The founding principle of every moral system I can think of is the sacredness of life. To love oth- ers as we love ourselves and to hold all life on Earth inviolable is the bedrock of both our secular ethics and religious moralities. Unfortu- nately, the biological conditions of existence on this planet include the daily consumption of other living things. All earthly creatures must eat some form of living matter, ei- ther animal or vegetable, in order to survive. So, how do we reconcile our need to kill in order to subsist with our moral imperative regard- ing the sacredness of life? This is one of the most profound contra- dictions of human existence and one with which Christian mystics have long struggled.
Since religions—Christianity among them—often split the body from the soul in order to focus, literally, on the spiritual, the body is frequently framed as a battle- ground the mystic’s struggle to achieve perfection. Italy reminds us of the Christian tradition of worship through feasting or fasting perhaps more vividly than any of its European cousins—a meal is still the Italian Catholic’s primary form of religious celebration, and the word we Anglo-Saxons use, a holiday or “holy day,” Italians still call a festa, or a “feast day.” The contradiction of worshipping God, the creator of life, through fasting—denying oneself the very principle of life—lies at the heart of much of the female Christian mystical experience. At the heart of novelist Jessie Chaffee’s startlingly fine debut, Florence in Ecstasy, we find our protagonist in the grips of a similar—although secular— battle between self-construction and self-destruction via her relationship to her own body and its alimentation. The novel gives us, in her own voice, Hannah—a thirty-something Bostonian temporarily escaped to Florence—in the grips of a life-or-death struggle with her own identity, involved in a conflict between her mind and body, who finds a mirror for her existential crisis in the writings of the female mystics of Italy’s past. Although marketable within the “female awakening in Italy” genre, I found Florence in Ecstasy to be so much more than those non-fiction tales of Americans conquering the mysteries of the old world—the novel is profound, philosophical, familiar to me and my male experience of the world as I entered into my thirties, as well as exquisitely written. The Florentine backdrop is drawn in fine detail—the row- ing club rather than view over the Arno to which we’ve become accustomed since Forster—and the characters are believable—thankfully the novel avoids the tired clichés of the naïvely romantic American and the zesty, life-loving European lover who teaches her a thing or two about Mediterranean sensuality.
Florence in Ecstasy rather beats with a living heart founded in the contemporary experience of soul-searching that’s too often labeled as sickness, as if it came from outside of us: depression, addiction, eating disorders, etc. Hannah’s story is a wholly modern tale that, nevertheless, taps into a long tradition of Christian mysticism and female fasting, of rebel- lion against the tyranny of hunger and our earthly, physical nature, of people struggling to break out of the bonds of social mores and traditions in order to become radically individual. To be someone is of- ten to be like no one else, to change, to transform oneself—and these are frequently dangerous propositions that get labeled as illness by a world full of conformity to cultural norms often no less self-destructive—fossil fuels, processed food, and hopelessly inefficient political economies. Hannah is a narrator whose voice I will carry with me for a long time. For I, too, have struggled with my own interior search for individuality through otherness, with self-destructive urges born of a desire to transcend and to become more myself, and I felt as close to her and her experience as I read as she did when reading the testimonials of the Italian mystics. This is not a novel exclusive to female experience; it’s a beautifully expressed universal story of our human desire to escape, to perfect ourselves, and to transcend.