Decades ago, I started accumulating books about something I might call “the philosophy of the body” if I wanted to be pretentious. “Incarnate Being” if I wanted to be religiously poetic. But the nine books that have survived many purges and moves over the years are a hodge-podge. Now I need them and books like them, because of Barrus and Cinematheque, so I can think clearly about subjects normally pushed away as pornography. I see that the books are all from the Seventies and Eighties. Did I stop buying them? Was no one writing them anymore? Or was I just in places where they weren’t on the shelves anymore? Surely in the Nineties when I haunted Powells they would have been there.
I think (at least I hope) the books are trying to get at ways of thinking about subjects as vital and timely as sex, torture, death, addiction, disease, combat trauma, mutilation, and some of the edgy health issues we seem to be addressing now. Plastic surgery, nutrition, meds vs. supplements, euthanasia, DNA. Are we animals? Are animals human? What is there besides the body? What is extending life if one’s body breaks down?
Here are the book titles, in case someone has something to say about them. They’re all paperbacks:
Duyckaerts, Francois, (translated by John A. Kay) “The Sexual Bond,” A Delta Book, Dell Publishing Co. by arrangement with Delacorte Press. Originally published in Belgium in 1964. Delta edition in 1971.
Hutchinson, Marcia Germaine. “Transforming Body Image: Learning to Love the Body You Have.” The Crossing Press, 1985.
Keleman, Stanley. “Somatic Reality: Bodily Experience and Emotional Truth.” Center Press, 1979.
Fisher, Seymour, and Sidney E. Cleveland, “Body Image and Personality.” Originally published by van Nostrand in 1958. Dover, 1968.
Kurtz, Ron and Hector Prestera, M.D. “The Body Reveals: An Illustrated Guide to the Psychology of the Body.” Harper & Row, 1976.
Nelson, James B. “Embodiment: An Approach to Sexuality and Christian Theology.” Augsburg Publishing House, 1978.
Scarry, Elaine. “The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World.” Oxford University Press, 1985.
Scarry, Elaine, ed. “Literature and the Body: Essays on Populations and Persons.” Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.
Stuart F. Spicker, editor. “The Philosophy of the Body: Rejections of Cartesian Dualism.” An Anthology. Quadrangle/New York Times, 1970.
I think I have some other “high philosophy” from Anne Douglas and maybe some anthro stuff. And my brain books. But wait, here’s a sweet little booklet: Laiken, Deidre S. “The First Kiss: a Teenager’s Guide to the Gentle Art of Kissing.” G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1982. Some nice little tips in case you’ve been practicing on the back of your hand or kissing your dog. (I used to leave the booklet around my classroom because I’m here to tell you cowboys can’t kiss! Now, cornet players! For one thing, they don’t chew snoose!) There is a class angle to this. (like everything)
My original purpose was for thinking about liturgy: what positions and gestures connect to what concepts and emotions? Kneeling, folding hands? The Cinematheque crew must address their defenselessness, both as bodies whose antibodies keep being suppressed by the HIV virus and as boys who had to resort to painful and desperate ways of getting money, which meant they often turned to self-administering drugs to comfort themselves. Their naturally unfolding emotional lives have had to grow around and through many obstacles, but grow they did and continue to do. Barrus, with his avascular necrosis, faces daily limitations hard for a former dancer to accept, as well as constant pain.
Contempt and ferocity are effective defenses, but they take a lot of energy. Boundaries, structure, the mechanisms of sussing and testing, are all distorted and/or imposed from the outside. Normal functions like eating, sleeping, and caressing have been converted and re-interpreted. Appearance, always a big issue for pre-teens and teens, is scrambled among appeal, saleability, self-respect, and feeling dirty. Rhetoric is the same. One minute swaggering obscenity and the next a child’s need.
Asia has been the place on the planet where the power of helplessness has been developed into systems. Judo and all that. Weaponless combat. Body as weapon. Strategy as weapon. America is the place on the planet where the power of helplessness has taught biding one’s time and unexpectedness, guerrilla warfare. The populations of these two places are historically genetically continuous.
We are protective of our flesh but so willing to risk that of other people. We worry about flu but never worry whether our neighbors have enough to eat. We worry about global warming but blame and stigmatize street people. We worry about meds but eat dreck and excrete our meds in such quantity that the frogs become hermaphrodites. We have the illusion that we can be apart from everything else. Safe. And then drive drunk or texting.
We are so protective of our flesh that fear of death prevents us from being alive. Once one has faced, risked, and temporarily survived death, life becomes a new thing.
Making such pompous pronouncements is easy, especially on the Internet. Forming one’s own strategy and setting one’s own small daily goals is much harder. But I feel as though reading this stuff and thinking about it is necessary and why I want to live in a small house without doing any housework so I have time to think. Besides, I hope it won’t attract any other people except on the Internet and then only people who also want to think about what it means to live in a body. Without bringing it here, hoping to be fed and held.
My body is not exceptional: old, tubby, hair thinning, eyes dimming, hands fumbling, feet stumbling. But I’ve always been curious about it. Never imposed much discipline until the necessity of going sugarless. Every morning I spent a half-hour with my friends, one dying of cancer and the other operating with one arm and a morphine pump. They’ve been married fifty years, worked hard, had many dreams. Yesterday morning I watched she and her husband trying to get her little pain-killer patch (a square inch) peeled off its backing and stuck onto her chest. It was a ten minute struggle. They wanted to do it themselves. The stuff is so powerful she only needs one every three days and drinking alcohol at the same time would kill her. I bring gossip, pet the busy little dog, and help him put on his shirt and socks. I go at the same time every morning. Dependability is important. Bodies understand it.