Sunday, November 28, 2010

Body as a sick engine

250px-D_H_Lawrence_passport_photograph I am not a mechanism, an assembly of various sections.
And it is not because the mechanism is working wrongly, that I am ill.
I am ill because of wounds to the soul, to the deep emotional self
and the wounds to the soul take a long, long time, only time can help
and patience, and a certain difficult repentance
long, difficult repentance, realization of life’s mistake, and the freeing oneself
from the endless repetition of the mistake
which mankind at large has chosen to sanctify. – D.H. Lawrence

Obesity is commonly understood as an illness. Here I want to superimpose an interpretation of Lawrence’s poem that may not be accommodating of  his intention but I think there is room in his obscure language to make this available.

If as in a Cartesian sense the body is a machine, it makes sense to think that there must be possible to arrive at the idea of optimally running machine. Obesity from the point of view of optimum mechanical efficiency should be considered as an illness. But Lawrence is actually trying to reframe the idea of illness. Here illness is connected not to an improper function of the body/machine. Illness is connected to ‘wounds to the soul’ which he suggests take a ‘long, long time’ to recover from. So then obesity is not an illness of the body but of the soul. This is even worse. This turns into: “I am obese – I have an ill soul.” This is a short step away from: “You are obese – you are a bad person!” But something else is available here in Lawrence.

He suggests that these soul wounds require a ‘certain difficult repentance…of life’s mistake’. So perhaps if you are obese Lawrence would say that all one needs to do is repent of your mistakes – not of the body but of the mind and soul. So far we have covered the dominant rhetoric of the plenty of the weight loss as self-help programs (i.e. Weight Watchers, Weigh Down Diet, even Curves). Think right – eat right – be thin -they tell you.  But it is also the ‘freeing oneself from the endless repetition of the mistake which mankind at large has chosen to sanctify.’ So what is this socially sanctified mistake that Lawrence is talking about? It is quite possible that Lawrence had a specific social problem in mind that was systematically opposed to healing. But he seems to have avoided being too direct in his accusation. As a result the poem is open for this: the endlessly repeated mistake that individuals must free themselves from is nothing less than seeing the body as a mechanism.

So what?

Perhaps if the body isn’t a mechanism then we can stop moralizing the body. Maybe we can stop using the body as a marker to determine which individuals are evil and which one’s are good. Maybe a better idea of illness can be recaptured. Maybe the common judgement of lazy, gluttonous, dirty, or careless can stop being the moral tags affixed to bodies that stand outside of the arbitrary way we have thought the typical body should look.

disclaimer: I am not in anyway trying to be an apologist for Lawrence. I doubt there is much of his ideological perspective I could endorse.

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