If I told you that it was reported that a shepherd was killed because his goat wasn’t wearing a diaper, and goats are simply too sexy to be naked, would you believe me? Or if I said that three people were killed because of the provocative way their vegetables were displayed in the market, would that make sense? The celery and tomatoes were deemed too naughty by clerical edict.
–Robin Andrea, The Fertile Naughtiness of the Natural World
We laugh at such thinking at our peril, we WASPs. A hundred years ago, we too were mortified by such things, teaching our children (for example) that a table or chair had limbs, not legs. Did anyone honestly believe that careless reference to the sexiness of furniture could lead an impressionable mind astray? Where does such prudishness come from?
The great Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin introduced some useful concepts in his book Rabelais and His World, as he strove to bridge the chasm between modern and pre-modern European ways of looking at the body. The predominant imagery of the pre-Lenten Carnival, he found, was grotesque: like the tomato in these photos, it exceeded itself in ways that were both comic and sexual, with a mixing of lower and upper body symbolism whereby, for example, a nose became a penis, and vice versa. Though material rather than spiritual, the grotesque body was, in a sense, cosmic, both literally and figuratively larger than life — “a body in the act of becoming,” as Bakhtin put it. A popular survival from pre-Christian days, it persisted in an uneasy balance with the Body of Christ and what Bakhtin termed the classical body of church and state, which was as finished as the grotesque body was unfinished, closed off to the world and therefore susceptible of that sine qua non of priestly religion: purity.
The European so-called Enlightenment gave the mind-body split a huge boost, in conjunction with the rise of capitalism and the modern nation-state. The classical body dominated the thinking of the emerging middle class, whose members always aspire to better themselves by embracing elite mannerisms and perspectives and turning away from their origins in the village and the soil. But it seems to me that the new, ideal body of the industrial bourgeoisie was even more private and tool-like than the classical body had been, in keeping with new, reductionist ideologies.
Reductionism is the genius of the modern age, the source of our immense scientific and technological power. Religious fundamentalism, though often seen even by its adherents as a rejection of modernity, is equally modern in its insistence on reductionist interpretations of text and doctrine. (Recall that for Islam, the Wahabite and other modern “fundamentalist” movements arose only in the 19th century; Sufic and syncretic movements dominated popular Islam up until modern times.) As oppressive social structures spread their tentacles (a grotesque image!) into every facet of society, one unintended consequence is to inspire ever higher levels of fear and paranoia in its increasingly individuated and isolated members, now reduced to the status of taxpayers, occasional voters and consumers. Modern medicine and industrial warfare promote a diminished vision of human beings as little more than animated cadavers, suicide bombers, collateral damage.
In place of the comic body of Carnival, we have the angry, anonymous mob, summoned up and defined by its fear and rejection of some threatening other: capitalists, immigrants, Arabs, Jews, Shiites, Sunnis, Americans, whatever. The institutionalized religious or insurrectionary mob is like a grotesque body with bulimia. Its obsessive quest for purity, now liberated from the constraints of an empathy-based ethics, feeds a revulsion toward its own members, and purge follows purge. Nazi propaganda defined its undesirables as “life unworthy of life”; Chinese communist propaganda rejected sexual desire itself as anti-Communist. These are of course extreme examples, but I am trying to understand how people can be put to death for displaying suggestive vegetables. The mobocracy instinctively acts to control whatever threatens its supremacy, and what could be more subversive than sexual desire?
It may seem as if North America is relatively free from these impulses, but that’s hardly the case: true freedom and wildness are perceived as deeply threatening by most Americans. Aside from a very few towns and cities, our streets are virtually lifeless, devoid of informal commercial activity, vagrants, even loiterers. The symbol of middle class respectability is the weed-free mowed lawn. Lifestyle ordinances are strictly enforced, even in many rural townships. In place of riotous carnivals, we have parades. The reductionist equation of human being with zygote gains ever more popular acceptance, even as we become more willing to deprive our undesirable members of liberty and life in a vast prison-industrial complex.
Our actual, individual bodies bulge grotesquely in perverse reaction, it seems, to the unattainably attenuated, hard, machine-like bodies pimped by our elite-controlled popular culture. Sex in America now comes in two official flavors, liberal and conservative. Among liberals, sex is seen as a glue for self-fulfilling relationships, a form of healthy exercise, and/or a subject for therapy. For conservatives, it is a time-honored, divinely sanctioned technique for procreation. Both strike me as a radically impoverished understanding of what love-making could and should be.
Humans have, I think, a natural desire for self-transcendence. The physical excesses of the grotesque body of Carnival honored this desire by spoofing it: as Bakhtin somewhere points out, in ancient times and in highly traditional cultures, religion included a healthy admixture of comedy and burlesque. When the belly shakes with laughter or the whole body with orgasm, the line between self and other grows thin — a perilous situation for those whose power depends on anathematizing the other. You want self-transcendence? Make babies. Or wait until after death … and thus the death-dealing at the heart of reductionist ideologies attains an aura of sanctity. Keep your vegetables in line, buddy, or your ass is grass.