In this essay I want to talk about Art, particularly literature,
and the Body--about the ways in which we do and do not connect
the two. It's a personal essay about how I feel about my body,
my writing, and the various changes both have undergone over
the years. Art and the Body are huge subjects with all kinds
of branches and nooks and crannies. In what follows I poke
around in those topics that interest me--the philosophy of
dualism, cyberspace as nirvana, the concept of genius, the
religious right--and see which pieces connect along the way.
Art, Theology and the Ontological Problem
Our attitudes towards art stem partially from theories first
formulated thousands of years ago. What we think today is
a direct result of what some philosophers thought back then.
Bear with me while I take a quick historical tour.
Plato was one of the first to talk about dualism, the
theory that the world consists of two ultimately different
kinds of being: visible, perishable and particular things;
and eternal, abstract and universal forms. Particulars are
only imperfectly real. Full reality can only be found among
universals. The body, Plato said, is particular and therefore
imperfect. The soul, on the other hand, is universal; its
aim is to separate itself from the body and return to the
divine realm of universals from which it came. From Plato's
perspective, anything that gets in the way of that goal--the
escape of the soul from the prison of the flesh back to the
soaring plane of the universal--is counterproductive. As a
result, he didn't much care for poetry or plays because much
of their beauty is embodied in the senses of the flesh--what
we see and feel and hear. As far as Plato was concerned, the
literature of his time was a base distraction, the fall of
the spirit into the flesh.
Aristotle saw things a bit differently. Every individual
substance (except god) is made of both matter *and* form,
and form, for example the human soul, cannot exist without
matter, for example the body. This fusion of the particular
with the universal was in direct contradiction to Plato. However,
Aristotle still thought the soul/form was infinitely superior
to the body/matter. He viewed labor of the mind as much more
worthy than physical labor, which he considered vulgar and
fit only for slaves (who were conveniently left out of all
these deliberations). So, unlike Plato, Aristotle saw nothing
inherently wrong with poetry and plays. Quite the opposite.
Living, he said, is only justified because it makes contemplation
possible. (Aristotle practiced what he preached. His contemplations
on theatre led to a definition of tragedy, and its purpose--to
evoke the emotions of pity and sorrow--and incidentally introduced
that knotty little word, catharsis, into our vocabulary.)
The arts of Greece and then Rome flourished while philosophers
teetered back and forth between the Platonic and Aristotelian
traditions. And then St. Paul arrived.
Paul came from the Judaic tradition of further splitting
the spirit into equal and opposing forces of evil and good.
He came to Rome newly Christianized, and decided his Judaic
theology would fit nicely with Plato's ideas of the soul trying
to better itself by separating from the body. Evil, Paul declared
(and, oh, we are still feeling the consequences of that declaration
today) must manifest itself *in* the physical. The body, with
its needs and functions, is evil, something from which we
should seek to distance ourselves. The more physical and messy
the body, it seemed, the more evil the person. Which means,
of course, that as women bleed on a regular basis, and give
birth, we were seen to be more closely anchored than men to
the less desirable physical realm. (Funny how the exudations
of men are never seen as unclean.) This, of course, strengthened
the already prevalent view that women are lesser beings: less
evolved, less close to the divine. Thank you, St. Paul.
In the fourth century, Augustine, an ambitious colonial
lad from Tagaste in North Africa, trained as a rhetorician
and travelled to the big city to earn fame and fortune. In
Carthage and then Rome he tried on a variety of ways to look
at the world, from the wild theology of the Manicheans to
the rather juiceless philosophy of Neo-Platonists. Then he
became a bishop and got a good dose of St. Paul.
In 410 Augustine witnessed the sack of Rome by Alaric
the Goth. Alaric boasted that he had been able to destroy
what had once been the mightiest city on earth because the
Romans had abandoned their gods for Christianity. No doubt
this boosted Augustine's blood pressure. At any rate, it turned
his brain into the organic equivalent of a supercollider:
all the conflicting theories he had absorbed over the years
picked up speed, went whizzing around his neurones, and came
smashing together in his head. The product was _De civitate
dei_, his most famous work. Rome, Augustine said, fell *because*
of its original paganism, *because* of its inherent short-comings
and moral perversions. It was part of the "city of this world,"
the physical manifestation of pride and corruption. It didn't
matter what happened to worldly cities, he said, all that
counted was the City of God, the society of mind/soul/spirit
of those chosen by God for the future Kingdom of Heaven. What
we did, physically, was almost irrelevant.
During the first millennium of Christianity, then, art
was dedicated to the glory of god, to the spiritual being,
not the physical. At this time, art was produced not by individual
"artists" but by artisans, an interchangeable class. The work
was what was important, not the creator of that work. In Christian
Europe, poems were firmly oral in tradition, anonymous. Visual
art and sculpture went largely unsigned.
But these artisans, the people who laid the stones of
the vast gothic cathedrals, who sculpted and painted and carved,
were not educated in the finer points of theology and philosophy.
When they decorated the cathedrals they carved angels and
saints, yes, but they also labored over gargoyles and griffins,
sheena-na-gigs and coiling serpents: pagan symbols. The inevitable
backlash came from the Abbey of Cluny (founded in 910). "Paganism!"
they cried. "Something must be done!" They reasoned that if
monstrous, evil figures were all these artisans could come
up with to decorate churches then that decoration must stop.
The church must move away from these manifestations of evil
and return to the wholly spiritual, that is, plain, unadorned
houses of worship. They said, in effect, that the aesthetic
was evil. It was a revolution within the church against art.
However, luckily for Western Civilization As We Know It, the
Abbey of Cluny was closely allied with several doomed power
struggles within the church; when Cluny fell, so did its revolution.
At least in that particular manifestation.
In thirteenth century Italy, Thomas Aquinas re-examined
the Augustinian tradition and decided that the Neo-Platonist
parts did not make much sense. He recast Augustine's work,
slanting it much more towards the Aristotelian bias. (Remember,
Aristotle was the one who said that only in contemplation
and moral action do people--unless they are slaves doomed
to all that nasty sweaty physical labor--attain true freedom.)
Art became good for its own sake again, and flourished, and
flowered into the Italian Renaissance. With the Renaissance
came the rise of individualism, and the idea of creative genius:
individuals who sometimes transcended tradition to produce
new works, and signed them.
The backlash to this was, of course, the Reformation,
and the puritans with their Cluny-like insistence upon a zero
aesthetic: black and white clothes, no dancing, no singing,
no painting, no beauty. Art as corruption. (Don't smile smugly
yet. The Puritans were not the last to think this way.)
Obviously, not everyone saw art as anathema. However,
no matter how reworked, recast and revised the philosophy
(and Descartes fooled with it after Aquinas), it was still
essentially Dualism. Art was still linked with religion, still
perceived to be the realm of the divine. Great Art, ran the
conventional wisdom, is produced by Great Artists who are
great because they transcend the flesh, reach beyond the physical
to the spiritual. Except (what a surprise) where women were
concerned. "You women," we were told, "are too close to your
animal nature, so you can't transcend it, so you can't produce
art." No matter what else got rewritten, *that* particular
legacy was never questioned.
This general mind-set, only slightly mutated, is with
us today. Our conventional wisdom says that Great Literature
is produced by Great Writers. Great Writers are those who
transcend the mundane and speak the great universal truth.
My Truths, or Some of Them
The conventional wisdom is nonsense. There is no universal
truth. There are only many different and individual truths.
It's my belief that we write about what interests, fascinates
and obsesses us. We hope that by doing so we can show our
readers part of our world view, help others to understand
our own particular truth. Who we are--what we have done, how
we have been treated and how we feel about that--determines
our truth and, therefore, what we want to write about.
Let me tell you some of my particular truth.
I have always enjoyed my body. I grew up using and pleasuring
it hard. I played tennis, did gymnastics, competed on the
track. I worked as a laborer with pick axe, shovel and wheelbarrow
at an archaeological dig. I dug trenches and planted trees
for the city council. I studied karate and taught women's
self defence. I had three lovers as well as my live-in partner.
Drank whiskey, ate magic mushrooms, took a lot of speed, sang
in a band half the night, went home with one woman or another
and cycled to work at dawn after no sleep. I was invulnerable,
unconquerable (probably insufferable). The fiction I wrote
was physical: explosions, travel through space and time, fantasy
figures rescuing fairy tale characters, and so on.
But then I became ill. My body became less able, began
to change. Eventually, in 1993, I was diagnosed with multiple
We receive information two ways: somatically and extra-somatically.
We can find out about the weather by going outside and seeing
the bright sun with our eyes, feeling the heat on our skins.
Or we can use our modem or newspaper or TV or radio to get
the weather report. My personal preference, where possible,
is for somatic information. It is what interests me, what
I write from. I write from my body, but my body has changed.
My writing had changed, too.
