It was while studying Gender Identity Disorder [GID] that I came across in a psychology book the concept of the human body as an expression of a culture. My Christian upbringing had taught me in my childhood that the body is an obnoxious thing and that only the soul mattered. I was taught stories of saints who mortified their bodies with dreadful measures of discipline. The saints lacerated themselves, wore sack clothes, put on steel wires with thorns below their clothes… the list mortifications is endless in my memory even four decades after I was told about them. Such saints were the only ideal persons to be imitated.
As I look back I realise how many ridiculous lessons were taught to us by people whose natural wisdom was blinded by their religious learning. But a generation later, did morality itself vanish from the child’s curriculum? How else would I be able to explain the absolute emancipation of the human body from the lacerations and mutilations imposed on it by the religious teachers of my generation? How would I explain, that is, the vulgar display of the human body on the TV screen and other places where even little children have easy access to? I’m not forgetting the recent intervention by the govt when a Hindi TV channel wanted to telecast two times on the same day the movie, The Dirty Picture. The channel was told to shelve its plan and telecast such movies only after 11 pm. [I was disappointed initially since I was waiting to watch the movie.] Is the govt taking over from the Church and the Mosque the mantle of the moralist?
Well, I’m really not in favour of displaying the naked human body anywhere and everywhere. The theme I want to pursue is the body as an expression of the culture.
The human body is indeed an expression of a culture. People have always used the body as an expression of a culture. For example, the Indian women have decorated their bodies in different ways according to the culture of the region. People anywhere in the world used to wear clothes as well as adorn their bodies according to their cultures. For a specific example, the indigenous Australians used body decoration for many purposes including “camouflage in hunting, for protection in fights, for repelling mosquitoes in the tropical zones, for magical purposes, for attracting a woman or a man as a lover…” [http://www.ub.edu/dpfilsa/coola3sorianomedina.pdf].
What is the culture that the human body is expressing in the globalised world? This is what struck me as I was reading about GID. This is beyond the purview of my psychology textbook which deals with gender as a social construct, among other things.
Felipe Fernandez-Armesto implies in his brilliant work, Civilizations that Evolution did not really take us, the human species, toward any level of the sublime. He thinks that “our sense of beauty and kindness” as well as “our intelligence” “got frozen long ago…” [page 544, Pan Books, Paperback edition]. He thinks that “Science proved more efficient in equipping evil than in serving good.” Even when science did serve us well, its successes have been equivocal. “The motor car and the contraceptive pill did wonders for individual freedom, but they also threatened health and challenged morals….”
I think the Prof [Fernandez-Armesto is an eminent historian] gives me a clue to my quest about the human body. The car as a metaphor for machines and the contraceptive pill as a metaphor for sensuality give me an answer on how the human body has come to acquire the superstar status it has now. The machines made life easy for us. They do most of our work. Most of them work automatically too – for example, washing machine, dish washer. They help us save a lot of time, apart from pampering our body by relieving it of much labour. We use some of this spare time for lavishing sensual delights on ourselves. On our bodies. Too much luxury [of anything, in fact] is a bad thing. When people faced hardships they created wonderful poems, songs, paintings, and other forms of art. When people have too much luxury they ignore that inner world of the mind. They focus on the body. On the sensual.
If we analyse the advertisements on the TV and other media we’ll find that far too many of them are promoting things meant for the body: food items, cosmetics, jewellery, etc. It’s a celebration of the body. That’s the culture or civilisation [the borders between them are vanishing] we, the globalised humanity, have created.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong in celebrating the body. But excess of even amrit is poison, as a proverb in Malayalam says. The problem, I think, is we have forgotten that there is an inner world which demands equal attention as the body. We can ignore that inner world only at our own peril. At the peril of our little daughters, to cite one concrete example. Read the newspapers thoroughly to find out how many little girls are sexually abused every day. The rage for bodily gratification with absolute neglect of the inner world is likely to create a world of mindless beasts. This is my problem with the worship of the body. [The problem is certainly not confined to man; women are very much part of it. I shall not elaborate on it, however.]
To conclude recapitulating my theme, the body is indeed an expression of a culture. It cannot be otherwise. The problem is not with the body. The problem is with the culture we have created. There’s pretty much wrong with our culture.
Do I sound like a Puritan of the 16th century? Maybe, the Christian whip has not yet fallen off my Freudian superego.