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I have finished school for the summer so I am sitting down to write, hoping to regain a wholer sort of self-expression. And my body feels ill-matched to this task, as I’m recovering from another cold— this one having erased my sense of smell and taste so completely that everything sensual has become symbolic. I now feel fine, except the whole world arrives limp at the boundary of my body, registering only textures and temperatures.
We took a weekend trip to New Haven (because my husband got the travel itch and wanted to see Yale’s architecture) and I ate more pizza than I wanted because the appearance tricked me into thinking I could enjoy it: an overindulgence in name only. My body deprived of pleasure, I performed the act of eating like an alien, while the humans passing our booth for the bathroom glanced at my performance and—finding it authentic—seemed to smile encouragingly, eager for their own pie to arrive.
Even while I ate, I was thinking of Chat GPT, how it produces language that is wholly human on the surface, but remains empty of a sensual body and thus hollow of world. And yet, the eerily human similarity causes some anxiety. Perhaps because it mimics the familiar “problem of other minds:” our inability to know whether other inner lives are like our own (or if other bodies experience interiority at all). No one can claim such certainty—about other humans, much less about machines— although perhaps the very question arises from faulty assumptions about reality. These questions sink deep into my dimmed body as we pack our weekend bags and head back to Long Island.
On the ferry ride, my eyes glaze. Gray waters lap against the steel mammoth, and I struggle to stay awake. Eyes drifting around the seats, the other passengers appear loud and irredeemably lacking. Senses swept blank, my body bends inward— ungenerous, I suppose. So, I close my eyes, withdrawing the last offending organ.
Insofar as the soul is acknowledged in our society, it’s perceived as a fixed, unchanging ghost that floats above the body, outlasting it. This sense of ensoulment struggles to grasp the feeling of not being oneself when the body comes down with a virus or ingests medications that alter the brain—or, more severely, the identity loss caused by a brain injury, dementia, or Alzheimer's disease. What sort of soul is held intact by such fragile strands of bodily balance? If you’re a loved one, you may marvel at the change: the person has vanished—you wonder if they ever existed at all—and even if you hope for an afterlife, what version of the loved one will await beyond the pearly gates?
I think there may be more interesting ways of imagining selfhood and ensoulment: for Western alternatives, it’s helpful to take a look at indigenous worldviews. First, the inevitable disclaimers: to discuss so broad a topic, I must inevitably speak of “indigenous worldviews” in the collective and abstract, drawing mainly from the philosophically informed anthropologists Vivieros de Castro and Rane Willerslev, but also including insights from American Indian philosophers like Anne Waters and John Boatman. These broad patterns are useful in drawing distinctions between Western and indigenous worldviews, but the reality is much more complex. I am also not attempting to compare indigenous ontologies with the entire corpus of Western philosophical thought. In addition to being a nearly impossible task, my interest here is not so much to pit the stated tenets of one philosophical school against another, but rather to examine the current assumptions that form the modern Western worldview— most of them unstated and many unseen, forming the conceptual waters in which we swim.
With those disclaimers in mind, we can make a few broad statements about the indigenous conception of soul and selfhood. In indigenous worldviews, two things are assumed: one is the ensouled nature of everything. The other is that “the soul is the idea of the body,” not a separate ghost, but the simple self-knowing of one’s embodiment in space and time. The first assumption could be named a kind of animism, though this term is already an emissary of Western ideology. As the Oxford definition of animism is “the attribution of a soul to plants, inanimate objects, and natural phenomena,” its very definition assumes the primacy of the “inanimate,” requiring an “attribution of a soul” to inherently dead matter. This soul is also assumed to be a uniquely human construct, because it requires bestowal from the god-like human onto the earth, making animism vulnerable to charges of anthropomorphism (the imposition of human traits onto the non-human). But this point must be emphasized: the indigenous assumption of universal ensoulment is not a human soul draped over a non-human “natural” environment (implying also that the human is somehow supernatural, a distinctly conscious entity). Rather, this soul is an impersonal substance shared between each visible thing. You could even say this shared substance is the common background that facilitates all sensory conversation, as one can only grasp difference between beings against a common background of sameness.
