In the Folds of My Flesh

Living in Siberia – surrounded by forests and rivers, dachas and banyas, gardens and fields; enjoying the sweaty closeness of others engaged in real physical activity, in touch with the land, sampling the fruits of our labors together, the camaraderie of food and strong drink – I can no longer ignore the pleadings of my flesh, and the deep-seated need for touch in everyday experience.  I also recognize the continuous and deliberate attenuation of both of these in daily life in America today.

Is not touch my body’s original experience of itself as it palpates the world?  While my eyes engage things through a kind of mediated (visual) palpation, touch betrays the immediacy of contact – friction, resistance – the pressure of my body, or part of my body, against another body or physical presence in my world.

What I read a few years back in Vladimir Dal’s early twentieth century Dictionary of the Russian Language confirms what I already have become familiar with from daily life in Altai Krai – the primacy of touch, of the flesh.  As Dal wrote over one hundred years ago:

In reality all five senses can be reduced to one – the sense of touch.  The tongue and palate [touch] food; the ear, sound waves; the nose, emanations; the eyes, rays of light.

Touching defines the very interstices of my world through location, movement and reach – my flesh, both inline and outline of the lived-body-world at one and the same instant.  As my University of Chicago professor, Paul Ricoeur, might have stated, quoting his countryman Merleau-Ponty, flesh is the chiasm, an “intertwining” of body and world, affording the very possibility of tactile experience – of touching and being touched, of the inherent unity of being subject and object.

Even before opening her eyes to explore the sights, a newborn infant feels her body through the intimacy of a mother’s embrace, her touch.  Beginning with that first caress, the world becomes a sensual playground for her infinitely excitable flesh.  For this same infant, even the inanimate objects of her surroundings, what we educated adults prefer to call “dead matter” – a stone, a tree, wind, water, fire and ice – even these entities feel alive under her touch, becoming filled with life, passion, and being, as they were perhaps for our primeval forbearers, where vitality was everywhere; where being was the same as being alive.

What we modern adults dismissively call “animism” or “vitalism” – the attributing of life and intention to inanimate objects or to nature – was for the many millennia of pre-civilized hominid existence a simple acknowledgement of the power, the force, the capacity of nature to act; and since we were intimately a piece of that nature, it was a recognition of the power enabling our own movement as well.  Insofar as all things in creation shared this ability, this power, we were basically of the same essence, the same substance.  I had become acutely aware of this in Siberia – that we are a part of the earth, the land, as it is a part of us; we share in the same flesh, in the same destiny!

From the simple positioning of my body, whether passively suffering or forcibly acting, my flesh exhibits a natural reflexivity, a turning back-in upon itself, both the breach and the bridge that constitute my being-situated.  This somatic facing in two directions, both inwardly (proprioceptive), and outwardly (tactile), is the basis of my own ecstatic existence, and my experience of doubling.  I now understood the potentiality of being both myself and other than myself, immersed in the power of life: my flesh, the flesh of the world!  Of course, this is why our most ancient forbearers sensed their own totemic identifications not as some sort of hushed wish or silly hoax, but as a genuine expression of being beyond oneself, the experience of having an identity greater than one self.

Even my body does not initially present me as an isolated entity, separate from the world, an ego locked within a bag of skin.  Rather this flesh articulates my facticity as an authentic dwelling place within the great and powerful continuum of life.  Nor am I a static presence within this field; I too exhibit motility, a spontaneous ability or capacity to move. The act of touch itself suggests such potency, along with the dynamic configuration of space, as realized in dancing, hunting, playing, walking, eating, sleeping, and sexual engagement.

There is an important difference between simple tactile sensations and the feel of another’s flesh.  The impressions I receive when I reach out and touch something are not quite the same as what I experience when I feel the other’s body.  Touching another person causes a singular and indescribable sensation, originating in the natural reflexivity of my touch. Touching another’s flesh, I am acutely aware of how the other feels when he or she is being touched by me.  This experiencing of one’s own flesh, in and through touching and being touched by another, is at the heart of the sexual encounter.

In no other tactile experience is the flesh so utterly absorbed, and two “souls” so completely inter-animated, as in the intimate union, the ek-stasy of sexual contact.  Sexual coupling viscerally discloses the self-transcendent possibilities embedded in human existence, the potential for being oneself and being other than, and greater than, oneself. I recall the words of John Donne’s poem, The Ecstasy:

Our souls—which to advance their state, were gone out—hung ‘twixt her and me…

He—though he knew not which soul spake, because both meant, both spake the same…

When love with one another so inter-animates two souls …

So must pure lovers’ souls descend to affections, and to faculties, which sense may reach and apprehend…

The feel of my lover’s body – the pressure and friction of flesh against flesh – also generates heat, stimulating both our senses of smell and taste. And the tongue, in licking, like the hand, in touching, body’s-forth this same cutaneous experience, making direct appeal to appetitive desire and its pressing fulfillment.  The eyes are perhaps the least engaged in this intimate play of the flesh, with almost all awareness gathered around touch, smell and taste, and to some degree on hearing as well – listening to one another’s sounds, breathings, and silences.

What is it about touch, and in particular the feel of the other’s flesh, of human contact, that we find so welcoming and, at other times so fearsome?  There is the potential for physical pleasure and emotional communion: a hearty handshake, an extended arm to hold, a shoulder to cry on, an affectionate hug, a gentle caress, a loving embrace, a warm body to envelop us.

But there is the other, darker side of human touch as well: the battering, the assault, the beating, the trauma, and the suffering of pain.  The more I reflect on our current state of affairs, the clearer it seems that our world today is in desperate need of opportunities for the pleasurable potential of human touch.

Now, here, in Siberia, I concretely grasp the primacy of my proximate senses of appetition, desire, longing and satisfaction.  Growing up in America I had never thought twice about the degree to which I missed real human contact on a daily basis.

Touch, as I also discovered, provides the somatic basis for primal, ahistorical recollection.  There is an elemental, almost instinctual memory-trace associated with touch and with tactile experience in general: not a cognitive, historical memory, but the mute recollection of the senses, built up through ritual and repetition.

Reminiscing on my many years playing the piano, I now recall teachers instructing me to practice correct finger movement and hand placement, slowly and without errors, in order to improve my muscle memory.  “Your fingers will remember,” they would warn me!  “So you must execute each piece precisely, in order that the muscles do not remember incorrectly.”  While I initially thought them all a bit wacky, with repeated and careful practice I developed a somatic, proprioceptive memory, an instinctual feeling of where my hands and fingers should be and how to move them.

There is no intellectual coefficient here. It is not remembrance as we normally understand it, grounded in some cerebral or visual image of past performances. It is memory inhering in the very folds of my flesh.

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40 Responses to In the Folds of My Flesh

  1. Disaffected says:

    Excellent piece this week Sandy. A couple of observations: it seems we here in the west are preoccupied with the merely visual of late. Our internet and television culture is constantly focused on appearances, probably all the better to take our minds off everything else. Thus has the youth culture eclipsed all else, and a weird, distant and artificial, fantasized notion of erotica become ascendant. Strange, to say the least.

    Second, I’m getting a chance to re-remember the wisdom of the body of late. In kicking the tedium of alcohol and a burgeoning middle class “death style,” I’m back into what some would consider (evidently, most of my current friends do anyway) extreme exercise. I get warnings almost everyday from someone I know that I’m “over stressing my body” or some such non-sense, in spite of the fact that I’ve never felt better, the weight’s melting off me like butter, and my body’s evidently developed quite an assertive mind of its own. One of the keys to kicking any type of substance abuse is to simply get back in tune with your own mind/body functions, to stop the nervous internal/external patter that compels you to do the destructive shit, and to re-attune to your physical senses, which, if merely left alone, will invariably do the most beneficial thing. Some examples: turn off the electronic shit and let your sleep patterns go where they will, quit eating on schedule and instead eat when you’re hungry, etc. Of course that’s totally disruptive to a society built on the notion of lock-step scheduling and compliance, so of course once you let everyone around you know that that’s your priority, they’re quite understandably nervous as hell. We’ve got a renegade in our midst! A revolutionary!

