Journaling the Body

People my age are puzzled, even exasperated by tattoos. Every time my husband sees a young person with a tattoo, he remarks on how it is going to make it difficult for that person to get a job. “Law firms won’t hire you,” he observes (he’s a lawyer). Of course law firms aren’t hiring anyone now anyway, even J.D.s right out of Harvard. Maybe that’s it, I’ve thought, these kids know they aren’t going to get jobs, so their tattoos are sort of nihilistic statements, the fashion of a generation with no future, or of a generation that wants emphatically to reject the future we’d envisioned for them, the future earlier generations had more or less uncritically pursued.

Even so, the time may come when they will feel differently. Don’t these young people realize, we think, that one day they may decide they no longer want their bodies decorated in this way? And then where will they be? They’ll have to pay a lot of money and undergo a painful operation to get the thing, or things, removed and even then traces of it will probably still be visible. Tastes change. Getting a tattoo seems to me analogous to having this year’s fashions super-glued to your body–i.e., incredibly short sighted. I mean, who wants to carry around with them effectively forever a reminder of how they felt, or what they liked, at a very specific point in time? Who wants to carry around with them always an indelible reminder of their past?

This morning I was flipping through an issue of Philosophy Now and happened on a photo of Robert DeNiro as the tattooed Max Cady from Scorsese’s remake of Cape Fear. Max had a tattoo on his chest of a broken heart with the name “Loretta” above it. See, that’s when I mean, I thought to myself, he’s probably had several girlfriends since this “Loretta” (I’ll confess to not having seen Cape Fear, so I may be wrong about that, still, the point is valid with respect to the average tattoo involving a lover’s name). And then it hit me: maybe that was part of the reason people had the names of lovers indelibly inscribed on their bodies–i.e., so as not to forget them in what would more than likely be the subsequent long parade of paramours. Perhaps, it occurred to me suddenly, people get tattooed because they want to remember, perhaps tattoos are desperate attempts to hang onto memory in this age of amnesia when people are constantly recreating or reinventing themselves, this age when nothing seems permanent. Wasn’t that, after all, the rationale behind the penchant of the mnemonically challenged protagonist of Memento for writing all over himself? He wrote things on himself so he would remember them. He made the things he needed to remember a part of himself. Of course it did him little good because he could not later remember what they meant.

That, it seems to me, is one of the universal human challenges–to recover the meaning of the past. This, I believe, is at least part of what the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard meant when he referred to the problem of “repetition” and what Irenaeus, one of the earliest of the early church fathers, meant by “recapitulation.” If the past has no meaning, then neither do the present or the future. This desire to preserve, and hence to be able later to recover, the meaning of the past is why people keep journals and really, I would argue, why they write at all. I have kept a journal for years, ever since I was a child actually. I’ll go through long periods where I don’t write in it, but I always come back to it. I’ve spent very little time theorizing about it. Often, when I’m writing I wonder why I’m writing. Sometimes it’s clear, sometimes I’m recording observations or insights I think are important and that I may want to use later in some more formal piece of writing. Often though, I’m simply recording short term desires or frustrations, things I know will probably mean very little to me later and even less to anyone who might happen to read them after I’m dead.

I’ve gone back, actually, and read journal entries from high school and college that I can make no sense of now. They refer to events or people that appear to have been completely obliterated from my memory. I wonder sometimes whether they will one day make sense to me again, whether those memories will return. I don’t know, of course, but I keep writing those types of entries anyway. I think people keep journals, among other reasons, in attempts to better understand themselves, yet some of these old entries make me only more mysterious to myself. That is perhaps an important thing to remember though. It’s important, I think, for people to remember that there is something mysterious about creation and about human individuals in particular. Journaling, in whatever form, is paradoxically a way of keeping that mystery before us through a continuous effort to make it less mysterious.

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