Shuffling Off Our Mortal Coils – Or Making Them Our Centres?

These days we seem obsessed with our bodies: thinning them out, bulking them up, getting them into “shape,” perfecting their curves and improving their features, and generally doing all we can to modify or preserve our outer encasements. My body is my temple, as the saying goes.  And I will worship it with margarine and Red Bull.

The body today is seen as the beginning of life: we must treat it well in order to function well in other areas of existence. We must get a good breakfast with plenty of protein and fat (but only good fats!) to fire up our metabolism for the day. We are advised to consume more carbohydrates to get our brains in gear. Running will help us sleep better. Sleeping better will help us live longer. Living longer will give us more time to watch what we eat.

I don’t disagree with any of the above advice, but I do wonder when our mortal coils became separate entities from our minds. In The Republic, Socrates notes that both music and gymnastic education contribute mostly toward forming the whole person (note that to him, music was more important). Physical activity, moreover, was meant mainly to avoid illness. Socrates points out (as is explored in this article) that the soul comes first, and produces a good body, and that a healthy intellect results in a healthy body. The mind is the primary concern, and the instigator of physicality.

Perhaps the corporal obsession comes from our modern need for control. We don’t feel it anymore over our minds. We sense that life is one big game of Survivor with people out to outwit, outplay, and outlast us: advertisers trying to con us into buying more products we don’t need, politicians lying about what they’ll do if they are elected, even subliminal messages that influence how we think without our knowledge. But we can slim and sculpt and swap out bits of our physical exteriors that we don’t like. As Olivia Newton John would say, let’s get physical.

Or perhaps it goes back further, to the late nineteenth-century fixation upon masculinity that took root in Western culture and never quite left. In the logic of British imperialism, for example, “masculine” traits like aggression, control, competition and power were all inherent qualities of a successful imperial people, in contrast to the primitive effeminacy and weakness that characterized the “lesser races” they sought to civilize. This hypermasculinity found its expression in an overt and growing militarism, spurred on by the imperialist canon of Robert Baden Powell and Rudyard Kipling, among others.  Men delighted in proving themselves in war, perhaps an outlet of barbarism in their cloistered, prim, restrictive society.

In this period, Teddy Roosevelt (my personal favourite president) advocated a “strenuous life” of strife and toil, as individuals and as a nation (in the form of imperialism), in order to “ultimately win the goal of true national greatness.” [Come to think of it, he may have been one of the founders of our modern bias toward action that I wrote about in an earlier post.] Individual strength, ruggedness, and power would lead to national victories, particularly in the imperialistic wars that were coming, in Europe and around the world.

And they prepared for war with sport, and play. It’s no coincidence that the Olympics were revived in the middle of all of this imperial scrambling, in 1896. Though we have since created a story about how the games are rooted in friendly international competition, they were no doubt seen by many then as a proxy for battle. (Some modern commentaries on the national medal counts make this apparent even today.) And though Robert Baden-Powell’s Scouting for Boys launched a century of camping, orienteering, and general outdoorsy skills being taught to young men in Boy Scouts (hilariously anachronistic title notwithstanding), its origins were in a survival manual Baden-Powell had written for his fellow army men camped in India. It was adopted largely as preparation for future imperial warfare.

Even today, we worship those whose bodies are their primary known attributes much more than those whose minds are – at least with our money. Consider how many more people know who David Beckham is than, say, Tom Standage, or how many more watch America’s Next Top Model than the Reach for the Top provincial finals.

Corporal strength, power, even perfection, has become the ideal we seek and worship, and often the lens and language through which we describe the world. My next post will discuss how this applies to nations, but for now I’ll leave you with two images:

The heroes of their day…

…and of ours.

What do you think? Has the hypermasculine focus on physicality of the high imperial age stayed with us to the present day, or do we have a new ideal now? Do you think corporality is the primary way through which we understand and describe the world? Do you use your mind to serve your body, or vice versa?

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