If you’re a writer, it’s solid advice to read widely. You can find new ideas, and just as importantly, the ways in which the writer in question brings those ideas into language. In my readings lately I’ve encountered some new (old) ways of thinking about nudity in non-European cultural contexts, and the insights I’ve gleaned have proved invaluable.
I’m currently reading Marlon James’ Moon Witch, Spider King (2022). It’s the sequel to his Black Leopard, Red Wolf, a novel that I wrote about in a post the year it came out (2019). Both novels bring to life a fantasy world based in ancient Africa. While the earlier novel focuses on the character of Tracker, the new novel spins the background story for Sogolon, a witch who was a supporting character in Tracker’s tale. As a result of palace intrigue gone awry, Sogolon and Princess Emini are sentenced to leave the kingdom of Fasisi in exile to the mountaintop cloister of Mantha. The two of them are seized, washed and scrubbed, and dressed in the same white robes as worn by the women who have washed them. A voice tells them “that now that they have been washed of everything they are nothing and should wear nothing. But nakedness is not nothing, for it is how we born, and how we are when we make life, and no two nakedness is the same. But all nothingness is the same, and since you are both nothing, you should wear the color of nothing. White” (p. 210).
Nakedness = not nothing, goes this argument, and “no two nakedness is the same” – a fascinating rejoinder to the frequent nudist insistence that dropping our clothes makes us all the same. Sometimes that can seem true, but James’ context here deliberately calls that into question with the robes (like nuns’ habits) that the women are forced to wear in unanimity. The text provides a rationale that may have mattered centuries ago in decisions regarding what nuns, monks and other celibate ascetics wear, not just in Catholicism but in many religious traditions. Like the soldier who is almost indistinguishable from his fellow soldiers all dressed alike, there is a solidarity created in uniformity that can indeed appear in social nudism but seems more thoroughly rigorous and anonymous with the use of uniforms. Leave it to the genius of Spencer Tunick to find a way to combine nudity with white-robed uniformity – in a series of ghostly photoshoots for El Día de los Muertos in Mexico.
In unrelated reading, I am about to finish La isla de Róbinson, Arturo Uslar Pietri’s 1981 novelized biography of Simón Rodríguez, or “Naked Rambler of the 19th-Century Andes” as I called him in an early blog post. In one scene, Rodríguez and his famous former student Simón Bolívar, both from sultry coastal Venezuela, marvel at the changes in the landscape and the exotic llamas as they ascend into the high Andes in the middle of what would become Bolivia. The narrative voice has Rodríguez remember reading the travel diary El lazarillo de ciegos caminantes (The guide for blind walkers) published in 1775 by Alonso Carrió de la Vandera under the pseudonym of Concolorcorvo. The book describes travel overland from Buenos Aires to Lima in what was at the time all part of the Viceroyalty of Peru. Rodríguez remembers a passage from the book, a particular attempt at proto-anthropological observation on the part of the author: “Concolorcorvo decía que todo el indio es cara, por eso no necesitaba cobijarse del frío” (p. 178; Concolorcorvo said that all of the Indian is face, and that’s why he didn’t need to cover himself from the cold.) The indigenous peoples of the high Andes use abundant textiles to cover themselves from the elements, as well as the narcotic effect of the coca leaf to ward off cold, hunger and fatigue; evidently Concolorcorvo meant that the people living in the region had a greater tolerance for the lower temperatures. But the idea that one’s body could be “all face” strikes me as highly relevant to thinking about nudity.
Our faces are usually the last thing we cover in the cold – we need our faces to see, to breathe, to identify each other. To imagine our complete anatomy as one big face is to recognize our holistic need for our entire bodies, a rather obvious and yet uniquely framed conclusion. “On the face of it,” the equivalence of face and body supports the assertion, in the Marlon James reading above, that “no two nakedness is the same.” While the face has a greater concentration of unique features in our eyes, nose, cheeks, lips and etc., the entire body can be uniquely appreciated in the same way, because while we all have the same basic body parts, there are no two backs or chests or sets of legs exactly alike.
With the prevalence of imagery on social media today, many nudists feel the need to show face but not body, or body but not face, to protect their identities. Would that we could all bare our entire face/body, no two the same, without fear of recrimination or ridicule! May we find new ways to face, to body, the headwinds.