Don Hanlon Johnson’s 1983 book, Body, has been on my reading list for a decade now. It is no reflection on the book’s quality that other priorities have crowded it out. If anything, it has become more relevant with each passing year.
Johnson, who teaches in California, takes aim at the mind/body split which has characterized Western thought for centuries. He argues that this split — and the resulting mistrust of our own perceptions — makes us too subject to external authority, and robs us our birthright: a sense of agency in our own lives.
The book covers all the areas where the mind/body split has its noxious effects: in the areas of health care, politics and personal relationships, not to mention religion and education.
Johnson is a philosopher, and brings to his writing a kind of rigour which, as far as I’m concerned, becomes more and more important, the less concrete the subject. He brings a historical context to his work, too, broadening the horizon beyond the individual and the intimate sphere. As far as I’m concerned is the very kind of discussion we should always have been having, and are still not having, anywhere near enough.
He even takes on the delicate topic of how authority can become toxic, even within the very modalities which purport to heal the split between mind and body. He calls such modalities “the technology of authenticity,” and he defines ‘authenticity’ as the sense that one’s actions and feelings are one’s own.
Because the technology arose outside the world of universities, laboratories and books, those familiar with it tend to concentrate on the practical applications for personal health and well-being – expanding the ‘human potential.’ Both its supporters and critics tend to overlook its social and philosophical significance. Mostly upper- and middle-class whites pay large sums of money to study the techniques in resorts like California’s Esalen Institute or Maine’s Mohegan Island, far removed from urban poverty and international terrorism. They often become devotees of a specialized school: Rolfing, bionenergetics, the Alexander Technique, Lomi work, neo-Reichian therapy, and so on. Such schools typically become sects with rigid heirarchies of authority, ideal bodies, and ambitious commercial ventures. (156)
Thirty years after its publication, the book is hauntingly relevant, given the way computers have advanced in the meantime, infiltrating our lives to a frightening degree. With the proliferation of images, the spread of information, we have so much more external stuff coming at us, so much to compete with the inner world of sensation and emotion. Our minds are swamped, leaving our bodies numb and passive in the glare of the computer screen.
Johnson mentions the tyranny of perfectionism when it comes to the body. In 1983, he hadn’t seen anything yet. Plastic surgery, dieting and body building have spawned massive industries since Body was written, and all of them have taken a correponding toll on the health, pocketbooks and available energies of millions of people who continue to feel worse and worse about themselves. And health care has even more technical, even more corporate and profit oriented than it ever was before.
Still, for some reason I could not put the age of the book out of my mind as I read it.
Since we’re getting physical, the feel of the book played a part in this. The paper quality, design and typeface, all took me back to the early 1980s, and maybe this brought on an attack of nostalgia. Body struck me as coming from a more idealistic time. Had I read it when it first came out, I would have been in my twenties, a time when I felt a lot less vulnerable, and when I believed that a lot more – for want of a better word – healing, was possible. In my body, and in the world.
I’m asking different questions now. Is it just my age, or has the world become less uncompromising, wiser … sadder?
It’s oh-so-clear to me now that complain as we might about modern medicine, sooner or later, most of us will place our lives in the hands of someone with a slew of letters after his or her name, someone who’ll either cut into our flesh while we lie helplessly asleep, or will have so much more knowledge of pharmaceuticals that we’ll simply have to take our medicine, and hope the doctor really does know best.
It’s not that Johnson denies the reality of illness and death. He concludes the book with a touching anecdote which acknowledges that these events are part of the cycle of life. A woman of seventy who has “lived close to nature” all her life refuses treatment for her cancer and decides to spend whatever time is left to her in the most meaningful way she can. She dies a happy woman, surrounded by friends. (207)
Today, the treatment would be just that much less yukky, the prognosis that much more positive, and her decision that much more complex. And when it comes to living “close to nature” … what does it even mean? How close to nature can anyone really get … and is it such a desirable way to live after all?
I don’t imagine Johnson would be unsypathetic to the new set of questions we have to ask these days. These days, it’s not just about regaining a sense of agency but knowing how to maintain it while at the same time, being treated by doctors, governed by leaders, taught by teachers, critiqued by editors and — if we’re so inclined — led by rabbis imams and priests. It’s a complex dance, but a fact of life. We have a new set of skills to learn.
As a Feldenkrais practitioner, I see examples of the need for this learning in my practice, all the time. I situate myself as an educator, not a therapist, but still a lot of my clients seek me out because conventional medicine has failed them, as indeed it has failed me at times.
The world of complimentary medicine purports a lot of the time to give the individual back the kind of agency Johnson says we’ve lost, yet it seems to me that this in itself creates a dangerous split. Each medical system has it own logic, its own demands and costs, and and least in this country, at least for now, we’re forced to choose.
This is a shame. I’ve seen some terrible experiences among people who have spent most of their lives outside the conventional medical system. I don’t condemn that decision; I don’t think anyone embarks on such a frightening path without good reason. But it has its dangers.
At a time when people desperately need help, during a complicated birth, for instance, in a sudden illness or following an accident they are suddenly faced with having to navigate a system they know nothing about. They’re left with trauma upon trauma, and worse still, they don’t get the help they need.
Modern, hi-tech medicine has a way of taking over. It doesn’t feel good, but sometimes, we need it. Doctors need to learn how to keep patients in the driver’s seat, but it also seems to me that we have to learn and practice ways having things done to us, without losing ourselves.