Wednesday, July 13, 2011

On Being Naked

Fire engines and pigeons and rain, wrote Philip Whalen one day. Business as usual. But here is my question: where is the duct tape?

My wallet is falling apart. I’m reluctant to give things up, especially wallets. I get attached. I especially get attached to wallets. They become an appendage. They ride all day in my back pocket. For years. They are homes away from homes. My entire history and identity is contained in my wallet.

Driver’s license, credit cards, library cards, Sound Health & Wellness Trust, Seattle Art Museum, AAA, Elliott Bay Book Card, REI membership card, Amnesty International, Staples, a Metro Card from New York that I saved because of the quote on the back, from Confessions, by Saint Augustine: "Too late I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient and ever new! And, behold, you were within me, and I out of myself, and there I searched for you."

Brandon Downing, Sureshot Coffee, Seattle Wrote, Dark Coast Press, Metro Moggie Cat Sitting. This is my portrait. This is who I am. King County U.S.A. voter. South West Plumbing. Allstate Insurance. Tip Chart. Silver Platters. Gretchen Michels Hair Technician. Social Security. National Waffle Association.

The strangest thing about going naked outdoors, in the woods, at a beach, somebody’s house, is being without one’s wallet. One feels utterly disconnected from one’s social identity. Not having the proper identity can lead to trouble.

Back in the 80s I moved to a different apartment and neglected to get my address changed on my driver’s license. The entry door was shoddily made, a hollow core door that had warped, having a western exposure. You had to push on it several times to make sure it was closed all the way. I was pushing on it one summer afternoon as I was leaving for work and a woman cop spun into the driveway, got out, and asked what I was doing. I told her I was checking to see the door was locked. She asked to see my I.D. I handed her my driver’s license. The address didn’t match. I tried to convince here I actually lived there. She was on the verge of arresting me. Happily, the next door neighbor came out and identified me. Satisfied that I was not a robber, the lady cop cautioned me to get my address changed on my driver’s license, and went on her way.

The duct tape was in the bottom cupboard, on the bottom shelf behind the clothes iron. I wrapped a small piece around the part of my wallet where the leather had split and its engorged contents were spilling out.

A man in Helsinki affirms that the people there do not rely on language as a key to one’s social identity as they do in France, England, and the United States. I disagree. I believe this was true about the United States some thirty or forty years ago, when using big words would identify one as an educated and cultured member of the upper class, despite the actuality of your income. Now it’s all about money. There is no longer any pretense to culture and education. Retail managers have at best a primitive use of the language and frequently misspell and misuse letters in their memos and signs and it does not bother them in the least. One finds typos and poor grammatical construction in newspapers and magazines with disquieting frequency. Nobody seems to mind. Nobody seems to care about language anymore. People no longer pride themselves on their education and command of language. It’s all about money. Look at Sarah Palin.

Age imposes an identity on you. Youth, middle age, old age. When you get old and complain about things you get called a curmudgeon. Your observations are discredited. You say negative things not because your observations are acute or your life experience has empowered your capacity for perception and thought but because you’re old and crabby. Old people crab about things all the time. They have back problems. Arthritis. Envy. Jealousy of the young.

It’s hard to tell people that the planet is dying without being called a curmudgeon. Or wallowing in pessimism porn. Nobody wants to hear that the planet is dying.

And who would? I don’t like to hear that the planet is dying, that by 2050 all marine life in the oceans will be extinct. But that’s what the scientists have been saying. It’s got nothing to do with my age.

Michael McClure writes: WITHIN I FELT REVOLT AND RIPPED MYSELF FROM MYSELF. / I FEEL REVOLT AND RIP MYSELF, til my / eyes spread and my nostrils burn, become the infant / of myself’s desires.

What an astonishing statement. The violence of revolt against the staleness of being comfortable in a single, unchanging identity, a creature of habit, a being cloistered in smug delusions, unable to live fully and broadly, incapable of making a sustained deferment of opinion and judgment, of hatching out of a shell of habit and outlook and exposing the tenderness of one’s authentic being to the actualities and unfiltered sensations of experience. What we desire and what we get are at odds with each other, wrote John Dewey in “Art As Experience.”

One can be naked and yet fully clothed, or fully clothed and naked. Nakedness is a state of mind.

Nakedness is also being fully exposed, without any clothes. Animals are never naked. Or people covered head to toe with tattoos.

We all wear masks. You have to. You cannot hold down a job without presenting a false front to the people you truly despise. Hypocrisy is always a pejorative term. Perhaps it should not be.

Skin is the frontier between our bodies and the external world. But skin is not concrete. It’s an organ in which the outer world is constantly permeating. There is no real division there. We are intimately involved with the world. There is continuous merging. Our experience with the world is like a conversation. There are pauses, inflections, interchange, yet each speaker retains their identity even as they merge their ideas and thoughts with the ideas and thoughts of their partner. Some reach a conclusion and are clothed. Some never reach a conclusion and are eternally, radically naked. There is often a consummation, but no conclusion. No buttons buttoned. No laces tied. No shirt tucked in.

In the morning, when I put my clothes on, there is a weight that is not simply the weight of my clothes, my jeans, the jingle of change in my pocket, the final clasping of my belt has the feel of armor. A psychological armor. Assuming a role. Getting into costume. One almost wishes there were lines already prepared for utterance. A story. A conflict of which one knew its dimensions, the size of its circumference, its pitfalls and mines, its weak points and strong points. But there are no lines. Costume, sure. Lines, never. You do that yourself. Compose yourself as you go along. Try to get it right.

At night, when I take my clothes off, I usually start with my pants, let them drop, wrestle my legs out, then unbutton my shirt, toss it on the couch. It feels great. I love that feeling. Love being rid of all that appurtenance. And then there is the final undressing, which is letting go of consciousness, and going to sleep, and sliding into oblivion.

