The Mortification of the Flesh

In Desolation Road, which is seriously one of the most overlooked and undervalued should-be classics of science fiction, there are a few chapters late in the book dealing with this religious cult that, much like certain medieval Christian monks and mystics, pursues the mortification of the flesh–they believe the body is sinful and evil, while the spirit is pure, and so seek to punish the body as a way of expressing the purity of the spirit. For medieval mystics, this meant stuff like living in deliberate filth, whipping themselves, starvation, and so on, while in the novel, they do it by destroying their sinful flesh and replacing it with pure, holy machinery. They are, of course, a parody of a certain kind of science fiction fan, the sort who talks about “the singularity” a lot–the end-goal of the cult is the Ultimate Mortification, a human mind in a completely robotic body.

It’s gotten me thinking a bit of how I think about my own rotting sack of vomit, and in particular how I tend to view it as not a part of me, but rather as an antagonist that holds me hostage. I am occasionally insomniac, yes, but far more often the reason I don’t sleep is stubbornness: I deliberately stay up, doing things that make it hard to sleep, because I’m sick of my body demanding I waste a third of every day doing nothing. Sleeping isn’t taking care of myself, in this mindset; it’s letting my body win.

Or there’s the time in college I kept refusing to go to the doctor while I got sicker and sicker, either though campus health services was literally across the lobby from the student newspaper offices where I spent the overwhelming majority of my time. The only reason I ever made it there was because I passed out in the office and other members of the staff carried me there. …And then a few years later more or less the same thing happened, where I had an infected cut on my face, and despite it being both painful and incredibly disgusting, I walked around with it for weeks until my fever got bad enough to make me delirious, and Viga (again, literally) dragged me to the doctor.

Or these last few weeks, where my feet have been getting steadily more painful, until last night I finally broke down and bought some arch support inserts for my shoes. And I really do experience it as breaking down, as a failure of will and a defeat. Once again, my body has defeated me and gotten its way, forcing me to alter my behavior to cater to its whims.

To an extent it runs in my family–my brother and nephew are very much the same way about sleeping. (“Runs in the family” is not, of course, the same thing as genetic–it’s quite plausible that my nephew and I picked it up from my brother as small children, imitating the attitude and behavior of a familiar adult.) But I’m rather a lot more stubborn that the rest of the family–my brother will stay up until 2 a.m. on occasion, while I’ll pull all-nighters when I’m feeling stubborn enough, and they usually don’t apply it to obvious medical issues the way I do–and I think that has to do with chronic illness.

My teen years were pretty shitty. I was already severely depressed going into them thanks to a combination of parental neglect, peer abuse, and AvPD, and then my dad died when I was 13, and put on top of that the usual problems of a shy, nerdy adolescent, and my emotional state throughout high school was basically suicidal, but too depressed to be able to put together an attempt. Also I threw up a lot.

Which, you know, when you’re fat at the beginning of freshman year, and by late sophomore year you’re pathologically skinny and publically throwing up in the middle of the cafeteria almost every day, there’s kind of an assumption people make about what’s going on. Thankfully, my parents at least believed me when I told them I wasn’t making myself throw up, it was happening on its own, and took me to a doctor instead of a therapist, because it wasn’t an eating disorder at all. It was purely neuromuscular, and curable, as long as I was willing to trade it for a near-certainty of chronic acid reflux disease. Death by starvation or chronic pain; that’s not actually a hard choice once you’ve experienced true hunger. I’ve experienced a lot of pain in my life, and nothing has been worse than the combination of agony, discomfort, and mind-numbing lethargy that was two straight weeks without anything making it into my stomach.

Add onto that what I increasingly suspect to be the case, that I’m sexually anhedonic, and the net result is that my body is basically entirely worthless to me. It is a hindrance, a hateful, demanding thing that gives nothing in return. I would love to be a brain in a jar, to be able to spend all my time on intellectual pursuits and communicating with people through text. (I mean, food is nice, but basically all food-related pleasures result in pain later, whether because of the reflux or the lactose intolerance or what I suspect is stress fractures caused by being too damn fat for my feet to support in these cheapass shoes.)

