Here, as part of my on-going project to archive my essays, is a piece I wrote about 20 years ago (first published in SF Eye, 1997). It’s been reprinted several times.
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 labour, 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, sheela-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 sclerosis.
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 diagnosed with myalgic encephalomyelitis, a chronic disease of the immune system. When I moved to this country, that diagnosis 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 to details.
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 autobiography.1
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 autobiography.2
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, spectre-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 romantic.3 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 labouring 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 gods.
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 NEA.
Why do they not believe in the body as a fit subject for art?
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 internalised 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 art.
1 For those who are ever tempted to leap to conclusions about my work—Lore in Slow River, for example—it is fiction, not autobiography. I made it up.
2 See Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing for more on this. Marvellous 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.
8 thoughts on “Writing from the Body”
Took me awhile to take the time to sit and read, but I am very glad that I did read it and was challenged by it. Five Stars *****
“Writing from the Body” is exactly what I strive for. Thank you for putting these encouraging thoughts online.
Dualism really is a curse, although I think there are some surprising opponents of that worldview (take C.S. Lewis as an example, who wrote “Humans are amphibians– half spirit and half animal. (The Enemy’s determination to produce such a revolting hybrid was one of the things that determined Our Father to withdraw his support from Him.)” Clearly he’s indicating that the dualist view is flawed or even pure evil. Oh and I just finished Slow River during my jaunt through every Nebula winner since #1. Great stuff!)
I was supposed to leave a comment last night, then I decided to write something brief, now . First of all I loved the essay, reading your words is pure pleasure…you write so well, thank you. Of course I feel the same. When I found your book, not knowing anything about you or the content of the book, let alone the Lesbian leitmotif….I just opened it, read a paragraph and I became an instant fan.
Then, all the books. I look at your face, here on the left, so beautiful and strong ( you know what I mean ). Battling any disease is exhausting , some people can handle it, others fight it, you challenge it to a duel….and you win this battle temporarily…in between you live, YOUR way. Live on…
Hi Nicola. I really enjoyed this essay and used several quotations from it in an essay I wrote for school. Above you say the essay has been “reprinted several times”. I was wondering if you could tell me where the essay has been previously published for bibliographical purposes. Regardless, thanks again for an insightful, illuminating read!
Nevermind! Found it on Google Scholar! Thanks again for the inspiration.
@daniel Glad you found it useful.
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