The Somatic Text: Literature as an Embodied Entity

The body is perhaps our oldest and most reliable metaphor. It can symbolize a totality, as in “the student body,” or “the diplomatic corps,” and its various parts denote distinct functions, hence “the head of state,” “the heart of the matter,” and “informational artery.” As the fundamental vehicle of human experience, it is a system we know intimately well and a tool through which we are able to interact with the world at large Although many try to downplay the physical dimension of human existence, favoring the spiritual or intellectual, the fact is we are not abstract beings; we are very much incarnate.

In the essay “On Being Ill” Virginia Woolf wonders at the fact illness and physical suffering do not occupy the same place in literature as do love, jealousy and war. Literature, she quips, “does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind; that the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear, and, save for one or two passions such as desire and greed, is null, negligible, and non-existent.” Although the body must, and does, endure all the physical sensations that only the mind is allegedly able to assimilate and communicate, there appears to be little account of the body’s extensive and perpetual state of experience. The reasons behind the suppression of bodily life in the Western tradition are multiple and complex, and they extend back to the battle against paganism, the rise of Christian asceticism, and the enduring tyranny of Cartesian thought. However, the centrality of the physical experience in human life did not escape a number of writers who, thwarting convention and often scandalizing society, refocused attention on what is at the heart of being human: The life of the body.

For some authors the body’s metaphoric role takes on concrete significance. Beyond its usefulness as analog or figure of comparison it lies at the core of both the creative experience and its ultimate product. Indeed, there are those authors who envision the connection shared by literature and the body to be so intimate and congruous that they cannot, or will not, distinguish between the two. These are “writers of the body” in the sense that they seek to recreate textually what is experienced physically. This creative objective of willing the text not only to describe but also to imitate a living body constitutes the principal thrust of what I call a “somatic text.” Such a piece of writing, be it prose or poetry, is involved with far more than mere imagery or corporeal language. In essence, the text is a realized metaphor in so far as it functions, structurally, as a human body.

Basing myself on such theorists and philosophers of the body as Marcel Merleau-Ponty and Brian Turner, I propose to outline my theory of the “somatic text,” explain its key elements, and present some of the writers that have authored such texts. One of them is Osip Mandel′štam and his lyric “Notre Dame” (1913) will serve as an example of what constitutes a “somatic reading.” Given that the study of the human body spans a number of different fields, I will also draw from other areas of research including anthropology, linguistics, medicine, religion, fine arts, and psychology. Indeed, it is already evident in this list of resources how pervasive the influence of the body is on almost every aspect of human existence.