    Secondarily, I’ve had the opportunity to have a few typical American female types along with me on my woodsy sojourns, and accordingly, I somewhat reluctantly indulge their near constant patter about the various and sundry “events of their day,” usually in the small hope that they’ll eventually calm down and discover their own quiet place. Sadly, I must report that it’s not only possible to fill almost nearly every second of six hours plus of rather intense exercise in a near pristine setting with incessant mindless verbiage, but it seems to be the norm thus far. Evidently, I’m still not seeking the right company. But still, very indicative of the compulsive patterns of mind now prevalent in an American culture addicted to the constant white noise hum of 24/7 mass media.

    • javacat says:

      DA, Love your first two points, and am sorry about the incessant chatter. i took a class on an island this summer with 22 women…with about 20 of them talking at each other constantly. I took lots of walks and took morning coffee to the rocky shore. Many are not used to and are uncomfortable with silence. My suggestion? Next time, take your companion’s hand, raise your finger to your lips, and whisper, “Listen.” See what happens . 😉

      • Disaffected says:

        Excellent, JC. I’ve tried tentative moves in that direction, thus far to no avail. But as I said, I’m constantly seeking better company. I do feel sorry for many of my companions, but unfortunately, there’s only so much you can do for those who refuse to do it for themselves. Alas, the American corporate cultural lifestyle is also self-reinforcing. When you’re immersed in it 24/7 there seems to be no alternative, even when occasional glimpses of something better tell you otherwise.

      • Disaffected says:

        I should add: WOMEN – THEY’RE THE WORST!

        Until you consider the alternatives at least. LOL!

    • kulturcritic says:

      Yes, DA. The visual, which is also a meme for the rational, has taken over our world in the West — eg., “I see what you mean!”

      We are becoming accustomed to being minds without bodies; just like on Startrek.

      And many American women (typically) are addicted to the constant drone of chatter; but even the men are becoming so climatized. Glad you enjoyed it, sandy

  2. Sandy, I am reminded one of my dance instructors saying “learn the positions slowly, because if you practice wrong, you will become perfectly wrong” Wonderful post.
    and Disaffected? I figure I’m not a typical American female type, cause I can enjoy my world with out a word…..

    • Disaffected says:

      And with a wonderful name like Marlena Petrov how could you possibly not be/not? No snark implied.

    • Disaffected says:

      I love to watch a woman dance
      She bows her head and lifts her hands
      Her hips begin to circle slowly
      Her eyes have closed; her face is holy
      She holds the whole world in trance
      I love to watch a woman dance
      Yeah, I love to watch a woman dance

      She likes the slow songs of love lost
      They take her a million miles away
      ‘Cause to dream, sometimes, is the only way
      To go places you can’t get to any other way
      Our eyes connect; she takes my hand
      I love to watch a woman dance
      Yeah, I love to watch a woman dance

      I feel my heart beating, and I wonder
      Will it ever satisfy my longing?
      I’m gonna hold on to you for as long as I can
      For who knows, this dance may be our only dance

      So we danced together, close and slow
      So slow we’re almost standing still
      Her warm breath against my neck
      Slowly breaking down my will
      The room spins so I can barely stand
      The song ends; then, she lets go of my hand
      There’s so much I don’t understand
      But I love to watch a woman dance
      Yeah, I love to watch a woman dance

  3. javacat says:

    Thanks Sandy,

    This piece was well worth the wait. 🙂 I think it is your most intimate and most sensual I’ve read. You describe so powerfully and accurately the essentialness of touch, and liberated the primacy of skin-to-skin connection–what we exchange when we touch. The most natural intimacy of mother-child–is there a more instinctive and less self-conscious sharing? The grounding, “I can breathe again” sensation when we’re hugged by a friend, or a gentle hand on a shoulder that says, “I understand.” The intense, nearly electric energy as lovers move, without the need for words, hands, bodies, lips knowing where to touch and what to do, each touch and response an interplay of delight and discovery.

    We read much through touch…the confidence in a handshake, the welcome of a hug, the urgency of someone grabbing an arm to pull us back out of traffic. Yet like so much, the essential and primal communication of touch is denied, commodified or perverted, or just so narrowly troughed that the boundaries strangle. A friend who is a massage therapist tells me that most people are touch deprived. We are so close yet so far. The absence of normal, regular touch creates its own stress and tension in our bodies and in our spirits, underscoring a sense of our own otherness and loneliness.

    We need to normalize human contact. Perhaps this lack in part explains our intense devotion to our pets: how much more easily do many of us stroke the canines and felines in our lives than touch our children & partners? The animals most certainly make their needs known, without apology, and we respond readily, eagerly, naturally. As sentient beings, we instinctively know whether the touch bodes well or harm. The meaning is conveyed directly, beyond the conscious mind, to reach that primal memory we all possess.

    It is through touch that we can lose ourselves and surrender false boundaries to live in that wonderful place of being and being one with another simultaneously. When we allow ourselves to enter this place, to trust enough to let go, our self-conscious ego drops away and we can be in union with another. Boundaries dissolve and instead is a wonderful sense of merger; in the highest form, a sense of one’s very atoms commingling, a delightful contradiction of identity and joining another.

    • kulturcritic says:

      Yes, JC, we live in a world of stress, amplified by the lack of physical contact (casual or intimate) with the other. And you are absolutely right about boundary dissolution, the self and other accommodating one another, becoming the other, in the event of sexual contact.

  4. You’ve touched a raw nerve of mine with this piece, Sandy, living as I do, alone in the city. I go long periods of time without touching another human being. It isn’t healthy, I know; it is also a thing long ingrained. Living where I do, among the American descendants of Germans and Scandinavians, the pattern has always seemed to follow extremes, touch as awkward or compulsive – anything but natural. I’m not sure what to do about it, actually. Perhaps now that I will soon be “gainfully” employed again, perhaps I will be more confident in looking for it.

    Disaffected,
    You inspire me. I need to let go of drinking compulsively, out of sheer boredom – and maybe as of late, of physical need.

    • kulturcritic says:

      WHD – I love raw nerves; at least if they are not my own. Get out into that city and just start touching people, WHD. Even the policemen! LOL

    • Disaffected says:

      William,

      Indeed, drinking is, in the end, mostly a waste of time. That said, having “turned myself in” in a fit of anger/panic at the start of my current journey, I should warn you that there is a burgeoning industry in the west to turn alcohol abuse (in particular) into some sort of shame for the rest of your life quasi religious experience. I’d avoid all that shit past the initial experience if I were you once you are back on firm moral and intellectual ground. Chances are from what I’ve read from you so far, you are not a physically addicted alcoholic. Alcohol, alas, is far more insidious than that. It’s a lot – not surprisingly – a lot like capitalism itself in that respect. A constant “friend” who would always like to get to know you better, ultimately to your final demise if you let it.

      In the end, I’d have to say it’s like anything else. Define your life and where you think you are going generally, and then define the things that you think will help get you there. Embrace the things that do, and gradually eliminate the things that don’t. If alcohol in moderation is part of that plan, it’s good. If it isn’t, it’s not.

      DA

  5. Terry T. says:

    Good post and good comments so far.

    I’m afraid American individualism has turned us against one another, as if individual isolation is an American ideal. FIrst we suburbanized such that land use patterns isolated every walk of life from its complement. Suburbanites no longer had to live near “those people.” Then the families disbursed to achieve their accomplishments, so the generations became physically separated, with grandma living alone. Then the suburban homes became larger with more bedrooms and individual bathrooms so that the likelihood of encountering another family member within the dwelling becoming smaller and smaller. Of course the advent of smaller inexpensive TV’s in the 70’s ensured that no one even agree on a form of entertainment, leading, IMO, to the TV as a noisy companion to many people, not for watching a particular program as an event.

