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A lump of bowels, a piece of gut

Czechoslovakia, during the Cold War. A woman falls in love with an unknown man and spontaneously follows him to Prague. Half a day later she is at his doorstep. When he opens the door, her belly starts rumbling loudly. She blushes; she is ashamed. Fortunately, he quickly takes her into his arms, allowing her to forget her stomach’s protests.

This scene is characteristic for Tereza, one of the main characters in Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984). Tereza wishes to experience her body as a subject, as something that totally encompasses and, at the same time, reveals her unique ‘self’ (such as when she is at Tomas’ door with merely a book under her arm, trembling). However, she is reminded time and again that her body is also an object. It is an object that she can never fully coincide with, that has a certain carnality, or dirtiness to it. It is too similar to other bodies and can thus never be truly unique. Just like all those other bodies, it will ultimately die and perish.

In everyday life, a certain balance in the ambiguous experience of the body as a subject as well as an object has to be continuously upheld. This balance reveals itself in our both having and being a body. Or, in other words; the body that we have as an object, is at the same time something that we are as a subject. However, Tereza experiences her body-as-object as a prison where her ‘self’ cannot possibly be at home. In vain she tries to deny and flee from the ‘thingness’ of her body. What can the philosophy of body teach us about what is wrong in her situation? And can we recognize something similar in experiences of illness and disease, which are also situations in which it can be difficult to reconcile ourselves with the thingness of the body?

Phenomenologist Edmund Husserl proposed long ago that the bodily experience is characterized by a constant shifting between the lived, subjectified body (the Leib), and the objectified body (the Körper). This experience can be illustrated with a simple experiment: try to touch your right hand with your left hand. On the one hand (pardon the pun), you experience this touch in and through your own body. You don’t have to check whether it is your hand that is being touched; even without looking you just know that it’s yours. At this moment, you and your body are one and the same thing: you experience yourself through yourself as a subject, as a non-interchangeable source of sense and experience. But on the other hand, you also experience your body from the outside. Below the fingertips of your left hand, you feel the structure of the skin, the tendons, the warmth of your flowing blood… At this moment, the body appears as something strange, something distant; it could equally well have been another person’s body. This is the Körperlichkeit of our body, the body as thing among things.

In Husserls view, the Leib-Körper is an ambiguous relation that does not allow for any synthesis. In other words, you never experience yourself simultaneously as Leib and Körper. Philosopher Jenny Slatman problematizes this idea. According to her, instead of constantly shifting between a Leib or Körper-experience, we encounter the dual sensation of the LeibKörper in every bodily experience. This means that having a Leib-experience necessarily means also having a Körper-experience at the very same time. Think about it: could your hand have the experience of being touched if it is not also simultaneously a thing? We can therefore think of the LeibKörper as a fundamental, but partially fragmented unified experience of our body as both private and alien, both subject and object. Our body as Leib is never fully subject, but always has something strange and thing-like to it. At the same time, our body as Körper is never fully object, but always contains something subjective and unique. As stated above, Slatman agrees that we are the body that we have. The consequence of this, she states, is that the experience of bodily singularity always has an aspect of strangeness.

The Body as an Object

Tereza’s mother has always mercilessly confronted her daughter with the Körperlichkeit of the human body. Her mother reduces the body to nothing more than a machinelike lump of meat. In her view, the eyes are not a mirror of the soul, but two gelatine-like balls attached to the end of a nerve bundle. The nose is no characteristic feature of your countenance, but the end of a tube that leads to the lungs. Breasts are not beautiful or sexy, but two extensional lumps at the front of the torso filled with fat and milk glands. All in all, the human body seems nothing more than a sum of snotty, filthy, moaning and mumbling organs.

The mother celebrates the carnality of her body with a feast of shamelessness; she farts loudly when there are visitors, shows her naked, saggy body to the neighbours, and provokingly loosens her fake teeth. Tereza is not allowed to be ashamed of her body, and may not cover it or lock the bathroom door to protect herself from the intrusive glances of her stepfather. ‘Her mother wanted to tell her this; you have no right to shame; you have no right to hide what exists in identical fashion in a million other exemplars.’

