Hungry Ghosts

Paul Connerton

A kind of revelation came to the anthropologist Marcel Mauss when he was in hospital in New York. He wondered where previously he had seen girls walking the way his nurses walked. At last he remembered that he had seen walking like this at the cinema. Returning to France, he realised how common this gait had become, especially in Paris: American walking fashions had arrived in France, thanks to the cinema. From this nucleus of an idea Mauss generalised further. The position of the arms and hands while walking, he noticed, form a social or group idiosyncrasy. He claimed always to be able to recognise a girl who had been raised in a convent, for in general she would walk with her fists closed; and his friend Curt Sachs, an expert on the world history of dance, could recognise the gait of an Englishman or a Frenchman from a long distance. Mauss concluded that there is an education in walking.

He made a number of similar observations. For example, his own generation in France did not swim as the next generation did. Previously French children had been taught to dive after learning to swim; and when they were taught to dive they were taught to close their eyes and then to open them under water. In the next generation the technique was the other way round. Children were taught to start to keep their eyes open under water, so that even before they could swim, they had got used to the water, their fears were overcome, confidence was created. Hence there was a technique of diving and a technique of education in diving which had been discovered in Mauss’s day, and as with every technique, it involved an apprenticeship. Then again, Mauss noticed that there were even techniques of sleep. It is quite misleading to say that the way we sleep is something entirely natural. There are societies that have nothing to sleep on except the floor; there are peoples with pillows and peoples without; there is the hammock; there are populations which lie very close together in a ring to sleep, often round a fire; the old chroniclers of the invasions picture the Huns and Mongols sleeping on horseback.

Even if these ways of using the body are felt by the agent to be actions of a mechanical or physical order, even if they seem to be comprehensible as exclusively biological actions, it turns out, in Mauss’s account, that the action is imposed from outside and from above. The child (or the adult) imitates actions which have been seen to be successfully performed by people in whom the child has confidence and who have authority over him. It is this notion of the prestige of the person who performs the ordered, authorised, tested action vis-à-vis the imitating individual that contains the social element. All these modes of action are techniques: techniques of the body.

Mauss’s essay of 1936 on the techniques of the body charted a path into the unexplored. In arguing that the body is socially constructed he has been followed more recently by, among others, Norbert Elias, Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu and Mary Douglas. To these we must now add Fragments for a History of the Human Body, a collection edited by Michel Feher, with Ramona Naddaff and Nadia Tazi. The book is in three volumes, containing in all 48 essays, many of a remarkably high quality and superbly illustrated with 380 images in colour and black and white. The essays range from Ancient Greece, Rome and Israel to Medieval and modern Europe; from the civilisations of China and Japan to those of Melanesia and the Aztecs. The bibliography, compiled by Barbara Duden, leaves no doubt as to the vast quantity of published work bearing directly on the social construction of the body.

Yet if one stops to ask in what sense the body is socially constructed no precise answer is forthcoming from these three volumes. Or rather, two distinct answers to that question are assumed and weave their way in and out through the essays. The fact that they are distinct answers goes unacknowledged and so, for the most part, receives no further elucidation. The first answer, and the one most frequently in play, would have been new to Mauss. It assumes that the body is socially constructed because it represents something other than itself – because its actions and dispositions are decipherable as a code for distinctions held to be crucial by a particular society. The body ‘represents’ these classifications. Thus Jean-Pierre Vernant argues that in the Western tradition the constitution of the ‘body’ as an entity or object of thought is a historically specific process: that the ‘objectification’ of the body was in significant ways accomplished in later Greek thought, partly in its philosophical writing (in which a body is separated from a soul), partly in its medical writing (in which the structure and forces of the body are itemised). Jacques Le Goff shows that Medieval European political thought, like that of Classical Antiquity, persistently perceived analogies between the ways in which the human body functioned and the ways in which the state of society functioned. Charles Mopsik argues that in the Bible, in the Rabbinic tradition and in the Kabbalah, there can be charted a Jewish tradition according to which the link between generations, and the act of procreation guaranteeing that link, are understood as representing a kind of recapitulation, a further unfolding of the original Creation. Charles Malamoud analyses the body as a source of metaphor in Indian Brahmanic sacrifice, where all the persons, events, speech, silences and utensils entail a series of couplings, so that the entire sacrifice is permeated, linguistically and non-linguistically, with representations and figures of sexuality. Marie-José Baudiret surveys the iconoclastic controversy within Christianity – that is to say, the dispute as to whether to represent the heart of Christian theology by the Cross (as the iconoclasts argued) or by the face of Christ (as the iconophiles argued) – as itself decodable in terms of a struggle over how to represent the positions Christians were to adopt with respect not only to the Crucifixion but also to the doctrines of the Incarnation and Resurrection. Julia Kristeva, in a beguiling examination of Holbein’s representation of the dead Christ, argues for the centrality of severance in the psychic life of the individual; in particular, she argues that Christian theology has a representation of severance at the centre of its doctrine, and from this representation derives great cathartic power. In all these cases, what is being talked about is the body as an object of representation.

