Monday, December 29, 2008


I’ve been considering the motives behind those who feel they must judge the bodies or lifestyles of others. While I do allow for the possibility that there may be genuine concern for the health of others (however misplaced it may be), it seems more often that the health issue is more often a convenient hiding place for something no one is quite comfortable admitting aloud.

“ I am Envy, begotten of a chimney-sweeper and an oyster-wife.
I cannot read, and therefore wish all books burned. I am lean
with seeing others eat. O, that there would come a famine over
all the world, that all might die, and I live alone! then thou
shouldst see how fat I'd be. But must thou sit, and I stand?
come down, with a vengeance!”
-Christopher Marlowe, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus From the Quarto of 1616

There is of course some doubt as to why anyone would envy a group that is so regularly despised and marginalized by their cultural, peers and selves. On the other hand, the stigma that fat is the result of “letting yourself go” is telling. The stereotype may have negative connotations of laziness in our culture, but when you remove the Calvinist interpretation there is much more lurking underneath. In our business and object-oriented society we spend our lives figuratively scrambling up the cliff face by our fingernails in order to reach the top before anyone else. We are never asked to consider whether there is anything on the top of the cliff worth reaching; we only know that we must climb.

What really happens when you let go? The trouble is that no one can really know until they do so. They are told that at the top of the cliff lies immortality, wealth, beauty and love. To climb they must work themselves into illness, give up all pleasure, experience the pain of tearing and stuffing and cutting their bodies, seek out and subjugate themselves to those higher up the cliff while hanging on to the edge of panic over how long they’ll be able to continue climbing.

What they are not told is that they are chasing a mirage. They know on some level, of course. This is why they envy and hate those who simply choose not to climb. They are afraid that if one stops climbing, others will notice and begin questioning the worth of the goal. If all stop climbing, their efforts will be wasted. They will have to admit the impossibility of immortality and the risk of love without purchase. They will have to decide what they really want, rather than giving up volition to follow the masses. Nothing strikes fear into the hearts of humanity more than self-examination.

“Clutching her cornet of sweets the small girl turns to go, reconsiders, turns again. ‘You won’t ever guess his favourite,’ she says. ‘He hasn’t got one.’
‘I find that difficult to believe,’ I smile. ‘Everyone has a favourite. Even Monsieur Muscat.’
Lucie considers this for a moment. ‘Maybe his favourite is the one he takes from someone else,’ she tells me limpidly. Then she is gone, with a little wave through the display window.”
-Joanne Harris, ‘Chocolat’

Envy is not just the desire to have what others have. It is summed up in the phrase “If I can’t have it, no one should.” Personally I have experienced body envy. Honestly I’d doubt any woman who claims to have never, even during their teens, resented another human being simply for having a particular physical trait. Speaking from that experience I can say that envy is an ugly thing. Even stripping away the Judeo-Christian concept of sin, it remains an ugly thing. Envy is a grasping, selfish, hateful feeling that twists everything it touches. If you’ve ever experienced it, you can perhaps understand why the envy of those who don’t feel as if they have the right to be happy can express itself in hate.

This is, of course, an explanation rather than an excuse. Anyone who’s watched monkeys in a cage at the zoo will recognize many basic human behaviours. If you watch long enough you may even be able to check off the Judeo-Christians’ seven deadly sins in their entirety. This is an instance of a religion’s rules of behaviour having perfectly sound reasoning behind the dogma. The “sins” separate us from the chimpanzees. They are what make us civilized in the most basic sense of the word. As Granny Weatherwax would say, all true sins begin with treating people as things. Including ourselves.

(P.S.: To the one who made me re-visit Marlowe, and you know who you are, thanks for inspiring this post!)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hear, hear.

So if I choose to stop climbing, now I am calling into question the value of climbing itself - which the climber finds offensive. And if not climbing does not lead to my immediate punishment and/or suffering the climber must question their motivation even closer.

Ahhhhh - the joy of snuggling down at the bottom of the cliff - in the shade with a good book and no one but myself to please.

Personally, climb if you must(or even better, if you find your own pleasure in doing so), but that does not create any kind of duty in myself to do the same.