Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Greek View of the Body

I've just read Elizabeth Costello by J.M.Coetzee. The first and last thing I read of his was Disgrace. This novel feels like retribution. If he was to embody whom he might most have offended in his tormented Disgrace, she might look like Elizabeth Costello. Coetzee brings her to life through a set of eight lectures and conversations. It is Elizabeth's argument with her sister Blanche, the nun, which comes to mind as I examine my feelings about the Dying Gaul.

Elizabeth questions Blanche's life of bowing to writhing Christ on a cross, in agony, when it seems to her that at one time Christ was vibrantly alive, why not worship him in that state? Blanche's reaction is to see it as perverse to envision the one who died for our sins in any other way. It was his act of suffering that we relate to, as suffering beings, she says. This is what we need. Blanche claims Elizabeth, and all humanities scholars, are tainted by the Greek custom of worshipping pure form and marble statue.

In a letter Elizabeth sends to Blanche she says:

"In all our talk about humanism and the humanities there was a word we both skirted: humanity. When Mary, blessed among women smiles her remote angelic smile and tips her sweet pink nipple up before our gaze, when I, imitating her, uncover my breast for old Mr. Philips, we perform acts of humanity. Acts like that are not available to animals, who cannot uncover themselves because they do not cover themselves. Nothing compels us to do it, Mary or me. But out of the overflow, the outflow of our human hearts we do it never the less: drop our robes, reveal ourselves, reveal the life and beauty we are blessed with. Beauty. The humanities teach us humanity. After the centuries long Christian night, the humanities give us back our beauty, our human beauty. That was what you forgot to say. That is what the Greeks teach us, Blanche." This snippet of Coetzee sums it up. The Dying Gaul is the breathing beautiful body and still he suffers, it is a fine middle ground, deserving of reverence from both sisters.


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