When Augustine, newly Christianized in the 5th century, attacked the physical body he feared with the carving knife of his converted intellect, he was fighting a losing battle. Nevertheless, the constructed estrangement of the physical realm from the privileged world of the rational has been incredibly effective throughout the course of time. I have often on my Facebook wall received a common quote of C.S. Lewis from well meaning friends, stating, “You are not a body. You have a body. You are a soul.” Well, I’m calling bullshit. Not that I don’t believe in the soul. Far from it, I have all the incoherent mystical inklings of a New Age follower in midlife. But I know that I am, at least in part, essentially a body. Because no yearning is more immediate to me than the animal heat of sexual desire; because I can smell the testosterone reeking off of a man’s body, and taste the salt at the nape of a woman’s neck, vampire-like, before I even know her name. And beyond the frank carnality of sex, the spheres of appetite and sensual pleasure fill far too many moments to ever be convincingly denied their just importance. It is hard to roll a butter sauce over the tongue, mouth watering at pink flakes of salmon ascending to your lips, and contest the primacy of the physical. So, Augustine may have made an enduring argument, but perhaps he protested a shade too strongly to truly convince.
My body and my psyche are inextricably intertwined, kissing sisters side by side in a dark and comfortably close confinement. I have read countless stories of women who, through the course of painful experience, become disconnected from their bodies. They describe the sensation of this personal rift—the perception of their disembodied heads tethered to numb but practical appendages. To be honest, even in my darkest hours, my body and mind never separated. When I was numb, my body absorbed the deadness, shutting out stimulation. When my body responds—to touch, scent, taste—my mind is already engaged in its complex permutations, chattering to catch up with the prompt awareness of flesh. If you ask me where a feeling or thought originates in my being, I can rarely tell you. When I see the searing red heat of an Arizona bluff carved sharply against the tangible blue of the sky, the surge of pleasure that ripples through me pulls upright the fine hairs on my skin in a crescendo of inner and outer response. I cannot accurately parse for you the discrete categories of my mind, my body, my spirit or heart. It muddles all like vanilla into warm milk, swirling and shading into infinite and indissoluble complexity.
And wouldn’t it be lovely to experience life and sensation without the inherited filter of predigested rationality? I’m not suggesting some Saturnalian devolvement into unhindered and unending sensual orgy. But I fail to see the functionality of my culture’s ingrained emotional masochism that spurns concrete desire for the structured rhetoric of denial. Perhaps it’s a bid for safety, removing the dark, reptilian danger of actual need into the clean, sterile authority of bureaucratic systems. After all, lust, appetite, and pleasure can be wild and unheeding taskmasters. But they cannot ever be truly denied. How many stories do we have to hear of some proud and righteous right wing crusader caught with their hand in the metaphorical cookie jar of a beautiful young man’s pants before we begin to accept the incontrovertible, inescapable nature of the body and its demands? We may be more than the stuff we are made of—the hormones and neural pathways and reflexes that govern so many of our daily actions. We may, and I personally believe that we do, have some intangible spirit that forces us to climb inhospitable mountains for an unparalleled view, or suffer through visits to meet the parents for the sake of honest love. But the body isn’t going away any time soon. Listen, you can hear her breathe.