Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Body Lines

I once overheard a woman crying in a crowded cafe. Something about the texture of her sorrow chilled me inside and out. I remember being physically cold the rest of the evening, unable to get warm despite my piling on of layers. Her voice was filled with horror and regret.

I listened as she told the story of her love affair.

The first morning I awoke in his arms, I pretended to sleep. I silently watched his body lengthen and slide out of the bed we had shared. He, facing away, body unveiled, stretching his arms to the sky, bending them at the wrist. And then he bent forward at the waist and I saw them. I saw the lines on his body. I had never seen anything like them--countless raised, dark lines, stretchmarks of some sort, wrapping themselves around his lower back like rings in the center of a tree trunk. I was terrified by their undulating pattern. But he was flawed, and it made me care for him. If only I had read those lines more closely...if only I had read the history of his body and soul in those lines. If only I had seen the darkness and duplicity hidden between them. If only I had read his body. I would have known that I could never love him.

She made me nervous, this woman, her sorrow and story tinged with a flair for the dramatic. But I was cold all night. And later that same night, I stared at my own body in the mirror and wondered what it had to say, what was worth reading. There isn't an answer. Perhaps what we read into the external surface of the body is just an attempt see ourselves and others according to our own desires.

But I can't help but wonder whether, sometimes, the light or darkness that is part of a man's soul becomes so intense that it begins to seep through his skin, revealing the secrets of his story to those who care to read carefully enough. Today in my Jewish American Fiction class, I told my students about Saul Bellow's tendency to create heavily detailed physical descriptions of his characters--descriptions that are often symbolic of what lies beneath the surface of their fictional skin. Perhaps his impulse is more than a literary device.


David Suissa said...

I once heard a kabbalist say that at the age of 50 a man gets the face he deserves. All of your life's decisions coagulate onto your naked face and it becomes impossible to hide the kind of life you've led or the kind of person you are.
Your face becomes your confession.

Monica said...

David, I absolutely love this idea: "Your face becomes your confession." And, of course, it's so Levinasian ("...the face speaks"). You're going to have to tell me more about this...

Casey said...

Don't forget Camus: "Alas, after a certain age every man is responsible for his face."

Kevin said...

"After 40, every man is responsible for his own face" --Abe Lincoln

And his face is one of my favorites.
Agree with your post and David mostly--though, with there are of course outliers...always a few Dorian Grays...

A consensus here? i.e. That, physically speaking, youth lies? Seems right. Only approaching middle age is the body generally honest--perhaps b/c a body gives itself away less by its properties than its motions; thus the 'after 40/50...' requirement'. Flesh is a resistant medium. Only after one's most-repeated physical motions have been recorded in/by flesh does one's flesh become a reliable witness to the character of its owner. Where flesh is the medium, it takes time for the will to leave a wake.

Also, youth, it seems to me, gives one no context, without which one cannot gather the full meaning of any particular expression. (True of language, and true of body language.) By contrast, once older, one's face expresses not merely the motions of the present moment, but of one's past--the face is then something capable of a wider range of meanings--arises within a socity of meanings--each particular expression has its significance against the backdrop of a history, a culture, made up of all one's previous selves--gains the depth and dignity of being an expression in the context of a tradition. And this enriches the meaning of any given expression, and makes an older face a superior medium for meaning.

Though honestly, Lincoln's face looks to me like a map of the suffering, not of a man, but of the world...hard to look at, can't look away.

Rambled. Don't drink and blog. Thanks for provoking these thoughts, Monica.