
In the Sharp Teeth's fifth chapter, "Love Feast," Betts continues to emphasize sex, money, and food as sites of love and grace for her main characters. Again, Paul responds with tenderness and good humor when his efforts to make love to Luna prove awkward. Betts writes, "He knew, quite sharply, that this was what marriage would be like and one-night stands were not--these ups and downs and pleasures and farces. Sex you had paid good money for was not allowed to turn inept" (282). Paul understands, as Richard Foster writes, that sex "in the real world is a mixture of tenderness and halitosis, love and fatigue, ecstasy and disappointment" (103). He is a generous and attentive partner in every area of life, patiently feeding Luna from her tray when she is hospitalized briefly for exposure, talking honestly with her about his financial prospects. And as Luna is loved by Paul and learns to love him, she finds that sex and money as well as food enable joyful interdependence rather than exploitation.
As she feeds others and learns to be fed by them, Luna becomes increasingly open to spiritual sustenance. By the end of the book's sixth and final chapter, "Wisconsin Life Trip," she is ready to receive the Eucharist itself--the third component in medieval holy women's triad of food-related practices. Bynum explains the links among them, writing:
Medieval women fed others. They abstained in order to feed others [...]. Moreover, women achieved ecstatic union by fusing with a God who became food on the altar. In a fierce imitation of the cross [...], women became the macerated body of the Savior, the bleeding meat they often saw in Eucharistic visions. In erotic union with the adorable body of Jesus, they felt grace within as inebriating drink or as a melting honeycomb. (Holy Feast 114)
Luna's experiences are more prosaic, but their thematic link to those of medieval holy women is unmistakable. As she moves beyond fasting to sharing food, Luna thinks about the Eucharist, often in connection with cannibalism victim Tamsen Donner. During a dream about Tamsen, she remembers that "those athletes whose plane had crashed in the Andes had also eaten human flesh to survive, and had compared that horrible necessity to the sacrificial body and blood of the Mass" (111). Later, before Tamsen's final appearance, Luna muses, "If this was to be her last word with Tamsen, maybe she ought to cross herself, to exorcise the ghost. Maybe to get her to come and then go she needed to pray. This is my body broken for you. Absolutely not" (309).
While Sharp Teeth's ghostly element may strike some readers as implausible and even jarring, Tamsen Donner's character serves as more than a supernatural sparring partner for Luna. As she moves toward physical and emotional wholeness, Luna is also moving into community. Her connection with Tamsen, macabre though it may seem, lays the groundwork for her connections with Sam and Paul. Moreover, the two women's relationship makes sense in light of Betts's Catholic sensibility. For Catholic writers, Peter Quinn explains, "[t]he dead are gone, not obliterated [...]. [T]hough death changes everything, consumes everybody, the commune and the communing continue. For the Catholic, it is the tomb, not the center, which cannot hold. Communion and comedy come from the same root" (19). Sharp Teeth is indeed Comic, not only ending with a joke between Paul and Luna but also drawing them and Sam from hellish isolation and exploitation into loving relationships that hint of Heaven.
It is in her relationship with Paul that Luna finds the context for her most obviously sacramental experience: the wedding mass. As they prepare to adopt Sam and live with Paul's mother on the Cowan family farm in Wisconsin, Luna and Paul playfully enact two traditions of courtship and marriage. When Paul laments not having presented her with an engagement ring, Luna hands him a charcoal stick, which he uses to draw a circle around her ring finger (333). Loading the van for the trip, Paul says, "With all my worldly goods I thee endow" (334). And as they begin their drive, they plan their wedding. They agree to have a Catholic ceremony as well as one in Paul's Lutheran home church. Luna asks, "Do you take the Eucharist from the priest?" He replies, "From the pastor. There are parallels" (335). She imagines their Lutheran service:
[S]he, Paul, and Sam at the altar rail, kneeling--she in a lace scarf, maybe a mantilla in honor of Sam's heritage; then [Paul's mother] kneeling next [...]. [A]nd above them with the sacrament the pastor in [...] in what kind of vestment? Luna made his suit satin and blue, with gold embroidery. Take, eat. This is my body. (335-36)
After her long physical, emotional, and spiritual fast and a subsequent period of learning to feed others, Luna is finally entering into sacramental communion with other humans and with God.
