or, A Moral Map of the Human Form, As Told to a Churched Girl
c. 1400, “physical, human, mortal,” from Old French carnal and directly from Latin carnalis “fleshly, of the flesh,” from carnis “of the flesh,” genitive of caro “flesh, meat,” “flesh,” originally “a piece of flesh,” from PIE root *sker- (1) “to cut.”
Meaning “sensual, pertaining to the passions and appetites of the flesh” is from early 15c.; that of “worldly, sinful, not spiritual” is from mid-15c. Carnal knowledge “sexual intercourse” is attested from early 15c. and was in legal use by 1680s. Medieval Latin carnalis meant “natural, of the same blood,” a sense sometimes found in Middle English carnal.
Eyes & Hands:
You are seven. You already know how bodies can interlock. You also know, and not just because of some kid’s crayon drawings over the groin of the prince in the library book, how disruptive they can be. It’s like you’re living in the board game Operation, and places outlined in neon red will set off an alarm if you touch them.
In 17th-century author John Bunyan’s allegorical book The Holy War, the Eye-Gate is the name of the primary entrypoint to the city of *cough cough* Mansoul. The things that entered through this gate were usually corruptive. Listening to the audio version on a crackly cassette tape for hours on the drive to church, you begin to see your body, too, as a besieged city, and your eyes as defective toll booths. It was your eyes, after all, that stared long and hard at the nude poster on the garage wall at the neighbors’, a figure as enticing as a glazed donut. It was the hands of the neighbor boys that searched you for what didn’t yet exist. Things happen that may or may not be related: two-pieces are no longer allowed when swimming at the local pool; you’re pulled from tap dance lessons; and your entire Barbie doll collection is trundled off, half dressed, never to be seen again. In the stack of Taschen art books on the coffee table, little black squares of construction paper appear taped over hips and sternums. It was like Michelangelo’s sinewy seraphim and Botticelli’s tangled lovers were inviting you to peek behind small curtains. So you did. Your mother hadn’t wanted to ruin all those expensive art books, but you’d left her with no choice. She stayed up for the majority of the night with a Sharpie, her fingers black in the morning, her eyes triumphant.
Shoulders & Ankles:
You are fourteen. Shopping for clothes means picking your way across a dead field laced with tripwires. Because the men at church cannot help themselves, cannot steer their prefrontal cortexes, you must do their work for them each Sunday. The more pucker-sleeved and ferociously-shapeless the better. But it is 2005 and you pine for a spaghetti strap Esprit dress. Even shoes with ankle straps are prohibited. You learn through paperback books and women’s conferences on modesty and the whispers of the deacon’s bone-faced wife that shoulders were used by Salome to turn men’s hearts against God, that they are temptingly connected to necks, to collarbones, to breasts, to wanton things. You can picture Rembrandt’s Susanna and the Elders from the censored art books, the only painting not marked in black because technically, she is clutching at her body in alarm, acting as her own fig leaf. She reminds you of the figures on magazines your mother hissed over and turned around in the checkout line. God called the bodies he made good. They were the apotheosis of his creation. But bodies aren’t simply “good.” Just ask the pastors who dreaded preaching from Song of Solomon chapter 7 and it’s free-verse erotica:
How beautiful are your feet in sandals,
O noble daughter!
Your rounded thighs are like jewels,
the work of a master hand.
2 Your navel is a rounded bowl
that never lacks mixed wine.
You read this passage over and over, reveling in its joyful meter, resentful that the sermons always end in some tight-lipped mandate that this passage is reserved for the marriage bed only. You finger the button at your throat.
Pelvis & Thighs:
You are twenty-eight and living alone in New York City, three-thousand miles from the place you were raised, and every week you go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to sketch the remains of naked bodies. In most cases, they are missing phalluses, heads, and feet. You lose track of time marveling at the symmetry and softness and hilarity that you could not look at before. Nobody rushes in with yards of rough fabric and a letter of excommunication. It’s just you and the light and the lead dissolving into muscle, darker here and lighter there. You’ve always loved to draw just as you’ve always loved to be touched. You buy oil pastels and paints and try your hand at bowls of stone fruit and demure figures in chairs. When it was first unveiled in the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment was recriminated as gay bathhouse decor. Shortly after the artist died, a painter was hired to cover the buttocks of his floating nudes with “decent” draperies. Many of these remain — the Vatican has not allowed modern restorers to remove them. In communion, for years, you would put a bite of stale bread or a piece of a Saltine in your mouth to the words “This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me.” But one day, you can no longer swallow Christ’s body. Instead, you paint, sitting in pools of sunlight on your bare skin, listening to Nina Simone. A new liturgy.
Breasts & Mouth
She’s the only naked body in the room, breasts pendulous, thighs touching, then diverging towards the knee where her left leg juts out, the foot turned slightly in, as if she is unaware of the twelve pairs of eyes on her. There is vulnerability here. The hand resting along her ample hip. The slight slump of her shoulder. You stare for so long, you half-wonder if she’s a statue. But no, she just licked her lips, cleared her throat, cracked the knuckle of her right index finger. To the horror of every one of your pastors, if they could see you now, you paint in studios with paint-splattered easels where live models without a shred of clothing stand so close you can see their pulses. There is an embedded terror at first, like you’re getting away with something. Then, you lose yourself quietly and exquisitely in the act of studying the impossible paint-by-numbers that is living skin. “There are myriads of tiny tints. I must find the ones that will make the flesh on my canvas live and quiver” said Pierre-Auguste Renoir. “My concern has always been to paint nudes as if they were some splendid fruit.” It is difficult to look when you’ve been told your soul hangs in the balances of your irises. But in time you learn what God must have seen when first gazing at the soft and tensile, diverse and unfathomable mechanism that is flesh.
For further uncovering: