“Touching and Touched: An Imaginary Dialogue with Merleau-Ponty – Dialogues with Philosophers In COVID-19 Times” by Saurabh Todaria
Care Consciously! # DEFEAT CORONA

Getting annoyingly bored with the extended lockdown in Uttarkashi, I decided to go for the stroll.  Uttarkashi is a scenic and idyllic town located in the hills on the way to Gangotri.  Flanked by the lush green mountains and flowing Ganga, it is untouched by the pollution. This area is also known as Lakhamandal in the ancient times where Pandavas stayed during their Agyatvasa. Interestingly, in the cultural memory of Garhwal Himalayas, myths of Mahabharata feature more than the Ramayana. The folk dances, music, local deities and myths are strongly influenced by the characters and stories of Mahabharata in this area than anything else. In fact, there are still the temples of Mahabharata characters like Karna and Duryodhana in this area.

Apart from the local culture, Uttarkashi is also the seat of Advaitic learning and various sadhus devote themselves to the deep contemplation in these sylvan surroundings.  Sadhus in the Himalayas are the integral part of the community’s life-world. They freely mingle with the people on various occasions. Neither they are considered as the  ‘mystic other’ ’on which the divine fantasies of power, miracle and visions could be projected nor they are the ‘vilified other’ who are doubted as the thieves or charlatans. This tendency of projecting fantasies on these sadhus esp. by the urban people led to the creation of what is called the ‘God-market’. On the other hand, the vilification of sadhus makes them vulnerable to the lynching, the way it happened recently with the sadhus in Palghar, Maharashtra.

As the density of the population is sparse here because of the hilly terrain therefore it is easy to go for the walk in the nearby villages, without the fear of violating the lockdown protocols. However, this time when I climbed to a few yards, I started to gasp for breath. I felt no strength to go further. Perhaps sedentary life-style and no routine of exercise lowered my stamina. I saw an old sadhu also sitting on the pavement. Perhaps he was trudging towards his ashram and got tired due to climbing and the frailty of the old age. I remembered Nietzsche’s words which said that the few hours of mountain climbing will make a saint and sinner rather two similar creatures. Exhaustion is the easiest way to arrive at equality. How true!

Body is clearly appears to be the stumbling block in fulfilling our desires. It gets ill, frail, old and then we cannot carry on with our tasks. That’s why, the religious people try to overcome the body which is limiting, restrictive and vulnerable. But then why do philosophers consider the body so important? Philosophers ought to talk of the themes which are abstract like soul, God and Knowledge; better to leave the body for the scientists, sociologists or psychologists who deal with the concrete. These questions automatically took me to the ‘ghost’ of Mearleu-Ponty who devoted all his life into the pursuit of the body. But will the ghost speak itself or will it possess some-body in order to speak? Garhwal Himalayas is full of the stories in which the ghosts possess somebody and then expresses the desire for smoking. Perhaps the spirit needs a body to express itself.  Merleau-Ponty’s spirit was lying inside the book which he left unfinished, ‘The Visible and the Invisible,’ as he is indistinguishable from his works.

Me – Hello!!!

Merleau- Ponty – Hi.

Me – I was wondering why you have emphasized so much on body in your works. I feel that because of the body we become vulnerable to viruses, illness and other problems. Don’t you feel that you should have thought more on the other issues and should have left this issue to the scientists?

M.P – Hmm. It is true that the body is our limitation but as a phenomenologist I have been trained to analyze human existence on the basis of its finitude. I don’t believe that the body can be studied the way we study the objects. Body is felt as the living entity. Hence, it requires a different framework altogether.

Me – Living entity?

M.P – Yes. In fact, the body is the ground on the basis of which we orient ourselves in the world. Our usage of the words like near-far, easy-tough, pleasant-unpleasant has reference to our bodily capacities. For e.g, an unpleasant day is interpreted in terms of the unpleasant bodily feelings we have.

Me- You mean to say when my mood is off?

M.P- Yes but the mood manifests itself in the palpable physical terms like I cannot sit peacefully in my chair or lie down comfortably on bed, my back aches, my eyes get  tired easily so on and so forth. All this shows that mood is not something happening only inside my mind but also in the world.

Me – World?

M.P – The world is something on which I project my hopes, anticipations and goals. The web of my relationships with others forms my world.

Me – Do you mean to say that the body is responsible for the mood swings I have?

M.P – No, I don’t mean that. I just want to say that body constitutes the sense of our world. For e.g. why you don’t jump out of the window to pick up your stuff just like the superheroes do?

Me- Fear!

M.P – Not only fear. It is because we know the limit of our body and our inability to transgress the limits of our embodiment. Hence we cannot orient ourselves in this task.

Me – Okay

M.P – On the basis of our previous experiences, our body decides our capacity to engage or desist from certain tasks much before our rational capacity operates.

Me – You mean to say instinctual behavior?

M.P – Instinct is only an assumption which is abstracted out by observing certain behavior patterns. Phenomenology calls this capacity the ‘lived body’. In fact, animals survive on the basis of the lived body. I don’t think that when a tiger or eagle prowls on its prey they take help of some logical procedure rather their body is totally absorbed in that act on the basis of their previously lived experience.

Me – But scientists talk of Artificial Intelligence (AI) which will finally come up with the perfect algorithm to imitate human intelligence. This shows that all the bodily skills can finally be converted into a certain mathematical algorithm.

M.P – I seriously doubt that. It’s again based on the mind-body divide.  Development of any skill requires not only logical reasoning but also successful coping with the environment which is fundamentally the capacity ingrained in the body. I don’t think A. I machines can cope up with the challenges the way the human brain does.

Me – I can see why I am feeling restless in lockdown as it has been frustrating my bodily capability to roam about freely in my environment.

M.P – Exactly. Body opens up the world for us wherein we can orient ourselves and decide on our abilities. However, in the restricted spaces, the body feels disoriented. Hence, it becomes an existential issue rather than the psychological.

Me – That’s why, it is difficult to ‘socially distance’ from our family and friends as without them the existence feels so impoverished.

M.P – And one of the significant relations among humans is touching.

Me – How?

M.P – Because in touching, we not only touch but also get touched. If you touch your left hand with your right hand, you cannot decide after sometime which hand is touching and which is getting touched! This I called the, ‘reversibility of flesh.’

Me – Interesting

M.P – Therefore, interpersonal relationships bring richness to the human existence which is not possible in the socially isolated life.

Me – That’s why people are afraid of the quarantine as it reduces the lived body into the sick body incapable of touching/touched relations.  But I do see that people are avoiding each other and abstaining from touch as it can cause infection?

M.P – Yes, people are becoming the solitary self as they think that it is the only way to escape the infection. But we cannot avoid the others, even the act of seeing or talking about them shows the inextricable relation between the self and the others. 

At this point, I started to think about the Chennai doctor who was denied burial by the local people, fearing that the burial would spread the coronavirus in that area. Not only this, the crowd violently protested against his burial and finally his friend had to bury him with his own hands. I am just thinking about how the fear of pandemic has created the binaries between the healthy and the infected bodies. The infected bodies are now seen as the source of menace to the community which can infect the others not only through the touch but also by their odor. Perhaps we have forgotten that touch transfers not the viruses alone but also the warmness and the sense of belonging. It is really painful to see how the propagandas negate the experiences of the lived body and keep everything into the binaries. 

Disclaimer: The opinions endorsed by the speaker is solely the author’s and not in any way endorsed by the Institute/Programme.