I Lost my Foreskin
If this blog was hosted on myspace, Dan Levy's Intuition would autoplay.
Lately the media I've been consuming has had a common theme of losing parts of your body, horror at society and suicide. I thought I'd observe some things that resonated with me from American Circumcision, Two Arms One Head and I Lost my Body. A real five stages of grief lineup.
This documentary made me think about some things I hadn't before. Things that to be honest I'd rather not think much about, but I'm glad some people are thinking about carefully. The documentary covered the history of circumcision, various arguments that are made in favor and the current movement to outlaw it in America. It also touches on the foreskin restoration movement, female circumcision and a man who sued his hospital over his circumcision. It's available on Netflix and if you're prepared to feel uncomfortable I would recommend it. Some moments from the film which stuck with me:
Lloyd Schofield, the organizer for a movement to outlaw circumcision in San Francisco, was accused of being antisemitic and was pressured to allow a religious exemption in his ballot motion. He countered by saying a religious exemption would be antisemitic, that the position that it was okay to circumcise Jewish boys is antisemitic. This move surprised and impressed me. It's the sort of rhetorical move one could only see they had available if they had totally bought into the body autonomy argument at the heart of intactivism.
Edgar Schoen serves the classic documentary role of the silly looking person representing the other side. At the end of the film there was the following exchange:
Interviewer: What would you say to men who are angry that they were circumcised?
Schoen: Get a life. Come on. I mean there's 120 million males in this country that have been circumcised and are perfectly fine. Go find another reason for your problems.
It made me think about all the injustice in the world and how great it is that some people get so angry over them and other people ignore them and focus on living their lives. I guess after watching the documentary my opinion is that circumcision without medical cause or individual consent shouldn't be legal. But I'm not going to take any political action over that opinion. Similarly I'm of the opinion that animal welfare should be more respected and prison terms should be shorter (I used to naively think that the US had a higher incarceration rate than say Canada or EU nations because of more laws or enforcement of laws around drugs. But mostly its because of longer sentences) but I don't take action. I think its exceedingly likely that society is engaged in other vast moral failings which I can't see now. I think when it comes to moral outrage, actual protest or quiet acceptance are the only two options. Something in between, a festering resentment, will not help the problem and will not enable you to be a stronger person capable of taking on moral failures in the future. I guess these thoughts aren't actually that related to Schoen's statement. But it inspired them anyhow.
The film quietly closes with "In Memory of Jonathon Conte". If you're like me you don't remember any of the names of the people who talk in documentaries. A brief introduction and qualification flash on the screen when they're introduced which never impinges on my memory. Googling I discovered that he, one of the intactivists profiled in the documentary, had committed suicide shortly before the release. This realization had sort of a big effect on me. I wonder if it was over his own personal circumcision, or if it had more to do with him being part of a fringe political group, that isn't taken very seriously but has compelling moral arguments. Maybe I'm reading too much into it and there were other things going on in his life outside the intactivist movement. It makes Schoen's advice seem colder and more brutal. But simultaneously maybe like valuable advice someone in Conte's position would have done well to take seriously.
This was a deeply disturbing book. It came into my attention via Gwern. It was the first person story of a philosophy PhD, now law student, who had become paraplegic in a recent motorcycle accident. I couldn't actually tell you why I read it through except that it sucked me in with its horror. Atreus writes like someone who knows he is right and is tired of having people deny what is common knowledge to his face. He writes like what he says is common knowledge, but that it is common knowledge is not common. And as a reader I couldn't disagree with any of his claims. Perhaps I was bedazzled by his obviously superior knowledge of moral philosophy but maybe for the same reason I couldn't put the book down (or rather, close the webpage) I couldn't contradict anything he claimed.
As a living person I feel my life is very much worth living. And though I don't like to think about it, it is certainly possible for my life to become not worth living while I am still alive. The book starts by detailing his intention to kill himself, as to him his life is no longer worth living. The book ends with a graphic description of him killing himself. I question whether that part is true. I can't find more information about Clayton Atreus online and suspect it is a pseudonym. But the ending isn't completely implausible. My website is setup so I can update it with just a few clicks and I suppose his could have been similar.