The idea of the body as a dirty, interchangeable machine is like a gesture with which Tereza’s mother casts away any idea of bodily beauty, uniqueness and ownness. Because of this, Tereza is tormented by a constant feeling of estrangement, by the experience of an unbridgeable gap between her self and her body as an object. She tries again and again to let the body and the person become one; every day, she places her body in front of the mirror in the hope to discover her self, or soul, in its appearance. But her attempts fail: the only thing she sees is a strange body, scrutinized from the outside, as if it were an other.

Why is the thought of the body as an object so unbearable for Tereza? In Kundera’s novel, Tereza’s mother is the one who constantly unmasks the body as being a Körper. But even when far away from her family home, Tereza keeps on being haunted by her body’s thingness; through the murmuring of her stomach, the stumbling of her feet, the emptying of her bowels. Tereza experiences what Slatman already suggests: the Körper, the thing we can never be fully at one with, is a fundamental part of our every bodily experience. The story of someone who tries to escape their own Körperlichkeit, is therefore inevitably tragic.

In general, people constantly find new ways to relate to their bodies as being both subjects and objects. Of course, you could regard a breast as nothing more than a fat-filled bag of skin. But the next moment, your breast is a breast again, something that is yours and which is meaningful in this world (as something beautiful, sexual, feminine, powerful…). It seems as if the Leib-Körper relation is out of balance for Tereza. Because of her trauma, the thingness of her body cannot go together with her subjectivity, with a meaningful bodily experience of ownness.

Tereza’s story reminded me of a couple of interviews I conducted about a year ago with chronically ill people. Some of them had lost a limb, some suffered chronic pain, and others had had an organ transplant. Daniel, a young man who was recovering from a kidney transplant, spoke about the influence that the ‘nakedness and total visibility’ in hospitals had had on his experience of personal dignity. He remembered the many times he had to lie naked on a table while receiving painful blow probes (at a certain moment without any foregoing explanation), gazed at by two doctors, a nurse, a couple of students and a co-assistant.


‘My shame…’ he said, ‘or my pride in my body, which I think is something everybody kinda has, has been broken. It’s just… gone. The first time you visit a doctor, you might hesitate when taking off your pants. But this pride, this discomfort, well, your dignity as a person, disappears. You are expected to do so many embarrassing things that your entire way of being changes: you become an object, a robot. You just undergo everything, as if it isn’t you.’

What makes the thingness of the body irreconcilable with a feeling of ‘self’ is not so much Körperlichkeit an sich, but Körperlichkeit in combination with a total lack of privacy, with no possibility to relate to your body and the world in your own way. Both Daniel and Tereza feel their body being reduced to a generic machine, unworthy of any shame or beauty. Tereza even compares her mother’s house, where visibility and nakedness rule, to a concentration camp. In this house, she is merely part of a mass of uncountable, identical, naked female bodies who march happily towards their own mass grave. And with death, the end of this danse macabre, every possibility or wish for ownness and uniqueness comes to an end.

For both Daniel and Tereza, the loss of personal dignity goes hand in hand with a (temporary) loss of a healthy Leib-Körper relation. The Leibkörper , which is always already a bit strange, is reduced to a purely dead Körper, with which neither of them can possibly identify.

The role of the Körper in experiences of illness is not solely negative. Becoming estranged from your own body can sometimes even feel like a liberation. For instance, from a series of interviews Slatman concludes that many women are able to deal better with a breast amputation when they regard their breast as a ‘thing,’ as a lump full of glands and fat. At such moments, a localized objectification and alienation of the body can help safeguard a feeling of individuality and personal dignity.

All in all, our being a Leibkörper entails that we have to constantly re-enact the ever-changing, somewhat strange appearances of our body. Our body is always partly stranger, always partly object, but it is also unique and subjectified . Apart from bodily recovery, Daniel’s rehabilitation process includes that he will slowly regain the feeling of his body as something meaningful, as something beautiful and special. But both he and Tereza show that we cannot always take this feeling for granted.

My grandma knew a small poem that she sometimes jokingly recited: ‘What is man? A lump of bowels, a bit of flesh, a pile of shit and a little piss, that’s everything man is.’ Nothing but the truth for Teresa’s mother, but my grandma thought it was a strange little rhyme. After reciting it, she would always laugh merrily and turn to the mirror to perfect her make-up to receive that afternoon’s visitors.

Article by Femke van Hout. Get in touch with Femke.

Edit by Kees Müller.

Image via Giphy by Luis Mazon.