Now Covid-19 can remind us that intimacy with the flesh is the same as simple gratitude when one is healthy, and taking an easy attitude towards pain and death.
THESE days we cover our mouths and noses with masks, we wash our hands constantly, and whenever we meet we observe distance from others—all things we did not do before. We have become aware that the body is something central to our lives, even the most basic. We believe in ‘the spirit’, but it seems we only remember it in the emergency room.
In other words, the body ‘is present’. It is not only that my flesh connects me with the world, as when my hand strokes a stone in water. My body is also the most attune, the most eloquent, the most capable at knowing pain or pleasure. It is also the body that first marks the decline in my life, then death.
But for some reason, it is not easy to acknowledge this. The history of religion, ideas and politics prefers to look in another direction.
Religions, particularly Protestantism, view ‘the flesh’ as the site of sin. Jesus’ words to his weary disciples in Gethsemane before the Roman soldiers arrested him have been taken as applying to us all: “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
The body has been judged ‘weak’. But there is a forgotten paradox. On the one hand, religions explain our bodies as the part of our self that is dark, difficult, and full of risk. Rules are set out for covering nakedness, sanctifying the body, controlling appetites, and meditating (which in Javanese is sometimes called patiraga, deadening the body). In short, consciousness is summoned to guard against the genitals, the stomach, the skin, the throat.
And it is not only religious teaching, but also precepts of tradition. During the reign of Pakubuwana IV (1768-1820) Mataram youth had to read the Serat Wulangreh:
cegah dhahar lawan guling
Make it a practice
To abstain from food and sleep
This is an extract from the Wulang-Reh, political teachings of rulers who expected the young generation of aristocrats to remain strong through spiritual discipline.
With different ambition, in Europe in the late 19th century rationalism was underway. Human reason was said to be capable of knowing anything—as though it would replace God who the rationalists declared dead. In this way, the body was considered to be a mere object: something to be analyzed, formulated, and affirmed in science.
But Javanese aristocrats, the ulema who produce fatwa, and even thinkers who are convinced that everything is explicable have never been able to establish an order where the body ceases to be present. The body is also resistance. It can even be more intelligent.
In his famous work Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche reminds us:
“…The body is a big sagacity, a plurality with one sense, a war and a peace, a flock and a shepherd. An instrument of thy body is also thy little sagacity, my brother, which thou callest “spirit”—a little instrument and plaything of thy big sagacity.”
The words are jolting, of course. Nietzsche turned the current premise on its head by saying that the body was ‘sagacity’ (Vernunft), even a ‘big’ sagacity. The body, with its desires and appetites—sometimes resembling chaos—is the energy that makes culture move.
Nietzsche’s voice continues to echo among those who experience the body post-religion post-rationalism: the body as plurality—our flesh as not only sin, but also energy. If the mind can be considered a monolog, then the body is the opposite.
In the 1930s, Albert Camus, who won the Nobel Prize while still in his 20s, described how he, with his body, grasped Algerian nature on the beach at Tipasa.
“…I know that I shall never come close enough to the world. I must be naked and dive into the sea, still scented with the perfumes of the earth, wash them off in the sea, and consummate with my flesh the embrace for which sun and sea, lips to lips, have so long been sighing. I feel the shock of the water, rise up through a thick, cold glue, then dive back with my ears ringing, my nose streaming, and the taste of salt in my mouth.”
A sensual story—and Camus admitted he saw no ‘grandeur’ in rejecting sensual joy. At the same time, he acknowledged he knew he would “never come close enough to the world.” He was part of the longing for nature: there is humility and solidarity. His body (he suffered from tuberculosis) conversed with the sea, the sun, the air. He did not rein in his flesh, he did not construct nature close to him.
In other words, his body embraced experience, it did not dominate it.
Reaction against religious teachings and rationalism do not necessarily mean making the body the center of monolog.
The flesh as monolog is what appears in Mishima’s thinking. This famous Japanese writer who committed suicide in a spectacular way wrote a long essay, Taiyō to Tetsu (Sun and Steel) two years before he committed seppuku.
“Thanks to sun and steel I was to learn the language of the flesh,” he wrote. The language of the flesh was more fluent to him than verbal language. He felt “the fierce longing simply to see, without words!”
He did not consider his dwelling to be the world of words, but “a tanned, lustrous skin and powerful, sensitively rippling muscles.”
This is exaggerating, of course. Because language is not merely reason and cognition. Language is fused with the body. But Mishima did not feel part of writers who are full of words and gloomy thoughts. He saw them, without exception, as having “lusterless skins and sagging stomachs.” He was Mishima: he tended his body, shaped it, with strong chiseled muscles like a Nazi-commissioned statue. There is arrogance in that posture.
And now Covid-19 can remind us that intimacy with the flesh is the same as simple gratitude when one is healthy, and taking an easy attitude towards pain and death.