Magic Zones

Marina Warner

  • Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilisation by Richard Sennett
    Faber, 413 pp, £25.00, October 1994, ISBN 0 571 17390 X

When Pasolini, disgusted with the fatted values of post-war capitalism in Italy, was dreaming up an alternative in his late Trilogy, he found the imagery he needed in old collections of stories, and made The Canterbury Tales, The Decameron and The Arabian Nights. By turning from the uncanny, contemporary metaphysics of a film like Theorem, he was making common cause with the vulgar imagination and placing his hope in its vigour, in what he perceived to be its unabashed appetites and its laughter. The Arabian Nights, which sadly seems to have survived in this country only in a mutilated and dubbed print, is a period piece of Seventies hedonism. It opens with a jostling crowd in a souk in the Yemen and the auction of a slave girl; there follows much nudity, much touching and grinning in various combinations of partners, and under the aching desert moon, much passionate flesh. Some of the film is set in the jalousied interiors of Moorish bedrooms, or in desert cities such as Sana’a, with its towers of baked mud decorated with white scrolls and borders like piped icing. But on the whole, the freedoms of the flesh Pasolini dreams up take place in the open air, free of clothes or inhibitions – free of stone.

It’s significant that Pasolini turned to the Orient to conjure his rather forced vision of primitive sanity, and that he expressed his resistance to Western embourgeoisement through a honeyed, lyrical and comic picture of nomad culture and its pursuit of joyous, uncomplicated, promiscuous contact. His perception of sin (once a Catholic ...) and his yearning for something other than Western hypocrisy led him to imagine a different geography of desire, rootless, unanchored, pastoral, with encounters taking place in an orange grove or in a tent pitched at will.

In Richard Sennett’s study of bodies and cities in Western culture, flesh and stone are similarly inimical to one another, as the hint of a wound in the title suggests; stones build enclosures, which imprison the flesh as well as give it shelter. But since these are the Nineties not the Seventies, Sennett is less concerned with the flow of sexual desire than with the stemmed flow of fellow feeling.

At the start of the book he recalls going to see a film with a friend whose hand had been shattered in Vietnam and replaced with a prosthesis. He describes how the audience, who had been watching the filmed carnage quite happily, shied from his friend’s mutilation when they were leaving the cinema. Dulled by a diet of screen violence, they hurried away from an image of actual pain, dropping their eyes. Later, in his chapter on the Middle Ages, Sennett cites the fascinating theory put forward by the 14th-century Parisian surgeon Henri de Mondeville: he noticed that when a body is undergoing an operation, the other organs will compensate for the excised or wounded part as if in sympathy. Mondeville called the phenomenon ‘syncope’, and Sennett sees it as a metaphor for the working of the medieval Christian city, in which monks opened foundling hospitals and nuns succoured the sick and the mad in hospices attached to shrines; Knights Hospitallers on battlefields, and the confraternities burying plague victims, provided other kinds of care. Ideally, such a relation between people and places could be regenerated today in the modern cities of the West, though Sennett does not hold out much hope: the best we can manage, he thinks, is live and let live, as in his own neighbourhood of Greenwich Village.

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