Laurie Toby Edison

Photographer

“God, The Human Body!”: People as Scenery

Debbie says:

Lynne Murray pointed me at this article by John Jeremiah Sullivan on his trip to Cuba with his Cuban-American wife and their daughter in the spring of 2012.

The whole article is interesting, and Sullivan’s complete unawareness of his American privilege is simultaneously business-as-usual and jaw-dropping. He’s been to Cuba two or three times. He really does think he knows all about it. The moment where he fails to tell the Cuban cook at the hotel omelet station why he doesn’t approve of the embargo between U.S. and Cuba deserves a blog post of its own. Racialicious? Are you interested? There’s some overly familiar anti-Communism in the second half of the article that you could throw in for free.

What struck Lynne and me, from a Body Impolitic perspective, is this:

Every time I looked up from the book, there were more people in and by the pool, as if they were surfacing out of the water, out of the ripples. I had black sunglasses on, so after a while I propped myself at an angle at which I could seem to read the book but really be moving my eyeballs, staring at everybody. God, the human body! It was Speedos and bikinis, no matter the age or body type. You would never see a poolside scene in the United States with people showing this much skin, except at a pool where people were there precisely to show off the perfection of their bodies. The body not consciously sculptured through working out has become a secret shame and grotesquerie in America, but this upper-class Euro-Latin crowd had not received that news, to my distraction. I took in veins and cellulite, paunches and man-paps, the weird shinglelike sagging that starts to occur on the back of the thighs, cleavage that showed a spoiled-grape-like wrinkling, the ash-mottled skin of permanently sun-torched shoulders, all of it beautiful. All of it beautiful and tormenting.

We’re at a hotel pool here, a hotel elegant enough to have an omelet station, and a large pool. Sullivan says he finds all the flesh “beautiful,” but everything else he says about it belies that belief. I find most of veins and cellulite, paunches and man-paps, sagging on the back of the thighs, wrinkled cleavage, and sun-mottled skin beautiful. I’m an American–I didn’t find this effortlessly. I’ve had to learn to work with what I see, to (in Laurie’s words) “make the invisible visible.” I would have loved being at that poolside recently. Sullivan is an evocative writer, and his descriptions are very visual. As he makes clear, however, he has done none of that work–he just thinks he should, so he gives lip-service to “beautiful.”

Where he goes from there is back into extreme American privilege:

You watched an 18-year-old Argentine girl in her reproductive springtime walk past an ancient Soviet-looking woman, her body a sculpture of blocks atop blocks, and both of them wearing black bikinis, the furtive looks they gave each other, full of emotions straight from the Pliocene, from the savanna. The old men scowled from behind mirrored shades. The young men tensed every muscle in order to seem not obsessed with how the girls saw them, a level of self-consciousness I found I could no longer really re-enter, as if it had been a drunken state. Everybody was stealing looks at one another, envying or disdaining or gazing, like me. We were all inside a matrix of lust and erotic sadness, all turning into versions of one another, or seeing our past selves.

Ask yourself: is that what was going on outside of Sullivan’s head? People of all ages, all over the spectrum of “conventional beauty” (as it is defined in the United States, the country most responsible for spreading our movies and advertising around the globe), are at a pool, wearing what they feel like wearing, and the driving emotion they are all experiencing is envy? The driving behavior is comparison? It’s possible.

I wasn’t there. I’ve never been to Cuba or even to the Caribbean or Latin America. Still, I would bet next week’s food that most of the people at that pool were just swimming, just lying at the poolside enjoying the sun. When they were looking at each other, they were either enjoying what they saw or moving on to the next person. It’s Sullivan, American, journalist, professional judge, who was “stealing looks, envying or disdaining.” He never says anything about what he looks like, or how he feels he looked to them; that just underlies everything he does say. He describes himself as “gazing,” but his prose says that he’s the one who wasn’t gazing. He’s the only person at that pool we can be certain was comparing.

At the end of the article, he describes a woman he met on an earlier trip to Cuba:

,,, a woman appeared in the passageway that led from the front room into the main part of the house, a woman with rolls of fat on her limbs, like a baby, and skin covered in moles. She walked on crutches with braces on her knees. She had a beautiful natural Afro with a scarf tied around it. She was simply a visually magnificent human being.

Again, this is evocative, visual writing. I feel like I can see her. What I don’t feel is like I know anything about what Sullivan means by “visually magnificent.” He brings her into the story to make a political point; he describes her in detail because if he says “a woman,” most readers will have a completely different image. The “visually magnificent,” to my ear, makes her sound like a sunset or a waterfall.

The trick, which Sullivan apparently has not learned (and probably doesn’t even believe is possible) is to see people as people, not scenery.

 

3 Responses to ““God, The Human Body!”: People as Scenery”

  1. Stef says:

    This is brilliant.

  2. Laurie Toby Edison says:

    This reminds me of the time Scott Ostler reviewed “Women En Large” in the San Francisco Chronicle and could only appreciate the women in the beach photo by comparing them to a beautiful rocky landscape.

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