Music, Art, & Bodies: Graces & Commodities

Steve just got a new CD.  You know how many books he has?  Well, he has almost as many CDs.  One of our projects this summer has been to take them all out of their jewel cases and put them in sleeves, to save space.  Then, we have to file and categorize them.  Classical music (in the broad sense) makes up most of the collection.  Jazz, movie soundtracks (he’s a big Ennio Morricone fan), world folk/country, singer/songwriters, and novelties are other big categories.  He has very little Rock/Pop, and no Punk or Grunge or new genres like that.   So, the latest purchase was Cecilia Bartoli’s Sacrificium.  I love this artist.  She is thoroughly Italian, with a wild animation in her face that makes you wonder if she is controlling her voice or if it is controlling her.  Watch her on youtube and you’ll see what I mean.  She specializes in the works of Rossini and Mozart, and in this new CD, she takes on the vocal fireworks of the premier castrati of Napoli.  The melismas and ornamentations are phenomenal.  Close your eyes and imagine a castrato singing the same thing.  It’s tough for us in this century, but in the 1600s, there were about 4,000 boys a year in Italy alone who sacrificed their bodies to achieve this sound.  The liner notes contain an article entitled “Evviva il coltellino!” which translates as “Long live the little knife!”  Imagine shouting this in the opera house instead of “Bravo!” after the leading character’s aria.  Why was this such a hot trend?  Well, the Catholic Church forbade women to perform in churches or on the stage, but paid good money to the composers and performers of Baroque pieces for alto or soprano voices.  Could it be that the Church condoned or actually supported mutilation of the body?  Oh, yeah, this is after the Spanish Inquisition.  (Another fascinating book Steve has is on the instruments of torture used during the Spanish Inquisition.  With illustrations.) Well, they did and they didn’t.  “The castrato mania even rages in Rome and the Papal States, where indulgence in these rare flowers occurs in up to forty different theaters at one time.  Although castration is forbidden there, on pain of death, thirty-two popes over the centuries delight in the singing of castrati in the Sistine Chapel.  In the Holy City, ecclesiastical dignitaries frequent the theaters in droves.”  The manufacturing of castrati was a big business for two centuries, and didn’t die out completely until the beginning of the nineteenth century.  The Italians were willing to sacrifice their progeny for their art.

Cecilia as a castrato

When I was in 6th grade, I asked my dad if I could get my ears pierced.  His response verbatim has now been memorized by my children as well as myself: “That is mutilation of the body for purposes of vanity, and I will not subscribe to it.”  What about for purposes of art?  Or livelihood?  Or to exact the truth from a tight-lipped prisoner?  (see Dick Cheney).  So far, I have no piercings or tattoos, and I think one of my children can say the same.  I don’t want to be judgmental or dogmatic about what choices should be made for what values, but I do want to support thinking deeply about it and taking responsibility for your choice.  I want to treat myself and every living thing as a “Thou” and not an “It”.  Your relationship with a “thou” depends on respect and communication and understanding.  As I understand myself, I know that I value honoring my father, not because his judgment on ear-piercing is “right”, but because of the relationship we had.  I don’t want to pierce my ears as much as I want to honor my father.  I do wear clip-on earrings on occasions when I want to dress up.  To me, this represents making a choice based on “The Middle Way”, one of the practices of Buddhism.  Music, art, our bodies, land, food, water…so many things can be seen as a grace and as a commodity.  Political arguments are made all the time about how we regulate or deregulate our use of these things.   We wonder if we can legislate morality so that people make the “right” decision.  Often, we get stuck and find ourselves drawing lines in the sand and treating each other like “Its”.  What would happen if we made a stronger commitment to treat ourselves like “Thous” and worked toward respecting, communicating, and understanding?  Would we be able to make decisions along “The Middle Way”…and then make new decisions in light of new understanding?   Trying to adopt this practice has made me a better mother, I know that for sure, especially since my children became adults.  Perhaps the hard line I took on some things was beneficial when my kids were little.  I don’t regret the standards I set, but I sometimes regret the way that I went about trying to enforce them.  I don’t agree with James Dobson, the author of the very first book I read on parenting.  I remember him saying that in conflicts between children and parents, it was the parents’ responsibility always to win.  I think that sets up an “It” relationship.  Steve has a quote from Carl Jung tacked on the refrigerator: “Where love rules, there is no will to power; and where power predominates, there love is lacking.  The one is the shadow of the other.”  I want my relationships to be loving, above all else, and I want to make decisions with”Thou” in mind.  That includes the thou that is myself.

