Saturday, 25 September 2021

Corporeal integrity

In Michelangelo's 'Last Judgement' in the Sistine chapel, the damned fall to the left while the saved rise to the right.  Amongst the latter is St. Bartholomew who, following the ancient iconography, bears his identifying emblem - in this case the flayed skin of his martyrdom.  In a sardonic touch, the features the artist has given the slack skin are his own.

Death by being flayed alive seems particularly horrific.  Not just because it must be slow, lingering, and presumably excruciatingly painful, but also on account of its metaphorical stripping away of a protective outer layer that we take so much for granted - indeed, that we mostly take to be nothing less than ourselves.  Doing so reveals the truth about our bodies: that we are not the neat flesh and blood we call ourselves, a sturdy frame of bone swathed in a substantial and homogeneous muscular wadding, but rather a thin sack of skin in which myriad organs and mechanisms knock about in an uneasy and fragile equilibrium.

Medicine acknowledges this explicitly in its treatment of the skin as a single organ in itself.  But we do not like to think of an organ on the outside; in fact we do not like to think of organs at all.  The kidneys and livers and hearts of animals that we eat seem gross and disturbing when raw, their bloody details exposed.  Once the body loses its undifferentiated consistency, and begins to be perceived as made up of disparate entities, with functions like parts of a machine, we begin to feel ourselves the ragbag of offal and lights that we truly are.

Most of the time we contrive to ignore this fact with the ready connivance of society.  The images of bodies that greet us everywhere emphasise their hardness and compactness - the slim, svelte figure of the athlete and model - or their smoothness and evenness of colour.  Human nakedness is disturbing partly because it confronts us with the reality - that most bodies are nothing like these idealised images from magazines and hoardings, that they sag and droop and bulge, that they are blotchy and rucked; in a word, that they are just so many lumps of stinking meat.

Nakedness we can ignore.  But there is a more brutal revelation of our body's terrible secret.  The horror of physical violence is born of its power to tear open the bag of our body, to show us with shocking explicitness the seemingly random mess that lies within.  This is partly why blood is so disturbing: spilt, it is a gory emblem of the body's lost closure, of the fact that far from being firm flesh we are mostly liquid - by definition, a state of matter that can offer no resistance to force. The irruption of violence into our lives frightens us because it says we are weak and helpless in our circumstances - superior numbers will always overcome us; worse, it says that we are weak and helpless in essence - that our very structure is irremediably flawed.

Violence leads to wounds, damages to the system.  Wounds are illness, the negation of health.  And health means literally wholeness.  Corporeal integrity is a kind of health beyond the absence of sickness, one we desperately need to hold in not just those bloody, squirming organs, but our entire sense of being.

(1989)

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