Moving Beyond the Centaur "Inside Out"

I just finished reviewing Margaret Miles’s new book Beyond the Centaur:  Imagining the Intelligent Body. The main argument of the book is that for the vast majority of Western history, the human being has been viewed as a composite of various parts, “two (or more) assembled, stuck together, hierarchically arranged components, usually body and mind or soul.”  And, like the mythic Centaur, those parts have fit together in ways both harmonious and acrimonious:  Chiron, tutor of Achilles, Perseus and Theseus, on the one hand; and Eurytion, the drunken Centaur who tried to carry off Hippodamia at her wedding feast and started a year-long war, on the other.  In general, however, the gist of this “composite part” interpretation of the human being is a body that needs to be controlled and subdued by a brain–the spiritual/mental almost always has taken precedent over the physical.

Think of how for so many centuries, the adjectives “rational” and “emotional” have been opposed.  If someone calls you rational, it’s typically received as a compliment; if someone calls you emotional? Not so much.  And obviously this relates to the way women traditionally have been more closely linked to bodies and emotions than men, and therefore have been seen as further from rational thought and intelligence than men as well.  This is another extraordinarily damaging way that the image of the human being as a Centaur has contributed to patriarchal views of women as not as intelligent, and not as capable of leadership and decision-making.  In it’s worst form, this type of thinking characterizes women as little more than emotional loose canons who need to be “tamed” by rational, intelligent men.  This idea of the human person as composed to two contrary parts has done so much harm; not only to the way we think about and care for our own bodies and the bodies of others–or not–but also the way we think about and care for the body of the earth–or not.

Miles thus proposes to replace this metaphor of the human being as Centaur with another one:  Maxine Sheets-Johnstone’s “intelligent body.”  With this image of the human being as one integrated whole, we are better to see, interpret, and understand ourselves as unified, organic beings, where how we think affects how we move, and how we move affects how we know, and how we know effects we feel, and how we feel affects how we believe.  We’re not brains first and foremost trapped in physical casings.  We are bodies–bodies that reason, grieve, create and love:  “Neither mind in isolation nor body in isolation is a trustworthy and fruitful source of understanding and living; the reality of human persons is intelligent bodies.”  It is a compelling argument.  

Miles’ argument was in my head when I saw the movie “Inside Out” last weekend.  It is really an astonishingly good movie–even all the great reviews I had heard didn’t prepare me for how very lovely and wise it was.  [And, frankly, not at all for children, even though it’s animated, of course, and the visuals are quite engaging.]  I realize that one of the things I loved about the movie so much was the way it had emotions–Fear, Disgust, Anger, Sadness, and especially Joy–“in charge” of the young girl’s brain. It was Riley’s emotions that were coming up with ideas, processing data from the outside world, cataloging and choreographing memories, forming relationships–basically shaping Riley’s entire personality and her way of being in the world. Her emotional life was not opposed to her rational life–in fact the emotions were doing the thinking; and interestingly enough, Sadness actually seemed to be the “smart one.” Sadness turns out to have a key role in creating the possibility for openness, growth, and relationship development for Riley; and ultimately Riley’s own maturing is built on more complex emotional memories, and more nuanced emotional thought.  All the different emotions have a role to play in Riley’s engagement with the world–and she can’t “think” without them; she can’t “be” without them:  she’s not Riley without them.  And neither are we.

The movie thus depicts the brain as fully “embodied,” where all aspects of what we usually conceive of as a rational thought are deeply embedded in our physical selves, our emotional life.  This is a welcome change, in my view:  one example of the intelligent body Miles praises. 

In her book, Miles’ describes two different Rodin sculptures, one of which we know well–“The Thinker.”  She quotes his own reflection on that piece:  “What makes my Thinker think is that he thinks not only with his brain, his knitted brow, his distended nostrils and compressed lips, but with every muscles of his arms, back, and legs, with his clenched fist and gripping toes.”  And, I would add, with every ounce of his fear, sadness, anger, disgust and joy.  So should we as well.

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