Our Bodies = Ourselves

Over at Patheos, the “Bad Catholic” blogger has a fascinating analysis of our culture under the headline of “Our Culture Sucks.” Though I think that’s going too far, I do agree, as the writer argues, that the Sexual Revolution has made us more puritanical about sex, and not less:

. . . if our culture had followed Whitman’s over-exuberance instead of the cold, calculated goose-step of the Sexual Revolution, perhaps we’d be happy. Sinful — without a doubt — but not without hope.

Alack and alas and all that, as it turns out, we ignored the poets and chose to follow a sexy mob of eugenicists, pharmaceuticals corporations, wannabe feminists and moral relativists into the Inferno. And what has been the tangible result? This: We live in an age in which the body is more feared than ever. The Puritans would be shocked by our Puritanism, were they allowed a glimpse.

Think about it. We are supposed to feel more comfortable with exposing skin; loving ourselves, displaying our bodies and otherwise being sexually free, yet cutting is more of a problem than it has ever been, bulimia and anorexia remain at their modern highs, and the rate of cosmetic plastic surgery continues to shoot upwards. The Old Puritans fought the body by denying it what it yearned for. The New Puritans hurt the body, reshape it, and abuse it in a vain attempt to satisfy the yearning.

The Catholic thinker and writer Peter Lawler made a parallel point over at First Things last November, writing that the free love revolution was “less [about] sexual liberation than safe sex, which is as unerotic as sex can be.” It’s true. What’s more unerotic than latex? Even Camille Paglia, a sixties radical who idolizes sexuality, has made a similar argument, though from her decadent, Pagan vantage point. She thinks that the anti-sex agenda of the feminists–which emasculates men, denies the body, and anesthetizes sex–was puritanical in the repressed WASPish vein. Taking the comparison a step further, she thinks the feminists’s screeching crusades against date-rape and sexual assault are just modern versions of the Salem witch-hunts.

While Lawler and the writer at Patheos want to pull the reigns in on the sexual revolution, Paglia wants to let them loose by bringing  ”sophisticated European sexual values to puritan America.”

The conservative writer Mary Eberstadt couldn’t disagree more with Paglia’s diagnosis of our sex-obsessed culture. In her provocative 2009 essay “Is Sex the New Food?”, she argues that we’re living in an indulgent bodily age, defined by fad diets and sexual license. Today, we are puritanical when it comes to food, but pagans when it comes to sex.  If you haven’t read her essay, you really should:

In the end, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the rules being drawn around food receive some force from the fact that people are uncomfortable with how far the sexual revolution has gone — and not knowing what to do about it, they turn for increasing consolation to mining morality out of what they eat.

So what does it finally mean to have a civilization puritanical about food, and licentious about sex?

The answer, for the Bad Catholic, is that “We live in an age in which the body is more feared than ever.” Is the problem that the body is more feared than ever, or is it that we have put the entire stock of our identities into our bodies? The Bad Catholic notes, “The body, as ‘confirmed’ by Descartes, is but [a] cage for the soul, an agressor to be staved off, an opponent to be conquered.” This is a key, key point.

Descartes divided our identities—the whole of our being—into two elements: body and mind. With the rise of scientific materialism and empiricism, the idea that there could be a part of our selves that transcends the body—a part of our selves that couldn’t be measured, counted, seen, or touched—fell out of favor with the cultural elites and, soon, with the culture as a whole. The rise of neuroscience in biology, epistemology in philosophy, and artificial intelligence in computer science have all been attempts to reduce the mysterious mind to the tactile brain and, in the process, bury the soul. The result is that today, your identity is derived from your body.

Our bodies=ourselves. Our value, as humans, comes from our bodily experiences (this is the whole point of The Vagina Monologues); our psychological and emotional problems have bodily, material solutions (this accounts for the rise of antidepressants and “cutting”); when life feels out of control, some people take comfort in exerting excessive control over their bodies and what they eat or don’t eat (anorexia, bulimia, and excessive exercising); and we even practice the virtues through the vehicle of our bodies (moderation and the rise of fad diets).

Eve Ensler, the creator of The Vagina Monologues, has said, “I live in my body a lot, and I don’t live in my head very much anymore.” The same can be said of our culture at large. Here, the elegiac words and powerful wisdom of Shakespeare are as fresh as ever:


. . . Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased,

Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,

Raze out the written troubles of the brain

And with some sweet oblivious antidote

Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff

Which weighs upon the heart?


Therein the patient

Must minister to himself.

In the space of several lines, Shakespeare manages to undo this fantasy that human beings, like cars, are the sum of their physical parts, an illusion that has fastened itself onto our popular culture with dangerous consequences.