15 thoughts on “Music, Art, & Bodies: Graces & Commodities

  1. Very interesting and thought-provoking; as your most “mutilated” child in many senses of the word, I think about this aspect of relating to my body often. I have more scars than I can count. I have 14 piercings and one tattoo. My body is altered from the state in which it first entered the world. But does that necessarily mean it has been “mutilated?” I looked up several different definitions of ‘mutilation’, trying to ascertain if the negative connotation was inherent in the definition or if that was a personal/social connotation. Some definitions imply alteration of the body in any way, others imply destruction. Personally, I don’t feel that my body has been destroyed. I don’t feel the changes that have been made are negative or, as one definition put it, have “seriously damaged” my body. Even my self-injury scars are a helpful reminder of the deep emotional pain I’ve suffered through… the key word there being through. The pain (emotional and physical) did not stop me in my tracks or take away the “thou” quality of my self or my body. As someone so wisely put it, “pain is inevitable, misery is optional.” Alteration of the body is inevitable, mutilation is optional. That’s how I feel, anyway.

    • As a side-note: the body alters itself with time. Is time a mutilator of bodies? Does time treat us as a “thou” or an “it?” Since it marches forward and destroys us without thought of our individual beauty and grace, I’m inclined to think time considers us the latter. If we take it upon ourselves to alter our bodies, are we really diverting from any ‘natural’ course, or is the desire to alter ourselves natural in and of itself? Tattoos and other body modification practices have existed for thousands and thousands of years. Some cultures consider the amount of tattoos one has to be an indicator of their level of respect in their community. Do you think these cultures view this as destructive or a practice of vanity, or as a practice of inward reflection and communication/understanding of their way of life? Do you feel they do not respect their bodies? Do you honor your father in practice, or do you also honor him by mirroring his belief that this sort of thing is “mutilation for the purposes of vanity?” I feel sometimes that you deeply distrust tattooing or piercing because you feel no one would make such a choice if they treated themselves with more respect, but I submit that inflicting pain/alteration of the body on oneself does not mean that they do not have utmost care and respect for themselves.

  2. So, Memma sent me an e-mail and wrote further:
    No, I didn’t really see any definitions declaring that mutilation only comes from an outside source. There are other terms, like self-mutilation, that specify the one doing the mutilating, but I don’t think that mutilation excludes self-mutilation. I wonder, though, what the central issue here is. Is it whether or not to alter oneself, or it is whether altering oneself means that one disrespects oneself? Or is it more that one should not take such matters lightly? I have thought deeply about the tattoos I want, and I still want them! I have thought deeply about the ramifications of altering my skin, and I accept the responsibility included. And yet I feel like that really isn’t what you want; I feel that, by urging me to continue to think about tattoos I’ve been planning for years, you haven’t accepted the idea that this is something I truly want for myself. Your first question seems to separate intentional alteration from the course of life, but isn’t the desire to alter oneself part of the course of life? I don’t see why inevitable alteration would be any different, morally, It seems to be a difference of control – since we are not in control of the aging process, it’s useless to consider it “immoral”. But I can’t control my desire to pierce/tattoo myself any more than I can control my aging. I can control whether or not to give in to those desires, but that feels like a separation of “I” and “me”, like Alan Watts talks about. Even if it is for the purpose of vanity, does that make those desires sinful or immoral? What’s immoral about vanity anyway? Vanity is defined as “excessive pride in or admiration of one’s own appearance or achievements.” I am excessively proud of my appearance and achievements! I’m beautiful! I’ve achieved a great deal! Why is it so wrong to take pride in that? Is pride immoral? What do you even MEAN when you use the term, “moral?”

    and I replied:
    The issue is that one should not take matters of alteration lightly. I’m glad that you have thought about your tattoo desire and that you want to take responsibility for getting them. In Buddhism, there are 3 areas of suffering: attachment, aversion, and ignorance. To face that suffering and strive for happiness is to ask yourself to think critically about your desires, your fears, and your lack of understanding and to make changes in yourself to lessen the influence of those forces. I think you can control your desires, if you want to. When would you want to? When that desire causes you or someone else suffering. Obviously, you’ve controlled your desires many times. You have taught yourself and practiced not desiring things that have hurt you or others, not just practiced controlling your actions. I don’t think your desire to get a tattoo is sinful or immoral. Basically, I think doing something immoral is choosing to do something that is harmful. Pride and tattoos are not immoral because they don’t do anything by themselves. They’re neutral because they’re not agents. People are agents. People can be immoral, that is make immoral decisions or behave immorally. Pride can be hurtful, or it can be helpful, or most likely, it can be both. And often, when you make a decision, you have no idea if it’s going to turn out to be harmful. What is important always is your intent. If you never intend to hurt anyone, then you will not make an immoral decision or act immorally. If you learn that something is hurtful but you choose to do it anyway, that seems like you’re intending harm. If you try something, not knowing if it will be hurtful, and it turns out to cause some hurt, then you have the responsibility to act morally and make some changes. All of this, you have already learned. I don’t think your desire for a tattoo is immoral. I don’t know if it will cause anyone suffering. It won’t cause me any harm. It might cause you some regret or suffering in the future, but I don’t know that for sure and neither do you because you’ve not had that experience yet. So, if it does, then you’ll take responsibility for it. Does that make sense? See, morality is not a matter of dogma, saying This Is Right and This Is Wrong; it’s a matter of looking deeply and discerning your intentions and correcting any that may become a cause of someone’s suffering. Vanity, pride, tattoos…they are neither right nor wrong. Look deeply into your intentions when you use them and see if you are causing any suffering. That’s all.

    See, blogging can be a great vehicle to discuss and clarify your values. I’m so grateful that my daughter is open and willing to talk about her life and values with me and with others. I hope that our open discussion will be helpful to some reader. Thanks for reading this whole thing, those who did!

  3. I read the whole thing! 😀 Just thought I’d toss something from our related e-mail exchange into the ring: I have a very separated view of my body and my mind, and I’m definitely more comfortable living in the latter. What about the idea of a tattoo as a means to create a link between the two, forging a “we” out of what I might otherwise perceive as two of Thou? Any tattoo I would want would be a symbolic reminder of the way I want to live my life. The mind creates the symbol and invests it with significance. It’s up to the body to accept that symbol, to transform pain into endorphin-induced giddiness as it’s inscribed, and to bear physical reminder when I have become sidetracked by overthinking things. Perhaps an anchor by which to center consciousness in the body, rather than perceiving it as something external? Thoughts?

    • Last night, we watched Rivers & Tides, the Andy Goldsworthy documentary. If you don’t know, he’s an artist from Scotland who works in and with nature to create his work. He was talking about working with stone, with his hands, and allowing the stones to talk to him. In doing so, he was allowing his body to inform his mind about the work. Since he works with precariously balanced bits of stone or ice or wood, this communication is vital to the work’s progress. I think this is a great example of a “we” relationship of mind and body. Perhaps a tattoo is more imposed on a body than something that comes out of a body. In other words, your mind would decide to get the tattoo and direct you to a place to have it done, and your body just accepts it and bears it. I think you create a better link when you let your body be more actively involved. Like when you’re dancing, or rolling truffles in your hands, or dough, or playing the piano, or knitting, You already do a bunch of things creatively that rely on that collaboration. If you start being more aware of this flow that already exists, that may help you feel less separated. Slow down. Every try walking meditation?

  4. Dad always insisted to me that our bodies don’t belong to us, they belong to God. If I don’t own my body, then I have nothing of value. There may be my mind, which being a habitual dualist like the Approximate Chef I believe to exist but of which I can’t prove the existence. Therefore when I was 22, I got my ear pierced. After doing it I was unable to locate any reason other than to defy my father and my Father. That satisfied me enough to keep it until the first time I lost an ear-stud down the sink, after which I stopped wearing them and let the piercing seal up. That proved to me two things: 1) that little bitty things which jump out of my fingers and down the drain are a liability not worthy of my aggravation, and 2) that not owning my body makes me totally apathetic toward it. Now here’s what’s funny. Having watched you take the words “pride,” “vanity,” and “moral” for a full turn each around the dance floor, I’m a little sad to see the word “excessive” still sulking in the corner. If you declare that you are excessively proud of your appearance and accomplishments, does that mean you reckon you’re more proud of them than they deserve? Well, that seems logically impossible, seeing as you can’t be that proud if you don’t think they deserve it, but if that’s not the case then it begs the question of who finds it “excessive.” Who, for instance, would say that the statement “I think perhaps a little doohickey in my earlobe might make me look a bit better,” reflects more consideration than you, or your appearance, or your earlobe (to say nothing of you accomplishments) deserve? Well, I suppose maybe Dad might. To me, anyway. I don’t know what God would say. It’s too late to ask Dad because his brain fell out and he died. I hope the same thing isn’t true of God.

    • Dad used to say that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. I wonder what that means in terms of ownership, or if there’s another way to think about it. If we carry the Divine Spark within us, do the two of us fight over control of the vessel like siblings saying, “Why are you hitting yourself?” while manhandling each other? (Visual – Lily Tomlin and Steve Martin in “All of Me”) If we get away from dualism, we might imagine a harmony or balance of coexistence and dignity. The judgment of “excessive” is about that, too – scale of consideration. What is “worthy of my aggravation”? What is a small fire and what is truly important? I would tell my children that their piercings and tattoos are small fires compared to knowing that they have value and deserve consideration in my eyes as well as God’s. And I’d tell them that my judgments are not as important as their own judgments made in conjunction with their understanding of themselves and the Divine. But I’m not sure that I told them that when they were younger. I want to make sure I tell them before my brain falls out, too!

