City City Bang Bang, Columns

The Body as a Stranger?

Historically, we have been estranged from our own bodies. The Covid crisis underlines just how little we understand our own bodies. For all the intense engagement we have with our own selves, we regard the insides of our bodies as an alien landscape, to be handed over to medical experts when things go wrong. We have no idea of what they are talking about when they describe our primary unit of existence, our bodies back to us. T-cells, B-cells, cytokine storms, viral loads, comorbidities- the vocabulary that has sprung around one single virus is bewildering.

Why is there such little interest in figuring this out a little better? The body is after all, all we have.  It is our primary asset, the seat of the self, the site of our being. Admittedly, the mechanisms that drive human bodies are so complex that even the best specialists in the world understand a fraction of what is really going on. But one would have thought that we would be a little more interested in understanding our own bodies.

And yet, it is hardly as if we are uninterested in our bodies. We spend an inordinate amount of time fussing over our appearance. Our sense of identity is largely located in our outward selves. We are obsessed with how we appear to others. It occupies an enormous share of our attention and wallet, this pursuit of looking good externally. The insides, on the other hand are a mystery.

If anything, we are repelled by what lurks within the confines of our skin, the boundary that marks the separation of the smooth external and the feral internal. Everything we consider hideous and ugly resides within us. I do not mean this in a metaphorical sense, although that might also be true, but quite literally.

Looking at the results of an endoscopy, for instance, is an exercise in coming to terms with the grossness of our own bodies. Everything we detest in our lives, all the forms we fear and loathe live within us.  Ooze, slime and mucous slithers around in dank, moist spaces. Gnawing shapes reach out menacingly. Everything seems cloaked in a netherworld of foetal unpreparedness. When we visualise aliens, we are in many cases, merely turning ourselves inside out. The creepy, otherworldly depictions of forms of life quite unlike ours are distorted versions of who we are on the inside.

All forms of body fluids evoke fear and revulsion. Emissions from the body are considered filthy. The mental model as psychoanalyst Lawrence Kubie describes it, ‘of a body as a kind of animated mobile dirt factory, exuding filth at every aperture’. Blood, pus, snot, excreta, semen are all considered impure and profane. Kubie goes on to argue that ‘by extension, a cavity, a cleft or a pit in the body carries the presumption of dirt, whose smells must be disguised.’ We purge ourselves routinely but take little ownership of what is an important part of our existence.

The dead evoke revulsion and fear, understandably so. For death is about an unnatural stillness, a draining of all that is vital about any living being, and confronting. But for all out interest in the idea of life, our sense of the vibrant and complex dance of interconnected systems that hum within us is virtually non-existent.

Given that we have ourselves constructed notions of beauty, why is it that we have chosen those very ideals that are the polar opposites of what we look like on the inside? Is it mere coincidence that we crave for a surface notion of beauty and that the ideas that animate it look so different from the reality of our insides? The differences that exist between human beings on the basis of external markers would disappear if we were able to think of our bodies as they really are on the inside.

But is this strained relationship between the outside and inside true only of human beings?  The insides of the earth, the plumbing of nature too looks and feels nothing like its rolling magnificence on the outside. The eerie damp twisty hollowness of the caves, full of nameless dark terrors, the gnarled roots that spread their tentacles underground or the hot molten liquids that rage deep inside the crust of the earth are all hidden away underneath the spectacular show that nature puts on for us on the outside.

The skin and the organs. The cover and the book. The surface and the substance. The façade and the interiors. The advertising and the product. The relationship between the outside and the inside is not straightforward. The outside can do both- give a clue to what lies within or to distract us completely from the reality inside.

In the case of our bodies, the latter seems to be at work. Our excessive concern for how we look on the outside is a mark of how distant we are from the body on the inside. Things are changing, though.  We have increasingly become more aware of our bodies, even if it is still led largely by considerations of appearance and fitness and try to shape it through a more conscious regimen of exercise, diet, and lifestyle adjustments. This is however, given is very recent origin and is still in a formative stage. And most of these efforts are focused on undoing the effects that we are causing on our bodies through our lifestyles today.

Perhaps this is by design. For so much happens inside our bodies, that any awareness of it would make us unable to function meaningfully in the world. At a deeper level, confronting the inner mechanisms of our bodies would perhaps expose the machine-like nature of our inner selves. We need to locate our sense self in our actions, emotions and opinions in order to feel more human. Perhaps, in an ideal world, we would never have to think about our bodies.  Let it just get on with whatever is its job.