At the heart of the book is Clayton's lack of desire to self modify into a person who is happy with his new life as a paraplegic. He goes on about the time his morning routine requires, the mechanics with which he now relieves himself, the disgust with which he sees his own body. He acknowledges that in time his view of his experience would likely change. But he is not beholden to his anticipation of the evolution of his values. Today's values are his values, not tomorrow's.
Like the intactivists he spends most of his time engaging with the dominant cultural narrative that "nothing great was lost". So now you can't walk. So now you don't have a foreskin. Trite descriptions which don't capture the gruesome reality as Atreus or intactivists see it. I don't mean to conflate these things too closely because I'm sure everyone involved would agree that paraplegia is incalculably worse. Everyone agrees it would be better not to be paraplegic but at least 70% of Americans seem to think it is better to be Circumcised. The parallels I do want to make are these:
- Atreus sees the full horror of his life as being constantly denied. People will say things to him like "So you can't walk" which (as he will tell you in graphic detail) don't at all capture the full horror of his new life. Similarly Intactivists see the deficiencies of circumcision as very evident but constantly denied. I don't think its important to this parallel whether Atreus or intactivists are broadly correct or incorrect in how they see their condition. The parallel is just that they see their condition as much worse than society in general does.
- Both paraplegia and circumcision lead to a sort of permanent loss which it's up to the victim to decide how to move on from.
- And there are the obvious parallels: both involve a loss of part of your body, both conditions lead to the suicide of primary characters in the works.
This is an animated French movie produced by Netflix, nominated for best animated feature film. Unlike the previous two works this one can at least in principle be spoiled. But it basically starts at the end so if you're on the fence about spoilers I wouldn't worry about it.
Getting into it: The film follows Naoufel, who loses his parents as a child and then loses a hand in the movies climax, and in the movies opening scene (the scenes depict the same event, he doesn't lose both his hands). Interspersed in Naoufel's story are scenes of his hand traversing Paris, looking for him. These scenes are my favorite part of the film. They're animated so beautifully. They're sort of what I wish all animation was: extended metaphors that wouldn't work at all in a live action setting. It's part of the reason Ping Pong: the Animation is my favorite work of art. Just the way they depict ping pong and motion in animation is breathtaking. The hand's allegorical journey to be reunited with Naoufel is futile, when it does eventually find him it can't reattach.
The whole movie is very allegorical so I'm not sure what I'll say about it is really what the film is 'about', but here goes anyway. The film is about moving on past loss. Whether it's your parents or your hand (or the use of your lower body, or your foreskin) one must reject despair and live in the new reality of life. No matter how much it hurts or you wish you could go back. Life can only be lived forward. The hand goes through all sorts of difficult trials to find Naoufel. But the hand is gone. Naoufel's dream of being an astronaut is gone. Naoufel's parents are gone. But Naoufel is still here.
The film ends with Naoufel's love interest, Gabrielle, finding Naoufel's tap recordings of his parents left on top of the roof they had a date on earlier. It's snowing. I don't know what the winter weather is symbolizing but earlier Naoufel read a book about the arctic and made an igloo. My first reaction is that he had killed himself. But he hadn't. He had jumped onto a nearby crane, which is revealed to Gabrielle by his left behind cassette recorder. It's a callback to earlier when he asked her if she thought one could escape fate, maybe my doing something crazy like jumping onto the crane. Finally Naoufel is living in the moment. And even though he's lost so much it's time to move forward.
This is one thing about the film that's slightly unsatisfying: So he's moved on. But to what? I guess the film isn't about his future but about moving beyond his past. Any concrete details about his future would be a distraction. But it still left me feeling strange. I felt inspired to move on and do things. But do what? I suppose the film was never going to answer a question like that for me.
In any case we see a much more inspiring reaction to loss than in two arms one head. I'm not here to put values on values. I think Atreus has anticipated the naive optimism with which I prefer to see life. And he is correct that ultimately it is up to each of us to decide whether life is worth living. I Lost my Body touched and inspired me. Preoccupation with the past and what you once had but no longer can be so enthralling. Most loss isn't as traumatic as that of your parents, or parts of your body. But everyday is a loss. Everyday is a precious gift that I'm never getting back. But I need to keep moving forward.