Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Citizens of 4F, Aug. 17, 2009

Vincent sits on the right row of inward facing seats at the front of the 7:12 4F bus into downtown. He is in many ways a very typical young man in the 28-32 year-old range, and the fact that he is typical is mildly disturbing to me.

Looking over his face, I count 13 pieces of metal piercing various aspects of his face, if indeed that was a tongue stud I saw peeking out a moment ago. In addition to this, there are pieces of hardware in his upper and lower ears, his eyebrows, his lips, his chin, his nostrils. In his earlobes are round disks of the type you used to associate with aboriginal natives of Africa or the Amazon. It is for the moment just a small insert disk in his ear lobe; the habit is to start small and gradually increase the size of the disks.

Once upon a time, this look would have marked Vincent as a rebel of some degree, but it is not at all unusual today. Not only do you see young adults like this at the hip downtown ad agencies, but it's also quite common to see them dressed in suits working as loan officers at banks. In my office, there are several young adults with vivid body art tattoos that run from toes to scalp. Nose studs are now so common that they no longer warrant noticing.

It is certainly a sign of my fuddy-duddiness that I'm quietly appalled at the proliferation of body mutilation among young citizens. As I study Vincent, and others like him, I wonder what inner processes lead them to compulsively deface the physical body that nature has given them. I simply can't imagine the appeal of going to a body art studio to have my flesh drilled and bored for the insertion of nails, studs, chains and other hardware. I try to imagine a situation in which I'd want to do such a thing, and I can't. And I have a pretty good imagination.

Even as I'm thinking this, though, I recognize my indignation isn't entirely legitimate. Vincent and others of his kind are only extending an established human trait to an extreme degree. The human animal is the only one I can think of that routinely chooses to to mutilate itself in the name of ornament. At the mild end of the spectrum is coloring our hair, shaving whiskers from our cheeks and legs, wearing earrings. Carry the habit several degrees to the right, and you're goring your genitalia to hang heavy chains. All of it, even ordinary grooming, is a form of self-mutilation, when you look at it nakedly. All manifestations of this impulse seem to serve the paradoxical purpose of shifting your identity away from the norm, and thereby establishing your membership in a different group. I hope, anyway, that this is the motivation, and that it's not a manifestation of self-loathing.

And so if I was going to be true to my disapproval of the shocking idea of piercing the glans of one's penis, would I not stop shaving, stop trimming my hair, stop wearing cologne? What makes my form of ordinary self-mutilation better than your more creative effort? After all, is piercing your nipples any more barbaric than having our sons routinely circumcised at birth?

Disconcerting thoughts at 7:15 in the morning. Must try a different antihistamine.

1 comment:

Molly said...

Actually, circumcision is no longer the norm, although, when I had my sons, I practically had to fight off the nurses who harassed me, on the hour, to sign my tiny boys over to be mutilated. They thought I was irresponsible! No-one in my family was circumcised, nor was my husband who is from Europe....Besides, I have read documented cases where the knife slipped! As for tattoos and piercings, all three of the [uncircumcised!] sons have, at some point, had piercings, but now it has dwindled to a mere earring or two. No tattoos though---too permanent. Even in their teens, they knew that they might not always think tattoos so cool, but they'd still be stuck with them!

We've gone the long-flowing-locks route too, and the absence-of-shaving route, which, by your reckoning, is the lack of mutilation......I think every generation just wants something to set them apart from, or shock, their parents' generation.

But how to explain sailors?