3 min

What the body wants

I was looking at some old snapshots the other day and suddenly everything was clear. For years and years you hang around therapy, trying to figure out why you hang out with certain people and not with others and what you want from a relationship and what you see in people, and it all comes down to looks. Or rather, not looks, but your embodied reaction to those looks.

The pictures showed three guys I was involved with, in different ways and intensities, many years ago and I liked them all and hung out with them all but didn’t quite know what do with them, romantically speaking, and it was all very confusing and there were a lot of hurt feelings. But in retrospect it was all very simple and my body, at least, knew exactly which way to go, because basically I dated the one I found most attractive.

He was not — and this is important — the one other people might have considered the most attractive or even the one who aroused in me the most lust. But he was the one I reacted to most strongly in a physical, visceral way.

A friend once accused me of living almost entirely inside my head — as opposed to my body — and I suppose it’s partly true. It’s taken me a long time to realize just how important basic, entry-level attraction is.

But I’m not sure I’m all that different from anyone else. Our contemporary obsession with sex obscures the fact that none of us is particularly comfortable in our bodies and the culture actively works against it. From disfiguring plastic surgery to airbrushed magazine ads, the culture negates our physical reality.

Shaped by Christianity, a religion that has never been too fond of the body, preferring instead to dwell on the delights of its demise, our culture distrusts the body and that prejudice goes a long way back.

In a book written some years ago Morris Berman suggested that the history of the west was partly one of intense bodily repression and that that repression had distanced us from our true nature, causing all sorts of cultural and psychological problems, from addiction to emptiness.

“The life of the body is our real life, the only life we have,” wrote Berman in Coming to Our Senses, and while several so-called heresies have tried to revive that view, history and culture have largely ignored it.

Berman made that suggestion almost 20 years ago. Things are worse today.

Whatever the advantages of the internet, its most obvious effect is to disembody human interaction. Instead of sniffing, touching and licking other people we exchange pixels and pictures that will disappear in a moment. Paper letters may have been too cool for sensual satisfaction but at least they bore some small trace of the writer’s personality — his or her smell, handwriting and maybe even a few small stains from a coffee cup. Email, on the other hand, is just a string of letters.

Not that people need any encouragement to ignore the body. How many times have you been told your romantic choices were all wrong — inappropriate even — by people whose only ground for judgment was a set of disembodied cultural assumptions (age, class, education, whatever)? At times like that about all you can do is moan ruefully about attraction or chemistry, because none of us really has the vocabulary to discuss our somatic interactions or explain our choices. Just a few tired clichés like “he has kind eyes” or “I like the cut of his jib.”

Yet our reactions to the physical world are part of what makes life worthwhile and while sex gets all the headlines it’s only one of many sensual interactions.

Virginia Woolf is not usually the best guide to the body, being one of the least horny people in the history of the world, but I think she was onto something when she wrote to a friend about the “many different flowers” she visited. Speaking of the many different ways in which she found creative stimulation — friends, lovers, husband, walks through London — she suggested it was wrong to separate her reactions to them. She needed them all to stimulate her writing.

“Where people mistake, as I think, is in perpetually narrowing and naming these immensely composite and wide flung passions — driving stakes through them, herding them between screens,” wrote Woolf.

I don’t know the best route back into the body and body consciousness. Yoga, meditation, a long walk in the woods? But a better relationship with the body — its needs, reactions and intelligence — might benefit us all. If the body can’t create enlightenment, it’s at least a stable starting point from which to know the self, uncluttered by all the many cultural assumptions that befog our hearts and minds.