I have relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis. This means
that every now and again my immune system goes awry and attacks
the myelin sheathing on the neurones of brain and spinal cord,
and I wake up with something not working: a leg, or an arm,
maybe both. Maybe my balance is so screwed up I can do nothing
but hunch over a bowl and vomit. Sometimes my eyes get weird.
Or my mind: once I was in the middle of writing a novelette
and I couldn't remember my characters's names. Most of the
time, I recover from whatever it is that has gone wrong, but
each time I lose a little more. As of this writing, I can
walk (I can no longer run, not even to save my life). Sometimes
I can walk far and fast, other times it's an effort to walk
to the door.
I sit still outside more often than I ever used to. Much
of the time, I watch the sky. Jeep, the world of my first
novel, _Ammonite_, is full of sky. Busy sky, blank sky, imminent
sky. And clouds: clouds like broaching salmon, like the scum
that gathers on the surface of boiling lentils; overcasts
like polished pewter; thunderheads like lumps of zinc and
magnesium. I use the sky to reflect the emotional states of
my characters. I sometimes wonder what I would have put in
place of those skies if I had not spent so many hours sitting
still, learning about what went on over my head.
And sometimes I wonder if I would have written _Ammonite_
at all if I had not become ill. Certainly, I would have started
the book, and it would have been about a women-only world,
but there might not have been a virus, and without the virus
everyone and everything in that book would have been different.
When I was first ill in 1989, in the UK, I was misdiagnosed
with myalgic encephalomyelitis, a chronic disease of the immune
system. When I moved to this country, that misdiagnosis was
exchanged for another: chronic fatigue and immune dysfunction
syndrome. All anyone knew about either of these two conditions
was that a retrovirus _might_ be involved, somewhere. I started
researching viruses and the immune system. I found a book
about lupus erythematosus, a terrible and often fatal systemic
disease thought by some to be initially triggered by a retrovirus.
Women, I learned, were nine times more likely to contract
lupus than men. And, oh, I thought, oh: a sex-linked predisposition
to deadly infection. Catastrophe on Jeep would come not by
fire or flood or alien invasion, but by virus: little packets
of alien DNA. And I knew how the men in my book would die,
and how the women would change.
Multiple sclerosis changed some things about my life.
As I have changed, so has the way in which I draw my fictional
characters. Most of them suffer a great deal, emotionally
and physically and, compared with my earlier work, solutions
to personal and plot problems are no longer wholly physical.
In fact, they are rarely so. One criticism of _Ammonite_ has
been that the confrontation between the Mirrors and Echraidhe
was anti-climactic. "There should have been a battle!" But
battles, the simple smashing together of armies followed by
a body count, no longer interest me that much. What intrigues
me now are the minutiae from which such conflicts spring.
On a good day, I can walk briskly. I set off on a walk
to the local park. Blood pumps vigorously around my body.
Accumulated toxins are washed away, lots of oxygen gets to
my cells, to my optic nerve, my eyes. When I'm fit enough
to walk swiftly, I actually see more clearly. Things look
crisp, bright, dense. Joyous and different. I pay attention
On a bad day, unable to do anything but lie on the couch
on the screened porch, or the rug in the living room, or my
bed by the window, I look out, and up. Sometimes there isn't
much to look at, so I simply watch. I notice changes. The
sliding sunlight on the building opposite; the way the shadows
gather on sandstone or brick. Sunlight on the rug, how in
the afternoon the pattern is a deep and mysterious red whereas
the morning colors are fierce and young-looking, quite different.
I'm not sure I could have written _Slow River_, my second
novel, without that kind of observation. I'm not sure I would
have *wanted* to write that particular book if it hadn't been
for certain changes in my life.
In June 1988 I came to the USA for the first time to
attend Clarion, the SF writers' workshop at Michigan State
University. I had never travelled so far on my own before.
The thread that bound me to my English life stretched and
stretched as the plane skimmed across the Atlantic. As we
headed down through the cumulus clouds of the midwest, the
thread snapped, and it occurred to me that not a single person
on the continent knew me. The sudden sense of not being bound
by people's expectations, of being somehow outside the rules,
was exhilarating. For the next six weeks, if I chose, I could
be anyone I liked. But then I realized that this hiatus in
my ordinary life gave me the opportunity to play a much more
dangerous and high-stakes game: I could find out who I really
was. Me. Not me-and-my-family, or me-and-my-background, or
even me-and-my-accent, just *Me*. I was coming into this country
metaphorically naked, without cultural markers. Everyone I
met could evaluate me only on the basis of what they saw.
Their reaction to and treatment of me--and my work--would
form a human mirror. For the first time, I would see my essential
self, stripped bare.
