Thoughts on the Material Self

Dr. Brian J. Troth //

February 2022. Heavy rain has drenched France’s capital; strong winds force the rain sideways and send the covid-testing tents tumbling down the road. In the Café Beaubourg, psychiatrist Dr. Christophe Fauré is working on his next book. Two months prior, I had just finished reading his first fiction, Mourir n’est pas te perdre. In the book, an immaterial essence guides two younger essences on their journey to a greater spiritual plane. They jump from body to body over millennia; their ‘hosts’ have only vague memories of previous lives and are doomed to make the same (fatal) mistakes until their essences reach their most enlightened state.

I’ve joined Fauré for an afternoon coffee. We sat together upstairs, where Boum Boum, the resident cat, and mouse exterminator, is napping on the bookshelf next to us. I turned to Christophe and asked the question that’d been on my mind since finishing his novel: “To what extent do you believe in what you wrote?” He seemed taken aback. His response was frank and clear: to him, there was no need to “believe” any of it because there was no doubt of its veracity. He reminded me of documented cases of young children who have memories they shouldn’t, as if they were remnants of a previous life. His next book is, in fact, the scientific analysis of his own novel.

Fauré’s novel poses questions that interject the novel into the conversation around the French tradition of existentialism and furthermore into recent debates over trans identities: just how important is the body one is born with and can one change it? In Fauré’s novel, the human characters have choices but are doomed to repeat mistakes that occurred in their past lives. The body is secondary; it’s a vehicle whose purpose is to host the essence as they navigate time. Jean-Paul Sartre, however, stated that l’existence précède l’essence (existence precedes essence). That is, humans do not add value to their lives because of some innate quality that they are born with. Rather, they add value to their lives by performing a series of actions. 

On the other side of the world, University of Pennsylvania trans swimmer Lia Thomas has been making waves (pardon the pun) for her performance in the pool. The ensuing debate that she has a biological advantage as a biological male straddles a delicate line between transphobia and protection of the integrity of sports.

These two anecdotes may seem disparate, yet they are linked by what they say about the human body. The human body is endowed with certain characteristics; these characteristics may very well suit the inhabitant of the human body, but it is also the case that the human body can present limitations. I propose that embracing trans identities can teach us that the body’s shortcomings can be circumvented or, indeed, skipped altogether.

In common parlance, trans is generally used to describe an individual whose gender identity does not correspond with the assigned sex at birth. It’s important to recognize that assigned sex is distinct from gender identity; a doctor usually designates sex based on a child’s external genitalia. Excluding cases of intersex individuals, sex is a fairly inherent aspect of corporality. However, gender has no meaning without being assigned one by the society that interacts with the body. There is very little that is inherent about gender (as evidenced by the fact that one culture may raise boys to avoid showing emotional vulnerability while another embraces handholding as a form of showing friendship). 

Judith Butler’s ideas on gender performativity and body materiality allow us to understand the mechanisms behind gender differences. She argues that gender is the outward expression of the body’s inner core, but this outward expression is the product of a cooperative process. The body (in this case, one’s biological sex) informs the way that others interact with it, thereby conditioning it to conform to accepted norms of how a male or female body is supposed to behave. The fact that this conditioning is different across cultures (or that the conditioning must occur at all) is evidence that gender itself is neither innate nor pure. Trans individuals are able to reject this process by reconditioning their gender’s outward expression and by interacting with the world in a way that aligns with the individual’s true gender identity.

This leads me to the literal definition of trans, which is a Latin prefix meaning ‘across’ or ‘beyond’. This is the angle from which I approached Arthur Cahn’s 2018 novel Les vacances du petit Renard in a forthcoming volume on trans identities in French media. In Cahn’s novel, Paul Renard is an underage gay teenager who downloads Grindr and uses it to create fake profiles with which he catfishes his crush, a 40-year-old man named Hervé. There are ethical concerns, but the process by which Paul creates identities allows him to speak to Hervé, to learn about him on a deeper level, and form a relationship in a way that is not possible in the physical world. In fact, faced with the possibility of having an anonymous, blindfolded sexual encounter with Hervé, Paul runs away crying. The body he has does not allow him to have the sort of interactions with the world that he would like.

Body-crossing offers us a compelling chance to reconsider our own limitations and whether our bodies suit our needs. We are all part of our respective societies. For many of us, that is perfectly convenient. Yet for many people, this is stifling. Trans identities free all of us from the confines of our bodies (or, more precisely, from the confines of how our bodies were socialized). They reveal the shortcomings of the body: it may be too young, too old. It may have been socialized in a way that does not correspond with one’s identity. But there is another way; we do not have to accept our body’s limitations. Speak not of disembodiment or of dysmorphia. Speak, rather, of liberation. Trans identities, in expressing their freedom, extend freedom to all.

Art Credit

Photo by Lena Balk on Unsplash

Bibliography

Butler, Judith. Bodies that matter: on the discursive limits of “sex.” New York: Routledge, 1993. 

Butler, Judith. Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge, 1990. 

Cahn, Arthur. Les Vacances du petit Renard. Paris: Seuil, 2018.

Fauré, Christophe. Mourir n’est pas te perdre. Paris: Albin Michel, 2021.

Fauré, Christophe. Cette vie…et au-delà: enquête sur la continuité de la conscience après la mort (provisionary title). Paris: Albin Michel, forthcoming.

Troth, Brian. “Multiple Bodies: The Digital and the Physical in Arther Cahn’s Les Vacances du petit Renard (2018).” Trans Identities in French Media. Ed. Romain Chareyron. Lanham, Maryland, London: Lexington Books, forthcoming, pp. 61-76.

Keep reading

%d bloggers like this: