Will we not be better off, if we bypass the priest and the therapist,and pray at the altar of the body and stop confusing it?
By Saeed Ur Rehman
All that gazes, seeks rapture in the other, dances, decorates itself to flaunt its untapped vitality, pulsates, throbs, runs in our veins, and yearns for eternity by multiplying itself is confused with one word: love. Love is an effect of biological vitality not its cause. We do not desire another human being because we feel love but rather we humans have assigned taming metaphors to what our flesh induces in us. By assigning abstract concepts to all that is life-giving, we, the metaphysical animals, have created an elaborate prison of metaphors for our healthy bodies.
It was not always like this. Before the arrival of the guilt-producing preacher on the horizon of human societies, the function of religion, as Nietzsche has argued, was to absolve humanity of guilt (see The Genealogy of Morals). It was possible for a human being to yield to his or her bodily urges and lay the blame on Eros. It was monotheism that introduced shame at such a large scale in human societies and produced, by using tricky concepts, the concept of “the original sin.” What were the preachers trying to achieve by labelling the process that keeps the species going and also brought them into existence? It was not their desire for some otherworldly bliss. It was a process of material control.
Many historians and political theorists, for example Friedrich Engels’ arguments in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, have posited that our desires are minutely configured by the political and economic system we inhabit. The institutions that promote celibacy seek to inherit the property undivided, those who promote monogamy want to keep the property within a predicable family system and those who go and seek “ideal life partners” for their offspring are choosing the best exchange value (price) for their material or biological assets. Those who seek control over surplus regulate desire as they regulate raw material and labour. From priests, merchants, demagogues, and politicians, all participate in the taming of the human body because all are afraid of its capacity for seeking unregulated ecstasy and disrupting political systems. Michel Foucault captured this condition of the human body succinctly in his book Discipline and Punish: “the soul is the prison of the body.”
This confusion between the body and its yearnings has produced an endless array of cultural artefacts but no peace. Lovers are in pain because their own imagined soul, or socially produced self, is not in absolute harmony with the constructed self of the other. Even when they are happy physically, they fight over concepts like two animals confused by the availability of language and its never-available yield called the truth. “What is truth but a mobile army of metaphors?” chided Nietzsche but still the body remains trapped in a pursuit of the bliss authorised as the ideal state by the preacher, or in modern times, the psychoanalyst. The result is obvious: human beings are the only species that has ever needed marriage counselling.
This leads us to the crucial question: will we not be better off, if we bypass the priest and the therapist, and pray at the altar of the body and stop confusing it? The moment someone says “yes” to this proposition, a counter argument always constructed like a slipper slope is put forward. What about the risks of uninhibited desire and the maladies of the flesh? Bertrand Russell answered the question in an essay by arguing wherever the preacher inhibits desire there the maladies of flesh because the discussions are not open.
But in essence, this argument is also not against desire per se but certain effects of desire. Even in this domain, philosophers before the rise of monotheisms, provide better guidance. The Epicureans, perhaps the least understood group of ancient philosophers, had figured it right. They argued in favour of enjoyment in such a way that one enjoys for the longest duration. Enjoying one kilogram of sugar in one day will make one sick but eating it in a month can yield decades of sweetness. In other words, outside the confusion caused by metaphors and systems of guilt, a healthy avowal of bodily pleasures is possible and there is no need for our desires to have a label. A house can be lived in whether it has a nameplate on its façade or not.
Some societies have already moved to a guilt-free and label-free acceptance of physical desires. For example, in Scandinavian countries, the confusion-free rituals have also evolved. Two independent adults often rely on the physical attraction and use the minimum number of metaphors. “Your place or mine?” is the usual first question, totally free from the confusion caused by convoluted expressions and misleading expectations. Life can be simple if we return to our original instincts before language confused and enfeebled us, imprisoning us within our own creations.
It is high time we acknowledged the futility and the harm caused by confusing metaphors and the priestly suppression of desire and said amen to the body and took care of it. And if this seems to too much to ask, let individuals decide what is good for them instead of letting the parental authority, the police, the moralisers, and the union councils decide what is good for a human being. Our biological nature, when freed of the linguistic trappings, will look after its own needs and perpetuation in a more effective way. The effect of attraction will be recognised as a healthy sign. According to biologists, natural long-term bonding exists between human beings because of the biological necessity of the long time a newborn human takes in becoming independent. It is the longest period of nurturing required in nature. But that is a biological instinct to nurture one’s own gene pool. It has nothing to do with the culture of shame and denial we have around us but rather with the celebration of what we are.
While choosing between the metaphysical and the carnal, human beings have favoured metaphysics for last two millennia. The era of the carnal has never really been with us in its most life-affirming way. In the second half of the twentieth century, there was a greater affirmation of bodily urges but successive conservative American governments managed to curtail the revolution. After experiencing sensuality in one form, when repression came along, the culture of gourmet food became dominant. The body, after partial retreat in one area of sensuality, asserted itself in another domain. The body is here with us to stay — other things will come and go.
*First Published as “Love is only So Called” in The News.