Bodies & Signs: Emily Stimpson vs Walt Whitman

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(I am large, I contain multitudes)

Sometimes I forget why I include catholicvote.org on my links page. I mean, obviously, it’s good to know what the other side is telling itself. But catholicvote is turning into such a propaganda machine that sometimes it seems like it’s not worth the click.

But then Emily Stimpson posts something and I remember. I enjoy reading her even though I feel about her writing the way Laurie Abraham, in this 2006 piece, says that she feels about reading Caitlin Flanagan. Reading Flanagan, Abraham says, is like taking a brisk walk through the woods during hunting season. You’re strolling around, reveling in the foliage and the gentle birdsongs, and then BAM! A twig snaps, a shot rings out, and you recognize the menace lurking behind every tree.

I know some folks feel the same way about reading Katie Roiphe, whose essays I love uncomplicatedly. The difference to me is that Roiphe is willing to admit her own messiness, as the title of her most recent collection suggests. On the other hand, Stimpson (like Flanagan, actually) cultivates a polished air of incontrovertible reasonability. She lets herself get tangled in misunderstandings, contradictions and absurdities, and maddeningly refuses to acknowledge the mess she’s making.

Stimpson has a book coming out this week, with a typically lovely title: These Beautiful Bones: An Everyday Theology of the Body. And I guess writing and publishing a book is like writing a dissertation, in that it causes you start seeing your topic everywhere, and to use your topic to explain everything. In a recent post, for example, Stimpson reads the current cultural rage for tattoos through the lens of the theology of the body. The result, predictably, is lovely.

She writes:

For the uninitiated, the theology of the body is Blessed John Paul II’s anthropology of what it means to be a human person, a union of body and soul, made in the image of God. That anthropology teaches all sorts of beautiful, foundational things about men, women, and life in this world, with one of its core teachings being this: The body expresses the person.

That is to say, the body is how the world sees us and knows us. Through our mouth, hands, eyes, and feet, who we are and what we love is made known to others. Every look we give and every action we take in some way communicates “us.”

Practically speaking, that means people know we’re happy when we smile and angry when we frown. They know we’re sad when we cry and nervous when we bite our fingernails. They see the struggles of our life written in the lines on our forehead and the joy we feel in the twinkle in our eyes.

Thought and feeling, belief and unbelief, virtue and vice—all of it, somehow, someday—writes itself on our bodies. None of it stays hidden. The body eventually expresses it all.

And, of course, the body expresses ourselves to ourselves—it’s how we see and know ourselves, too.

Which is all beautiful. The bear trap, the gut-shot ambush waiting for you in the woods of her writing, is her reductive understanding of what she thinks the body can express in terms of sex and sexuality. Like JPII before her, she writes wonderfully about the “language” and “expressiveness” of the body, but then she shrinks the whole of that language down to two signs:

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For Stimpson, the body is no more articulate about sex than the wall outside of a gas station restroom. Which is why she can say (in another recent post) that Chelsea Manning is called to be a “a husband, father, brother, and son, loving his bride, his children, his siblings, and his parents.” Manning has a penis. Male sign. The body has spoken.

And it’s why she insists that it’s wrong for gay people to physically express their love for each other. For Stimpson, transgender rights and gay marriage are all of piece, both representing a rejection of the importance of the body. LGBT activists, she writes, have “bought into a kind of post-modern Gnosticism, which sees the soul as all-important and the body as nothing more than mere matter.”

Of course that’s not true. As Dianna E. Anderson points out, LGBT supporters aren’t rejecting the importance of the body—we’re emphasizing the importance of listening to all of the body’s language. Because the body isn’t a stick figure on a restroom sign, it’s Leaves of Grass. It’s the collected works of Shakespeare. It’s the Bible. And while the latter group is harder to comprehend than the former, it’s also a thousand times more rewarding.

You start to understand this when you read testimonies from gay people about how they come to know their own sexuality. The first thing you notice is just how embodied that process is. I’m thinking in particular of Kimberly Knight’s recent response to Thabiti Anyabwile’sugly post on homosexuality and the “gag reflex.” And I’m thinking of this excerpt from Jonathan Rauch’s new memoir. Rauch writes:

[I]magine that homosexuality is something many people contemplate and choose. Now arises the question: suppose (I want to ask heterosexuals) you decided, at age 14, to fall desperately in love with a classmate of your own sex. How would you go about doing it? How would you talk your temples into throbbing and your throat into constricting? How might you arrange to get a stone hard erection, all out of nowhere, whenever you touch the image of a certain young man’s strong hand?

Stimpson dismisses all of that body talk as “feelings”. But in doing so, she’s forgetting all of the wonderful times she’s written about the inseparability of feelings from the body.

I haven’t read all of Rauch’s memoir, just the online excerpts. But what’s interesting is that while it’s called Denial: 25 Years Without A Soul, the excerpts show that it’s really the story of Rauch’s struggle coming to terms with his body, and his recognition that doing so was the key to finding his soul. That’s not Gnosticism. In fact it’s the opposite.   

Anyway, love her writing or (like me) love/hate her writing, Stimpson’s These Beautiful Bones is available for pre-order.

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