The Weird Intellectual Distaste for the Flesh

The "earthy" jokes between the Amish at the
beginning of Witness would have been far more
typical of Puritans than the usual cliched image.
It is typical, especially in Western culture, to blame religion for theologically besmirching the physical experience. And if not religion, then the Victorians. (Sometimes the Puritans--although Puritans in general belong to the rather bawdy, intensely physical mindset of the 18th century.)

Regarding religion, Christianity is usually the culprit, specifically the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages--even though theological caviling regarding the body was a direct compromise not with orthodoxy but with the truly wacky Gnostic ideas floating around Christendom at the time.

Which brings me directly to my point: religious caviling, I understand. What amazes me is how often academic, ivory-tower intellectuals have even more fuddy-duddy "eww gross" attitudes towards physical realities than the religions they blame. 

Joseph Campbell is a case in point.

I greatly admire Joseph Campbell. I am immensely grateful for his work that brought mythology and the influence of mythology on popular culture back into the public arena. Unfortunately, he is also a prime example of the ivory-tower intellectual's attitude towards the physical.

I recently took out the DVD of Campbell's talks with Bill Moyers. The first conversation is remarkable, very interesting. Campbell exudes a generous, inclusive attitude towards the world's religions or "mythoi."

Things go downhill from there. Campbell starts the next conversation by belittling all Christianity for its negative attitudes towards the body (he does this in part by adopting a thoroughly Americanized--non-messy, intellectual--view of Asian religions).

Moyers is clearly surprised--he continually tries to pull Campbell back to some of the more tolerant statements our widely read professor made in the prior interview about the purpose of a "mythos" (any mythos) in an individual's life. To a series of questions from Moyers ("Okay, then where does this lead us?" or "leave us?"), Campbell then states emphatically (without realizing that he is contradicting himself) that nothing about religion is supposed to be LITERAL. (It isn't about, for example, a LITERAL resurrection.) It's all about the metaphor: what "it" means to us at the abstract level. THAT'S transcendence.

As my progenitors thought,
"Let's go into the desert--and BUILD something!"
And he sticks to this--despite the fact that many, many religions translate their theology into some kind of physical reality, whether it be how people dress or what they eat or pioneering one's way across the Rockies ("walked and walked and walked and walked"). Campbell singlehandedly decides to throw it all out. In his view, it's okay to start one's spiritual journey in the physical--but in the end, all that physical stuff is so much dross. (I'm not exaggerating; his tone is positively irate; he was ill with cancer at this point in his life; still, his attitude is a radical departure from the first interview.)

So much distaste for physical realities reminds me of the famous line in Paul's letters when, after hanging out with a bunch of intellectuals, he states that the concept of a literal resurrection will always be a "stumbling block" to this type of thinker.

Since this blog focuses on popular culture, I will be concentrating on that, not theology. And my conviction re: popular culture and the body is that academics such as Campbell only tolerate it to a point. That point, as Barthes points out, is where raunchy, bawdy physical humor meets Paul's stumbling block. The physical as a jolly, positive, enlivening reality* is almost too much for these intellectual types to bear. It MUST mean something else. It MUST be a metaphor. It MUST refer to the ideas we develop as we strive for the ineffable, right before we turn into atoms or light or something intangible.

As Cordelia in Angel would say: "Boring!" 

This distaste for the physical is not the same as Augustine fretting over sex: "God, give me chastity and continence. But not yet." It is not the stigma of bastardy in the 18th and 19th centuries. It isn't even Victorian polygamists struggling between their Victorianism and their leader's instruction.

This is Gnosticism, a denial that the flesh is even a consideration. Oh, Jesus didn't have a body; it was a spiritual manifestation of his aura or other self that died on the cross. (I'm not making this theory up.)

Gnosticism is sort of understandable when one considers its context, the Ancient World and Middle Ages: unsettling ideas about bathing (it will kill you!), stupid ideas about hygiene, lots and lots of death. The denial--Hey, we are not even really here!--is somewhat comprehensible.

Don't get me wrong: I LOVE Star Trek. And this
episode about John Doe is pretty interesting.
But he turns into energy at the end. Yawn.
But now-a-days? Western scholars who, on average, live middle-class lives with plenty of bathing, hygiene, and visits to the doctor? Why are these intellectuals denying the reality of the flesh now?

From a popular culture standpoint, it is also lame (even when Star Trek does it). Because grappling with a potential physical afterlife or, to keep this in the realm of science-fiction, physical transcendence is way more mind-blowing than dealing with a concept of transcendence that is all fuzzy and abstract.

Granted, I tend not to agree with people who propound a vision of the afterlife which is no different from mortality, but I put down our disagreement to differing imaginations. And it's still better that some flaky, intellectual, starring-at-one's naval view of transcendence. Reality usually is.

*As I state in my comment on the post Defending Agatha Christie, Part 1, C.S. Lewis pointed out that ivory-tower, intellectual critics will often embrace a book with a despairing or sad ending as "real life" while rejecting a book with an optimistic, happy ending as pollyannaish, unrealistic, wistful thinking. Yet both reactions are based on emotional, subjective responses to events, not objective ones. Why should the first set of emotions be more "true" than the second?

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