Photo by Gabriel Bouys/AFP via Getty Images

Battling the body

The David fiasco would baffle Italians

Artillery Row

Upon hearing of the fiasco over an art teacher showing an image of Michelangelo’s David to a class of sixth graders, I couldn’t help but think of my visit to Milan’s Cimitero Monumentale last year. For Americans, walking into an Italian cemetery like the Monumentale can be an uncanny experience. Built in 1863 under the direction of architect Carlo Maciachini, the Monumentale features elaborately designed buildings, mausolea and statues. It serves as a final resting place for major Milanese figures including the writer Alessandro Manzoni, composer Arturo Toscanini, and fashion designer Franco Moschino. 

Such comfort with death was shockingly (but also alluringly) unfamiliar

The statues, which allude to pagan and religious imagery, and range from the fully clothed to fully nude, evoke a theatrical brand of grandeur and sorrow that only Italians can achieve. These depictions of the human form speak to a deep-seated intuition that the body — capable of both generating life and collapsing into dust — reflects grand cosmic realities. This symbolic consciousness is pervasive in the cemetery, reminding visitors that death is not something to run away from, but rather is an unavoidable, mysterious reality to be explored.

When visiting cemeteries (that is, if they ever do), most Americans prefer to swiftly make their way in and out — driven perhaps by the eeriness of the design and landscape or by the fear of confronting the inevitability of their own death. Thus my alarm whilst watching visitors at the Monumentale taking their time to visit their loved ones, some going for a stroll around the cemetery afterwards or even laying out a blanket for a picnic. Such ease, such comfort with death was shockingly (but also alluringly) unfamiliar to me. 

Across the way from one male nude perched on top of a coffin, I saw an image that was more familiar, more crassly American: a billboard for Dsquared2 underwear featuring a nearly nude model with his legs sprawled out for all to see. Americans seem to have a proclivity for oscillating between extremes of sexual puritanism and libertinism. 

Though the recent outcropping of controversies in Florida have been presented as a culture clash between the left and right, I’d argue America’s opposing factions have a lot more in common than we think. The impulse to “cancel” educators who won’t promote sexual fluidity in their lessons coexists quite logically with the impulse to cancel educators who present students with “pornographic” classical depictions of nude bodies.

“The compulsive cycle of sexual license and puritan backlash remains a deep-seated pattern in American culture,” writes cultural critic Camille Paglia. She attributes this to what she calls a “gnostic” fear of dealing with both the ecstatic and violent potential within our sexual drive, its link to generating life and carrying us closer toward death. “Mediterranean culture,” on the other hand, “is honest about death, which it does not sentimentalize or conceal from children.” Paglia was born to Italian immigrants in upstate New York. She goes on to cite examples from her Italian culture of open-casket funerals where mourners will kiss the body of the deceased, or the life-like depiction of agonising saints in Italian Catholic churches — juxtaposed against the “bare white church with plain windows” of the American Protestant style.

American morality is reactionary, blindly opting for repression or release

Puritanical ideas about sexuality stem from a worldview which draws a thick boundary line between the body and spirit, the saved and the damned, leaving little room for nuance or shades of grey. Is it any wonder that such uptightness toward sex gave way to the sexual revolution of the 1960s — that great release of the moral pressure valve? Paglia argues that despite claims of greater sexual freedom and tolerance, America’s sexual libertines never fully shook off their Puritan heritage. The impulse to “normalise” countercultural forms of sexual experimentation (like teaching kids about cross-dressing) and to publicly punish those who challenge the progressive status quo (the phenomenon of “cancel culture”) fall back into the rigid rule making of their ancestors. 

It brings to mind my continued shock after walking out of the Monumentale upon seeing a young couple making out in broad daylight at a bus stop. This sight stood in stark contrast to my bourgeois suburban American sensibility, where such expressions of erotic desire in broad daylight are scandalous, but in the nocturnal underworld of bars and nightclubs would be deemed boringly tame.

According to the late political theorist Michael Novak, the mix of pagan and sacramental Christian cosmology that is native to Latinos, Africans and Southern and Eastern Europeans makes them more at home with “the passions enkindled by nature” and the earth. The Anglo-American sensibility, on the other hand, “is not ‘at home’ in this universe…fundamentally, it terrifies [them]”. Instead the “WASP” (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) “relaxes in a clean, orderly, neat, virtuous world; he has a terror of noise, confusion, dirt, human density, tangled emotion”. Thus the phrase, “cleanliness is close to godliness.” For Anglos, “religion is control, propriety, conscience, order, mastery. All their symbols run in the patterns of dominating reason”. 

“The American soul,” continues Novak, “has been riven between its commitment to self control and its longing for a life completely unrepressed.” The frenetic American drive to either demonise all forms of sin or to “sanctify” sin as normal is markedly different from the capacity of non-Anglos to recognize that lust can both constitute a sin but also point to “something, healthy, and wholly expected … Moral indignation,” he insists, “is, if not a Protestant, at least a bourgeois attitude.”

Our markedly American brand of morality is reactionary, blindly opting for either repression or release. It is resistant to asking substantive, reasoned questions about the symbolic nature of the body. What, first of all, is the body? Where does it come from and what is it for? Why do we find bodies to be beautiful? Thus our inability to distinguish Renaissance art from pornography. Rather than focusing on what kinds of content should be banned (from the validly concerning stories about little boys who discover they are actually little girls … to the baffling bans of David or Rosa Parks), perhaps shifting our focus toward implementing such forms of philosophical inquiry into school curricula can release us from our puritan-libertine paradigm.

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