That moment of realization, of terror and exhilaration,
prompted me six years later to ask the central question of
_Slow River_: Who are you when you have nothing left but your
inner resources? That question was modified by the fact of
my multiple sclerosis and my consequent interest in another
question: Once a particular self-image has been shown to be
patently untrue, who and what is there to replace it? Writing
the book, of course, did not give me the answer. It was not
intended to. Personal experience sparked the questions which
led to the book, but _Slow River_ is a novel, not therapy.
It is fiction, not autobiography1.
Fiction and Autobiography
When I read the first lengthy review of _Ammonite_ I genuinely
did not know whether to laugh or to cry at the reviewer's
mistakes. "Autobiography," he said knowledgeably. Bear in
mind that this is a novel about a woman who ends up on another
planet and encounters half a dozen impossible things: FTL
drive, aliens, conception by a modified parthenogenesis, rearrangement
of DNA and memory via a deadly virus, and so on. I read the
review again, trying to follow his reasoning. Light dawned:
I am a lesbian and my main character, Marghe, loves another
woman, ergo I must, in fact, be writing about myself. Astonishing.
All fiction is to some extent emotionally autobiographical.
A writer will take, say, her fear of heights and write a story
based around a character who has a morbid fear of spiders.
The experience of fear by the writer is a prerequisite for
the properly described fictional emotion. It does not follow
that the character who is afraid of spiders is a thinly disguised
autobiographical rendering of the author. I have noticed a
particularly disturbing tendency on the part of critics to
assume that any woman who writes about physical or sexual
abuse is drawing from her own personal experience.
Why women in particular? Possibly because, thanks to
Plato and Paul and all those other dualists, woman are still
believed--however unconsciously--to be unable to transcend
the physical and actual and soar into the realms of pure imagination.
We are perceived as being hampered by our bodies, incapable
of seeing beyond personal experience. Autobiography, the critics
tell us, is not art. And as women are not considered to be
artists, our work is more often labelled autobiography2.
Thin violinists and consumptive poets
Have you ever noticed how ballerinas and violinists look
similar? Necks so thin you can see tendons and muscles slide
under the skin; collarbones sticking out like ridge poles;
wrists like bundles of sticks. You could argue that dancers
have to be thin (I don't really believe it, but you can at
least attempt the argument), but why violinists? And why are
painters and singers who are gaunt-cheeked considered to look
the part more than their beefy counterparts?
Then there are the diseases. In the eighteenth century
consumption was the ultimate poet's disease: the stricken
became thin and pale, specter-like. Much closer to the spiritual.
Now there is AIDS: all those nice artistic young men wasting
away. Illnesses which reduce body size as cleanly as possible
(or, just as importantly, are *perceived* to do so--those
with TB cough into handkerchiefs; people with AIDS generally
disguise their Kaposi's Sarcomas) are viewed as more aesthetically
pleasing, almost romantic3. Gangrene and weeping ulcers are not. Addictions that reduce body size, particularly the opium family, are more glamorous than addiction to food, say, or beer which simply rots out the liver and turns the skin yellow.
It seems clear that we are looking at an equation that reads Less Body = More Artistic, that is, closer to god/the spiritual/the aesthetic. Women, of course, have to be even thinner than men, because we're already laboring under the handicap of all those nasty monthly gushings, squashy breasts etc. In fact, the closer women force themselves to the ideals of pre-pubescence, that is, pre-womanhood--the more we shave our legs, shave under our arms, pluck our eyebrows, use cosmetics that increase the size of our eyes, starve away our hips and breasts--the better we are supposed to look.
The City of Mind
Of course, if we could just shrug off our bodies altogether, we'd be even better off. Or so some would have us believe.
In fiction, some characters in cyberpunk espouse the superiority of the non-corporeal world. People are "wetware" or "meat puppets," merely the means by which information uploads and propagates itself. In fact, the meat strives to imitate
hardware, sporting brain ports, eye-gems, and various prostheses.
The ultimate aim of the human mind, some characters seem to
be saying, is to upload, to become one with the machine--the
machine being, of course, some kind of artificial intelligence.
AIs have become our new ideal: dispassionate, intelligent,
all-seeing and all-knowing. Omnipotent and omnipresent, like
Along with the urge to upload comes a certain contempt
for the associations of the flesh. Skin to skin sex is not
as desirable as slipping into a body suit and data glove and
jacking into a juicy bit of software. Friends are those you
talk to on the net. Family is not even discussed. Physical
communities are no longer relevant.
Whether life is imitating art or vice versa, this kind
of attitude is all around us.
In March 1995 I attended OutWrite, the Lesbian and Gay
Writers' Conference in Boston. I took part in a panel called
Writing From the Body. The idea, I was told, was to discuss
how the physical body--size, health, others' perceptions of
us and so on--influences art.
The woman on my left talked about writing as and from
the perspective of a fat dyke. Interesting and to the point.
When she finished, the audience nodded. I talked about multiple
sclerosis and how it has affected my work. More nods. The
man next to me talked for a bit about getting submissions
for the porn zine he edits. (Oh, well, I thought, there's
always one.) But then the next guy went off on a huge rant
about, well, I'm not sure, but he quoted a lot of mostly dead
radicals from obscure parts of the globe and wouldn't meet
anyone's eyes. The audience liked that non-personal stuff,
the abstract, nothing to do with bodies: vigorous nods, one
of two calls of "All right!"
The final panelist hijacked the subject completely. "The
means by which we can leave the inequities of gender behind
is with us," she declared, "and it is cyberspace. In cyberspace,
it doesn't matter which bits of your body do or don't dangle,
because we can dispense with it altogether. It doesn't matter
how well your body works. It doesn't matter how fat or thin
you feel. We can form the perfect community of the mind. Everyone
will be equal. The body is irrelevant."
The audience went wild, swept away in an ecstatic tide
of techno-worship. I said nothing. Talking about the body
in this venue had become pointless: cyberspace, it seemed,
was the answer to everything. We were The Chosen, all we had
to do was turn on, jack in and check out of the horrid, prejudiced
and sordid world of the flesh. Cyberspace was heaven, the
City of Mind.
The New Cluniacs
The religious right do not get along with art. "No nakedness,"
they say. "No nasty bodily fluids. No lewd and filthy sex
where people actually enjoy themselves. That's not a fit subject
for art." And they bully parishioners into banning Mapplethorpe's
photography, and congress in debating the defunding of the
Why do they not believe in the body as a fit subject
Plato regarded poetry as a step backwards. Augustine
dismissed anything that did not relate to the City of God.
The Cluniacs led a revolt within the church against all art.
Puritans forbade art, and joy and beauty. The religious right
and their political supporters--Newt Gingrich, Jesse Helms
et al--are just the latest manifestations of Platonic dualism.
But before we sip our martinis and laugh in superior
amusement at the clumsy rantings of the closed-minded, we
should look more closely at our own attitudes.
Our aesthetic reeks of dualism. The whole idea of female
beauty, that less is more, is lifted whole from Aristotle.
Through Augustine, Aristotelian tradition informs our burning
desire to get into cyberspace and the City of Mind. The concept
of genius relaying the artistic Universal Truth stems from
Aristotle's hierarchy of matter and form.
What does it matter? Sometimes, not very much. When I
read wrong-headed reviews in which the critic declares my
work to be autobiographical, I can laugh: only one reader's
opinion, after all. I know what I'm trying to write, or at
least why I'm trying to write it. But when I listened to that
audience at OutWrite, I wanted to weep. Some of these people
have internalized the idea that the body--and women's bodies
in particular--are so foul, so impure and unworthy, such sad
sacks of meat that there is no alternative but to look for
ways to get rid of them. Some hate their bodies. They want
to shed them like soiled clothing and live in the City of
Mind, where all injustice will miraculously be left behind.
But cyberspace is not heaven. Cyberspace is not nirvana. It
is not even real. It is just a concept and a tool. A tool
built for the use and convenience of the body.
I hope that while we all rush headlong down the infobahn
we don't forget how to use our legs; our shoulder and arms;
our eyes and ears and tongues. I hope we don't forget to communicate
what the world feels like on our skin. I hope we don't forget
how to build physical communities. The car has destroyed much.
The computer has the potential to destroy more: why bother
making friends in person when you can send email? Even our
art is becoming less a thing of oil and pigment and more of
mouse and pixel--which is not necessarily a bad thing, as
long as we don't forget that there is more.
We must not dismiss our physical selves. The body is
where we all live. The body--even imperfect, like mine--is
all we have. The body from which all good things come, even
(1) For those who are ever tempted to leap
to conclusions about my work it is fiction, not autobiography.
I made it up.
(2) See Joanna Russ's _How to Suppress Women's
Writing_ for more on this. Marvelous book.
(3) Multiple sclerosis is a not-quite romantic
disease. It's "clean" but when we lose weight we often end
up putting it back on again.