Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Kim and the Platonist

Had a great email exchange with Dr Cary about Orpheus and the Pearl, and he agreed to let it be published here on my humble blog, in case anyone else might find Platonist philosophy as interesting as zombies. (Well, I clearly do, and it's my blog!) The entry does contain SPOILERS!

Dr. Cary:

Yep, it's Neoplatonist. At least the implicit view of embodiment is: what living human beings really are is corpses moved and governed by souls, so it's sort of accidental whether we breathe, metabolize, and reproduce. By contrast, in an Aristotelian view of embodiment, the soul is the form of a living body, so a body without a metabolism will necessarily be soulless. If it is moved, it will be moved only by external forces like a puppet, and it will not have any sensation, memory, thought or imagination.

Most people, when they first start theorizing about soul and body, come up with some crude form of Platonism, because that's what's built into our inherited soul-body language ever since Plato, including most of mainstream Christianity. But I think the Aristotelian theory, though subtler, actually captures our gut level intuitions better--which explains why the revivified Mrs. Wallston is very creepy indeed.

My problem with the book is that I can't see how any amount of psychotherapy could cure that. So for me the most hideous moment in the book was the conclusion. Dr. Wallston seems to me much more like Dr. Frankenstein than like Orpheus. How do you renew your love life with an animated corpse? I shudder to think.

You can't have the dead back. That's the lesson of the Orpheus myth, as well as of Stephen King's Pet Sematary, one of the few horror novels I've ever read. I don't think fiction gets to cross that line and be convincing. I suppose what this means is: human storytelling has an innate fascination with what it would be like if there was a Gospel of resurrection and eternal life. But the only such story that could carry conviction would be one you could seriously believe is not fiction at all.

Dr. Paffenroth:

Interesting. Perhaps I am more platonist than I let on, because part of the point of the book was that revivification (though the grossly physical Dr Wallston ASSUMES that's where the problem's coming from) really is more incidental to their problems than it turns out. Of course, he's partly and ironically right, in that all their problems stem from some misunderstanding or misuse of physicality - the repeated sexual misconduct of the men in her life. But even that, I would argue, is not finally physical, but about power and trust, so it's not just a matter of him controlling his base urges, it's a matter of him submitting to her and making himself vulnerable to her.

Now, as for having her around at the end, again, maybe it's my own warped outlook, but I don't see their problems as qualitatively different than what any couple faces. Bodies let us touch and be intimate, but they just as often seem to keep us apart. Or so I have felt, once the overwhelming tide of puberty subsided and I stopped thinking all satisfaction could be found with the body.

Now, if I were to brag about the subtlety, I'd say it's between the two women (and odd you've focused on the man, who almost disappears from the story halfway through - I've noticed male readers [including the cover artist] tend to do that, while women readers focus on Catherine): their relationship, and the healing that can come from it, is much more balanced. It seems totally cerebral (reading books all the time), until the very end, when the final encounter between them is very tactile and erotic. Perhaps it's just vestigial embodiment (I like that phrase!), but I don't see the very sexualized motions of Mrs Wallston and the very maternal response of Catherine as false or empty or as lacking something that the "real" touches between "real" people have. Or so I intended it, at least.

Dr. Cary:

Well, yes--isn't that the switch you mentioned in the preface? You start by creeping us out with this reanimated corpse, and then you switch to a narrative of psychotherapeutic healing. And the Platonist part is really the first, not the second.

To go beyond the Platonist stuff is to ask about psychic healing, and what role the body plays in that. And this is indeed a particularly interesting question for women, who are the big advocates and practitioners of what, in evangelical circles, is called "inner healing."

So the body through which everything is seen and experienced and narrated is a live female body that is uncomfortable to be in because men have been such jerks. You establish that about Catherine before she even meets Victoria, and reinforce it in the scene where Dr. Wallston is dressing her in her armor. And both in her relation to Mrs. Wallston and in Mrs. Wallston's own traumatic past, the key transition for the better is when women no longer fear and loathe women's bodies (Catherine no longer has to fear attack by Victoria, and Victoria learns she no longer need to direct her anger toward the warm women of her childhood).

It's just a shame that these lessons only come when Victoria no longer has a warm female body of her own. The opposite side of the creepiness of our initial encounter with her (arising like a hideous pearl out of the tub) is the creepy question: what must it like to BE Victoria, a soul inhabiting her own corpse? What does that feel like?

My own intuitions are: she must surely continue hating her husband for bringing her to this state. And that is hardly conducive to a healing of their relationship. So I'm not convinced that inner healing can happen without restoring a humane relationship with one's own living body. In fact I do worry about the gnostic overtones of the way evangelical Christian women talk about "inner healing," as if their embodiedness and its discomforts (including all those which stem from their fraught relationships with the opposite sex) could be bypassed by a true inward reconciliation.

So the opposite side of the question, "How do you renew your love life with an animated corpse?" is "How can you be healed as an animated corpse?" It seems to me that it's Catherine, not Victoria, who convincingly comes to a healthy relationship with her own embodiment at the end--not by undergoing therapy but by practicing it, and thereby reclaiming her own competence as the active subject of her own body rather than the object of inappropriate male attention. I wonder how much of the attraction of the inner healing movement is for women who, because of their religoius affiliation and its required denials, are not in a good position to honestly reclaim themselves as embodied, competent agents in their own story.

Dr. Paffenroth:

What does it mean to be an animated corpse? Well, from a Buddhist perspective, the first step to enlightenment is realizing that's a fair description of ALL of us. And I don't think I have to endorse that extreme of a statement to understand that realizing that one is not (just) one's body is a big step, an important one.

On the other hand, as you say for these evangelical women, I do worry, lest it lapse into gnosticism, not because I don't like gnosticism, but because it just seems another denial and embarrassment - you've had problems (brought on you by men) with your body? Then just deny that, deep down, you have anything to do with your body! I'd think it preferable to come to a healthy relationship with one's embodied self (and, to be fair, I think that's what Buddhism shoots for, even if some of the beginner's meditations are pretty mortifying).

As for Victoria, I wanted there to be some small collateral upside to being a corpse: she can be as violent as she wants, she can eat and drink all those naughty things, she can finally sit and read. Of course, except maybe for the reading (which she shares with Catherine), all of that probably is just another kind of indulgence. But it does feel good for her, finally, to have some control and not have to be the prim and proper, self-denying wife. My favorite line I've probably ever written is when she says later, however, "It's funny, the things you miss when you're dead." And she's not referring to sexuality (as a man surely would in the same situation, to be honest), but to the ability to weep -- the ability to feel emotions in one's body as well as in one's mind, to let the sobs just hurt one physically, so one can get rid of that pain. And the flipside of that is that she finally learns to laugh again - physically, literally relearning the action of her muscles and breathing, but obviously metaphorically and inwardly as well.


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