Posted by: Harold Knight | 05/10/2011

It’s about body modification. Again. Ugh!

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Every semester I have to write about university students and “body modification.” This semester’s big winners in the Body Modification Sweepstakes are Chinese Footbinding and Scarification. Apparently the more painful and (to our terribly sophisticated and liberated minds) useless a body modification is, the more intriguing it is to university students.

Why, you might well ask if you’ve not read one of my other semester’s rants about body modification, are university Written English students researching body modification in the first place. It starts with my love of the stories of Flannery O’Connor and her discussion of “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Literature.” There’s virtually nothing “southern” about me, but I do love that grotesque literature. So I always start the semester with a good strong dose of it, O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Check it out if you think there’s anything on the T and V that’s particularly grotesque. Nothing can hold a candle (or a gun) to it.

Next semester I will use “Parker’s Back,” O’Connor’s last story, instead. It is more directly related to “body modification.” I once tried to lead a group of Lutherans in an adult discussion group through the story. All they seemed to be able to see was that O. E. [short for Obadiah Elihue] Parker is somehow evil because he’s covered in tattoos; they were totally unable to see Sara Ruth’s hypocrisy and judgmentalism. To say nothing of the interplay of fanaticism and love—and Sarah Ruth’s Manichean heresy.

But I digress. From O’Connor’s grotesque to Frankenstein’s body parts, to Chinese foot binding. So it’s all about body modification.

This semester’s list of everybody’s favorite body modifications is summed up in the research projects of one class:

Men’s Bodybuilding (two projects)
Women’s bodybuilding
Anabolic steroid use
Scarification (three projects)
Cleft palate surgery
Corseting
Body piercing
Ta Moko (Maori tattooing)
Chinese footbinding
Tongue splitting

In this class, scarification wins hands down.  I’ll quote from Wikipedia (don’t tell my students) because it’s a handy and accurate definition.

Scarifying involves scratching, etching, or superficially cutting designs, pictures, or words into the skin as a permanent body modification. In the process of body scarification, scars are formed by cutting or branding the skin. Scarification is sometimes called cicatrization (from the French equivalent) (1).

Exactly why 20% of the members of one class were fascinated enough to spend six weeks researching  people cutting their bodies to make permanent designs in scars I am not sure. But they were. Ancient rituals, coming-of-age rites of passage in non-Western societies, anti-social behavior of (perhaps self-hating) Americans—who knows how to categorize all of this mayhem? And who knows (well, truth be told, I do) why upper-upper middle class students (many of whose parents will continue to have Bush-era tax cuts if the Publicans have their way) find this so fascinating.

Parker was filled with emotion, lifted up as some people are when the flag passes. He was a boy whose mouth habitually hung open. He was heavy and earnest, as ordinary as a loaf of bread. When the show was over, he had remained standing on the bench, staring where the tattooed man had been, until the tent was almost empty.

Parker had never before felt the least motion of wonder in himself. Until he saw the man at the fair, it did not enter his head that there was anything out of the ordinary about the fact that he existed. Even then it did not enter his head, but a peculiar unease settled in him. It was as if a blind boy had been turned so gently in a different direction that he did not know his destination had been changed (2).

O’Connor describes the moment at which Obadiah Elihue Parker, age 14, first realizes that he must do something out of the ordinary—something beautiful, something absolutely personal—to give himself an identity. He sees a Tattooed Man in a county fair sideshow. He’s hooked and spends the rest of his life getting tattoos and loving them, caressing himself, looking at each one in the mirror, and then—wonder of wonders—falling madly, insanely in love with a woman who hates “idolatry” so much she won’t even be married in a church because churches are idolatrous.

The Talmud says the prophet Obadiah is the same Obadiah who was the servant of Ahab, King of Israel, and his infamous wife Jezebel.  Elihue is one of the friends of Job, from whom the Talmud maintains, Obadiah was descended. Elihue was an Edomite, but Obidiah had converted to Judaism. Or some such convolution. So we have a convert descendant of the friend of one of the great mythological figures of the Hebrew scriptures first being the servant of and then prophesying against the wickedest queen ever.

There are no mistakes in art. O’Connor is Creator God to her story, and what she has created is a bizarre (grotesque, by her own definition) interplay of self-love, self-loathing, fanatical belief, unrelenting judgment, and—finally—some kind of grace in the vision of a poor bedraggled man and a woman whose only claim to uniqueness or fame is her ability to quote scripture at any moment to humiliate and pass judgment on anyone—especially on her husband. Does this sound like some sort of almost sordid retelling of some wild version of the story of Obadiah and Jezebel?

And it sounds to me like an explanation for my students’ fascination with scarification, tattooing, body piercing, and other grotesqueries.

Until he saw the man at the fair, it did not enter his head that there was anything out of the ordinary about the fact that he existed. Even then it did not enter his head, but a peculiar unease settled in him.

I have no evidence, scientific, psychological, historical, or philosophical for this, but I would say that my students have almost never had a thought that there is “anything out of the ordinary about the fact that [they exist].” I like to think, sometimes, that because their lives are so much different from anything I’ve experienced—that there is nothing about their upbringing with which I am familiar—their beginning to discover themselves is different from what I experienced as a Freshman (the fact that I use that word is indicative of our separate worlds).

But that’s probably not true. I remember that age. Researching scarification doesn’t shock them. It has a grotesque fascination for them. Something they not only have never imagined doing, but cannot imagine doing even after they research it. Or can they?

I think they love it because they want to do it. At the very least, they want to find some way to break out of the stifling mold of conformity of their lives. Would God any of us were clever enough to help them do it in a way to use their enormous talents and privilege for—oh, I don’t know—for good?
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(1) “Scarification.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. December 2006. Web. 10 May 2011.
(2) O’Connor, Flannery. “Parker’s Back.” The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus,and Giroux (1971), 5i3.

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