A Masthead for Vagabonds, Drunkards and Saints

The End of Desire

I spend a lot of time defending religion here and in conversation with people that I respect a great deal, people who are rightly suspicious of the whole enterprise, and though I gave Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris fairly rough treatment last time–a fact that would concern them not at all, I’m sure–they are indisputably right about certain religious features. Religions, for the most part, are deeply suspicious of the body. Even the free wheeling, not-afraid-to-stain-their-hands-with-mammon Jews have the prohibitions of Leviticus: this substance is permissible for the body; that is not. The body may be disposed this way, but not that.

Mary Douglas’s classic anthropological work, Purity and Danger, deals with issues of the body as they relate to the religious community. It’s a penetrating work that has strongly influenced both social anthropology and religious studies since its publication in 1966. Douglas argues that religious purity, as well as bodily purity, is largely about the maintenance of boundaries. Specifically, foods that were considered fit for sacrifice were also fit for consumption. Foods that were not fit for sacrifice, that were ‘set apart’ by God, were not to be consumed. In other words, the body was a symbol for the altar–think of the cliché, “my body is a temple,” and you’ll get the idea. The integrity of the body had to be maintained, as did the integrity of the community. Knowing what was to be set aside from the communal body, the “body politic,” helped the community decide what was a threat to its identity.

Above all, the community and the body should remain pure; to pollute the body or the community was to invite danger. Indeed, it’s not difficult to see why an idea like this would have been useful over the course of human history–and so debilitating today. In the competition for resources with other mammals, sustaining the community meant individual survival; add to that the staggering power of our symbolic imaginations, and you have a pretty good shot at a complex mythology of good and evil. So far so good. What Douglas doesn’t talk about in Purity and Danger, however, is the underlying suspicion of the body that makes all these demarcations necessary. Namely, the corpse.

Religions have to make sense of the corpse–the remainder, that foul-smelling bag of meat, our heirloom for the soil. Every one of our numerous frailties presage the corpse. Not just death, mind you–that is a concept, a terrifying one, but still a concept. The corpse, if you’ve ever seen one–say, one dredged from a river after a freak thunderstorm in the Angeles National Forest–you know there is nothing abstract about it. Its specificity is terrifying–punk’d-by-some-Cthulian-horror terrifying. And since the body is prone to such cruel tricks, religions, all of them, seek to saddle the body so they can ride the corpse. The corpse, along with fear of female sexuality, is what restricts premarital fucking in all the religions of Abraham. The snake is just an animated alimentary canal, a slithering stomach, the body reduced to merely body, no spirit, just hunger–life enters the front, and death exits the rear. Yes, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel; it just happens to be a sphincter. And who reminds us of that one-way trip but Eve, the body that makes bodies. The horrifying limit to all our mokeying around. But before I get carried away, let me add that I’m not suggesting all the complexities of monotheism can be reduced to corpses and cocks–not at all. I’m just saying that’s where the problem starts. It says so, right there in Genesis. There’s plenty of stuff to talk about over dinner and after sex, but not much to talk about without them.

And lest you Buddhaphiles and yoginis think you’re onto something else, some other trip up the Ganges of life, don’t get too excited. Eating plant-stalks and practicing mula-bandhas doesn’t absolve you of genetic sin. One of the earliest Buddhist sources, the Digha-Nikaya, has the Buddha lamenting, “O, that we were not subject to birth! O, that no new birth was before us! Subject to decay, disease, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair…” Not exactly a “seize the day” sort of endorsement. If I may be allowed to paraphrase: the corpse is coming; we fear the corpse; but we can’t kill the corpse, so let’s kill the life. This suspicion of life and its celebration is also seen in early Buddhism in the Anguttara-Nikaya, in which the rununciate is described as someone who “keeps aloof from dance, song, music and the visiting of shows; rejects flowers, perfumes, ointment, as well as every kind of adornment and embellishment.” This is a description of someone practicing to be a corpse. No dancing. No skipping. No swollen expressions of joy. “Women and girls he does not accept.” In short, eternity is a buzz-kill.

Yogic philosophy is very similar, with the exception that most of what passes for yoga in the West is calisthenics for hedonists. And while I have been a vegetarian at various points in my life, and find the ecological and ethical arguments advocating it nearly irrefutable, the traditional justifications for meaty abstention are sustained by the premise that we are a part of mother nature’s all-volunteer army, that at any moment we can opt out of life’s cruel detachment, and stop the timeless slaughter of life by life for life. Unfortunately, no matter which chakra we’re lighting, suckling legumes and blending wheat grass doesn’t dodge the cosmic draft. We are conscripted from birth.

Our race has conspired many stories to dispel this body’s curse. We are fallen, and life is suffering. Lost from Allah, “all that we see or seem” is but Brahman’s long-fading dream. The banyan tree over yonder is the earth’s gnarled promise of heaven, but the city of the dead lies somewhere far to the west, out over the mountains where only the yellow dog and hummingbird may roam. I love them all. But Hitchens and Harris are right. They are stories, and although we have to forget that to believe, if we believe that it’s hard to forget.

Leave a reply