So basically, for all that I mock the singularitarians, I’m sympathetic. I can understand in wanting to believe you could be liberated from the flesh, could finally defeat it once and for all. It’s just that I’m skeptical it’s possible, hyper-skeptical it’s easy enough to happen in the fairly short timespan our civilization has left to survive, and aware that most people actually like being made of meat and would strongly prefer it not occur, which is a fairly significant factor where major social changes are concerned.

7 thoughts on “The Mortification of the Flesh

  1. That's such a different experience from mine. While I usually think of my body as something I have to force to do things out of sheer will, it's usually things like “ride a bike 500 miles,” not the other way around. (Although I'm definitely a member of the “choose not to sleep” club, unfortunately.) The thing that really changed that attitude for me was actually giving birth. While there's certain things you can do as a pregnant woman to minimize problems, there's absolutely nothing you can do to truly prevent them. No amount of will can guarantee you'll give birth to a healthy baby. It was really the first time that I felt like my body just did something amazing and positive on its own and I was really proud of it.

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  2. This seems like a strange place for a fiction recommendation, but something tells me you'd really like Thomas Ligotti if you haven't read him already – I'm thinking of his Teatro Grottesco collection here, and specifically its concluding story “The Shadow, The Darkness”.
    This also ties in nicely with a story I'm working on at the moment (though not the one I brought up a few Fiction Fridays back), in fact to such an extent that I'm amazed this was posted today and will definitely be keeping it in mind as I write.

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  3. Whereas to me, and of course I'm saying this as someone who cannot and will not ever be pregnant, pregnancy is viscerally horrifying, the ultimate betrayal by your own body, as it transforms and distorts itself for the benefit of an invader, up to and including hormonal changes designed to program you into caring for the parasite.

    (Just to be clear, I am very much not saying how you or anyone else should respond to pregnancy, this is just my kneejerk, probably pathological instinctive response to the idea of becoming pregnant.)

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  4. Ligotti is very high on my list of people I need to get around to reading. I finally managed to get to Tamora Pierce this year, so maybe I'll get to him next year!

    I look forward to seeing your story and finding out how it's connected to this.

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  5. Sadly, you're stuck in your meatsuit for the foreseeable future. I can certainly understand why you're so frustrated with it, and I admire your dedication not to give in to its demands, but you're all but literally cutting off your nose to spite your face. It seems like it'd be a lot less hassle to make a few concessions in exchange for experiencing less pain and exhaustion. (Boy, put that way, it sounds like a form of extortion.)

    Of course, I'm not you. I'm not the one experiencing the pain, I don't know what kind of return you get for those concessions, and I have no right or authority to tell you how to behave. The closest I can come to understanding is my own reflux, which is far less severe than yours.

    In the end, you're the only one who can make these calls. I just don't like hearing that people I respect aren't feeling their best, especially when they choose to. Still, I should respect that choice. Best of luck with the skinbag.

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  6. You know, disrespecting my choices and judgmentally lecturing me isn't actually made better by tacking “but I should respect your choices” on the end.

    I'm well aware I won't be shedding the meat suit. As I said, I expect it to be far too difficult to pull off in my lifetime, and I would be quite surprised if our civilization made it to the next century, so I honestly don't expect it to ever happen at all.

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  7. Have you attempted to try lucid dreaming? Giving myself a goal, a task to do while sleeping helps me a lot with insomnia problems; I often don't succeed at dreaming lucidly, but turning it into a game to see how much I can learn about myself in that altered state of consciousness makes it far more appealing to be asleep.

    If you do try, the first time I managed I did so after waking up and going back to sleep when I was in one of those 'mind repeats the same sort of dreams/thoughts if you go back to sleep quickly enough' states while repeating to myself that I was only dreaming. I did some fun stuff, like attempting mathematics or opening books to see if I could read them, crawl on walls like spiderman, walk through walls, teleport, turn yourself into different shapes, fly… flying was a favorite. When you lucid dream, you are, for a moment, truly free of the 'meatbag body', just a brain. It really helps to be well rested, because if your mind is muddled and barely conscious in all your dreams you won't be able to think lucidly. It also helps, even if you didn't succeed, to spend time remembering your dreams and going over them when you first wake up, to build mental connections between your conscious and unconscious self and to get that thought of 'I am or might be sleeping' in your head.

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