“When did the body first set out on its own adventures? Snowman thinks; after having ditched its old traveling companions, the mind and the soul, for whom it had once been considered a mere corrupt vessel, or else a puppet acting out their dramas for them, or else bad company, leading the other two astray. …
… “But the body had its own cultural forms. It had its own art. Executions were its tragedies, pornography was its romance.”
–Oryx and Crake, pg. 76
Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (which I have not finished yet, please no spoilers!) explores the relationships between body, mind, and soul, grounding the tale of genetic manipulation in more familiar philosophical territory. The titular Crake, at least, is (so far) tied directly to the materialist viewpoint, one I hold near and dear to my heart. What follows is a page of my materialist scrawlings, produced at 2AM after reading the passage above.
The soul is mere mind – it’s the belief that we are better than we actually are, or at least better than some soul-less Other. It’s the conscience, fruitlessly nagging as we “succumb” to something, act in ways beyond our ideals. It is superego, just a culturally-informed information filter.
But if soul is mind, mind is only body. Thought and feeling, intent and guilt, are parts of the brain and nervous system – meat by-products. Every hedonistic call to reject the soul and mind in favor of the body, even temporarily, is misguided. They are of the body, birthed by the body, shaped by the body, and the body itself. Ouroboros.
Execution and pornography aren’t just dark physical doubles of tragedy and romance – they’re inseparable shadows. They are end results, outward manifestations. They are as much a product of mind and soul as of whatever parts of the body could be said to exist outside their domain.
Keeping mind, soul, and body separate is a sad attempt to appeal to intent as a mitigating factor in our own grossness. If our bodies can somehow betray a purer form of ourselves, then we can’t be blamed. At the same time, the mental processes our bodies reflect cannot be entirely dismissed – cause and effect are not meaningfully separable. The reality is so much more complex than we’d care to credit. Our bodies hold within themselves multitudes and contradictions that we may never untangle. To misquote Lyall Watson, if our bodies were simple enough for us to understand them, we would be so simple we couldn’t.
After transcribing that page, I’m struck by how the false dichotomy of the mental/spiritual and the physical is reflected in the false dichotomy of ideas and language. I can’t discuss mind-body unity without referring to them separately. Is this a failure of language, molded by centuries of religious dualist mysticism? Of the culture I’m too steeped in to leave behind? Or is my conception of the problem just too half-baked?
This discussion continues in Characterization of Oryx and the Soul here.