    I guess the change in land use also allowed us to isolate ourselves from those other things- you know, other people going places on trolleys trains or buses. The automobile allowed us to be fully isolated such that a person will pick their nose behind the wheel as if invisible to the surrounding world. To complete the absurdity, minivans and SUV’s allow each passenger individual DVD players and screens so as not to acknowledge those sitting inches from themselves. Heck, you can’t even explore the asphalt environment anymore without a GPS telling the driver where to go.

    And then we have the nerve to tell the world that technology is allowing us to do all of these things “efficiently!” We’re so much more “connected” than ever before! Yeah, right.

    Somewhere along the line, our culture teaches its children that touch is adversarial.

    All the while, we forget what you’ve said about the universality of touch. We all are, as Carl Sagan said, “star stuff.” If our ever increasing knowledge of the cold vacuum of space doesn’t point out the folly of our diminishment and rejection of other individuals and species, then I’m not sure what will. It will take a crisis of biblical proportions, I’m afraid.

    Take a moment to view this video of Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos.” It is the short segment called “The Pale Blue Dot.” It always brings a tear to my eye.

    • Disaffected says:

      Sagan was a true visionary. I remember listening to ‘Cosmos’ back when I was a true ‘neophyte dick-head’ in the early 80’s. Yes, we were ALL that stupid recently! And yeah, unfortunately, mostly now too.

    • kulturcritic says:

      Very well stated, Terry. I will watch the Sagan piece, as well. sandy

    • javacat says:

      Thanks for the video, TT. I have a new appreciation of Sagan these days. This quote of his appeared shortly after Curiosity landed on Mars: “If there is life on Mars, I believe we should do nothing with Mars. Mars then belongs to the Martians, even if the Martians are only microbes.”

      Your observations on American isolation are well said. The myth of the individual, which reigns paramount, has grown more faux with the advent of technology: all of us plugged in, ear buds and headphones adding to disconnect, claiming our ‘self’ with choice of music, movies, etc. yet all the same in believing the myth. We have handicapped ourselves socially (We ‘interrupt’ someone who can’t hear us because their plugged in.). We lose even the shared experience of gathering ’round the family TV.

      Our sensory input, via tech, is pre-determined in that it is unidirectional: No exchange occurs between this laptop screen and me. Video games have a limited number of scenarios. Programs can respond in only limited way. In these ways, we diminish ourselves and turn over far too much power. Discovery and interpretation disappears.

      The sensory deprivation we experience is a biological deficiency. We become anemic in our perceptions. Then, as you say, ‘touch becomes adversarial’. Our senses become an assault. Touch is the sense that grounds us, that tells me where my body is in space. As we become increasingly insensate, we severely limit the range of responses we can offer.

    • Efficient ways of doing and being and living quite often lack resiliency.. or am i missing something seeing and thinking that?

  6. Hasdrubal Barca says:

    Your post and the comments remind me of a great early sci-fi short story by E.M. Forster:

    The Machine Stops

    The story is hauntingly prescient.

  7. Morocco Bama says:

    To juxtapose this analysis with the Bible’s treatment of Flesh, here’s a link.

    http://www.christcenteredmall.com/teachings/old-man-and-new-man-2.htm

    A few choice snippets:

    “For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live” (Romans 8:13). “For when we were in the flesh, the motions of sins, which were by the law, did work in our members to bring forth fruit unto death”
    (Romans 7:5)

    “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin” (Romans 7:25)

    “For we are the circumcision, which worship God in the spirit, and rejoice in Christ Jesus, and have no confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:3)

    Of course, the one flesh you can partake in is the Flesh of Christ. And let’s not forget how lepers are treated in the Bible. It’s the one disease mentioned the most in the Bible….a disease that severely affects the Flesh.

