Body Portraits

On a recent trip through central New Mexico, I found a marvelous garden sculpture in the arts colony town of Madrid. It depicts male and female nudes, in metal, on a sort of balancing pole designed to waver in the wind. These photos show both a close-up of the simply rendered nudes and an image of the entire piece.

Were I a richer man with larger luggage, I would have bought it. I find it a delightful celebration of simple nudity, designed precisely to stand and sway out in the elements, and to engage with them. Further, the piece reminds me of one that resides on the deck of my good friends who live at the naturist park near my home. It is a similar piece, in metal, but stationary as opposed to wobbly:

How to depict nudity? What, for a sculptor, is a matter of form exclusively–of shape and surface and heft–becomes, for a writer, a matter of content: of vocabulary, syntax and sound. In either case the form and the content are inseparable, but the differences among diverse artistic media determine the ways in which a body portrait can be rendered.

In my previous post from three weeks ago, I gave a sample from my current WIP (work in progress) set in the 17th-century Caribbean. Here below is another quick sample, pertaining to this idea of a body portrait: what aspects of a character’s body are necessary to mention, and how? The notion further engages some of the questions from Robert’s post last week, especially regarding the extent to which it is necessary to mention that the character is nude.

So here is main character Eddie Fife, seated (where he has fallen) on the floor below the deck of an unknown ship, awakening, in the light from a porthole, to the realization that he has not only been conscripted (pressganged), but also stripped:

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Eddie sighed and hung his head, and immediately noticed that his silver locket had been removed with his clothes. He uttered a few choice curses, thinking of whatever else he may never see again, including the knife he’d had around his belt, and his books and other belongings back aboard the Summit of Virtue. He refocused his gaze, and the colors of his body accosted him: sun-scorched, freckled arms against sun-starved legs and fish-flesh belly, with ginger hair at his groin – he was a study in shades of red and white. Except his eyes, he knew – as blue as the sky on the summer day you were born, his mother used to tell him – a blue that hadn’t changed these twenty-five years. 

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This paragraph lets us know something of Eddie’s phenotype or physical characteristics, including his ethnicity and age. On the other hand, there is not a lot to go on regarding his height or weight, proportionate sizes of various body parts, etc., because that kind of detail is not only irrelevant here, but potentially distracting.

There is a bit of foreshadowing at play: this description comes from the opening pages, but the reader can already guess that the ruddy and pale demarcations of Eddie’s skin–the tanlines, or rather burnlines, he developed as a sailor–will eventually disappear in his new life as a nude pirate. And yet, in what follows from this passage, Eddie attempts to cover himself even as it dawns on him that nobody on board is wearing clothing of any kind…

The writer must rely on the semiotics of words, and on the imagination of readers, to allow for strings of letters to represent images. This is as true for imagery related to the human body as it is for images of landscapes or furniture (can we read any more late nineteenth-century realist doorstops?) or aliens or what-have-you. But in the case of the nude human body, something that is most likely intimate to any reader, there is a special need for finding a middle path between generality and specificity. As put by Christopher Ross, the protagonist of Co-ed Naked Philosophy: “The human body is the most ordinary of things, yet also the most extraordinary.”

Body Portraits

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