  5. To clarify a couple of things: “not worthy of my aggravation” in the context where I said it just means that I had to take apart the drainpipe to get my earring back. I didn’t want to let it go because it was one that you gave me, Sciila. So it becomes, “can I afford to wear one that I care about?” since they get lost easily, blah blah… at that point it started to seem silly. But I still have in a drawer somewhere the little yin-yang ear stud you gave me. 🙂

    I think that “ownership” came up as a term because I was trying to make a case that my body “belongs” to me, i.e. that I have some right to make decisions about it, in the same sense that you have rights over the material things that you own, albeit there may be things you could do with them that wouldn’t be “right.” But Dad contradicted that, because he didn’t want to cede the point. I have a devious mind (as he told me) and by and by I got pretty effective at trapping Dad in an argument. He never admitted it,of course.

    Also, you and the other readers should know: I’ve never doubted that Dad loved me. But his way of showing it sometimes had an effect on me that was difficult to reconcile. Mostly, I think he didn’t believe very much that self-esteem was a necessary thing. DK points out that he was pretty sensitive by nature, and I think she’s right. But he wasn’t afforded very much self-esteem when he was young, and I think that he sought out ways to dismiss it, as a defense. He would define self-respect in terms of honor in adhering to certain ideas, but he did not like to acknowledge the effect that other people’s opinions can have on one’s emotional well-being. The worst part is that sometimes I think he would use dogma to disguise how he personally felt hurt or threatened. I think he did that with DK. It was dishonest and it was a mistake. I find that difficult to say because I respect him and such a thing would contradict most other aspects of him. But I find myself unable to escape that conclusion.

    For me, the hardest part of realizing that his degeneration had gone beyond a point of no return was knowing that I no longer had any chance to try to reach some understanding with him about that — not just for selfish reasons (though I have those) but because it might have done him some good to learn that.

  6. May we all have the courage to be honest about our pain and frailty instead of hiding behind our particular constructs! But knowing that we often don’t have that courage, how gracious to respect someone despite his mistakes and recognize a loving intent behind the imperfect words and actions. Whether or not ownership in the legal sense has anything to do with it, we do have the responsibility to make decisions about everything, how we want to live, who we want to be, how we want to think about others. In taking responsibility, we don’t have to worry so much about defending our rights or our choices if we’re willing to continue to be responsive. I like to think that Dad was getting closer to understanding some of the consequences of his “limitations”. I remember having a long talk with him once about that, around the time of his 70th birthday, when he was just beginning to show signs of “loosening”. For some reason, we were comparing Christianity to a restaurant, an odd metaphor, to be sure, but it yielded the question, “Where do you see yourself in this restaurant business?” He said that he was much more comfortable in the bowels of the kitchen and would never want to be out on the street with a sandwich board inviting in customers. He said that was because of his “social limitations”, and then he said something like, “I leave that to you.”

  7. I’m late to the party, but here goes….

    When I was in massage school, I was taught to take notice of the placement of tattoos, piercings or habitual jewelry like toe rings. We were told that those are the places where the body is asking for attention. There may be a fullness of sensation there, or a dearth, or some kind of emotional trigger point. I agree with the Approximate Chef that body modification creates awareness of a link between mind and body. However, I would go further to say that the link is there no matter what and the desire to make it conscious is initiated in the body.

    As for ownership of the body, the concept is as foreign to me as the idea of an anthropomorphic God. I’m happily toasting my marshmallows over here at the non-dualist campfire. If the body is God’s, then I am God’s agent and any inherent mandate shows up in my will to live.

    I don’t have any ink or piercings and I discouraged my children from getting any while they lived with me. I prefer to maintain the integrity of my connective tissue’s liquid crystalline structure and to attend to any fluctuations in electromagnetism, chi or emotional triggers with an active engagement with my body. This may take the form of yoga, dance, tai chi, qigong, or, in times of serious imbalance, acupuncture. I shared my reverence for body wisdom with my children and left them to make their own decisions. As far as I know, neither has opted for body modification as of now.

    Come to think of it, I am accidentally inked. Alice once fell into me when she was holding a pencil and the point drove in under my skin and broke off. If you search my left shoulder blade very carefully, you may still be able to find the tiny blue spot.

  8. Thought provoking post. I particularly like: “What would happen if we made a stronger commitment to treat ourselves like “Thous” and worked toward respecting, communicating, and understanding? Would we be able to make decisions along “The Middle Way”…and then make new decisions in light of new understanding?” This can be applied in the closeness of home and the random of the outside world. In this day and age – is some of that lost? Recently read a post somewhere about “pay it forward” and the need to act respectfully and with understanding….great thought to ponder, not just today, but all days.

    • I absolutely agree! (Sorry it’s taken so long to reply!) We have such a penchant for “winning at all costs” in this culture that we often neglect negotiation and compromise and respect and understanding. In my opinion, this gets us absolutely nowhere. Very frustrating!

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