Monday, 23 April 2018 06:00


The Glorious Garment and the Naked Truth

In the figurative arts, eroticism appears as a relationship between clothing and nudity. Therefore, it is conditional on the possibility of movement - transit - from one state to the other. If either of these poles takes on a primary or essential signifi-cance to the exclusion of the other, then the possibility for this transit is sacrificed, and with it the conditions for eroticism. In such cases, either clothing or nudity becomes an absolute value.
Clothing prevails as an absolute whenever or wherever the human figure is assumed to be essentially dressed, when there is the belief that human beings are human, that is, distinct from animals, by virtue of the fact that they wear clothes. Clothing gives human beings their anthropological, social and religious identity, in a word, their being. From this perspective, nudity is a negative state, a privation, loss, dispossession. The adjectives ”denuded”, ”stripped” and ”divested” describe a per-son who is deprived of something he or she ought to have. Within the sphere of this concept - which extended broadly through the Near Eastern populations (Egyp-tian, Babylonian and Hebrew) - being unclothed meant finding oneself in a degraded and shamed position, typical of prisoners, slaves or prostitutes, of those who are demented, cursed or profaned.
In ancient Israel, the primacy of clothing acquired a metaphysical significance associated with the notion of chabod, which means splendor, glory and honor, and which refers etymologically to that which is weighty, grave or important. The ”glorious garment” (beged chabod) mentioned in Sirach 45.9 refers to the priestly robes of Aaron (to whom the biblical tradition attributes the institution of the priest-hood), and to the solemn ornaments of the high priest Simon (who ”when he put on his glorious robe and clothed himself with superb perfection and went up to the holy altar, he made the court of the sanctuary glorious” (Sirach 50.11-12). The connection between robe and priesthood, between clothing and the service of God, is rooted in the fact that God Himself ”clothed” the earth in the process of Creation and that He manifests Himself ”clothed with honor and majesty,/ who coverest thyself with light as with a garment” (Psalm 104.1-2). The glory of the priestly robe is nothing but a reflection of the glory of Yahweh`s chabod. Its character can be represented only by reference to the transcendent, which is essentially ”clothed,” which in all its relations with human beings always veils, covers or clothes its power, because they cannot bear the direct sight of God. God said to Moses, ”you cannot see my face: for man shall not see me and live” (Exodus 33.20). Closely connected with God`s raiment is His dwelling place, His habitation - the Ark of the Tabernacle that Moses founded with Aaron`s priesthood. The ark was built at the same time as the priestly robes were made (Exodus 39). Solomon`s construction of the Temple represented the crowning achievement of this outlook: the House of God was asso-ciated with his chabod, with his glory.
The Greek experience of nudity stands in opposition to the metaphysical preeminence the Hebrews gave to clothing. Even before its manifestation in art, the Greek position was expressed in the Panhellenic games through the ethical and aesthetic ideal of kalokagathia. Here, the ideal human figure was presented as essentially nude. In their celebration of nudity, the Greeks distinguished themselves from all other peoples. For them, nudity was not a matter of shame, ridicule or dishonor. Rather nudity assumed a paradigmatic significance that involved clarity of vision (an aspect of Greek religious experience) with an athletic perspective (aristocratic in origin) that viewed victory and its glorious celebration as an end to be most energetically pursued.
With Plato, clarity of vision acquired metaphysical significance. In the myth of the cave, the path that leads to truth moves progressively from a vision of shadows and specular images to the contemplation of ideas. The metaphor of the ”naked truth” comes from a conflation of the concept of truth as visual precision and the idea that eternal forms are the ultimate objects of intellectual vision. From this foundation, the entire process of knowledge becomes an unveiling of the object, a laying is entirely bare and an illumination of all its parts. The body itself then came to be considered an obstacle, a tomb of the soul. Only when the soul is naked - psuche gumne tou somatos, the soul stripped of the body (Cratylus 403b) - does it acquire complete freedom. The very notion of theoria, which carries such great importance in Greek thought, is connected to the primacy of seeing. According to one ety-mological hypothesis, the word theoria, which is derived from a fusion of thea (seeing) and hora (care, solicitude, urgency) implies careful or exact seeing, that is, the meta-physical ability to see beyond all robes, veils and coverings through to the thing itself in its exact particulars. The representation of the nude in classical Greek statuary rests on these metaphysical premises. It was conceived as the ideal form of the human figure, of which our phenomenal bodies are the replicas.
Neither of these conceptions of the human figure, the one rooted in the Greek tradition and the other in Judaic culture, has anything to do with eroticism, pre-cisely because neither allows for any transit between clothing and nudity. Rather, they fix one of the two extremes as a metaphysical absolute that excludes the other. The metaphysics of clothing and of nudity have had a continual influence on West-ern culture into our own times. They return wherever the conflict between the body`s dignity and its freedom is posed in absolute terms.
However, the Judaic tradition cannot be reduced to a metaphysics of clothing, and the Greek tradition cannot be reduced to a metaphysics of nudity. Even in Antiquity, Jewish thinkers such as Philo of Alexandria interpreted the Old Testament from a Greek mentality, giving nakedness at least the possibility of a positive mean-ing. Philo wrote: ”The High Priest shall not enter the Holy of Holies in his robe, but laying aside the gar-ment of opinions and impressions of the soul, and leaving it behind for those that love outward things and value semblance, shall enter naked with no colored borders or sound of bells.”
In addition, the original nudity of Adam and Eve provided a point of departure for whomever wanted to graft Platonism onto the Bible, such as the medieval Adamite sects, the Brothers and Sisters of the Free Spirit who sought to imitate Adam`s naked-ness and who inspired Hieronymus Bosch. But this grafting remained superficial and did not succeed in going beyond the limits of a metaphysics of naked truth. On the other hand, the literature of Gnostic and Neopythagorean hermeticism rethought Hellenic philosophy and its cultural tradition in terms of a concept of ”clothed” truth, visible in its ineffable glory only to a few initiates. Truth is clothed not only to the profane who have no access to knowledge, but in the end to the elect as well. Truth reveals itself to the elect not in its theoretical nakedness, but in its glory, in its doxa. ”When you can no longer say anything about the beauty of the Good, then alone will you behold it” says the Corpus Hermiticum (10.5-6), ”because supreme knowledge is divine silence and all the senses at rest.” Souls, ideas, Gnostic aeons, are all free from the impure nudity of the flesh and are considered endowments of a spiritual garment: ”And they shall put on royal robes / And be arrayed in splendid raiment, ” says a Gnostic hymn quoted in the Acts of Thomas (7). To whatever extent, the practice of unlimited sexual license may be attributed to the Gnostic sects (attribu-tions which have inspired writers of our century such as Lawrence Durrell), the erottic dimension seems excluded in gnosis precisely by a rigorous dualism between the naked body, destined for perdition, and the clothed spirit, destined for salvation. This dualism impedes any thought of an intermediate state, of transit.
The discovery of the possibility for such transit within Hebrew and Greek culture belongs to contemporary thought, particularly to the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar and Martin Heidegger. The metaphysics of clothing and the metaphysics of nudity correspond to each other by assigning an absolute value to visibility, but in opposite ways. In fact, von Balthasar demonstrates how the Hebrew notion of chabod not only implies visible glory, but also refers to something else, to some-thing invisible. According to his interpretation, chabod is not a static notion but a dynamic one that occupies the tension between a ”formless” glory and an image invested with form. This implies a seeing that is not seeing, a figure that is not a figure; a blend of dazzling light and profound darkness. The meaning of chabod therefore goes beyond its liturgical and cultural contexts and extends to everything created,- above all to man, who was created in the image and likeness of God. Therefore, a transit does exist between the visible and the invisible, between clothing and what it covers. Balthasar argues for the possibility of a biblical eroticism independent of Platonism. He affirms a literal, profane interpretation of the Song of Songs. Here, Eros is not a symbol or an allegory. It represents nothing but itself and displa-ys itself ”in dressing up the boy and girl as king and queen” in ”the game of naming in a veiled way that which ought not to be named and nevertheless must be absolutely indicated.”
Similarly, Heidegger demonstrates how the Greek notion of aletheia has an origi-nal meaning that goes beyond the theoretical idea of exact vision. According to Heidegger, the word aletheia implies hiddenness no less than uncovering. In fact, the term aletheia is characterized by an alpha privative modifying something that is concealed, enclosed, placed under guard, masked, covered up, veiled, falsified. Hei-degger proposes its translation with the word unverborgenheit, unhiddenness, precisely because the dimension of hiddenness is an essential component of its meaning. This dimension, ”understood as a hiddenness, reigns throughout the essence of Being as a quality that hides itself and thereby defines even beings in their presence and accessibility.” The Greek aletheia then would not imply the primacy of nudity at all, but, rather, a transit between hiddenness and uncovering, irreducible to the Pla-tonic concept of pure and complete clarification and illumination. Similarly, Marcel Detienne maintains that in the archaic period, the religious notions of aletheia and lethe form a composed, antithetical and complementary couple. In effect the korai,the young girls of archaic Greek sculpture, with their draperie mouillée (wet drapery) and their ambiguous and cryptic smiles, open up an erotic space incomparably wider and more profound than the callipygian nudity of classical Aphrodite. Déhanchement, the turn of the hips, the basis for the classical female nude`s ”sex appeal,” and the cuirasse esthétique (aesthetic cuirass), the basis for the classical male nude`s sex appeal, are as apparent as Platonic ideas. According to Heidegger, ”In Greek `outward appear-ance` is eidos, or idea.” But this very outward appearance, that is, the fact that one`s gaze is free to see male and female nudity in their ideal and eternal aspects, renders the experience static and precludes forever erotic transit.
Translated into 11lish by Roger Friedman.
Published in ZONE 4, Fragments for a History of the Human Body, edited by Michel Feher with Ramona Naddaff and Nadia Tazi, New York 1989.
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