The second assumption of the indigenous worldview is that the personal soul is the idea of the body. Rather than being a fixed and separate entity, the personal soul is gathered by genetics, bodily structure, and environmental factors that insinuate themselves into the body, even aging and changing with bodily changes. And yet, not caused, bound, or reduced to the body: reducing soul to body would assume a one-sided dualism, that only the outer and objective is real. Rather, the soul is the body as felt and experienced from the inside, and so cannot be reduced to experience as examined from the outside.
Let’s play with these ideas and see where they land us: if the soul is the inner body and the body is the outer soul (the words “body” and “soul” can be used interchangeably as “inner” and “outer” are the important terms), then care of the body is also care of the soul, and vice versa. Then nothing is “just biological” or “just spiritual”— the immaterial transmission of ideas must also be carnal act (e.g. reading a book affects the body as much as the mind) and the carnal must also be spiritual: each meal an immaterial message, each pleasure an idea, however resistant to language. Spanish philosopher Carlos Segovia sees another implication in his aphoristic assumption drawn from Spinoza’s work: “The more sophisticated and complex the body, the richer the ‘soul.’” But what does it mean to build more complex bodies? As sickness bends me inward, sensory complexity seems an inaccessible privilege. Can a person widen the walls of a body, even when dimmed through biological force?
Perhaps the body is only as complex as its environment— both its present home and the ghosts of past places. I’ve lived in many places, and they often rise to haunt me, diversifying the day with distant remains. Dry mornings and I’m road-tripping through the Western United States, not brought back to those empty highways of Utah and California, but bringing old sensations to this coastal, tree-thick island. Clear light through dirt-streaked windows, coffee breathing through the throat, the subtle sensation of being un-yoked as I flash through towns no more substantial than a green sign printed white, red-rock mountains fluttering by. And on certain spring mornings, I catch a whiff of fresh-caught fish on the South Korean island of Geoje-do, nearly tasting the liberatory loneliness of the foreigner. Autumn stirs and New York City cuts through my inner perception in quick vignettes: striding beneath rust-colored trees in the fleshless company of other wool-clad bodies, watching the impersonal performance of a mute inner life through a beret, a bag, the logo on one’s coffee cup. Mexico, Argentina, Hungary, Turkey: I have not traveled everywhere, but I have gathered a happy host of sensory ghosts between the rafters of my body. Here they thinly undulate, waiting to be awakened by a stray ray of spring, a scrap of olfactory pleasure, the flash of a familiar smile.
A harvesting of foreign locales is not the only way to complexify the soul. According to this logic, your facility with sports, your sexual proficiency and the promiscuity of your palate would all widen the walls of your soul. But this equation of the body with the soul could be dangerously elitist if interpreted unidirectionally (i.e. the soul is determined by the complexity of the body, but not vice versa). Although perhaps rooted in an indigenous worldview, this interpretation would oblige us to admit that those who live a traditional lifestyle could not develop the richness of soul that a modern Westerner could attain with his diverse cuisine and carbon-spiking trips to the Caribbean.
So, the non-dual nature of indigenous thought must again be re-emphasized. Just as the sensory world pulsates with intelligence, so a thought is only flesh grown upward from its origins. A mind opened wide by learning is also body tipped open to a more expansive sensory world; a heart expanded by love is a vision that captures more of reality. Sensory experience alone is no guarantee of self-expansion: many have gathered countries, cuisines, and sexual partners, having ended with no substantial sense of self and no particular imprint of having lived. Embodiment, in other words, is empty without ensoulment.
