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Posted on: Sunday, March 22, 2020

[Note: I'm taking a break from the monthly blog for the moment, in order to revise and improve! Many thanks for reading up to now. Stay safe during this difficult period. Máighréad, April 2020.]

The body is enough. This is one of the principle cultural messages of the past century and it has allowed many people to live more comfortably and with more freedom of behaviour (notwithstanding extraordinary crises). The displacement of religion by science has meant that respect only means itself. I only mean what I manifest.

Abdelwahab Bouhdiba wrote Sexuality in Islam in French in 1974 and it was translated into English in 2004. I find it a fascinating, scholarly, illuminating book and these comments are made with all due respect. The writer says that he offers no final hypotheses, which is probably why, in his Conclusion, he moves among contradictory observations. On the one hand, he supports the freedom of women to personal autonomy and the rearrangement of the Arab psyche in relation to attachment and sexual union; on the other, there’s a desire to preserve the sacralising mystification of sexuality which offered comprehensive rituals of the body and what he conveys as a rich sense of meaning.(1)

Something was there where there had been nothing.
Or should I say, nothing was there
but it had been defiled by questions—

– Louise Glück(2)

It seems sensible and important to integrate not eviscerate the past, but it seems to me that the word “sacralise” or “sacred” is only an accommodation, a trinket that hides a stubborn power hierarchy. We have exchanged conceptual hierarchies by speaking now of personal autonomy instead of inspiration or prayerfulness. Whether one is more valuable than the other is a matter not just of epistemological domains but of lived efficacy.

There are no windows. The body is the soul.
The soul is the wave that sings the sea.

I can read bodies, but I find no plot.
They advance and retreat. They burn and cool.

I do what is orderly. I am a creature of squares.
Rooted in a safe garden, I am not afraid of the sky.
The world is beautiful, people beautiful over the hedge.

– Máighréad Medbh(3)

Scientists tell us that the human is programmed to locate outside phenomena in relation to possible threat or advantage. The context defines the nature of what is to be protected—community, physical safety, food, status . . . This, I think, is where God comes in. Like “Love,” like “I,” the word is small enough to be adaptable. There’s no meaning in the word—add your own. The fact is in the topping. The truth is in the routine or repetition that becomes “I” around the monolith you love or won’t migrate from.

                And so we make our           lives           by what we love

– John Cage(4)

It's not only on the level of utility that, according to Bouhdiba’s account, the complex Islamic structure of physical attention, care, and exaltation of sense experience was developed, but on the level of sustainable reverence--towards ultimate unification with community and deity.

An author who deals with questions of eroticism, perfumery, hygiene and beauty has no reason to blush, therefore, when approaching questions that are neither more nor less noble than grammar, prosody, canon law or history.

– Abdelwahab Bouhdiba(5)

I love this philosophy. But it’s only as pleasurable as its supporting system. I agree that over-exposure, “de-sacralisation,” leaves a scorched landscape, but it’s not fallow. We re-populate it with different manners, styles, structures. The best may not be the most popular, but one is often subtly enabled by the other. Secrecy and privilege are close neighbours.

Structure          without life          is dead.           But Life               without
structure               is un-seen          .

– John Cage(6)

(I’m making a very clumsy effort to indicate that the author used a four-measure musical line.)

John Cage’s “nothing,” like Buddhist emptiness, like Das Ding, may not have a name, but at some level it is body. He repeats the word “pleasure” several times in his ‘Lecture on Nothing’; it seems a measure of value. Cage used chance operations to determine the structure of his works, with the aim of removing the influence of conscious purpose or sentiment. There is choice, love, in the acquisition of the skill; choice in the decision to use chance operations (mostly the I Ching); after that the structure informs the work and there’s no attempt at a statement or a particular kind of beauty.

Je ne sais pas c’qui m’quoi.
(I don’t know what thinks me.)

– Bernard Réquichot(7)

Roland Barthes describes Réquichot’s paintings as pure body—internal, dark entities:

. . . what appears is a violent ectoplasm as a result of the confrontation between the white canvas and the black of closed eyes.

Réquichot called this the meta-mental—the body without opposition [i.e. from the theological notion of a soul].

I want to live with the meta-mental. Body is enough. It will be my enough. Nothing else occurs quite as much. It doesn’t preclude imagining, response, the feeling of the notion of beauty, but it precludes finality. I might call that immortality. Scientists methodically call it alteration. 
(1) Sexuality in Islam. Translated by Alan Sheridan. London: Saqi, 2012.
(2) From ‘Faithful and Virtuous Night,’ in Faithful and Virtuous Night, Manchester: Carcanet, 2014.
(3) From ‘Nothing.” Sequence in process.
(4) From “Lecture on Nothing.” In Silence. Wesleyan University Press, 1961, 114
(5) Cit., 140.
(6) Cit., 113.
(7) Quoted in Roland Barthes, “Réquichot and his Forms,” in The Responsibility of Forms. Translated from the French by Richard Howard. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985, 206 ff.


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