Friday, 13 August 2010

A Brief History of Nakedness

Wearing nothing is divine.
Naked is a state of mind.
I take things off to clear my head,
to say the things I haven't said...

Dolly Parton, Naked Eye

Being naked is an ambiguous experience for most of us. The land of the birthday suit borders the states of humiliation and hippy freedom. One way to degrade a person is to have them stripped naked in public, to expose them as a fragile, shivering creature before the forces of power and violence. On the other hand, trip along to see the musical, Hair, and the constraints of clothing are cast aside. The audience are invited to enter into some prelapsarian world of dancing, singing and jiggling genitals. Let the sunshine in which is all well and good if you have the body of a twenty year old rather than bums, boobs, moobs and midriffs that are all crawling south.

Philip Carr-Gomm's book, A Brief History of Nakedness, argues for the supposed liberating qualities of getting naked. He is a tour guide to the joys of living in the buff. Although Carr-Gomm recognises that nakedness can be an instrument of torture and cause public or moral offense, his real interest is in cataloguing the many and varied "positive" expressions of nakedness. For him, nakedness is the key to spiritual renewal and a political weapon that has the power to disable all strains of of despotism. His case for nakedness is comprehensive and lively but, also, never more than skin deep.

Carr-Gomm quotes John Berger's subtly drawn distinction between nakedness and nudity: "To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen by others and yet not recognised for oneself. The nude is condemned to never being naked. Nudity is a form of dress." Yet, Carr-Gomm ignores this nuance and prefers to use the terms "nakedness" and "nudity" interchangeably. This failure to approach his subject matter from more oblique angles blunts the sharpness of his analysis. Or again, there is no consideration of the importance of clothes in human lives as a distinguishing feature of our evolutionary status or as a metaphor. After all, nakedness is only of interest because most of us wear clothes most of the time. And there is almost no mention of the ubiquity of pornography and the increasing interest in burlesque. Extolling the virtues of nakedness, Carr-Gomm turns a blind eye to the exploitative aspects of the naked state.

Nevertheless, there remains much to recommend this book. A Brief History of Nakedness fizzes with interesting facts and ideas, many of which I had never come across. In the section on religion, Carr-Gomm observes that early Judaic baptismal rituals would have involved the full immersion into a river or mikvah (stone pool) of a stripped person. Christ, it is believed, would have been naked when he was baptised by John the Baptist in the river Jordan. A fact that is attested to by early Christian iconography, such as The Baptism of Christ image in the Basilica of San Marco in Venice. As Christianity developed its own baptismal rites, the nakedness of catechumens remained an arresting visual symbol in the ritual. Thus, St Cyril of Jerusalem in c. 350 AD, addressed these men and women with the words, "You are now stripped and naked, in this also imitating Christ despoiled of His garments on His Cross, He who by His nakedness despoiled the principalities and powers, and fearlessly triumphed over them on the Cross."

The link St Cyril makes between the nakedness involved in baptism and the nakedness of the crucified Christ is one that would be picked up by later thinkers and artists. The crucifix pictured above is attributed to Michelangelo and originally hung behind an altar in the Santo Spirito Hospital, Florence. A reminder to the patients that through their humiliations and physical trials they were conformed more intimately to the suffering Christ. Nudus nudum Iesum Sequi, "Naked, I follow the naked Jesus", as St Jerome put it. It seems, however, that prudery took precedence over such spiritual considerations and the crucifix was removed and hidden. Having been rediscovered it was, first of all, housed in the Buonarotti museum. In 2000 it was returned to its original Augustinian owners who hung it in the Basilica of Santo Spirito where it is an image of popular devotion as well as cultural interest.

Interestingly, in secular thought, nakedness and "spirituality" are often associated. "When I free my body from its clothes, from all their buttons, belts, and laces," wrote the playwright, August Strindberg, "It seems to me that my soul takes a deeper, freer breath." The intuition that nakedness reveals a truer, interior dimension to a person is not just the reserve of members of naturist camping sites or nudist beaches. This idea exerts a significant influence on popular culture, especially via the self-improvement industry.

In the How to Look Good Naked television series, a person (usually, a woman) who is not emotionally comfortable in their own skin is forced to confront their nakedness and, guided by the benign "go, sister" camp of the presenter, come to an appreciation of their "inner beauty". In this way, they achieve some sort of body acceptance and karma. Nakedness, then, opens up new channels of self-understanding and healing. All this may be playful marketing, but it does suggest that human beings have an instinctive understanding that "the self" has a unique relationship to the body. It is through the visible reality of our bodies that we intuit the existence of invisible realities which, in a secular context, many describe as "spiritual".

A Brief History of Nakedness is a thought-provoking survey of the fleshiness of human life. It is also a beautifully produced book with excellent illustrations that have been carefully chosen to illuminate ideas rather than provide puerile titillation. Sadly, Carr-Gomm is overwhelmed by the number of examples of naked flesh, from Calendar Girls to The Romans in Britain, streakers to Superbowl costume malfunctions, naked protests to Abu Ghraib, Yogis to St Francis of Assisi. Without a stable philosophical position, Carr-Gomm cannot control his references and as a consequence, his argument struggles to find coherence. Unfortunately, by the final chapters, his full frontal approach to his subject matter begins to feel more than a little like the Emperor's new clothes.

A Brief History of Nakedness, Philip Carr-Gomm, Reaktion Books, 2010

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