Human beings are obsessed with outer appearances. We constantly seek to project an outer manifestation of the ‘self’ by using clothing, hair, diets, exercise to tell the world who we think we are inside, or at least who we want them to think we are. The existence of a ‘soul’ is more philosophy than science – a thing that must be consciously believed in (or not believed in) and that cannot actually be proved. Whether the inner ‘soul’ is allied to the outer body is another question entirely.
David Mitchell (not the comedian) is one of my favourite authors. This is perhaps because his work is preoccupied with the predicament of the gulf between soul and body, with the souls of his characters reappear throughout his books, reincarnated and reborn.
His Cloud Atlas sees the same soul travelling across the boundaries of time, space and body, planted in different hosts who, although they share the same soul (signified by a shared birthmark), live dramatically different lives. So dramatically different, in fact, that the filmmakers chose to use the same actors and actresses multiple times throughout, presumably to create an illusion of continuity between the separate stories, the links between which only become clear at the very end. The result is that we see Hugo Weaving playing both a care home nurse who looks after Jim Broadbent in his old age, and a demon from a dystopian future who haunts Tom Hanks and Halle Berry.
I wonder what this says about our obsession with the bodily. We struggle, in the visual medium at least, to understand that two humans could share the same soul, without some form of physical representation of the fact.
But do we really think that Halle Berry’s soul, the very essence of her being, is found in her shiny hair, her skin colour, the proportions of her facial features? Is it the hair which makes her a different person from Tom Hanks, or is it that they are different physically in pretty much every single way? Or is it something else – some inward conception of identity that is manifest through these outer signs?
My mother will meet someone new and tell me they had a “kind face”. What does that mean, a kind face? Do we presume that we can tell if a person is kind by their facial features – if they are trustworthy by the colour of their eyes? I am often told I have an open, honest sort of face and that I look pleased to see everyone, which is ironic because most of the time I feel shy and grumpy and am daydreaming about a time when I can sit in bed alone and listen to mopey girl music with the door locked.
A boy I once dated told me (I think in response to my surliness that he spent more time in the gym than with me) that he exercised his body by cycling in the same way that he exercised his mind by reading, because you have to live in both. When I am sat in the library in an oversized t-shirt, stuffed full of yoghurt, I tend to comfort myself with the idea that, in Oxford at least, I am “a brain in a jar”. Nobody cares what you look like as long as your brain is beautiful and full. Unless you are in Camera, which always seems to me to be a sort of real-life version of Tinder – a place where the inner self doesn’t seem to matter in the slightest.
In Old English the word “mod” is used to mean “mind”, “body” and “soul” interchangeably. The Anglo-Saxons, it seems, believed that all three are linked to create a unifi ed conception of selfhood. Descartes believes that the body and the soul are separate entities. “While I could pretend that I had no body and that there was no world and no place for me to be in”, he writes, “I knew I was a substance whose whole essence or nature is solely to think… accordingly that the soul by which I am what I am is entirely distinct from the body.” Thoughts are the essence of the ‘self’ because thoughts are the place where we can conceive the idea of a ‘self’. The body is a separate entity, responsible for the containment of the mind where the ‘self’ is formed – but the two really have nothing in common.
It seems impossible that a professional athlete or dancer could have the same conception of their identity as an academic or a writer. One is dependent on the body and the other can, in some ways, divorce himself from it completely. Even the writer, though, is obsessed by the “bodily” – finding bodies of literature and bodies of words to hide himself in, or to use as a projection of identity.
Equally, the space we live in is a ‘body’ in which we are confined just as we are confined to the physical body. We decorate our bedrooms because they are physical manifestations of who we are. In our Facebook profiles body-soul dualism finds a midpoint. They are a place where both body and self – or, perhaps, soul – are on display to the world exactly as we want them to be.
Perhaps Halle Berry’s shiny hair, then, can be seen as a representation of her ‘self’ – or at least of the self she and her stylists want us to see. It all comes down, it seems, to our desire for control. Our seeking of a place to occupy, to make our own, our obsession with outer appearance: they are, perhaps, symbolic of our desire to take control of a body which can never feel truly allied to our ‘self’.