    And we wonder why much of the world is devoid of that most necessary ingredient of a vital life, affection. When you read those quotes, and understand how they’re incorporated into cultural folkways, it’s not really all that surprising.

    Not to mention, how grotesque is it to consider oneself a Circumcision? That one takes the cake….or should I say takes the foreskin?

    • kulturcritic says:

      Gee, thanks Morocco Bama! What an analysis.

    • kulturcritic says:

      Did you know, St Paul was a raving psychopath!!

      • yes, Sandy and a raving misogynist too. Christianity ought really be called Paulism, for it is founded mostly on the teachings of a raving misogynist psychopath. No wonder they hold such lunatic ideas, though Paul was just extending the most extreme ideas of the Hebrew patriarchs,then all that got welcomed into Islam…sigh

      • Morocco Bama says:

        Don’t forget Constantine, the psychopath who adopted Christianity as the official religion of Rome and allowed the madness to go mainstream. Not that what Rome had prior to wasn’t madness, mind you. He murdered his son and boiled his wife alive, and yet, his name is revered to this day as a great leader, hence Constantine The Great.

        And then, of course, Jesus was a bit pf a psychopath, himself, as is witnessed by censored accounts of his alleged character:

        http://www.sacred-texts.com/bib/lbob/lbob08.htm

        • kulturcritic says:

          we all live in a yellow submarine

          • Morocco Bama says:

            True, but mine is in drydock, with no sea of green in which to submerge, thankfully. Alas, I still have the Sheltering Sky above to maintain the illusion.

            http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/243598.The_Sheltering_Sky

            Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, an afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four, five times more, perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps 20. And yet it all seems limitless.

            That quote alone has served as a strong, immutable catalyst to never again return return to the sadistic, life-depriving world of Corporatism.

  8. derekthered says:

    geez, i hate to ruin the love-fest, but you are exactly right about the “attenuation”. oh yeah, the current thinking is that we should all behave like bonobos, but only if we wear what is euphemistically called “protection”, protection from what? protection from actually touching someone? protection from creating what is the natural consequence of sexual intercourse?
    we, as a species, are operating under a set of competing imperatives, the drive to reproduce, and the overpopulation of the planet. not to mention that std’s are at all time highs.

    now, there are other kinds of touching, hugs and kisses, all very fine, this is what the world needs more of, simple human connections, sanity.

    there is another dark side to touch besides the violence, there is the longing for more, the fear of loss; does not all desire lead to attachment? does not the suppression of these urges lead to insanity? a fine pickle indeed. is it not desire and attachment that leads to the violence? the fear of loss? the lust for the new toy? that mommy (or daddy) might just take away?

    nevertheless, you are exactly right, but there is something deeper here, something that you hinted at,
    “What we modern adults dismissively call “animism” or “vitalism” – the attributing of life and intention to inanimate objects or to nature – was for the many millennia of pre-civilized hominid existence a simple acknowledgement of the power, the force, the capacity of nature to act; and since we were intimately a piece of that nature, it was a recognition of the power enabling our own movement as well. Insofar as all things in creation shared this ability, this power, we were basically of the same essence, the same substance. ”
    this is exactly what was lost with the empiric outlook on life, we turned ourselves into objects a long time ago, we separated ourselves from nature, when nature became the “other”, so did we, as we are part of nature. what a nasty bit of circular logic, huh? i blame aristotle, he should have listened to his teacher.

    my bold analysis is that much of what passes as acceptable dialogue, the dialectic if you will, shall crumble under the weight of its own contradictions. but what the hell do i know? with my limited vocabulary and education? we have atomized and commodified ourselves in parallel with what we perceive as the external world, where this leads us i leave to you. methinks you dwell too much on the world religions, that is your background, but they are not the true threat, the true threat is objectification, this is why we have so much trouble about touch, we have lost our connection to the cosmos.

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