by Yule Heibel on May 13, 2003

“Island of Sifnos” is one of nearly 30 brief stories by John Berger, collected in his book, Photocopies. “Sifnos” deals with how we perceptualize our bodies. Berger reminds us that it was here — in this geographic and climatic region called the Aegean — “that the first atomic theory of the universe was formulated. It fits. Every entity you look at is distinct, separate, and surrounded by limitless space.” From this observation, as well as Aeschylus’s remark that on the Greek islands there is “nothing but marble and goats and kings,” Berger ponders sensuality, asking, “What can flesh mean here?” He continues:

All over the world women and men picture their bodies to themselves differently, for this picturing is influenced by the local terrain, the climate, and the surrounding natural risks. Like local crops, mental images of the flesh are regional. What is the Aegean image? It has, I think, little to do with scuba diving.

Flesh here is the only soft thing, the only substance that can suggest a caress; everything else visible is sharp or mineral, shattered or gnarled. Flesh here is like the small exposed painted parts of those ikons which otherwise are entirely covered with unyielding and engraved metal. (You see them in every church.) Flesh is simultaneously wound and healing. (…)

Consequently the body is aware of a cruelty even before it is aware of pleasure, for its own existence is cruel. Thus for everybody, not just philosophers and theologians, the physical lurches constantly towards the metaphysical. The lurch doesn’t require words, a glance is sufficient. There’s nobody here who isn’t an expert in longing, in the long drawn-out desire for a life a fraction less cruel. And oddly, this co-exists with the beauty and is part of it.

All those sculptures, stolen from Greece and now in foreign museums, are strangely unsensual and that’s one reason why they don’t belong here. The sensual in art is somehow a celebration of a complicity, a continuity between body and nature. Here no such complicity exists. The famous ‘ideal’ which the classical sculptors sought was, in fact, a consolation for the body’s loneliness. All those sculptures, it seems to me now, were messengers of a very controlled longing without end.

I like this theory of place’s determining effect on our ability to be embodied, perhaps because I like being brought to my knees by the Greek islands, by how they smell, feel, look, taste, and sound. It also made me think about our media, which tosses bodies our way like so much confetti. But those are bodies without place or sense: boobs and bums, teeth and hair, abs and backs. Those body-images could be anywhere, unbound, not tied to my embodied senses. Perhaps some day we’ll be so determined by media that children won’t know how to have bodies, and their parents won’t know how to age. We’ll be like those characters in fairy tales that outwit the devil, but then are condemned to wander the earth, unable to die.

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