Studied reflections seek to expose the naked truth
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