Saturday, February 26, 2011

Some Thoughts on Souls

The awakened and knowing say: body I am entirely, and nothing else—and the soul is just a word for something about the body.

The first time I encountered Nietzsche was in this quote, printed as a chapter heading to an anorexia memoir I read when I was 13. I was instantly smitten.

Years later, I’ve still never read the quote in its original context, so forgive me if I’m missing something, but here’s how I read it: The body is limited, yet vast. It’s all that I am entirely, and in case that wasn’t clear: and nothing else. And the soul? Just a word. It makes me think of another beloved quote, this one from Frida Kahlo: “I hope the exit is joyful, and I hope I never come back.” What devotion! What bravery!

It’s possible that the memoirist meant the Nietzsche quote to be a bitter reminder of the warped anorexic reality where body is everything—but I don’t think so. I think she saw in it what I did: a beautiful idea, made even more beautiful for its terrifying consequences.

So for a while, I was very anti-soul: souls are for pussies, I thought. For people who need to believe in something that lives behind and beyond the body—something without the cumbersome limitations of weight and mortality, that goes on forever without memory or desire. I don’t want to live like that: with a body as mere baggage. I prefer a body that I inhabit fully, even if it means I have nothing left when it’s all over.

I remember that the New York Times criticized the memoir for being too bleak, for not offering enough hope. And it wasn’t really offering hope—it was offering reality, which in this case meant exquisitely rendered suffering. But I didn’t find her story bleak, and I don’t find the idea of a soulless body bleak either. Of course, when I think too hard about death, I end up with the same existential nausea as everyone else. But there’s something exciting about embracing that emptiness, so I take my stand with Frida and with Friedrich.

But something I heard on NPR the other day made me reconsider my reading of the word soul. They were interviewing an expert on aging. She said that when people get older, they don’t change—they become more of what they are. If you’re wise at 27, you’ll be wiser at 97. And if you’re a bitter young man, you’ll be a bitter old one, too.

That resonated. I thought of a body drying out as it aged, losing the lubrication of youth and becoming not just more wrinkled, but more saturated. Tasting more strongly of itself.

And I thought of my friend Lexi, an artist in New York who I’ve known since kindergarten. Everything about her shares some common thread of Lexiness. I recognize it in her work, her handwriting, her voice, her walk, in every room she’s lived in, and it hasn’t changed in the 20 years I’ve known her.

People do change. They grow up, get religion, get jaded, get married. But there’s also something that doesn’t change, and personality isn’t a strong enough word to describe it. It’s more physical than that.

What is the thing that doesn't change? Looking back to the Nietzsche quote, I see now that it’s not dismissing the soul so much as offering a different way to use the word. Instead of the soul being a life raft to something beyond the body, it’s a word for something of the body. What about the body? The way it coheres.