Sunday, November 20, 2016

Body and Soul

Considering the eternal dance of Eros and Thanatos.

Conceived in pleasure and begotten in pain, the human animal is born naked like all other beasts. Much of the history of ideas about our condition is devoted to puzzling out the contrasts between the brutish constraints of our embodiment and our seemingly disembodied capacity to think, which projects us into abstract realms, away from our mortal, fragile, messy bodies. It is not enough that we can create mathematics, music, physics, and writing, in which bodily needs are silenced and sometimes transcended; we must also wonder about this very capacity. We are animals at once conscious, aware of finitude, and locked into corruptible flesh.

The word flesh conjures the potency of sexual desire and the bitterness of decrepitude and finitude, the one limiting the other, in the eternal dance of Eros and Thanatos. Flesh is what Titian’s luminous, erotic nudes celebrate, but also what Lucian Freud’s thick paint unforgivingly depicts as garish. It is the miraculously transformed marble of the Greco-Romans, Michelangelo, Bernini, and Rodin. It is at the center of the aestheticized and grotesque sexuality of Edo-era Japanese prints and of the nightmare visions of contemporary horror movies. It is the sensuous mass of fat and muscle painted by Rubens, but also the carcasses lovingly depicted by Chardin. Flesh conjures skin both as smooth cover behind which entrails hide and as those actual entrails, desirable as food for carnivores, for flesh is also meat.

The word body conjures none of this; the body is the observable structure of a living being, which is dressed for social existence and undressed for general care. Bodies may figure in a landscape as exempla, like those by Poussin, who was good at painting the skin color of his expressively gesturing figurines but did not manifest much interest in what was beneath the skin. Bodies are part of a composition, determined by external conditions, by clothes, by measurements, by the gazes of ourselves and others. We treat our bodies as an “it” and not quite identical with the self.

The state of flesh fluctuates from glorious pleasure to excruciating pain. When we die, our flesh disintegrates. As physical creatures, humans are at once beautiful and repulsive to one another—lovely skin enveloping innards unlovely to all except the doctors whose vocation it is to know their byways. Our being depends on physiological processes invisible to the eye, at once fascinating and terrifying in their potency. We are always potentially medical patients, teetering just this side of biological viability.

The enraging recognition of our imperfect, brittle embodiment has contrasted, for much of human history, with an incorruptible and immaterial sphere. Attached to the awareness of our biology, we have imagined a universe untouched by the limiting conditions of our flesh and posited laws that enable life to function according to this imagined realm.

In the West, and specifically within the Christian tradition that has shaped it to a large extent, there is a profoundly examined strand of thought about the status of flesh as inferior to that of the mind. This idea relies on dualism: the separation of the realms of flesh and mind. The dualist narrative in the West has its roots in ancient Greece, in the psychology envisioned by Plato and developed by Aristotle, and conceives of a hierarchical, divided soul—a higher order and a lower order. Reason was in touch with the cosmic order, above the disorderly passions and disruptive bodily appetites that humans shared with other living creatures. Both Greek philosophers’ schemes percolated into Christian doctrine, first by way of Augustine, later through Thomas Aquinas, who reinterpreted Aristotle for Christianity. The rational soul, unique to humans, was located in the brain. The sensitive soul, shared by humans and animals, was in the heart. And the appetitive soul, which ensured nutrition and reproduction, was in the liver. For Aristotle and the scholastic psychology that followed, the three organs were connected, sustaining conscious, sentient life.

Augustine, the inspired Church father, begins his Confessions as a fourth-century convert to the then-new religion as he grows aware of the sinful nature of the sensuality and unbridled sexuality he experienced in his youth. Spiritual enlightenment, for Augustine, was a function of the domination of the body’s urges. The body was capable of disobeying the spirit’s entreaties—so Saint Matthew’s “the flesh is weak”—meaning that it dictates its needs with greater force than the nobler spirit. For Augustine, life was “a long, unbroken period of trial” because of our embodied nature, and the immortal soul—the part of being whose job on earth was to hark at divine presence—had to define us more powerfully than biology. God, to whom Augustine speaks in the second person throughout the Confessions, commanded man “to control our bodily desires,” and so “it is by continence that we are made as one and regain that unity of self that we lost by falling apart in the search for a variety of pleasures.” Hence the notion later developed within monastic orders that marriage to Christ is the highest calling, far above marriage to a human whose life is to an extent limited and defined by bodily needs. Augustine confessed to God how his former desires returned to him in his sleep, since they were lodged in his memory. He was mostly able to restrain “the fire of sensuality that provokes me in my sleep,” but not always, and he prayed to God to feel pleasure no longer, even in dreams in which he succumbed to temptation. The body was a site of struggle between a higher calling and the lower appetites of the flesh. Humans, thought Augustine, stood midway between angels and beasts.

by Noga Arikha, Lapham's Quarterly | Read more:
Image:Venus and the Lute Player, by Titian, c. 1570