And beneath these abstract categories of body/soul and material/ immaterial stands an ever-fluxing source where these dualities arrive as one. Merleau-Ponty calls this experiential source “the flesh”: a net of relations between interior and exterior worlds that is only later sliced into categories like “body” and “mind” or “subject” and “object.” The Flesh includes both the human body-mind and the wider fabric of the world, which interact in a seamless perceptual dance. Writing of this original unity, philosopher Dave Abrams writes:
I am, in my depths, indistinguishable from them [my emotions], as my sadness is indistinguishable from a certain heaviness of my bodily limbs, or as my delight is only artificially separable from the widening of my eyes, from the bounce in my step and the heightened sensitivity of my skin. Indeed, facial expressions, gestures, and spontaneous utterances like sighs and cries seem to immediately incarnate feelings, moods, and desires without “my” being able to say which came first—the corporeal gesture or its purportedly “immaterial” counterpart.”
To complexify the flesh of the human body, we must complexify the flesh of the wider earth—including biological and cultural diversity. We must also complexify the soul: through the gathering of knowledge and the deepening of wisdom, through a fearless love of both materiality and immateriality, and through the playful wielding of diverse modes of thought and being. In this gathering of bodily and spiritual complexity, we must fear no pleasure that belongs wholly to the self. Distortions arise only in your half-baked and shame-laden desires, when so long shaped by forces that do not know you, that are afraid of your autonomy. Belong fully to yourself, and you’ll learn to plant the sensual seeds that match your flesh-needs. Cultivating your truest spiritual and physical pleasures, body and soul will awaken both.
A week into this sickness and my taste is not fully restored. I blend cocoa powder, orange rind, maple syrup, cayenne pepper and cashews until the liquid is dark, thick and steaming. I pour only a glass the size of a shot, enough to froth the blood. The rest I slide into a mason jar to sip throughout the week.
I settle at the kitchen table, where I study and write— being a mother, I suppose, and overly enmeshed in the domestic. So I eat where I learn and learn like I eat: hungry and selective, pleasuring an unseen palate. A sip of warm chocolate, a chapter from my latest anthropological read: warm me back into life, prays the drink through my body. I expect no healing, but I know that foods prepared with presence can open the pores towards particular worlds.
Words may also open the pores towards unspoken worlds, marking out the dim parameters of new realities. In the true recognition of otherness—of the stranger, the plant, the culture, the cosmos— we stumble into the essence of freedom, accommodating as many strange worlds as we can imagine, expanding towards as many ways of knowing as we can muster ways of being-in-the-world. This is the essence of wonder: we awe because we cannot grasp, we wonder because the world itself eludes all grasping.
I taste this wonder as I read Rane Willerslev’s philosophically rich study of the Siberian Yukaghirs. The Yukaghirs say that before children learn to speak, the body is open: “raw meat.” Language is learned and the flesh bends into itself, circling small worlds of human-centric meanings. In closing the body, language opens a womb for the birth of the abstract being, a contraction of sense that lets seed the very premise of our species. The human is a virtual animal, an ideological construct that derives its meaning from material exclusion. In a recent podcast episode, I described story-telling as one of the earliest human-made virtual realities, followed by the even further abstracted virtual reality of ideological thinking, which became increasingly common as we abandoned local, land-based ways of life. But with these supernatural travelings through time and space, a great loss occurred: those unlanguaged senses were forgotten, our animal kin fell silent to our ears.
To access this pre-linguistic sensing of the world, Yukaghir hunters must undergo “a process of corporeal dehumanization…to be reshaped into the image of their prey.” As part of this dehumanization, hunters must abstain from speech: closing the mouth, the body opens onto the living book of the world. Foregoing language re-attunes the flesh to the fluid, sensual conversation outside of fixed human meanings. But for the hunter who fasts from speech in order to “think” like the elk or the reindeer, the risk of dissolution is great. Cut off from human meanings, he could lose his humanity irrevocably, reverting to wildness. So upon their return from stalking prey, hunters gather and begin the urgent work of story-telling. Draping human sense-making over the shape-shifting flesh, the hunter is reinstated into the species. Storytelling like an incantation murmured over raw animal flesh: be thy culture a fortress against the wild, be thy name a boundary. And self-enclosed entities they become once again—though by spell of language and not by nature—senses re-contracting around the bright centers of a few conceptual entities: selfhood, otherness, temporality.
