WATER thanks Margaret R. Miles for her time and expertise. We are excited to read her forthcoming book on which this conversation was based. Beyond the Centaur: Imagining the Intelligent Body promises to be a significant contribution to the field.
Margaret spoke of the Centaur, the myth of a man with a human head joined to the body of a horse. It is a common symbol of the struggle between two natures, the wild untamed horse and the civilized human being, in this depiction as in most, male. Body and soul, the lower and higher appetites, are joined but one is always valued more than the other. In this worldview the rational soul rules. But there are other ways to look at human experience, namely, to see intelligent bodies that feel our thoughts and think our feelings. The person then is undivided. We are intelligent bodies rather than rational minds.
Maxine Sheets-Johnstone is a philosopher, evolutionary biologist, and dancer who has worked on the concept of the intelligent body. http://www.dur.ac.uk/ias/fellows/0607/sheetsjohnstone/There is a certain feminist dimension in that the rational mind is so clearly gendered as male that women are rarely seen as full human beings. Women are identified stereotypically with the body, but not typically with its intelligence.
Rational thought is difficult, learned activity, not a naturally occurring experience. To represent this, Margaret gave the image of Rodin’s “The Thinker” whose body she interpreted as tense and strained as he sought to produce the first thought. Many scholars long to bring life experience into closer conversation with objects of their study. We are not taught responsible methods for doing so. Many scholars have no tools for identifying experiences that drive our interests.
Margaret’s own development toward this approach emerged out of her work as a hospice volunteer for five years. She wondered why human beings get thought of as components instead of as a whole, why the disjunction of rational thought and body is so prominent. Her husband’s dementia with hearing/memory loss at age 90 was another experience that prompted her to see the whole instead of parts. And, a personal experience of stress-induced fainting that resulted in injury gave Margaret a visceral sense of the intelligent body. All of this led her to ask how we could change the way we conceptualize ourselves so as to enable us to experience ourselves as intelligent bodies.
Questions and discussion ensued:
1. One woman wondered how all of this works with people with atypical bodies.
Margaret replied that thought is a feature of the intelligent body. Disability, like all perspectives, is a uniquely privileged perspective. All perspectives are simultaneously privileged and limited.
2. Another speaker talked about Greek/Roman dualisms, citing Edith Hamilton’s work on myths and how poets have used myths to help us connect with nature. She asked if once one is a tenured professor that is the time to bring in one’s own story to one’s academic work, something that younger scholars are not advised to do.
Margaret acknowledged that she wrote differently after her retirement from academia though this thought about the intelligent body developed through her career. The intelligent body joins the rational mind with a real body. She said that it took her a long time to see this, but considers it the apex of her intellectual career. (Editor’s note—I think so too!) It is not surprising that women are working on this given the common female experience of work in the home especially with children. Margaret observed that perhaps a generation of young male scholars will see the importance of intelligent bodies too as they take on more family responsibilities.
3. Margaret was asked if there is an image, sculpture, or painting that represents this idea.
Margaret cited Rodin’s “The Thinker” as rational thought coming out of body, and also mentioned his sculpture “She Who Was Once the Helmet-Maker's Beautiful Wife.”
4. Another caller asked about personhood, wondering how asceticism in late antiquity as an intelligent body practice might fit into the model.
Margaret replied that the idea was not to harm the body, but to engage the body in overcoming habituation. Asceticism in late antiquity was mostly gentler forms—people learned to address inhibitions in their prayer life, to fast, to engage in watchfulness. The idea was to change bodily practices to de-habituate. For example, three-day fasts can be useful. Tertullian called fasting a “vacatione” for the body from the perpetual need to assimilate food.
5. A participant asked about how the ideal of the intelligent body could be found in ancient goddess religions.
Margaret suggested that from the perspective of the intelligent body it is a shame that many people cannot embrace religion. They think religion involves believing as a rational mind, i.e. accepting certain doctrines and creeds, without understanding how an intelligent body operates. For example, the concept of the resurrection of the body is often misunderstood because it is an affirmation of the body now, a commitment to living the resurrection body now, not of contrasting an imagined immortal body with the present vulnerable and moribund body.
6. One caller described her own experience of chemotherapy, foot surgery, and the like with the body knowing what happens, each tendon teaching the next how to act. The vulnerability of the intelligent body, integrated with the rational mind is a common experience.
7. The moderator raised the question of how this works with children.
Margaret described teaching her granddaughter to identify and communicate physical pain. Often when we cannot talk about pain, we act badly because of it. Carol Gilligan’s work is relevant here. She looked at how small girls are happy and self-assured but by 15 years of age they are often anxious and uncertain emotionally. Apparently the culture had taught them that their bodies are untrustworthy. The onset of menstruation can produce the shocking sense that one’s body can act in surprising ways and challenge one’s emotional ability to accept and integrate bodily change. The culture interprets physical experiences for us so we experience what we are told to experience.
8. Another caller suggested that ecofeminism is a useful umbrella for conversation about the body. Beauty, the aesthetics of especially young bodies, invites analysis.
Margaret suggested that we try to think with an intelligent body rather than a rational mind with components. It is hard to do and requires practice.
9. One caller underscored the masculine body in sports with injuries, the glorification of those who go to war, and how people are beginning to realize that this is not necessarily the best model.
Margaret replied that our dominant images support the valorization of the male body. She contrasted crucifixion images with their underlying theology that love is best demonstrated by sacrifice with a host of medieval images of the nursing Madonna with their theology that love is best demonstrated by life-giving, and nourishment. A recent article by David Gibson in Religion News Service, “Christmas’s Missing Icon: Mary Breastfeeding Jesus,” used Margaret’s 2008 book: The Secularization of the Breast (University of California Press) to raise the question of the images we use (Dec. 10, 2012) [http://www.religionnews.com/culture/arts] His blog (www.commonwealmagazine.org/blog/?p=22283) drew dozens of heated replies.
Thank you again to Margaret Miles for this stimulating conversation. We look forward to the book.