To understand how the modern body came into being is an essential first step toward the very different task of reconstructing an extinct body perception. After all, my body determines my perceptions; above all, it shapes my notions and images of corporeality: of pain and pleasure, taste and lust, aging and disease, pregnancy, birth, and death…[but] to approach the women’s complaints recorded by the doctor in Eisenach, Germany, from my own body consciousness would profoundly prejudice my understanding of what these women were saying. …. (Barbara Duden, The Woman Beneath the Skin: A Doctor’s Patients in Eighteenth-Century Germany. Trans. Thomas Dunlap. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1991. p. 2)
It’s hard to believe that Barbara Duden’s influential book is now over 20 years old. It is still so very important at a methodological level – how might we recapture the bodily experiences of the past? Because to read them through the lenses that shape my experience is to misread them.
Their stories of their bodies were not shaped by ultrasounds or xrays, psychotherapy or the rest cure. Their stories emerged from very different contexts … from different imaginings that found it logical that menstrual blood transformed into breast milk, something that seems not only incredible to us today, but ridiculous. How much of what we take for granted today will seem equally ridiculous in the future, even though it seems entirely logical today?
How will I read the story of the woman who presents herself as mother and wife first and as ill person last? How can I understand her experience of pregnancy and loss? Her stories of forceps delivery and c-section? These are traumatic experiences even today…what must they have been like then? Or was life then so different that trauma itself was measured differently? Where might I begin to assess the stories of these lives?
The questions, it seems, lead only to further questions, and I find myself retreating into theory, a comfortable, but remarkably disembodied space from which to comment on corporeality. It is the work of scholars such as Duden that has made it possible to begin to imagine anew, that has opened our eyes to the possibilities of bodily opacity – the body that could not be accessed by outsiders, but remained, in Duden’s words, ‘opaque’:
It is a place of hidden activities. As long as a person was alive, his body could not be opened, his inside could not be deciphered, could not be seen. People could speculate about its inside only with the help of signs that appeared on the body or emanated from it. (106)
External signs were evidence of bodily accord or discord. Hair colour, imaginative engagement, pustules, excessive menstrual flow, a tendency to headaches, hot horse rides followed by a sudden breeze and cool shower. Deciphering – and making meaning of – this world is an immense task, indeed. Wish me luck.