Thursday, May 6, 2010

Bodies and Souls

Who is man? Theologians and philosophers have wrestled with this question for millennia. In answer, Christianity established the West’s understanding of man as a binary being. Roy Porter writes in Flesh in the Age of Reason: “A human being, these [Christian] doctrines explained, was a compound of two distinctive elements, soul and flesh” (Porter, Roy. Flesh in the Age of Reason. New York: Penguin Books, 2003. p. 18. Print). This duality of “soul and flesh” shaped Western thought and literature for the centuries that followed. In the 17th century with the advance of scientific understanding, Europeans began to delve more deeply into the question of existence. Roy Porter says, “…dogma and sedimented popular beliefs were increasingly questioned in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by those… for whom the Christian soul [was] puzzles, wish-fulfillments, sick men’s dreams, bizarre blather or pious frauds” (Porter, Roy 20). Influenced by Cartesian theories, especially Rene Descartes’ concept of dualism, the English were concerned with ontological questions of existence, as Professor Dahlia Porter reveals. Roy Porter admits that even though the “Christian soul” was questioned, “…the flesh proved deeply problematic… To a degree that is hard to imagine nowadays, visible, tangible flesh was all too often experienced as ugly, nasty and decaying…” (Porter, Roy 25).

If soul and body were problematic, what, then, was man to be? Mr. Porter says, “With the Christian soul problematized but the flesh an object of intensified disquiet and discipline, élite identities associated themselves with the elevation of the mind… which, while distinct from the theological soul of the Churches, was equally distanced from gross corporeality” (Porter, Roy 26). This evolution of thought is evident in the writings of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. This essay will proceed chronologically through five representative texts and demonstrate the development of the body/soul and body/mind dichotomy. Roy Porter’s text explores “how… that demise of the soul came about… a move from a time when everything was ensouled (animism) towards a present day in which the soul is no longer an object of scientific inquiry, though mind” is (Porter, Roy 27). My essay does not explore the “demise of the soul”—indeed, the last text to be discussed makes several references to the “soul”—but rather the fluid understanding of the duality of human nature. No matter if the “Christian soul” is less popular today than it was in the 17th century: Men and the literature they produce have recognized the binary nature of mankind, and that concept, while taking different forms, has all but disappeared.

Andrew Marvell’s poem “A Dialogue between the Soul and Body” was published posthumously in 1681 and establishes a Christian dichotomy between man’s body and soul. The poem is constructed in four stanzas: The Soul begins, the Body responds, the Soul responds, and the Body concludes. The Soul’s argument against the Body centers on its entrapment within the Body. The Soul says, “O who shall from this Dungeon, raise / A Soul inslav’d so many wayes? / With bolts of Bones, that fetter’d stands / In Feet; and manacled in Hands” (ll. 1-4). The physical encasement of the Body—bones, hands, feet, et cetera—serves as the “Chains” that bind the Soul. The Soul longs for Heaven yet cannot reach it whilst restrained by the Body. Interestingly, Marvell uses physical language to describe the Soul’s anguish. As Nate points out, the language is not only physical but violent. In the “Soul” stanzas the words “bolts”, “fetter’d”, “manacled”, “blinded”, “hung up”, “Tortur’d”, “confine”, “destroys”, and “Shipwrackt” appear (ll. 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, 21, 26, 30). This language describes the Body’s effects on the Soul. Even though the Body cannot literally physically “fetter” the intangible Soul, as an embodied person how else could Marvell describe the Soul’s pain, but through corporeal words? The Body’s argument against the Soul delineates a different kind of imprisonment or enslavement: The Body is subject to the Soul’s moral tyranny. Its first lines lament, “O who shall me deliver whole, / From bonds of this Tyrannic Soul? / Which, strecht upright, impales me so…” (ll. 11-13). The Soul longs for Heaven, but the Body is an earthly being. The Body also blames the Soul for causing unhappiness in its life: “What but a Soul could have the wit / To build me up for Sin so fit?” (ll. 41-42). If the Body did not have a Soul, it would not worry about or know of sin and could enjoy earthly pleasures without qualm. Also, the violent language continues: “Tyrannic”, “impales”, “Pestilence”, “Hatred’s”, “square and hew” (ll. 12, 13, 35, 36, 43). Here, the language refers to the Soul’s effects on the Body. The Soul cannot literally physically “impale” the Body, but its moral strictures make the Body feel “strecht” upward. Nate says, the “Body and Soul consider that normal reactions and functions of the other as a plague that is unable to find appropriate resolution but simply continues to pester.” These “normal reactions” are what place the Body and Soul at odds because they seem diametrically opposed: The intangible Soul longs to leave the physical world and enter into spiritual bliss, while the Body feels repressed by the spiritual Soul here on Earth. Returning to the previous question, the answer reveals the intrinsic connection between Soul and Body. The Body has the last word in the poem, which emphasizes man’s inability to escape from the material. We are embodied creatures who can philosophize about the soul, but in the end we are limited by our physicality.

Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels satirizes English society, and the satire is especially biting in Book Four, “A Voyage to the Houyhnhnms.” Gulliver develops a profound repulsion for humanity who he believes to be “Yahoos.” His initial description of the Yahoos in Houyhnhnmland focuses on their bodies: “Their shape was very singular, and deformed, which a little discomposed me…” (Swift 209). Most interestingly, Gulliver uses the word “deformed” to describe them. The Oxford English Dictionary defines deformed as “Marred in appearance; disfigured, defaced” (OED, “deformed”, 1). This definition aligns with Gulliver’s description of the Yahoo’s bodies, but the OED also includes a figurative definition for “deformed”: “Perverted, distorted; morally ugly, offensive, or hateful” (OED, “deformed”, 4). In this sense, “deformed” refers to a nonphysical, disembodied malady: The phrase “morally ugly” refers to a deformity of the mind, spirit or soul. The Yahoos are not just physically deformed, but also morally and intellectually deformed. They brutally fight with one another, shun cleanliness and love filth, and have “their Females in common” (Swift 245). One female Yahoo even attempts to rape Gulliver as he bathes in a river (Swift 248-249). This moral degeneration is physically mirrored in the Yahoos’ corrupt bodies: “I did indeed observe, that the Yahoos were the only Animals in his Country subject to any Diseases” (Swift 244). Their bodies are weak just like their intellect and morality, or perhaps as an effect of those weakened sensibilities. Gulliver is shocked when he recognizes “a perfect human Figure” in the Yahoos’ bodies (Swift 214). This establishes what Sarah terms a “liminal space”: Gulliver cannot occupy the space of the Yahoos, but neither can he occupy the space of the Houyhnhnms. Horses are the “rational Beings” in Houyhnhnmland, and Gulliver extols their depths of “Reason” but, ultimately, they are not humans—they are Houyhnhnms—and Gulliver cannot identify with them. (Swift 222). He cannot, however, fully identify with the Yahoos either, but he develops a level of self-hatred because he realizes he is closer to a Yahoo than a Houyhnhnm. Clara says, “Towards the end, Gulliver can no longer look at his own reflection, as all he sees is fallen humanity, and he is ashamed to be part of the species of Yahoos.” Also, upon returning to England, Gulliver cannot bear human company. Human bodies repulse him: “I could not endure my Wife or Children in my Presence, the very Smell of them was intolerable…” (Swift 271). Gulliver is not only disgusted by their bodies, but by their lack of enlightened Reason: “I considered them as they really were, Yahoos in Shape and Disposition, perhaps a little more civilized, and qualified with the Gift of Speech; but making no other Use of Reason, than to improve and multiply those Vices, whereof their Brethren [Yahoos]… had only the Share that Nature allotted them” (Swift 260). This fourth book of Gulliver’s Travels proposes an interesting relationship between body and mind: Inner morality and reason are reflected in the physical body. This is not the Christian binary of soul and body, but rather, in Gulliver’s Travels we see the first marks of a tendency toward secular duality. But Swift’s portrayal of an animal as the paradigm of Reason (the mind) and the humanoid character as the epitome of gross corporeality (the body) leave Gulliver in that liminal space of non-existence. If Gulliver cannot be a Houyhnhnm but he is also not a Yahoo, what is he—what is man? Roy Porter outlines Swift’s thoughts: “Evidently man was not the homo rationalis he pretended to be but rather, at best, homo rationis capax—a creature capable of rationality though by implication falling short” (Porter, Roy 151). The mind and the body together do create man, albeit imperfectly.

