Stud­ied re­flec­tions seek to ex­pose the naked truth

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS - Kate Holden

You Feel So Mor­tal: Es­says on the Body By Peggy Shin­ner Univer­sity of Chicago Press, 224pp, $36.95 (HB) FOR a col­lec­tion of es­says that be­gins with feet and quixot­i­cally sur­veys wan­der­ing wombs, slouch­ing spines, the noses of Jews, the pur­chase of a knife, the fit­ting of a bra and col­lected apho­risms about women’s hair, You Feel So Mor­tal is a pierc­ingly in­ti­mate and per­sonal self-por­trait, one that aches with ques­tions, con­fi­dences, ad­mis­sions and re­sent­ments.

Through th­ese 12 pieces, most of them in a form of mem­oir-meets-es­say, Amer­i­can aca­demic Peggy Shin­ner of­fers bluntly hon­est, sharply con­sid­ered sketches of her­self, fo­cus­ing var­i­ously on parts of her body and what they have meant to her, and how more gen­er­ally th­ese parts have been shaped by cul­ture.

She is a mid­dle-aged writ­ing teacher, a Jew, a daugh­ter to her mother, a daugh­ter to her fa­ther, a hap­less teenager, the carer to an el­derly aunt, a les­bian, a prac­ti­tioner and tu­tor of mar­tial arts, a cit­i­zen of Chicago, a pro­fes­sional with a tax prob­lem. All th­ese things are per­sonal to her; each is re­vealed along with an anatomis­ing of the body, un­til the reader be­gins to see that the per­sonal is not only po­lit­i­cal but un­avoid­ably phys­i­cal — and vice versa.

“His­tory has weighed in on my body, and I have come up … Jewish.” Her nose, Shin­ner says, is ap­par­ently Jewish, as are her feet, as flat, smooth ‘‘Jewish feet’’ are the sub­ject of her open­ing piece, a bravura con­cor­dance of ways in which the Jewish body has been faulted. An

Septem­ber 27-28, 2014 as­tute fem­i­nist, she is wearily used to be­ing over-de­ter­mined as a woman. “But I never un­der­stood my body as Jewish, a racial con­struc­tion, or more to the point, a par­ody, and the view is un­set­tling. Who is this flat-footed spec­i­men?”

Rather than re­ject the fool­ish racism, she digs to­wards its work­ings. Shin­ner has the same feet as her fa­ther; bunioned, turned out, un­gainly. Charlie Chap­lin feet. They are ‘‘typ­i­cal’’, she learns, of the de­gen­er­ate Jew, ex­ces­sive, fem­i­nised, unath­letic; slope-shoul­dered, rounded, large-nosed. With quiet, trou­bled froideur she lays out pages of prej­u­diced phys­iog­nomy from 13th-cen­tury cler­ics to 20th-cen­tury mil­i­tary man­u­als, all neg­li­gently de­scrib­ing the car­i­ca­ture of the Semitic body.

She threads to­gether an ex­pla­na­tion for her in­ter­est in mar­tial arts (to be braver), a his­tory of Jewish baseballers, an anec­dote of neigh­bour­hood vi­o­lence in 1916 Brook­lyn and the case of Chap­lin him­self who, although not Jewish, was per­sis­tently cat­e­gorised as such by both Jews and anti-Semites, par­tially be­cause of his fa­mous turned-out walk. This is the best kind of per­sonal es­say: one that flows out­wards from the suf­fused in­ti­mate into the per­vaded univer­sal.

In her 16-page over­ture and the 11 es­says that follow, Shin­ner proves her­self a lu­cid, alert, ar­tic­u­late, hon­est mem­oirist, both droll and coldly an­gered, and pos­sessed by the brave dis­ci­pline of the self-ex­am­iner who will look closely — in­deed, who will strip naked — to find the truth.

The book im­proves as it goes along: it is an un­smil­ing vol­ume, but its se­ri­ous­ness is a re­fusal to shrug away the hurt of phys­i­cal in­sult. From the first, Shin­ner is pre­pared to bare her­self in pur­suit of the un­set­tling view by oth­ers of her­self — and of her own view of her­self. “My body, un­der the eye of his­tory, is off-putting. I’ve be­come a voyeur, forced to step aside and take a peek at my­self,” she says. But she also ad­mits, “I’m blind to my­self. Just as I’m blind to the per­son whose re­flec­tion tags along with me in store win­dows … The per­son I see, with her head for­ward and back curved, sur­prises me. I turn away.”

But she can’t turn away for long. In this piece about pos­ture (she has a ‘‘Jewish’’ slouch, too, but is re­lieved to dis­cover a var­ied cul­tural his­tory of pos­ture-cor­rec­tion and pol­i­tics) she in- vokes an im­age of 1950s ‘‘pos­ture queens’’, stand­ing tiara-ed and gowned be­hind X-ray boxes. “From the chest up they are permed hair­dos, pen­cilled eye­brows, glossy smiles; be­low they are bony il­lu­mi­na­tions … Part kew­pie, part skele­ton.” I’m amazed the pub­lish­ers didn’t use this icon as the book’s cover im­age.

Never mind X-rays and strip­ping naked: Shin­ner digs for bones. The fi­nal es­say, Post­mortem, is a dev­as­tat­ing evo­ca­tion of her fa­ther’s death. She takes up the of­fer of an au­topsy with­out re­ally un­der­stand­ing what it means. Then re­alises that her fa­ther’s telling of his story has ended and there are still se­crets.

In the piece she de­scribes the af­ter­math of a death: the hastily booked ho­tel room near the hos­pi­tal, the wait for the au­topsy re­sults, the con­fu­sion over who con­tacts whom about them, the ebullient bouts of nostal­gia, the hor­ror of con­tem­plat­ing what has hap­pened to an ac­tual body. “Is this dis­tanc­ing from our bod­ies so com­plete that all we can do is shud­der in re­sponse, or is this … an in­nate recog­ni­tion that some things are bet­ter left un­seen?”

“Look within, we tell our­selves in times of self-as­sess­ment,” she writes, per­turbed, “but that is metaphor­i­cal.” In this book, Shin­ner holds the metaphor­i­cal character-as­sess­ment of phys­iog­nomy quizzi­cally to a mir­ror to re­veal its lit­eral re­flec­tion.

In ex­ca­vat­ing the depths of the body, in telling its han­dling by his­tory and cul­ture, and in ca­ress­ing its frail­ties and quirks, she parses not just her re­la­tion­ship with her own parts but what it means to chase the re­flec­tion of her­self in the shop win­dow and refuse to turn away.

The per­sonal is un­avoid­ably phys­i­cal

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