There was a remarkably spiteful review in yesterday's Observer of a book by Philip Carr-Gomm entitled A Brief History of Nudity. Peter Conrad began by saying "we can only be grateful that Philip Carr-Gomm is not on television", before drawing attention to the author's photo, which "mercifully stops at the neck" but which suggests "a jolly, ruddy, probably burly fellow with a shock of greying curls." (In fact, he has exactly the same hair as Steven Pinker.) He went on to opine that Carr-Gomm "he has the soul of a sanctimonious flasher, and is convinced that the sight of the rest of him – adipose middle-aged belly flab, jiggling genitals, a bum that has doubtless gone south – would be good for the world, helping to usher in a new age of spiritual renewal and political revolution." How rude.
Clearly, anyone who dares to address historical and cultural significance of nudity is open to the charge of exhibitionism - or perhaps voyeurism, since Conrad implies the book is little more than an excuse to print lots of smutty photographs. He accuses the author of confining his research largely to Google (something that Carr-Gomm strenuously denies), rather contradicting himself by detailing some of the many photographs and anecdotes that left him feeling so queasy. He accuses Carr-Gomm of offering Too Much Information, a strange charge to level at the author of a factual book. His main criticism, though, seems to be that Carr-Gomm - who happens to be one of the leading figures in the British druid movement - is an aging hippy, "woozily mystical" and far too enthusiastic about getting naked in the company of fellow pagans, whose rites, unforgivably, he "takes seriously". Clearly, for Conrad, the only respectable response to nudity is expiatory laughter.
Of course it might just be a bad book (I haven't read it). But since it received a far more positive review in the Telegraph the next day, the suspicion has to be that Conrad's intemperate and highly personal assault on the work and its author says more about him than about the subject of his review. He is such a shrinking violet, he not only "trained my eye to ignore the grosser exhibits" among the illustrations, but his peace of mind is shattered by reading that "Elton John shaves his pubes."
Carr-Gomm writes on his own blog, "Conrad’s review illustrates perfectly the point I make in the book. Nakedness in itself is no big deal, but as a subject through which to explore the heart, mind and soul it is extraordinarily powerful. It acts like a mirror for their inner workings, and the picture in Conrad’s mirror is not a pretty sight." It seems strange that it should be the Observer that published such a prudish and frankly immature review rather than, say, the Daily Mail. Conrad, however, is far from unusual - in this country at least - in being unable to treat the subject of human nakedness without squirming embarrassment and refuge in juvenile humour.
We all come naked into the world, but nudity is not the natural condition of humanity: at most times, and in most societies, wearing clothes is the norm. As usual, the Bible gets early to the nub of the issue. The first thing Adam and Eve notice after they eat the fruit of knowledge is that they are naked, and the first emotion they feel is embarrassment. It might have been delight or lust or simple curiosity - but no, the mythical first couple are ashamed and rush off in search of some fig leaves. The dawn of consciousness brings with it the perceived need for clothing, and it is a moral and emotional more than a practical or even aesthetic need. It probably isn't a coincidence that, in most cultures, those areas of the body (the head excepted) that is most socially unacceptable to reveal are those still provided by nature with their own covering - viz, the genital areas.
The basic problem, of course, is sex: or rather the assumption that a naked body must somehow constitute an invitation to or a reminder of sex. That this should be so is far from obvious. Throughout history, nakedness has had any number of significations: innocence, vulnerability, health, aggressiveness, political protest, even sanctity (as in the case of naked Hindu holy men). There are cultures where nudity has no sexual connotations whatever. Not so here - something shown most clearly in periodic rows about naked photographs of children. Opponents (and to some extent the law itself and its agents) assume that nudity is sexualising even when the person photographed is prepubescent and, thus, pre-sexual. Bans on such images are justified on the grounds that they might attract the attention of some passing paedophile - but in fact objectors reveal their own inability to separate, in their own minds, adults from children and nudity from sex. Parents have found themselves under police investigation for taking perfectly innocent, and private, photographs of their children in the bath.
Nakedness and sexuality are not the same, not nearly, but Anglo-Saxon culture is leeringly and unhealthily obsessed with both. Only in America could a TV station be fined a small fortune because viewers were granted the briefest glimpse of Janet Jackson's nipple; but then only in Britain could Stephen Gough, the "naked rambler", be held indefinitely in prison for the "crime" of refusing to cover up. These attitudes are readily categorised as prudish or "Victorian", of course, but these days one rarely hears (on this side of the Atlantic at least) old-fashioned Whitehousian appeals to decency or denunciations of moral degeneration. Instead, "progressive" and feminist commentators assure us that depictions of the naked female (or in some cases male) form are "objectifying" and thus politically and socially to be deplored. On the other hand - and serving almost as confirmation - the appearance of a celebrity sans clothes is guaranteed to get the tabloids in a lather. People queue in their thousands to participate in Spencer Tunick's naked photoshoots. And prime-time TV shows demand that we "look good naked". It's rather confusing.
For most other world cultures of east and west, European and non-European, these attitudes seem peculiar, almost pathological. Britain and the USA share their gymnophobia, strangely enough, only with Islam, which tends to view the naked body as both immodest and invariably an invitation to lust. The belief that "modest" clothing is concealing - even of the hair on the head, if it belongs to a woman - would have come as a surprise to (for example) the Spartans, who saw it as proof of the unimpeachable virtue of their maidens that they exercised naked in mixed company. It resonates, though, with the sexually schizophrenic, morally panicky culture of the English-speaking world. I suspect this, rather than any inherent liberalism, may explain the great divide now opening up in Europe surrounding the veil.
While calls to "ban the burka" have now led to legislative proposals, or actual proscriptions, in several continental countries, in Britain the prevailing view is still that women have a human right to conceal themselves completely from the world. One also hears - from veil-wearers and some of their secular feminist defenders - that in doing so they are making a statement against the sexual objectification of women and protecting themselves from the "male gaze". There's less public support for Stephen Gough's right to walk around naked - an equal and opposite statement, but one that is seen not only as anti-social but as highly eccentric. The veiled woman claims to be dressing "modestly" while wearing clothes guaranteed to attract as much attention to herself as possible. It's a type of hypocrisy that seems curiously at home in Britain.
Monday, 31 May 2010
Titter Ye Not