Why is it that philosophers have always felt obliged to think badly of the basic biological functions? They may believe in a life-force; they may even applaud its ferocity; but they do not inquire whether it keeps its chin clean at table. It almost seems as if to come near the breathing, sweating, farting body were an unphilosophical act; and it is certainly true that although the philosopher frequently prefers to begin with some commonplace fragment of experience, ready enough to ponder the lessons of the spider or the problems of the sodden wax, as though to say: “Look, you think I deal with empty abstractions and make my thoughts fly off from daily life like a startled sparrow, but how unjust that is, for as you see I begin by considering the shape and color of this quite ordinary penny, the snowed-on blankness of this simple sheet of writing paper, the course these burning logs are taking, or even the existence of my own well-manicured hand”—he does not deceive us with these subterfuges, since we can also see how carefully he ignores the secretion of saliva, the shaping of dung in the lower intestine, the leap of sperm (indeed the whole history of that brazen nozzle), all our vague internal twinges, heart-stops and belly-aches, though distantly these things are made the subject of denigrating comparisons.
Thus from Plato to Tolstoy philosophers have felt that to liken something to the art of cookery was better than an argument against it. Even when Epictetus advised us to behave in life as at a banquet, he did not mean, “eat hearty”; he meant, “be polite.” Had they tongues of leather, these gentlemen (and they were all, all gentlemen), or was it rather that the needs we each share and must daily confess to are uninteresting, unromantic, unsuited to the royal aspirations of so head-proud an animal?
In the West man’s sexuality was never the object of any important or prolonged philosophical study before Freud (in Plato, in St. Augustine, and so on, there are brief sallies), yet of our fundamental occupations only something discreetly called “loving” has received much notice. The reason, I suspect, is that of the lot it is the only one which can be successfully prohibited, and the only one, therefore, it makes sense to condemn.
The eighteenth-century version of human nature, for example, constructed with a Johnsonian sense of the decorous, was triumphantly shallow, and it is possibly for this reason that when Hume hunted through his own experience for that constant impression which might be identified as the source of the idea of the self, he never came upon his own breathing, traditionally identified with the soul, and whose regular, unobtrusive rhythms, like those of the heartbeat, accompany all our acts and feelings, and order and qualify them who knows how profoundly—just as profoundly, certainly, as the man whose experience of the world is always accompanied by the grinding of his teeth is affected by that.…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.
Copyright © 1971 by William H. Gass.