I didn’t know whether to be amazed, amused, bewildered or shocked when I came across the news report of how the principal of a Florida school was forced to quit her job because a parent complained after students were shown Michelangelo’s iconic “nude” statue of David. Apparently the statue was considered “pornographic” by a parent. Ideally, the parents ought to have thanked the principal for giving their children education in Italian Renaissance art. Instead, the woman who happened to be the principal is given a choice by the school board of either resigning or getting fired. Something like this can be expected in parts of Africa, the Middle East and in South Asia, but not in the US. Underdevelopment, in terms of attitudes, is not limited to any particular part of the world.
Schools supposedly exist for children to get an education. That’s the usual definition of a school. What sort of an education does a child get when he or she is not allowed to see a picture of Michelangelo’s David? This is not a rhetorical question. Not all symptoms are signs of an illness; but, this kind of a response displayed by the parents and the school is a symptom of a deep, incurable malaise called ignorance. This is not the ignorance of a person who is curious about the world but is deprived of the opportunity to learn new things. This is the ignorance of people who revel in the dark and do not wish to see the light, as it happens in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.
This is also the contradiction around which the US revolves as a nation. On one hand, it is a country where freedom is paid more lip-service than in any other nation. Yet, the consequences of the freedom, when translated into real terms, seem to threaten the foundations of the society itself. Freedom is a physical thing, having everything to do with the body. Freedom can never be metaphysical. If I’m physically free that’s when I experience the joys of being free. You cannot say that I’m free to be myself or to love and simultaneously subjugate my body with some concocted moral notion, making it impossible for me to ever experience the true meaning of love or freedom. The horror of the flesh at the heart of the American idea of freedom makes it impossible for the freedom to be meaningful at all.
While responding to the question on the role of “sexuality” in his books, the black American writer James Baldwin observed: “To me, the neutron bomb is obscene—but not a penis. To me, the phrase “I’m shooting” is obscene when it means “I’m coming”—not the word “f****ing.” To me, it’s obscene that, to a white man, I’m a sexual organ to which—unfortunately—a human being is attached.” What is wrong with the parents and the school board that forced the principal to resign is not their ignorance of the historical importance of the statue of David. It is that they want the child to go to school and come out after ten or twelve years as ignorant as they were when they joined it.
In other words, the kid learns nothing about life. The kid learns whatever might be necessary to get a job but remains abysmally ignorant as far as his or her own body is concerned. The kid is scared as ever of anything that resembles a body. A person scared of his or her own body will never be in a situation where they can appreciate or understand the meaning of political freedom. Such a person in the end will be anti-life and incapable of meaningful human relationships. Baldwin has a point: something is fundamentally wrong with the American obsession with a morality that is deeply afraid of the freedom of the body, a morality that is the antithesis to sensuality.
“To be sensual, I think, is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread. It will be a great day for America, incidentally, when we begin to eat bread again, instead of the blasphemous and tasteless foam rubber that we have substituted for it. And I am not being frivolous now, either. Something very sinister happens to the people of a country when they begin to distrust their own reactions as deeply as they do here, and become as joyless as they have become…The person who distrusts himself has no touchstone for reality — for this touchstone can be only oneself” (The Fire Next Time).
A morality that is opposed to sensuality sees pornography in a harmless depiction of the body. People who distrust their own bodies, not only become “joyless” but are left without any notion of reality except what is given to them by Disney World. Reality exists only when you believe that you have a self of your own and that the self does matter. Otherwise you merely live a lie convincing yourself that you’ve no choice but to continue lying to yourself.
Henry James (1843-1916), probably more than any other fiction writer, deals with this problem of living a lie or a double life. I often find it difficult to read Henry James without at the same time experiencing some discomfort because his stories and novels offer a mirror to one’s own real self. We are forced to come to terms with the lie that we have been told all our lives, with the lies that we have been telling others, with the lies in which we are imprisoned and in which we enslave others. The surface is calm as ever but the depths are murkier than we can imagine. The moment the truth starts dawning is the moment when we start falling ill and dying because there is no escape from the truth.
One cannot distinguish freedom from the truth of what one is deep down to one’s own self. What I am, to myself, is the real point. One can only say that one is free if one is willing to pay the price for the freedom. One is free to the extent that one is ready to live in a world that is free for everyone else. America’s race problem and foreign policy in the third world – both stem from this same refusal to face the reality of flesh and blood, that people are human beings who get hurt when their lives and their societies are destroyed, merely because we want to market our notion of a democracy where everyone is a compulsive consumer. As Baldwin notes, “Privately, we cannot stand our lives and dare not examine them; domestically, we take no responsibility for (and no pride in) what goes on in our country; and, internationally, for many millions of people, we are an unmitigated disaster.” This explains the American role in the tragic war in Ukraine where ordinary Russians and Ukrainians are going through a living hell for no fault of theirs.
What is really obscene is not David’s penis in the statue or in reality for that matter. What is obscene is the sexual hypocrisy and double standards that are normalized by two major institutions: the school and the family. What is obscene is to lie to oneself and believe in that lie and disguise it as religion or morality. What is obscene is to live in perpetual ignorance of having a body or feelings that stem from it. What is terribly obscene is to embrace the darkness of lies, shame and inferiority as if that were the light of truth and freedom. As Baldwin puts it: “The light. The light. One will perish without the light” (Nothing Personal).
Prakash Kona is a writer and independent scholar. He completed his doctorate at the University of Mississippi, MS in 1997. His thesis is a comparative analysis of Derrida, Chomsky and Wittgenstein. His areas of interest include Shakespeare, Postcolonialism, World Literature and Afro-American Literature.
“Florida principal resigns after parents decry Michelangelo’s David as pornography,”