The night is itself an undressing. The world takes off its sky and exposes itself to the stars. Then morning comes with a fresh set of circumstances and errands. Vestments of the new day. Rain on the hydrangeas. Delicious warmth of mid July. Fire engine siren. Car honk. Rise and fall of a cat breathing slowly on a pillow. Smell and taste of coffee. Doors slammed. Ladders raised. Ambitions pursued.

The ultimate wig and chemise is desire. Those are the boots we walk in. Desire. Black, shiny desire. Yearning. Hunger. Revenge.

Some wear uniforms. Some go with cotton and rayon. Some with silk and denim. But it all comes down to finding warmth and protection among the thorns of daily existence. Perception, says McClure, is a shape of the darkness seeing itself.

The softness of human skin is shocking in its vulnerability. Which is why sociopaths seem reptilian. And strippers appear Circean, turning men to pigs.

Desire is clothing. Nakedness is that place beyond death where the dawn sleeps and protons glimmer in and out of emptiness.

Even the president of the United States, sang Mr. Dylan, must sometimes have to stand naked.


David Grove said...

From Class, by Paul Fussell, '84--

DeTocqueville overestimated the leveling force on language of "democracy," and imagined that this new kind of political organization would largely efface social distinctions in language and verbal style. Looking about him at mid-nineteenth-century America, he thought he heard everyone using the same words, and conceived that the line was ceasing to be drawn "between...expressions which seem by their very nature vulgar and others which appear to be refined." He concluded that "there is as much confusion in language as there is in society." But developments on this continent have proved him wrong about both language and democratic society. Actually, just BECAUSE the country's a democracy, class distinctions have developed with greater rigor than elsewhere, and language, far from coalescing into one great central mass without social distinctions, has developed even more egregious class signals than anyone could have expected. There's really no confusion in either language or society, as ordinary people here are quite aware. Interviewed by sociologists, they indicate that speech is the main way they estimate a stranger's social class when they first encounter him. "Really," says one deponent, "the first time a person opens his mouth, you can tell."

Anonymous said...

I wonder if Fussell might have had occasion to change his opinion 20 years down the line. Times have grown so much more crass in the last 20 years. I will say this: Obama's eloquence gave me cause for hope after Bush. I equated intelligence and eduation with benign and intelligent government policy. I was sure wrong about that. --- John

David Grove said...

You’re quite right about the coarsening of public discourse and the spreading of illiteracy and aliteracy. I’m sure Fussell would agree with you. I suspect he’d put this indifference to—no, contempt for—language down to what he calls “Prole Drift”: “the tendency in advanced industrialized societies for everything to become proletarianized.” Here are some of the symptoms of Prole Drift he describes: bad writing in formerly literate periodicals (e.g., the London Times Literary Supplement), stupid films, stupid Broadway musicals, “special orders” at bookstores, long queues at cash registers, “self-service,” the boxiness of all post-WWII architecture, flavorless American beer, and the disappearance of civilized touches everywhere.
He’s particularly mordant when revealing the “egregious class signals” in middle-class language: the addiction to clich√©, euphemism, and pretentious phrases; the mispronunciations and malapropisms that middle-class people blunder into when they affect elegant diction. He attributes trouble with punctuation and grammar to proles. But as you say, “Nobody seems to care about language anymore.” These days, people you’d consider a cut or two above blue-collar socially can’t be expected to use apostrophes correctly or know the difference between lay and lie.

Anonymous said...

That's a remarkably accurate description of cultural devolutiion. I'm going to go out on a limb and declare that the value of money is linked to cultural value, which would include language and other matters of quality, such as art. When quantity supersedes quality, hyperinflation is not far behind. -- John

Anonymous said...

No doubt expensive wars, inflation, unemployment, and general economic decline affect cultural value. People get hobnail-booted a few rungs down the class ladder. The pyramid gets shorter and broader based. Spending power concentrates in an augmenting lower class with a wretched public-school education; therefore, culture has to sink to accomodate the coarse tastes of the lower class.--David

Anonymous said...

It's a chicken or the egg conundrum. Do wars and other attendant social ills and dysfunctionality arise out of cultural decay, or does cultural decay lead to war and torture and the abuse of human rights. If the latter, how does it begin? Too much affluence? Complacency? Chauvinistic swaggering? History shows that fascism generally arises out of economic and cultural despair, à la the Third Reich. The worrisome appearance of freaks such as Paul Ryan, Eric Cantor and Michelle Bachmann on the political scene, and the acquisition of political power by a fringe of extreme right wackos, also tends to support the former model. -- John

Anonymous said...

Yeah, cause and effect may be inextricable. War, torture, and abuse of human rights probably exacerbate an economic and cultural malaise in which people--especially those ignorant of history--grow more credulous of the saber-rattling, flag-waving, and Bible-thumping of extreme right authoritarians who promise to restore the country to its former greatness with, among other things, more war, more torture, more abuse of human rights. And all that with the approval of our conscience, because "God's on our side." (Mr. Dylan again.)

By the way, I hope you're particularly proud of this post. It's very strong.


Anonymous said...

Thank you,David. I guess I have a natural affinity to nudity.

1980 was a key year. That's when the national Zeitgeist changed radically, with results that became sadly visible almost immediately, with a population of homeless people who were neither hippies nor alocholics. Rise in greed narratives, such as Wall Street, giving a green light to capitalistic predation, Studio 54 with its policy of exlusion, obsession with celebrity status, and so on. I continue to find that change puzzling. One healthy sign is the continuing fascination, particularly among the young, with Beat culture, Kerouac's On The Road, and Dharma Bum ethos.