Her entry into marital, parental, and ecclesial fellowship has enabled Luna to transcend her anorexic patterns of behavior. When Luna talks to her mother on the telephone about her sudden engagement to Paul, her mother assumes that Luna's unhealthy habits have impaired her judgment. "How many calories have you had today?" she quizzes her. "Madeline, try some of those supplemental milk drinks I wrote you about with all the vitamins. Sustacal, Ensure, Nutrament--all the supermarkets carry them." Luna replies, "Mother, I promise I'm eating. This is not about lunch, this is about the rest of my life. Will you come to the wedding in Wisconsin?" (326). Bynum suggests that medieval holy women experienced a similar shift in perspective. Of Angela of Foligno, for example, she writes, "Once the crisis of her conversion was over, food asceticism became less important in her spirituality" (Holy Feast 144). In his epilogue to Holy Anorexia, William N. Davis asserts that "when, finally, female saints came to be recognized in terms of their capacity to do good works, the phenomenon of holy anorexia largely disappeared" (190). For Luna, who has not only developed a sense of self and found recognition through caring for the orphaned Sam but who has also undergone a conversion of sorts, food is no longer a bane but a blessing. Sharing food with others sustains her not only physically but emotionally and spiritually, as well.
Betts's depiction of Luna's eating disorder thus reflects a sacramental Christian view of food and the body. Like the practices of the medieval saints Caroline Walker Bynum has studied, Luna's relationship to food both informs and is informed by her relationships with God and others. Through the course of Sharp Teeth, her experiences with anorexic fasting enable her to identify with others in their suffering, in learning to share food with Sam, Luna joins the stream of saintly women for whom giving away food was a characteristic act. In identifying with Tamsen Donner, Luna actually sees the long-dead pioneer, and her visionary experience echoes that of pre-modern mystics. And in caring about both Sam and Tamsen, Luna finds in her own suffering a source of healing and transformation. Furthermore, her changing financial and sexual patterns mirror her recovery from anorexia. In the context of marital communion with Paul, sex, money, and food will all be sources of blessing for Luna.
Despite the way in which the novel illustrates the connections between physical and spiritual well-being, some Christian readers will nevertheless continue to find Sharp Teeth's treatment of sexuality disturbing. As Richard Foster points out in Money, Sex, and Power: The Challenge of the Disciplined Life, "There is no getting around it: biblical teaching places a clear veto on sexual intercourse for single people" (116). Sex, he argues, "touches deep into the spirit of each person and produces a profound union that the biblical writers call 'one flesh.' Remember, we do not have a body, we are a body; we do not have a spirit, we are a spirit" (117). Luna senses this reality from the book's opening pages, repeating to herself, "I am a body, I don't just have a body. I am a soul, I don't just have a soul" (17). Still, she and Paul are not yet married when the novel ends, even though they clearly intend to be, making their sexual intimacy problematic.
Betts's novel is not, however, meant to be prescriptive. As Quinn observes, "Truly Catholic novels [...] don't separate themselves from the democracy of sinners and view existence from the high places where the aristocracy of saints are gathered to greet the next and last Big Bang" (21). Instead, their flawed characters' lives become the landscape of grace. Luna hungers for that healing grace from early in the book. "Longing that someone would love her body someday soon, that very part of her body, love also her soul," Luna comes to see how the material realities of sex, money, and food come to be sacraments: outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace (18). And while they are things of the body, such signs convey meaning for Luna because she is becoming part of Christ's body, the Church. She has found independence in leaving Steven but then chooses Christian community with Paul.
