September 25, 2018

Matthew Tan: Soulless incisions in the frantic pursuit of ‘now’

A still from Spanish film ‘The Skin I Live In’ (La Piel Que Habito).

The 2011 Spanish thriller The Skin I Live In (La Piel Que Habito), starring Antonio Banderas, begins with Banderas’ character, a surgeon named Robert Ledgard, inventing a revolutionary burn-resistant artificial skin. As the film progresses, however, it becomes apparent that the acts of plastic surgery that drive the invention of this skin are driven by an attempt by Robert to either bury or immortalise a series of very dark, tragic and potentially incriminating moments from his past which include, among other things, illegal experimentation on human specimens. This new synthetic skin has, for Robert, become a symbol for a new life free from the shackles of his brutal past.

The film is interesting not only because of its contribution to a sub-genre of horror movies which combine a relatively bloodless horror with the sanitary, clinical world of “sci-fi”. It is also interesting because it plays out a link made between the body and memory. Bodies are not just flesh but also living deposits of memory. With every move and interaction, a body is accumulating memories, such that a movement can involuntarily trigger a memory even before the mind is aware of it.

A person’s quintessentially embodied experience of his environment is guaranteed to bring up memories – sometimes happy, sometimes painful – in ways and moments that will surprise and often dismay. These memories can be conjured up by the most mundane sights and sounds, be it a cafe table, a wrong turn down an arcade, the sound of a bird or a taste of a particular dish (the author Marcel Proust spoke of memories being triggered by Madeleine biscuits in his In Search of Lost Time).

This is so because the body has deeply embedded imprints of experiences that are more visceral and more enduring than the memories that reside in one’s mind. As a result, much as we would like to “take our mind off things”, the things in our environment that the body experiences will often trigger a memory that the mind may have conveniently forgotten.

If bodies are a site wherein memories can be imprinted then we should not be surprised that within postmodernity, a culture that tries to expunge memory in order to live in the “now”, one of the most democratised services on offer is plastic surgery. This is the case because plastic surgery’s selling point is not merely the enhancement of beauty. As both The Skin I Live In and a host of anecdotal evidence from patrons suggests, the popularity of plastic surgery also comes from its narrative of constant reinvention of self. With this reinvention comes the promise of liberation from one’s bonds to unpleasant memories that the body, albeit implicitly, declares and makes public.

What makes this fairy-tale sell is the fact that it rests on an epistemological truth: that we know things not just with our minds but with our bodies as well. Thomas Aquinas goes further in his Summa Theologiae, saying there that the movements of the body also implicate the movements of the soul.

However, the industry, which thrives on making many excisions of the old body as a step towards the new (for profit), distorts this truth by having customers believe that the unpleasurable memories that result from the exigencies of urban life can be conveniently cast aside as the pieces of skin that are removed by the surgeon’s blade and dumped as so-much biological waste, therefore providing a tabula rasa on which the imprinting of new memories could begin.

The industry seems to be cashing in on a mutated version of Thomas’ link between body and soul, a half-truth that acknowledges the link between body and soul. However, as the philosopher and commercial consultant Herve Juvin remarked in his book The Coming of the Body, the practice of plastic surgery and other cosmetic practices presumes that the location of one’s soul is on the surface of one’s skin.

Any self-respecting Thomist would tell you that the soul is located someplace more profound than the surface of a person’s skin. To any Thomist, the fairy-tales of convenient memory reassignment with a surgical procedure would rightly ring hollow. But given the loss of even the most basic philosophical knowledge within postmodernity, the person as consumer in late-capitalism will often fall victim to the massive story-peddling capacities of big business, who in turn are more than willing to cash in on our need for a good story to reframe our experiences and memories.

Having said that, it would take more than a program in philosophy to counter the toxicity of many of the practices of postmodern culture. As mentioned earlier, these practices build their credibility not only on the ignorance of their customers, but also on the partial truth that in our bodies move also nothing more profound than our very souls. This, then, gives a new inflection to the Catholic cliché of “offering things up”. Part of the Christian call to “take up one’s cross” thus will involve taking up one’s memories imprinted within the body in a liturgical fashion. In so doing, the bearing of memory can be a concrete way to be what Paul calls the offering of one’s body as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1).

In so offering our bodies, however, we do so in the knowledge of that title given to the Incarnate Word by the early Church Fathers such as St Ignatius of Antioch. This title is that of Jesus Christ as the divine physician. He is also the divine surgeon because, as the Word, Jesus is what the scriptures called a “two edged sword” that cuts through the dross of our lives when we surrender our whole selves to his custody.

At His table, the divine Word undergoes His own engineering of our very selves to make them divine reflections of the God who created us, excising what is not of God, and grafting on what is of God. But this divine scalpel is not a blade which rips and tears. This scalpel comes to us in Liturgy and Sacrament. Every time we go to confession, to a Eucharist, embrace our spouse. Every time we undertake the works of mercy, we submit ourselves to the scalpel of the divine surgeon, sculpting not a better body of our own making, but a sculpting in our very person a better reflection of the beauty of the Lord.

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