Posted by: Harold Knight | 05/22/2011

Who needs a body if you have a brain?

A group of us—my sister, a couple of friends, and I—waited in line during the noon rush hour at a popular restaurant in Sacramento. The place was unbelievably noisy (unbelievable for me—for most people, it was normal lunch-time chatter). The wait, we were told, would be 25 minutes. We found seats in the waiting area. A large group gathered for lunch. The leader said theirs was a group of fifty-two.

The noise level and the constant motion and milling around grew. Finally, I could not bear it. I excused myself and went outside. A bit more calm reigned outside, but not much. At least I could get away and stand in real light and look toward the parking lot, see stillness.

It’s inconceivable to me that anyone—anyone from the 52 or my friends or the hostess, anyone—was unaffected by the hubbub. This is one of the great mysteries of my life as I have explained here many times. Where exactly does my brain go when a room begins to take on an aura of unreality, when noise and motion—and, often, lighting—make my staying in the place where I am impossible. Or, rather, they make my being there retreat into a background far away, yet feel so close the entire scene must be inside my head? When I’m comfortable, not under stress, seeing the world, in spite of the hubbub, as basically a safe place, it doesn’t bother me all that much. As I might have said as a “love child” in 1968, “It’s a trip!” That was not the case yesterday.

My experience is physical. It may be some kind of Temporal Lobe seizure. It may be an over-reaction to sensory stimulation. On the other hand, it may be unadulterated cantankerousness—I don’t want all those people invading my space. Or it may be that I pay attention to what’s going on around me in a way that overwhelms me and freaks me out.

That hardly seems likely given my absent-mindedness.

Why would I pay attention in such a situation and nowhere else?

Our ability to understand human existence, to conceive of our own mortality . . . distinguishes humans from other creatures. Humans can transcend the corporeal body and the world in which they physically exist through our intellect, feelings, and experiences. We can appreciate the beauty of nature and express a concern for its ecology, strive to understand the motivations of others, place others before ourselves, or seek out a relationship with our higher power (1).

I wonder how anyone can write that. What humans can transcend the corporeal body and the world in which they physically exist through their intellect, feelings, and experiences? And if we are meant to “transcend the corporeal body” what on earth (literally ON earth) are our bodies for?

I’ve been thinking a lot about bodies. My dad is 96 and has not an ounce of fat on his skin and bones. His brain slows, deteriorates daily. My sister had a mastectomy a couple of weeks ago and faces months of chemotherapy. I’m trying to lose weight and get a grip on my body (square dancing and yoga!). Arnold Schwarzenegger, the epitome of bodily control, is out of control like the rest of us. According to 60 Minutes, Lance Armstrong dopes himself up. Everyone can add his or her “reality” to the list.

Not a single one of us was whisked bodily into heaven in the rapture on May 21.

I want to know by what sleight of hand, what obviously untenable world-view, does Mark F. Lepore say, “Humans can transcend the corporeal body and the world in which they physically exist.” Is that what people mean when they talk about “spirituality?”

And who would want to, anyway? Mark Lepore has never had a seizure in his temporal lobe, or he wouldn’t think transcending his body would be a good idea.

In 1968 Allen Ginsberg inspired me to anti-social behavior. He tried to set the record straight about the “beat generation” saying, “love is not what was ultimately proposed, it was a widening of awareness” (2). He went on to say

In no sense have they said anything new, except that they’ve simply brought forward and out front, both like politically and sociologically and consciousness and avant-garde artwise, the old gnostic (*) tradition. . . (3).


Allen Ginsberg and the Baptists of Western Nebraska in the ‘50s (and in Dallas in the ‘10s) have the same view of the body. It’s not real. It’s bad. You can’t be “aware” if you’re stuck in your body. We’re supposed to “transcend the corporeal body and the world in which [we] exist” in order to find some kind of reality we can’t find unless we become Gnostics.

Thinking that bodies (my body) are important is new to me. I’ve been so estranged from my body most of my life that Gnosticism has often been attractive to me. I’m a mystic wannabe.

But the most defining characteristic which all of these noetic (**) dispositions share in common is best described in terms of a move away from the human subject, or more specifically, as a move away from any sort of thinking that puts human consciousness, intention and reference at the centre of discourse and meaningfulness (4).

Let me tell you what happens when you (I, at any rate) move human consciousness away from meaningfulness. I get crazy. Like Harold Camping. I begin to believe all sorts of nonsense. I’m not getting into a fight here about what beliefs are nonsense. Everyone has their own.

I’m not saying we are nothing but our bodies. Besides being abusive, Abercrombie and Fitch’s T-shirts for teenage girls to wear across their breasts proclaiming “Who needs brains when you have these?” are just dead wrong. Boobs don’t make a person (5).

Somewhere along the line, I would like to have trained my brain to understand much that I can’t. Like Nietzsche, for example.

According to Friedrich Nietzsche, Christianity is nihilistic. Its nihilism consists in denying this world for the benefit of another, better world. In that way, such phenomena as desire, embodiment, and even life itself, will be conceived of as a nothing in the eyes of the Christian church (6).

But it’s the same in Allen Ginsberg’s eyes. If Nietzsche is right, the church and Ginsberg have in common the denial of the importance of the body. And Mark Lepore. And Harold Camping.

Monica Fitzgerald says 17th-century Massachusetts Puritan preacher John Roberts

taught that “every child is pregnant . . . with the seeds of all sin.” The metaphor of pregnant sin called on a Puritan to imagine his body nourishing sin, like a pregnant woman nourishes her child. Such imagery blurred the distinction of body and soul. . . (7).

It seems to me we’re all living in the shadow of the Puritans. Abercrombie and Fitch simply reverse Allen Ginsberg’s thinking. Who on earth knows what our bodies are for?

(*) Gnosticism: a religious movement characterized by a belief in gnosis, through which the spiritual element in man could be released from its bondage in matter: regarded as a heresy by the Christian Church
(**) Noetic: of or relating to the mind, esp to its rational and intellectual faculties
(1) Mark F. Lepore, et al. “Existential Theory and Our Search for Spirituality.” Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health 12.2 (2010): 86-111.
(2) Ginsberg, Allen. Spontaneous Mind: Selected Interviews 1958-1996. Ed. David Carter. New York: HarperCollins (2001). Quoted in, Pevateaux, C. J. “Widened Awareness: Allen Ginsberg’s Poetic Transmission of a Blakean Inflected Esoteric Dream-Insight.” Aries 8.1 (2008): 37-61.
(3) Idem.
(4) Janz, Paul D. “Radical Orthodoxy and the New Culture of Obscurantism.” Modern Theology 20.3 (2004): 363-405.
(5) Hall, Elizabeth Lewis. “What are Bodies for? An Integrative Examination of Embodiment.” Christian Scholar’s Review 39.2 (2010): 159-175.
(6) Sigurdson, Ola. “How to speak of the body?.” Studia Theologica 62.1 (2008): 25-43.
(7) Fitzgerald, Monica D. “Drunkards, Fornicators, and a Great Hen Squabble: Censure Practices and the Gendering of Puritanism.” Church History 80.1 (2011): 40-75.


%d bloggers like this: