On Nakedness

Unless perhaps for a professional streaker, being naked is a very precarious situation. It would be an extremely rare kind of individual who would dare and so completely expose himself or herself in front of a complete stranger, much less in public.

Now, we have used the term expose. The word comes from the Latin ex-positio (ex – “outside”; positio – from ponere, “lay down”, which can be traced from the Old Latin po-sinere “away-leave”). Nakedness, then, insofar as it means “being exposed”, has as roots three things: an outward movement; a laying down before an other; and a sense of being left away. These, in turn, give us three elements of nakedness: revelation, intimacy, and vulnerability.

To be naked is to be revealed. One may note the phrase “the naked truth” to see the relationship between nakedness and revelation. When a person disrobes himself, he literally steps out of his clothes–and in the process we see not only his fine form, but also the scars and defects on his body: a mole on his back, a gash near his abdomen, and so on. Nakedness opens the person into scrutiny by an other; it invites the other’s gaze. The disrobing person sheds off the veil of his secrecy, removing his masks, his false selves and images, and allows someone else to see him as he is in his totality, that is, both magnificent and flawed.

Now, even as the naked person opens herself, inviting the other person into her confidence, she also sets the stage for intimacy. This we see in the sexual act. Once two people disrobe they lay themselves down, their lips meeting, their bodies touching, exchanging heat. They would also, inevitably, exchange secret, whispered words: I love you, among other things. Having opened themselves, the couple then are able to reach into the other’s core, touch it, and put all of themselves in it. A bond is forged. By sharing all of themselves to the other, they begin to draw from the same hopes, the same fears, and, indeed, they become as if but one person.

And yet, by daring to open himself, by daring to lay himself down for the other, the disrobing person also makes himself vulnerable. Without the layers of clothing, his body is easily affected by the harsh elements: scorching heat, freezing cold, disease, piercing spears, and so on. Moreover, should the other for whom she strips herself prove malicious or unworthy, the naked person risks getting injured, or violated, or even ignored. She may, in all her surrender, become nothing more but an access point, a mass of knowledge to be taken in: she could be subjected to the cruel objectification of the gaze, every aspect of her personality neglected until the observer is given (or has given himself) the right to put her into the rack, to dissect her–in a word, to limit her, to define her, to eliminate her. Or, and just as terribly, her gamble might only be ignored, unrequited, her body revealed for no one to see.

This vulnerability, perhaps, is what makes nakedness an utterly terrifying state. Exposing oneself to the wrong person, the wrong crowd, could lead to humiliation, indeed even to hurt and elimination. The stakes are just too high. It is no wonder then that there are those who clam themselves up, building strong walls to safeguard their identity, their integrity. They protect themselves from all harm, perceived and imagined, caused by a malevolent other who would try and pry into their nakedness and exploit it.

This choice is, without a doubt, a prudent one. However, by covering himself with so many layers, the prudent person is no longer able to see, much less react, to the events at and beyond the horizon. Having so wrapped himself in his own clothes, he cannot perceive the face of the other; he cannot reach out to touch that other; he cannot belong in a community; he cannot see beyond the horizon. By building himself up beneath his thick clothes his eyes and ears are shut, his nose covered, his mouth stilled. He cannot receive nourishment. He cannot even breathe. And after years of seeing nothing but himself, he will eventually tire, he will tell himself that nothing will change, that he has already reached a plateau–and indeed, there is only nothing. And he will despair.

In the end, prudence fails. And from prudence, we must instead turn to hope. But what is hope? In his “Sketch of a Phenomenology and Metaphysic of Hope” Marcel discusses the true hope in detail. But, in a word, we may perhaps state hope as this: hope is what urges us to surrender ourselves, to disrobe and let the possibility of alterity, of transcendence, and as well as oblivion, pierce through our openness, our vulnerability. It is an unconditional surrender–we surrender our hearts, our minds, our bodies, and our souls, and in doing so we forego any conditions, and terms, any clauses, any particularities. We give ourselves up completely to the Light which disarms, removing us of all our armor and penetrating us with His rays; we retreat from the center of the field and allow Him to take the high ground. And we trust in His goodness.

But what surety do we have that this Light is good–or, indeed, if there is such a Light to face in our nakedness? Alas, we have none. But all we know is that to crave for surety is a withdrawal of judgment. It is a postponement, a condition. And if we are to truly hope in Him, then we are to let go of the mantle of cognition.

So are we to merely disrobe ourselves of everything and–let all be? Hardly so, for, as we have seen, baring, exposing ourselves is in itself a struggle, if not the struggle. I have to let an other to see me; I have to let Him see us. And we shall have to have desire–for her, for us, for Him–if we are to win this struggle at all. We have to want the other to see us, to rejoice in us as we rejoice in them, to speak as they speak, to caress their skin as they do ours, to meet lips with lips in kiss, to become as one. And then, and yet at the same time, we are to delight in our vulnerability, our smallness, in our humility–and we believe that He, in His grace, will find our faults and alter it, that He will reside in our frustrations and our failures and turn them into our victories.

In the end, then, we ask ourselves: how, then, are we to do this struggle? How, then, do we disrobe ourselves? And this question, for us who believe, can be transposed once more: how do we pray? We echo the disciples as they ask the Lord, “teach us how to pray”. For prayer, that religious experience par excellence, as Chretien implies, is the ultimate expression of exposition–in prayer we are utterly exposed, utterly naked. By raising our voices and revealing our secrets we risk being humiliated, being seen as madmen, being disappointed in the face of a God that we cannot see. And yet, as we hope in Him, we take this risk: we deliberately endure and undergo this nakedness, trusting that in doing so God shall repay our joy in full.

It is interesting to note that in the first chapters of Genesis, Adam and Eve were created naked by God. They were completely open, completely intimate, and completely vulnerable. The slightest things, such as loose twigs and sharp stones, could have hurt them, but it was of no consequence. They held speech with God. In their Fall what they first noticed was this naked state–and they were afraid. They feared that, they being so exposed, God, and perhaps the other and even the whole of creation, could see their weakness and exploit it. So they hid, and so God clothed them, and so began the history of our shame, our fear, our self-absorption. But for we who will dare to hope in God, we are called to return home to our natural state of nakedness: but this home, we believe, will be better than before. What does this mean? We may not yet grasp this in its totality. But in disrobing ourselves, we allow the possibility that God, in His own time, will, for our (and not my) sake, make it so.

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