I was twelve or thirteen, sitting in a field overgrown with vetch and sweetpeas and lupines, when I read this passage for the first time:
Yossarian had so many ailments to be afraid of that he was sometimes tempted to turn himself in to the hospital for good and spend the rest of his life stretched out there inside an oxygen tent with a battery of specialists and nurses seated at one side of his bed twenty-four hours a day waiting for something to go wrong and at least one surgeon with a knife poised at the other, ready to jump forward and begin cutting away the moment it became necessary…. He wondered often how he would ever recognize the first chill, flush, twinge, ache, belch, sneeze, stain, lethargy, vocal slip, loss of balance or lapse of memory that would signal the inevitable beginning of the inevitable end.
I got up and pelted home, in absolute terror of the understanding that my life hung by the thread of my chubby, runny-nosed body. A bee sting, a spreading freckle, and it could all be over before it even began.
In 1961, when Catch-22 was published, Cartesian dualism was still the dominant schema for explaining how our minds inhabited our bodies. Your mind—your real self—was somehow in your body but not completely of your body. You sat in a control room in your brain and operated the flesh machine, pushing buttons and swinging levers to propel your ideas out into the world. Yossarian’s fear is that of a person in a state of siege, trapped in a high tower watching the horizon for barbarian hordes. In some ways, this is the default literary stance: literature is fundamentally an expression of our collective fear of death and the struggle to express, realize, and preserve individual identity. Books are about saving us from our bodies.
There is, however, a recent vogue for non-fiction books by women and men trying to write their way back into their bodies. Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, is an example of the physical-journey-as-psychological-transformation genre, and The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch offers sex-is-the-way-to-the-self confessionalism. Weight loss memoirs like Frank Bruni’s Born Round discuss the eating-your-emotions hazard. For Yossarian, World War II, with its threat of violent mass annihilation, helps shape his fear of his body; in our time, however, what threatens to divorce us from ourselves is more often internal. Middle-class North Americans live in a luxurious state of relative freedom from violence and hunger, and we spend more and more time in virtual realities. If we weren’t also obsessed with what we look like, there would be little to remind us that we have bodies at all.
Eve Ensler has made a life’s work of insisting on the primacy of the body. One of the recurring themes of The Vagina Monologues, which she released in 1996, was women’s sense of alienation from their vaginas, once a body part you weren’t supposed to look at, touch, or talk about. Writers like Yuknavitch and Toni Bentley (author of the anal sex memoir The Surrender) owe Ensler a debt, since her activist approach (The Vagina Monologues gave rise to V-Day, an annual day of action to protest violence against women) stretched audiences to accept frank non-fiction accounts of personal sexuality.
It’s ironic, then, that Ensler’s latest book finds her struggling to locate herself in her body, just as much as the rest of us, if not more. The stubborn mind/body dichotomy still clings like a 16th-century burr. In the Body of the World is about Ensler’s diagnosis with uterine cancer at 57, and also about her work with Congolese women who have had their bodies destroyed by rape as a weapon of war. The body is a site of horror, pain, and death. A victim of childhood sexual abuse, Ensler writes, “I have been exiled from my body…I have been afraid of trees. I have felt the Earth as my enemy.” The body is the home to which Ensler longs to be returned. Or, more precisely, it’s the home she’s always lived in, but as a renter—a place that has never quite felt like her own, but, paradoxically, a place she can’t escape.
There’s a reason why Cartesian dualism doesn’t quite fit our lived reality: our bodies are part of our minds, and direct our thinking more than we realize. Recent neuroscience suggests that our thoughts, rather than being localized in the brain and directing the body from there, depend on the body for their initial formulation. Mirror neurons help us understand the actions of others, and the way they work is grounded in physical movements; our ability to grasp other people’s intentions and emotions is therefore based on remembered motor experience. When you read Ensler’s account of women being raped, the involuntary muscle twitches you experience are part of your mind making sense of what you’re reading.