Sunday, February 14, 2010

Fall Fashion: Hiding and Skinning

One of the joys and challenges of closely reading the Bible is the way that a seemingly simple phrase can explode into a multiplicity of significance. Depending on the particular light one shines on the lines and words, the particular filters through which one chooses – purposefully or accidentally – to view a passage, a turn of phrase that one has read hundreds of times can suddenly seem entirely different. Words so familiar that one tends to skip over them can suddenly appear to be vested with heretofore unexamined meaning.

While struggling to put together a coherent lesson on the Fall, I have been passing the time exploring a book I considered to be largely a diversion, Mark Taylor’s Hiding, a literary collage in which he explores issues of the skin. Because it is a work by Taylor (with an introduction by his friend Jack Miles), a remarkable scholar of religion, it touches down from time to time on theological issues, but it is also a freewheeling exploration of pop culture, high culture and, above all, the ways in which humans mark and hide, expose and cover, display and mask the surface of the body. Reading Hiding, one can pick up lessons on the history of tattooing and scarification, fashion trends of the 1990s, the skin disease psoriasis (and its important role in the television series "The Singing Detective"), the layered authorship of Don Quixote, duplicity of appearance and language in Paul Auster’s novel City of Glass and the graphic novel adaptation of it produced in collaboration with the cartoonists Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli, and mediated by and through their creative god//father Art Spiegelman.

As I spent fascinated hours reading Taylor, and meandering among these errant trails of thought and influence, I was chiding myself for avoiding the issues of the Fall that I was aiming to explore. Suddenly, this morning, the purposefulness of my aimless wanderings became clear.

One way to read the story of the Fall in Genesis 3 is as an exploration of the topics of hiding and skinning.

Hiding, skinning, to hide, to skin, hidden, skinned. These words are all, as far as my limited exploration of their etymology has revealed to me, of Northern European (Germanic and Norse) origin. So the relationships I am discussing here may have little to do with the Hebrew terms used in the original writings. But that is a felicity of translation that I am happy to accept.

Hide and skin, as nouns, can be synonyms, two terms for the outer covering of the body that is also its largest and one of its most complex organs. The verbs “to hide” and “to skin” are in some sense opposites, the former suggesting a covering up, the latter an exposure of what is properly covered. The end result of skinning is a hide, a disembodied surface that can be used to hide another surface. In architecture, where the “skin” is the exterior cladding (clothing) of a building, the verb “to skin” assumes a kind of reverse meaning, and is used to denote either the specification or application of that cladding to the building, rather than its removal.

With that in mind, let’s look at Genesis 3.

The final verses of Genesis 2 comprise a preamble to what follows. In 2:22, we hear Adam’s first words:
“This one, at last, bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh,
This one shall be called Woman,
for from man was this one taken.”
Then, in what, depending on the translation, may be either a continuation of Adam’s soliloquy or an authorial comment:
“Therefore does a man leave his father and his mother and cling to his wife and they become one flesh.”
And finally:
“And the two of them were naked, the human and his woman, and they were not ashamed.”
Images of the skin dominate. Eve is flesh of Adam’s flesh, the two become one flesh, their flesh is exposed and they are unashamed of it. Robert Alter’s translation, quoted above, uses the word “cling” as opposed to the multivalent term “cleave” in the King James version. Cleave is one of those wonderful English words that, like “hide” and “skin”, suggests both a thing and its opposite: To bring together and to separate (“cleavage”, of course, marks and emphasizes a line separation betweenthe female breasts when they are pushed together by clothing that exposes them).

Taylor begins Hiding with a discussion of embryonic development, in which he points out that as the zygote develops into embryo, the single cell divides and multiplies, forming first a hollow ball, the blastomere, that then invaginates and begins to differentiate into what biologists call the ectoderm, mesoderm and endoderm, three “skins” from which all of the components of the body develop (“dermis” being the Latinate term for skin). The ectoderm becomes the skin, hair, nails and nervous system; the mesoderm develops into skeleton, muscle, connective tissue, urogenital and circulatory systems; the endoderm forms the interior organs and blood. Thus, in a peculiarly poetic and yet biologically accurate sense, we are nothing but skin.

So, when Adam and Eve are said to be unashamed of their exposed skin, they can be understood to be truly content with themselves at every level.

What happens next is well-known. The serpent, a beast known, among other things, for the dramatic way in which it periodically sheds its epidermis to reveal a new skin underneath, persuades Eve to taste the fruit of the forbidden Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. She in turn gives the fruit to Adam in what has been called temptation (although if you read the words of Genesis 3, it doesn’t take much).

And then they become immediately aware of their nakedness. “Their eyes were opened,” the text says. In other words, the protective skin of their eyelids is removed. By the pulling back of that thin layer of skin, the exposure of their hides is revealed to them.

They cover their skin by sewing together fig leaves into what is variously translated as aprons or loincloths. And then they hide. Their skin.

From God.

God, who in a curiously corporeal moment has been walking in the Garden in the evening breeze (to cool His skin?) exposes the errant couple and expels them from Paradise. But first, he makes them clothes.

From skins.

A newer, better, tougher skin is provided as protection for the inadequate skin of which the first couple has become embarrassed.

That hides are the material selected to create second skins to mask the hides of those who have become aware of the exposure of their skin due to the lifting of a layer of hide is, simply, perfect. That the creative art employed in this process is ever-evolving fashion (Fig leaves? So passé, so “one hour ago.” Let me dress you in fur and leather, my sweets) is a triumph of literary style.

The second skin is instantly shed-able. In fact, the next thing we learn about Adam and Eve, in the opening of Genesis 4, is that they engage in sex – an act that most often involves the shedding of that second skin, and which, of course, fulfills all that “flesh of my flesh” stuff from the end of Genesis 2, not to mention the “be fruitful and multiply” dictum from Genesis 1.

We all shed our skins constantly, if not in the dramatic fashion of the serpent. House dust is composed primarily of skin flakes, shed without our knowledge or, most of the time, our consent (I’ll leave the topic of cosmetic exfoliation to someone else). What was once our protective covering becomes refuse to be swept away and disposed.

What we gain in the loss of Paradise is the ability to acquire and dispose of – at will -- second skins that hide our first. Skins divorced from their initial purpose, separated from their source. We gain – in essence – fiction, the ability to re-make ourselves not only in God’s image but in any image we can imagine.

We use these masks to hide what we fear to be our true selves, those first, essential skins of which we have become ashamed. Paradise can thus be seen at one level as the ability to be comfortable in our own skins, to be unembarrassed of our true natures. In the postlapsarian world, we are condemned to cover up, to make over, to hide our skin from the eyes of God. The search for redemption is the search for essence, and that essence is to be found in the ability to dwell in the original skin (which after all is bone-deep) that God gave us.