We live not alone but chained to a creature of a different kingdom: our body.
" Marcel Proust
Every time I look at my face in a magnified mirror in a hotel bathroom, I jump back in surprise. Seen closely, my skin looks like the surface of a strange planet. Ridges and canyons pock my chin and lips. Forests of tiny hairs grow from my ear lobes. Unnoticed pimples rise from my nose like volcanoes. A sheen of oil coats the landscape. I half expect to see alien creatures living in minute settlements in my dimples or roving the great plains of my cheeks " and could I look at higher magnification, I would see exactly that.
I do not identify with my body. I have a body but I am
a mind. My body and I have an intimate but awkward relationship, like
foreign roommates who share a bedroom but not a language. As the thinker
of the pair, I contemplate my body with curiosity, as a scientist might
observe a primitive species. My mind is a solitary wanderer in this
universe of bodies.
Though I identify with mind, the mind itself is matter. I remember dissecting a fetal pig's brain in high school. As I sliced layers of cerebellum and cerebrum, I imagined someone likewise cutting my own brain from my skull and examining the weird intersection of my mind and body. There I would lie in the petri dish, the whole mystery of my being made visible, the unutterable complexities of consciousness, thought and personality reduced to a three-pound mass of squiggly pink tissue. Hello, self. Where is the vaporous soul I am said to be, the exiled child of God from another world? This looks, rather, like some Martian's bizarre pet.
Last summer I visited the beach on a busy holiday weekend. I never saw so much flesh: I saw more flesh than sand. Sunbathers hung over the sides or out the bottoms of their swimsuits. Sleeping old men roasted their round bellies then flipped like rotisserie chickens. I weaved through a jumbled Picasso of bellybuttons, nipples, sagging breasts, hairy backs and jiggling thighs, most the color and texture of greasy orange leather. I gave thanks that, besides at beaches, society requires clothes.
Plato called the body the prison of the soul. Perhaps our societal prejudice against obesity is a variant of that ancient prejudice against the flesh. Obesity is too much matter. Watching a skinny model strut down a runway, the audience studies the elegant geometry of her shape, shape being matter's abstract and immaterial container. But an obese body waddling down a sidewalk conveys an absence of shape, like formless matter before the logos tamed it at creation.
Ever since the first man and woman sewed fig leaves for their loins, human beings have been embarrassed by their bodies. Going to school without clothes is an archetypal nightmare of children. Public nudity is grounds for arrest. Clothing's purpose is not only to keep us warm but to keep us concealed, shielding us more from shame than rain. Our plight is having a higher standard of beauty than our bodies can match; we are pickier than our maker.
We are especially embarrassed by the inside of our bodies. Mucus, sweat, gas, feces, vomit, urine, saliva, earwax " does any desirable substance emerge from our depths? Whatever comes from inside the body is like a foul messenger from the underworld, whom we fear to encounter. What wife does not wince at the stench of her husband's morning breath? What teenager is not scandalized to hear his girlfriend on the toilet the first time?
Like our buttocks, breasts and genitals, all our interior regions are private parts. When a nurse pins my X-rays to a hospital wall, I am taken aback. If we blush to be seen without clothes, how much more to be seen without skin? Examining my horror of mutilation " femurs poking from thighs and intestines spilling from abdomens in a war scene, or industrial cattle being ground to ribbons of beef in a meat plant" I find, at root, an instinctive shame and fear of having one's guts revealed.
Squeamishness about bodies contributes much to the fear of death. Were death merely annihilation " the quiet snuffing out of consciousness " it might almost possess a sublime, philosophic poetry. But the accompanying facts of physical decay are merely vile. Dying, we gasp for air and cough blood and vomit, and waste to shriveled remnants of ourselves. After death, bad gets worse, as our rotting organs seep noxious fumes and make mansions for maggots. I only had to read one book about putrefaction before deciding that I would be cremated when I died. Cremation is the soul's way of death, the closest the mind can come to annihilating the spent body. Let fire evaporate me, not worms liquefy me. Cremation, whatever its terrors, at least is clean.
Besides being squeamish about physicality, I resent how matter lords it over mind. Plato says in one of his dialogues, "Soul is the master, and matter its natural subject." I agree that it ought to be so, but the facts are opposite. Whenever I get sick or injured, I am dismayed to discover how little control I have of my life. Because someone sneezed a germ too small to see into my bloodstream, my universe shrinks to a pillow and sheets. The mere calcium of my ankle, by breaking inopportunely, can cancel a carefully planned and paid-for vacation. My relation to my body resembles a privy council's relation to an adolescent king. I am thoughtful and wise and know best what to do, but my capricious body possesses the power and final authority, and I must tiptoe round its whims.
I am always unnerved to hear of a mind of genius"a Nobel laureate or great mathematician"killed in a car crash. Is it not strange that someone so intelligent should be so helpless against mindless metal? In a contest between genius and steel panel, amazingly steel panel wins. The mind's outward creation, culture, is similarly frail. Centuries of intellectual labor filled the Library of Alexandria, which illiterate fire burned down in a few hours. Eons of human progress could end next year with the smash of an errant meteor. Plato's Great Chain of Being got hung upside down, for rocks hold sway over humanity.
Granted, it is not entirely fair to criticize matter as stupid. The human body, in keeping itself alive, does a vastly better job than any conscious effort could. How long would I last if I were put at the controls of my physical existence? Fumbling uncertainly with hundreds of thousands of levers, I would go blue from forgetting to breathe, then, remembering, would faint from meanwhile letting my pulse drop. Faced with the endless critical and absurdly complicated tasks of circulating blood, digesting food, interpreting retinal images and fighting bacteria, how would I ever find time to repair sunburned skin cells, grow hair or process the occasional nerve signal from my toes? Doctors go to school until they are 30 to learn a fraction of the great manual of life that an infant's body knows at birth.
Nevertheless, this intelligence of bodies is cold and alienating. I recall the sense of eeriness I felt several years ago when learning computer science, the eeriness of discovering the lifeless corridors of binary digits and microprocessors beneath the monitor's meaningful display. The facade of humanized banners, buttons and icons on our screens masks an unstaffed control center of electrical switches, clicking on and off, their changing patterns of charges translating miraculously but mindlessly into the streaming wonders of words and colors we perceive.
So, too, pry behind the rich graphics flashing across the screen of being"the self-organizing of galaxies, the coordination of ecosystems, and the complexity of biological life"and you arrive at the imbecilic machinery of it all, electrons flowing through the circuit boards of the stars, motors whirring on the hard drives of our bodies. Beneath the intelligible there is only the unintelligent, a blank stare behind beautiful eyes, muteness behind the music.
Brian Jay Stanley's essays have appeared in Pleiades, North American Review, The Antioch Review and elsewhere. He lives in Asheville, N.C. More of his work can be found on his Web site.