I would also like to be less dependent on this technology we call speech. Can I learn the subtle speakings of wilder things? Can I abstain from chatter, in hope that a new word might pry open the pages of my body? I close both book and laptop, letting words slide slowly from my mind. Sipping the rose-infused and cinnamon-laced chocolate—for a moment, at least, I am pure sensation: body and mind circling nothing.
Three weeks later and my sense of taste and smell has not returned in its entirety. Certain shades of brown and green are lacking— my husband offers me a sip of his matcha and I taste only water; he brings home kvass from a Ukrainian store and I taste no rye, only a mildly sweet carbonated drink. In these moments, I still feel like a symbolic being: abstract as an algorithm, damnably lacking in sensual presence.
In spite of the dimmed body, I’ve been catching phantom smells as I wander through the day, an apparently common experience in those suffering from anosmia. While writing the last sentence, I smelled a bright green apple candy—the smell arriving with the visual association of Japanese packaging— and then rain on wet stones, together with the word “Seattle.” Neither smells nor images were related to anything present in my life (I’ve never been to Seattle, and I don’t really like candy, even the Japanese kind). If the soul is the imprint of the body, then I suppose even smells have souls: presences that ghost past even when physically absent. Phantom limbs, phantom smells, phantom places: so many out-of-body hauntings, so no wonder that people too, linger past their deaths, the imprint of the body still sensed.
I would rather not linger, phantom-like, past my death. Such a wide world and my body such a small sliver, no matter how tenderly I complexify this plot of flesh. Still, while I am here, I approach this life as a gathering. Eating, drinking, and love-making are all intimate forms of knowing, drawing separate strands of materiality into communion with the one bright undulating flesh. The shock of sun on skin, the blast of cold in the nostrils— illness, lethargy, or seamless health and fluidity: all these build a body, and a body builds a soul. How entangled are these gatherings: I plant my flesh green with basil and effervescent with poetry. From a pre-dawn pool of silence, I lap up the milk of contemplation. My mind becoming lean on Spinoza’s tight, Euclidean theses, my body fattening on heirloom tomatoes and homemade bread. Walks wide open my senses; mornings dawn open my mind. Even the dead walk with me, and are nourished by the welcoming of my flesh. Behind my eyes, their lives elongate, their questions like heirlooms seeds, preserved for these newly fruiting lands.
As my nose re-learns the contours of specific scents, my mind wonders what other senses might await awakening. The brighter the body, the brighter the soul: and vice versa, I suppose. We cannot even exclude language from this brightening. When I write, the world becomes real, even in its virtuality— no, brighter because of this virtuality, like a verbal version of adjusting the brightness and contrast on a photo so the colors become impossibly saturated. So, too, our virtual realities dance across the categories of possible and impossible, both creating stories— like linear time, finality, and selfhood— and disassembling these stories through experience. We craft the narrative of linear time, and then a stray scent slams a memory into the chest, sometimes with more vividity than the present experience. We craft the narrative of finite self-identity, and then a loved one’s name is uttered and they roar back from the dead, nearly palpable in their absence. So many species of time travel, and yet time itself eludes: experienced fully only when forgotten, only when it empties into the ceaseless “now” that brackets such categories as time and eternity.
I find myself weaving a new story that might un-story me, spoken like an incantation over my undulating flesh: Let your body speak through your studies, let your mind be re-planted in the earth. See the intertwining of sensuality and spirituality until you dissolve quite simply in the one bright body.
And the body flows out from under the feet, the mind dampening the earth (where new seeds will sprout, selves as multiplicitous as entities).