The second quite distinct assumption which recurs throughout the book is that the body is constructed in the sense that it is socially shaped or formed. The social history of the upright posture is a case in point. Georges Vigarello shows how the new European court nobility of the 16th and 17th centuries developed codes of posture and movement in which the bearing of the upright body became a matter of central concern. The strong body needed by the warrior, generally stressed in Medieval treatises on behaviour and deportment, now comes to be superseded by the graceful body needed by the courtier. To this end, the nobility developed special exercises – fencing, riding, dancing – intended to moderate and restrain the passions. From the 16th century onwards treatises on manners and deportment also take into consideration infant bodies and how they must be moulded so that they come to display the correct upright posture, and iron starts to be used to correct physical deformity. Spontaneity is to be repressed in favour of nuanced codes of etiquette. From an overall stress, in the 16th century, on the proportions of the body, and the correspondence between the individual microcosm and the cosmic macrocosm, there develops later the idea that the body should be controlled by an alternation of prescription and threat, a historical development which clearly maps onto Foucault’s analysis of disciplined and docile bodies.

Medieval mysticism provides ecstatic corroboration of a similar point. Caroline Walker Bynum argues persuasively that the body plays a central role in Western female spirituality from about 1200 until about 1500. Although chiefly connected in Medieval society with the twin themes of fertility and decay, the body, especially the female body, was credited also with providing special access to the divine sphere. The thought received a warrant from Christian theology, through the association of female attributes with the figure of Christ, not only in that he shed blood and gave nourishment but also because his passion was understood as a giving birth. Bynum provides abundant evidence that the religious experiences of female mystics were palpable bodily experiences, and that this was significantly more the case than with male mystics. When Bynum argues, like Vigarello, that ‘the body has a history,’ she means that what the body does and suffers, not just what is represented through the body, has a history.

What is particularly interesting here is that the two quite distinct assumptions about the social construction of the body – that the body represents something other than itself and that the body is itself socially formed – are drawn together. For if the body is constructed, both in the sense that it represents encoded social meanings and in the sense that it is susceptible of cultural formation and deformation, then the question arises as to what relationship may obtain between these two features of the social body. In William Lafleur’s paper on the idea of the hungry ghost in Medieval Japan, this is the point of primary interest.

The figure of the hungry ghost is a leitmotif in many Medieval Japanese scrolls. The principal ancient source in which we are informed about this wretched being is an Indian Buddhist sutra, translated into Chinese during the sixth century, which, under the rubric of the hungry ghost, stipulates the existence of many sub-species. These include excrement-eaters, vomit-eaters, saliva-eaters, blood-drinkers, semen-eaters, fire-eaters, burning-coal consumers, consumers of incense-smoke, wind-eaters, poison-eaters, intensely burning ones, ones with bodies like cauldrons, ones with needle-thin throats. In all there are 36 subspecies, enough to delight Borges. Certain themes recur: hungry ghosts are largely classified by what they consume, and what they consume are things generally regarded as polluting and repulsive.