Entering the Cowans's Lutheran congregation in Wisconsin while simultaneously affirming her own Catholic birthright, Luna also illustrates a theological dialectic W. H. Auden affirms:
[C]atholicism concentrates on the plural, protestantism on the singular. But authentic human existence demands that equal meaning and value be given to both singular and plural [...]. Thus, protestantism is correct in affirming that the We are of society expresses a false identity unless each of its members can say I am; catholicism [is] correct in affirming that the individual who will not or cannot join with others in saying We does not know the meaning of I. (87)
"Finding herself" enables Luna to share that self with others and with God--to receive spiritual grace in its many physical manifestations.
Luna's religious heritage, dormant though it has been, makes her particularly receptive to such grace. The Catholicism of her youth, enriched by Paul's Lutheran perspective, brings her tremendous joy. Betts's own journey appears analogous. Despite having moved from her own childhood church to a more theologically moderate Presbyterianism, Betts credits the Bible stories she learned as an Associate Reformed Presbyterian with giving her a "great sense of the flesh, and the blood, and the same material which I did see about me, and about which I have written extensively" (Wolfe 153-54). The Protestant emphasis on Scripture and preaching that Eleanor Heartney believes lead to the rejection of "sensual imagery and sensual language [...] as impediments, rather than aids to belief" does not appear to have had that effect on Doris Betts (36). Yes, biblical revelation was the primary factor in her childhood spiritual formation, but for her it was somehow visceral. "Words and the Word," she recounts, "were almost sub-sacraments themselves, could work wonders, could transubstantiate any old thing by the side of a redclay road" ("Fingerprint of Style" 172-73). Having landed somewhere between her mother's conservative Calvinist church and her son's Catholicism, Betts has managed in her fiction to marry the two. "I like to write about Catholics, although I'm not privy," she says. Somewhat wistfully, she continues:
I'll have to say also that Catholics just have the best writers. You don't see as many Presbyterian writers. There are some, but you don't have Walker Percy, you don't have Flannery O'Connor, you don't have Graham Greene. The list is long, right? I do like Frederick Buechner, and I do like Kathleen Norris very much, but the list of avowed Presbyterian novelists who have both religion and aesthetic sense [...]. I think it has been beaten out of them, you know? By the catechism. (Greene 65)
The Sharp Teeth of Love suggests, however, that the list of religiously and aesthetically sensitive Presbyterian novelists is longer than Doris Betts realizes--at least by one.
Auden, W. H. "Greatness Finding Itself." Forewords and Afterwords. Selected by Edward Mendelson. 1943. New York: Random House, 1973. 79-87.
Bell, Rudolph M. Holy Anorexia. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.
Betts, Doris. "Everything I Know About Writing I Learned in Sunday School." The Christian Century 21 Oct. 1998: 966-67.
--. "The Fingerprint of Style." Black Warrior Review 10:1 (Fall 1983): 171-84.
--. Interview with students in English 23 ("Introduction to Fiction"). The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 26 April 1999.
--. The Sharp Teeth of Love. New York: Knopf, 1997.
Bynum, Caroline Walker. "Fast, Feast, and Flesh: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women." Representations 0:11 (Summer 1985): 1-25.
--. Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women. Berkeley: U of California P, 1987.
Davis, William N. Epilogue. Holy Anorexia. Rudolph M. Bell. Chicago: U of Chicago R 1985. 180-90.
Foster, Richard. Money, Sex, and Power: The Challenge of the Disciplined Life. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985.
Greeley, Andrew. The Catholic Myth: The Behavior and Beliefs of American Catholics. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1990.
Greene, Marti. "A Conversation with Doris Betts." The Carolina Quarterly 52:2 (Spring 2000): 59-73.
Heartney, Eleanor. "Blood, Sex, and Blasphemy: The Catholic Imagination in Contemporary Art." New Art Examiner (March 1999): 34-39.
Quinn, Peter. "The Catholic Novel: Fact or Fiction?" Commonweal 8 Nov. 2002: 1621.
Wolfe, George. "The Unique Voice: Doris Betts." Kite-Flying and Other Irrational Acts: Conversations with Twelve Southern Writers. Ed. John Carr. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1972. 149-73.
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|Author:||Eads, Martha Greene|
|Publication:||Christianity and Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2004|
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