William Wordsworth’s, Romantic poem “The Thorn” deals with the soul’s effect on the flesh in two ways: As the traditional moral soul and as the harbor of the sentiments. Sarah proposes that Wordsworth “suggests… there is something of the disfiguring madness in [Martha Ray], that… created something stunted, unable to fully bloom…” The thorn is an allegorical symbol for Martha Ray. Martha Ray murders her baby and suffers from her guilt. Next to the thorn is a “hill of moss” which is “like an infant’s grave in size” (ll. 36, 52). Martha Ray sits next to the thorn and the hill of moss everyday, wailing, “Oh misery! oh misery! / Oh woe is me! oh misery!” (ll. 65-66). These lines denote the misery her soul endures from the guilt of her crime. Like Marvell’s poem, physical suffering is attributed to the soul. The soul’s physical suffering, however, is manifested in Martha Ray’s flesh, much like the intellectual and moral degeneration is mirrored in the Yahoos’ flesh. When the narrator searches for the thorn, he sees what he thinks is a “jutting crag” and runs toward it for shelter, except, “Instead of jutting crag, I found / A woman seated on the ground” (ll. 193, 197-198). This supports Martha Ray’s “disfiguration” and her connection to the thorn. The thorn is described thus: “No leaves it has, no thorny points; / It is a mass of knotted joints, A wretched thing forlorn…” (ll. 8-9). If Martha Ray is mistaken for a “jutting crag”, her appearance must be like that of the thorn. Both are disfigured, or deformed. The deformity, however, begins in the soul and trickles out to affect the body. Murder has misshapen Martha Ray’s soul, and Wordsworth suggests that her body has also suffered the consequences. The incident that caused the murder—the unfaithfulness of Martha Ray’s lover—caused her initial anguish and, “A cruel, cruel fire, they say, / Into her bones was sent: / It dried her body like a cinder, / And almost turn’d her brain to tinder” (ll. 129-132). The emotional heartbreak of her lover’s unfaithfulness causes a physical reaction in Martha’s body: She is burned up as if on fire. Of course, this language is metaphorical, but it emphasizes the connection between the inner emotions and the body. The OED’s third definition of “soul” is: “The seat of the emotions, feelings or sentiments; the emotional part of man’s nature” (OED, “soul”, 3a). Here we see another expansion on the body/soul dichotomy: The soul acting as the “seat of the emotions” can physically affect the body.

The study of how the body links to criminal activity developed later in English history, but in light of our discussion of “The Thorn” it seems appropriate to discuss now. In “Veins of Resemblance: Photography and Eugenics”, David Green explains that modern social science began to develop in the late 18th century, but was not firmly founded until the middle of the 19th century (Green, David. “Veins of Resemblance: Photography and Eugenics.” Oxford Art Journal. Vol. 7, No. 2. Oxford University Press, 1984. p. 6. Web: JSTOR.). Then, experimentation in composite photography, which permitted the “measuring and classifying [of] the human body in the attempt to identify and define the characteristic or typical features of race, class or social group” developed (Green 6, 8). Specifically, composite photography was used to explore criminal typology. Francis Galton famously worked in this field, and his photographs of criminal types appear here.
Popular English theory at the time held that “criminality was congenital and manifest in anatomical and physiological traits” and therefore, “criminal anthropology set about measuring, observing and documenting the body in an attempt to discover the ‘biology of crime’” (Green 10). Indeed, the theory proposed that physical traits could indicate intellectual and psychological traits (Green 10). Galton says, “[Composite photographs] represent not the criminal, but the man who is liable to fall into crime” (Galton, Francis. “Composite Portraits, Made by Combining Those of Many Different Persons Into a Single Resultant Figure.” The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. Vol. 8. Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 1879. p. 135. Web: JSTOR). To put it simply, composite photography suggested that a person’s inner character could be known based on observations of their outer appearance. Thus, the Victorians asserted that the inner moral composition of a person and his physical body were intrinsically linked. Like we have seen in Swift and Wordsworth and will see in Stevenson, the inner mind, spirit or soul affects the body in negative manners.

Thomas DeQuincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater explores the relationship between body and mind through the medium of opium usage, which was quite a serious problem in England during the 19th century. Here we again move away from the “Christian soul”, as this text clearly highlights what Professor Porter calls the soul’s transmutation “into [the] philosophical, analytical mind.” This shift is what Roy Porter also recognizes in his work discussed in the introduction to this essay. We saw it earlier when discussing Gulliver’s Travels, but, as we will see, DeQuincey goes one step further. DeQuincey admits to years of opium usage, and extols the merits of opium’s ability to expand the mind. He says opium “greatly [increases] the activity of the mind” (DeQuincey 79), and Peter underscores the separation of body and mind as a result of opium: “At first, Dequincey falls in love with the idea of the philosopher and uses opium to escape from his body.” Opium is the means by which DeQuincey engages the intellectual world around him. He gives two examples of his intellectual stimulation while under opium’s influence: his visits to the opera and the market. In these episodes, DeQuincey seems to be disembodied—“after I had taken opium, to wander forth, without much regarding the direction or distance…”—and he simply floats from opera to market to engage his intellect with new challenges (DeQuincey 80). In describing, the “Pains of Opium”, however, DeQuincey’s body takes center stage. Peter says, “In the end, he struggles violently to re-enter his body… When he diminishes his reliance on opium, he talks about the pain of passing from one mode of existence to another. Dequincey presents an enormous tension between his body and his mind that is exasperated by his addiction.” DeQuincey weans himself off of opium, and the bodily pain he experiences is excruciating: He says, “The intention of nature, as manifested in the healthy state, obviously is, to withdraw from our notice all the vital motions, such as the circulation of the blood, the expansion and contraction of the lungs, the peristaltic action of the stomach, etc.; and opium, it seems, is able in this, as in other instances, to counteract her purposes…” (After “With dreadful faces…”). Opium acts against the body’s natural functions, and DeQuincey concludes that he “hates” his body (After “With dreadful faces…”). If the opium simply heightened his intellect without any negative psychological effects (hallucinations, agitation) that affected his physical state (lack of sleep), he probably would have never stopped using it. That, however, is not the case. DeQuincey could not completely separate his mind from his body. Because of this, he rejects his body. DeQuincey offers his body up to science to be studied for the physical effects of opium on the body, saying, “it will give me pleasure to anticipate this posthumous revenge and insult inflicted upon that which has caused me so much suffering in this life” (After “With dreadful faces…”). He viciously looks forward to his body’s dismemberment and dishonor. His body held him back. Even though Gulliver is disgusted with human bodies at the end of the text, he is equally disgusted with their minds. Here, however, DeQuincey seems to promote a disembodied mind, much like the solution Roy Porter proposed in his text. There can be no compromise like Swift’s recognition of man as imperfect body and imperfect mind; instead it is the hated body that restricts the soaring mind. Like the Soul in Marvell’s poem, DeQuincey’s mind is violently shackled with “bolts of Bones.”

Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde reveals a modernist writer’s take on the body and soul divide. Liz says, “…it would be interesting to see how our morality is effected in even the tiniest of ways: for example, stature.” In Nate and Mary Beth’s presentation on Alice in Wonderland, another Victorian text, they also promoted the idea of stature as characteristic of moral standing: when Alice was bigger she seemed smarter and more morally savvy as opposed to when she was smaller. In the same way, Jekyll is “a large, well-made, smooth-faced man of fifty, with something of a slyish cast perhaps, but every mark of capacity and kindness” (Stevenson 18). On the other hand, Hyde is “pale and dwarfish, he gave an impression of deformity without any nameable malformation, he had a displeasing smile… and he spoke with a husky, whispering and somewhat broken voice” (Stevenson 15). Again we have a “deformed” appearance. These two descriptions oppose each other, and Stevenson suggests that largeness is associated with good and dwarfishness associated with evil. Not only are Jekyll and Hyde physically different, but they are morally different as well. Hyde is “evil” (Stevenson 55). Mr. Utterson muses, “or is it the radiance of a foul soul that thus transpires through, and transfigures, its clay continent?” The last, I think; for O my poor old Harry Jekyll, if ever I read Satan’s signature upon a face, it is on that of your new friend” (Stevenson 16). Utterson places his reflections in the context of Christian language by using the words “soul” and “Satan”. Here, we see the “foul soul” proposed as the cause of the foul body. This is not the purely scientific or intellectual mind/body debate that we saw in DeQuincey’s text, but rather a question of morality and spirit within a body. Utterson says that he sees “Satan’s signature” upon Hyde’s face, thus immediately denoting a God/Satan and Heaven/Hell dichotomy. Jekyll recognizes man’s moral duality saying, “man is not truly one, but truly two” referring to man’s penchant for good or evil (Stevenson 52). The body is the physical medium through which this good or evil is expressed. Indeed, even Jekyll says, “Evil besides… had left on that body an imprint of deformity and decay” (Stevenson 55). If we look at this Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde movie poster image found in Clara’s blog post, we see one interpretation of the physical deformity of Mr. Hyde. He has fangs, a large nose, bushy brows and is portrayed in black and white. He looks like a monster, something almost not human. In contrast, Dr. Jekyll is young, handsome and portrayed in color. He looks like a normal man. The poster proposes the question: How can two such different physical beings turn into each other? The text offers a chemical concoction as a solution and movie clips show the transformation of Jekyll into Hyde, but Jekyll says that no chemical concoction was really necessary: “I stood already committed to a profound duplicity of life” (Stevenson 52). The two natures of man, good and evil, could exist in the body of Dr. Jekyll alone—he calls it his “composite” self—the chemical potion simply exacerbated the evil side into its own body. Overall, Stevenson’s text slightly reconciles the soul/body and mind/body dichotomies. The Christian language recalls the soul/body rift, as do the moral judgments on Hyde’s behavior, yet Jekyll is a doctor and scientist who intellectually conceives of the duality of human nature. He recognizes the body, the mind and the soul.

Who is man? According to these writers, he is some combination of body, mind, soul and spirit. Even though Marvell, Swift, Wordsworth, DeQuincey and Stevenson shift the specific amalgamation according to religious and scientific thought, all propose a tension between the flesh and the spirit and develop the dialogue of what it means to be human.

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