On one point the classical sources in the Buddhist scriptures are unequivocal: hungry ghosts are to be understood as fully somatic beings, embodied occupants of a distinct place in the taxonomy of beings. That is the point of calling them not just ghosts but hungry ghosts: hunger is of this ghost’s essence; the ghost is constituted by its hunger. For other beings, for mankind or animals, hunger will come and go, but for the hungry ghost, trapped within the antinomous structure of a bloated body and a thin neck, with voracious appetites and minimal equipment which cannot even begin to satisfy those appetites, there can only be a continuing, unrelieved gnawing of the stomach and parching of the throat. This somatic existence is the hungry ghosts’ hellish dilemma. Indeed, within the classical Buddhist understanding of the ‘great chain of being’, hungry ghosts had a position only one rung above that of the creatures in hell. Since the locus of their punishment was co-extensive with their own bodies, these damned beings were free to wander the world at will. Wherever they went, they could never escape their torment – which is to say, their bodies.

In the Buddhist scriptures hungry ghosts fulfilled an explanatory function. Faeces, after all, have a limited life; they discolour, are pulverised and disappear. How – without the hypothesis of bacteria – would we explain this trajectory? The hungry ghost hypothesis would be one way: the ghost’s needle-thin throat made impossible any instant consumption of excrement, while, on the other hand, its voracity meant that it would perform its scavenger role with immense energy. So, too, with corpses, which, if they are left exposed, lose their form in much the same way as faeces do. Nor is the hungry ghost hypothesis exhausted in explaining the rapid but not too rapid disappearance of bodies and body wastes. Other objects in the world have a here-today-gone-tomorrow quality – in particular, fire and water. The notion of hungry ghosts can explain why conflagrations die out: how is it that airborne embers, meteors and lightning can seem suddenly to be ‘caught’ in mid-air and then to disappear from sight? It explains evaporation: for hungry ghosts are as unquenchably thirsty as they are voraciously hungry. So the hungry ghost hypothesis does not simply generate a Borgesian list of wretched beings: it gathers together into an encompassing account an apparently random array of questions. Where does the excrement in the latrine eventually go? And the corpse that lies exposed to public ceremony? And the semen and menstrual blood that fall from the body to the ground? And the flame that flies through the air and disappears without trace? And the rainwater that so rapidly disappears?

If we now ask where were those who produced the scrolls to find models for their representations, their hungry ghosts, the answer takes us away from ideology, away from the Buddhist scriptures and the prototypes of its belief system, and into the streets where the artists found their models in real life. For the more closely one looks at the scrolls the more realistic they appear to be. The scroll painters had seen famines. They had seen the physical symptoms of advanced starvation. The gaunt appearance and the wary look in the eyes of beggars subsisting on the edge of society shows us that the painters modelled their work on the bodies and behaviour of visible people. So, too, does the fact that the stomachs of the ghosts, like those of starving people, were swollen and bloated even while their body frame remained skeletal. So, too, do the grey skin and reddish or blond hair of the ghost: medieval Japanese, like contemporary Africans, would have found that the body starved of food changes its colour and turns grey, and the normally black hair of the severely hungry, failing to retain its usual melanin, turns reddish or blond. The painters observed and painted the fact that the characteristics ascribed in the Buddhist scriptures to hungry ghosts gradually became apparent in the bodies of extremely hungry human beings. In the guise of portraying bodies located within a powerful discourse – hungry ghosts – the scroll painters were portraying actually deformed bodies – hungry people. Lodged within the texture of the scrolls is a gap: the unpeaceful co-existence of two types of ‘constitution’ – the ‘constitution’ of hungry ghosts as objects of representation, and the ‘constitution’ of hungry people as deformed and wasted social beings. What is demonstrated here, in other words, is the relationship between the body as represented (the hungry ghosts) and the body as formed (the hungry people), the body as an object of representation and the body as an object of formation. If the body is indeed to be understood as socially produced, then it is by combining these two approaches – the body as representation and the body as formation – that understanding of it can best be advanced and the project initiated by Mauss most fruitfully continued.