One of the great conflicts in human existence has been the clash between free will and individual conscience. It is a never-ending battle that often wages in the soul of any conscious human being. When I was 19 the temptations of the flesh nearly overwhelmed me in the Augustinian sense of the word.
Southern author Pat Conroy has the most graphic description of the workings of lust in the mind of an 18-year altar boy at Midnight Mass in 1962, in his autobiographical novel The Great Santini. The contrast between the spirit and the body has never been better described.
When I was about his character’s age, I read a Catholic pamphlet that said that people like me could not wear paper bags over our heads. We had to encounter the world, as it was—sinful, imperfect and filled with the workings of the world, the flesh and the devil.
The Catholic Church has not been very helpful in that regard. The Church was little help in this regard. It only emphasized the negatives. I was to abstain from any impure actions, desires and looks. Prayer seemed to be my only defense…and of course the paper bag.
Yet as I grew older the temptations multiplied as women shed two-thirds of their clothing on the street and virtually all of it on the beach. In denying my body its natural instincts I made it a constant source of temptation, fear and anxiety.
This was years before Saint John Paul II’s revolutionary tract on the Theology of the Body, which in essence taught men how to look at the feminine form…even her nude state with respect, appreciation and even joy. He stressed that nudity in itself was good but stressed the proper context and how it was received by any onlookers.
This was basically the point the priest writing in the pamphlet 50 years ago was making when he suggested that I thank God for making them so beautiful. It took me a long while but eventually I came to adopt this attitude in my thinking.
The human body, especially the female body, has had a variegated place in human history. Each page seemed to have dripped with the sweet apple juice of Eden. Modernism has always had its own concerns for nudity and self-expression that lacked the moral framework of John Paul. It has led to a virtual cult of the body.
On the way to early Mass on any Sunday, I have always marveled how religiously devoted the gaggle of runners, bikers and walkers were, as they plied their energies to stave off the inevitable. I have always wondered if they took as much care and concern for their souls as they did for the bodies.
The body used to be referred to as the temple of the Holy Ghost. Now millions flock to health clubs and spas that have become the new temples for the body. According to one critic, to idolize physical perfection is to treat our body as a god. It is a narcissistic self-love that seems devoid of Divine love.
Attitudes toward the human body involve many other aspects. Where freedom is present, nudity cannot be far behind. It is the nature of things. Personal and social nudity seems to have ubiquitously breached the usual parameters of tradition, culture and modesty.
One place to find a lot of nudity is the notorious California Esalen Spa. In her personal memoir spa specialist, Sharon Thom, wrote in a revealing article, Fig Leaf in the Wind, explaining that the freedom of being nude at their resort was a great leveler.
While some nudity is a given in massage therapy, one therapist in training had to bear all for her instructors and fellow students. It was a valid part of the training. It was the most liberating event in her life. You can’t hide behind clothes anymore, because you don’t have any ON!!
As for sports one might be surprised to learn how many people have reverted back to the Greek Olympics where all their athletes, men and women competed in the nude. Many people currently play tennis, golf, swim, bike and hike without the need for clothing, except maybe a helmet for bikers.
Naturism is the philosophy of living in harmony with nature without any feelings of lust or shame. Nude Beaches and nudist resorts are the most common venues for social nudism. The World Naked Bike Ride is held annually in cities all over the world. America is fast becoming a series of nudist enclaves where people betray an Edenic return to the Garden.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the Burning Man Festival, a postmodern carnival of the absurd where nudity is fully acceptable. The weeklong event is held every year in the Black Rock Desert of Northern Nevada, beginning the Monday before, and ending on, the American Labor Day holiday. And of course, National Nude Day is celebrated every July 14th now.
New York Times theater reviewer Ben Bratley commented a few years ago that full nudity has been a customary part of the mainstream Western theater since the 1960s and ’70s… But I have never been confronted with as many male chests, buttocks and genitalia as I have in visits to Broadway and West End theaters during the last six months.
Probably the most famous play, where famous actresses have bared all on a regular basis, is The Graduate, a play written by Terry Johnson. In the film adaptation, Anne Bancroft played Mrs. Robinson, a middle age woman who seduces the much younger Dustin Hoffman. While Bancroft used a body double for her nude scene in the movie, actresses who played Mrs. Robinson on the stage didn’t have that luxury. Such theatrical luminaries as Linda Gray, Kathleen Turner, Morgan Fairchild, Anne Archer and Lorraine Bracco are among the actresses who have bared all on the live stage.
The only personal experience I have had with nudity on the stage was in 1995 when my wife and another couple saw the Broadway play Indiscretions, starring a frumpy and plump Kathleen Turner. It was based on a farce by French playwright Jean Cocteau. In one scene a young man sits happily in a bath basin soaping himself. A young woman, dressed in what might politely be said to have barely covered some of her Victoria Secrets sauntered down a long and perilously high spiral staircase.
As the tensions in our foursome started to tighten in our second row seats, all I could think was, one of two things was going to happen. She was going slip off her Teddy and get in the tub or he was going to stand up. I am not certain I was relieved or disappointed when the latter happened. I looked at my wife and the other couple who seemed to be staring straight through the moment. I found out later the young actors were Jude Law and Cynthia Nixon.
Performance Art is on the periphery of the increasing nudism in Western culture. These artists often use the human body as live sculpture and even architecture. They range from the esoterically astute Serbian Marina Abramović, who explores the relationship between performer and audience, the limits of the body, and the possibilities of the mind to the mildly deranged Karen Finley whose claim to fame is cavorting on stage in her chocolate covered body.
Abramovic’s latest exhibit was at MoMa in New York City a few years ago where pairs of mixed naked couples, stood facing each other in a narrow doorway. To enter the next room visitors had to squeeze between them.
Ever since Lady Godiva, in the 11th-century, an Anglo-Saxon noblewoman who, according to a legend, rode naked – only covered by her long hair – through the streets of Coventry in order to gain a remission of the oppressive taxation imposed by her husband on his tenants, especially women have used their naked bodies to protest injustices, alleged and sometimes imaginary throughout the world.
Women from the pro-animal PETA in this country to Ukraine’s FEMEN, are baring their breasts and other body parts to raise consciousness toward their respective causes. Recently one of the latter was arrested at the Vatican.
To illustrate how far it has gone, there is no better example than in the recent book, The Seven Deadly Virtues. In the chapter written on Chastity by Matt Labash, he cited an exhibit during the 2000 Republican National Convention where there was a Q&A session with legendary porn actress Nina Hartley. The politically opinionated Hartley held court, wearing nothing but a serious demeanor.
The reaction of the crowd of mostly men was a mixture of boredom, insouciance and polite acceptance. To paraphrase the late Hannah Arndt, American culture suffers from the banality of nudity—over-exposure to the point that God’s greatest creation will lose the human respect it just desserts. While none of the above is overtly immoral, nudity’s ubiquity is our cultural reality. We should all make our moral peace with it, applying the main principles of the Theology of the Body because it is not going away any time soon and there is a shortage of paper bags.