Tuesday, May 04, 2010

The Body's Wisdom II

Let's begin by listening to a remarkable writer from the 12th century, a contemporary of Abelard and Bernard of Clairvaux. His name is Bernard Sylvestris, Bernard of the Forest, a Breton and probably a Celt. In an age when the extreme physical asceticism of his namesake, Bernard of Clairvaux, was intensely admired, Bernard Sylvestris made this extraordinary statement: "Let the spirit complain of the flesh no more; it is the prison which makes [us] free. I tell you, this flesh is the condition of [our] immortality. For in mastering it does the mortal become immortal, and humanity pass to the proud gods."

In our day we might substitute the word "listening" for "mastering," and his references to the gods and goddesses of Greece and Rome are alien to us. But his statement, in our age as well as his, is no less than revolutionary. He puts his finger into the wound that has haunted human beings from the beginning to this day: the fear of mortality; the feeling of being hampered or weighed down by a body that is born "between urine and feces," as the melancholy Freud put it; a body that needs food, clothing and shelter; that shits and craps and copulates, stinks in decay, and finally disappears into the star-stuff from which it came by way of worm guts, digestive bacteria, and chemical breakdown.

Sylvestris parodies Isaiah 29:16 by creating a dialogue between the pre-existent soul and the clay; the fastidious soul expresses horror at the fragile vessel into which it is about to be born, only to receive the outraged clay's retort that to criticize the clay is to criticize the Maker of the clay. It is perhaps unsurprising that people who seek so-called purity of mind are revolted by aspects of the body and seek to distance themselves from it. But in fact the purest mind is dependent on these physical traits.

What may be confusing to the contemporary reader is that in this translation Helen Waddell uses the word "flesh," which in the New Testament means "appetite" or "desire" rather than body. But the word is well chosen for this passage of Sylvestris, because in his little hymn of praise he is referring to both. He is pointing towards the reality of the integrated body and intellect—a word that in the Middle Ages includes soul and spirit as well as mind—and the reciprocal influence of one on the other.

He uses the word "prison" ironically, as a poet might say that the sonnet form is a prison that sets her creativity free. At a deeper level, Sylvestris may also be drawing attention to the confusion often made between feeling and function mentioned earlier, which confusion is possibly the source of the extreme dualism sometimes found in Christianity, not limited to Augustine of Hippo and his successors.

Some of this confusion is caused by attempting to name what seemed to happen; for example, mistakenly applying the phrase "out of body experience" to those moments when we are so absorbed in something we are doing or thinking that our observing I/eye disappears, and we are left wondering where the time went. While it would be a futile exercise to try to untangle descriptions that range from near-death experiences to supposed witches' flights, I would like to point out that in the so-called out of body experiences the observing I/eye is still present and interpreting—and we need to note here that all experience is interpretation—whereas in the suspension of self-consciousness, the observing I/eye has disappeared and we can interpret only from its residual effects. In addition, the "perfect attention" that enables self-forgetfulness means that the mind-body integration is functioning optimally, whereas reports of "out of body" experiences involving paranormal phenomena are often tied to some form of trance or coma.

In both cases, of course, the mind is still functioning through the body; otherwise the person would be dead, beyond resuscitation. The point I am trying to make here is that the recognition—always in retrospect—that this suspension of self-consciousness has occurred, or perhaps, better put, the memory of the threshold, just before or after, may seem to feel, or be interpreted to mean that the body has been left behind. It is also possible that the writer is simply using an extreme metaphor to emphasize that something momentous has occurred out of sight. These metaphorical flights seem often to have led to interpretations that are literal instead of literary, which in turn have created an excuse, often competitive, for extreme behavior.


Blogger Bo said...

Bernard S is indeed wonderful. I came across him when I was a student thanks to the indefatiguable Barbara Newman.

1:51 pm, May 07, 2010  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Jane from South Africa, writes:

Just to say that I read your blog regularly;it helps clarify my own thoughts enormously. Like you, I admire Rowan Williams' approach - I think he is greatly misunderstood.

Your remarks in an earlier blog on the relationship between silence and community are particuarly apposite for our times.

Thank you, Jane!

2:10 pm, May 07, 2010  

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