Much of culture consists of fictions that endow natural processes with symbolic importance," writes Michael Sims in the introduction to his fascinating and very fun new work of nonfiction, Adam's Navel: A Natural and Cultural History of the Human Form (Viking). Then he goes on to observe: "There is no better example than our reaction to the talents and limitations of what we have variously called a machine for living, the temple of the soul, and our mortal coil -- the human body. Every part and function of the body plays its symbolic role."
With that in mind, take then the penis' prepuce (aka foreskin) and that spectacular piece of fiction rich in symbolism and known to the Dark Ages as the Holy Prepuce -- the centerpiece of the Christ child's circumcision, the key moment in the redemption of humanity ("when the incarnated god first suffered human pain," in Sims' words, according to Thomas Aquinas), and an object of veneration throughout Christendom. Churches sought it or a smidgen of it as a miracle-worker. The court of Charlemagne stored it in a purse, thus inaugurating a fashion accessory. Agnes of Blannbekin envisioned eating it at Communion. And Catherine of Siena thought the "matrimonial" ring on her finger was a metamorphosed version of it. But beware phony foreskins. Specimens of the Divine Prepuce were in such supply to answer such demand that quality control required connoisseurs to judge it for authenticity. As David M. Friedman put it in his history of the penis, A Mind of Its Own (and as Sims quotes him in Adam's Navel), "The most common of these tests was a taste test" (emphasis Friedman's and let's leave it at that).
Moving up a notch anatomically and a notch nominally but equally stomach-turningly, consider the focus of Sims' title and the locus of the University of Sydney's Dr. Karl Kruszelnicki's fact-finding research into the navel -- more precisely, the navel's contents: lint. Thanks to this dedicated physicist and the contributions of some 5,000 volunteers, we now know that one-third of those surveyed said that their navel lint was a particular color (blue the commonest) and that the hairier the gut, the fluffier the belly button. However, as Sims notes, "[T]he navel-lint project may [emphasis the author's] harvest unforeseen benefits, but scientists are not waiting with baited breath." (Unlike editors at a magazine called The Annals of Improbable Research, who awarded Kruszelnicki an IgNobel Prize in 2002.)
And so it goes throughout Adam's Navel, starting from Homo sapiens' hairy noggin to his/her hard-working big toe. Sims digs down deep into trusty sources (Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species; a scientific paper titled "The thermoregulatory advantages of hominid bipedalism in open equatorial environments") and spans the globe digging up less than reliable commentators (Pliny the Elder writing in the first century C.E.; Yvonne (Mrs. Moses) De Carlo camping it up big-time in Cecil B. DeMille's camp classic, The Ten Commandments), but the author's interest here is skin-deep and that's okay by him. His mission: a cross-cultural look at the naked ape as visible to the naked eye throughout history, art history, mythology, religion, and science and never mind any innards. Meaning: There's weirdness enough simply on the surface of things and that goes for your hair, eyes, eyebrows, ears, earwax, nose, lips, tongue, arms, hands, fingers, breasts, genitals, butt, legs, feet, and toes big and small.
Consider: By the end of the fifth month, the unborn fetus is completely covered in hair. Baby laps it up the last few weeks of pregnancy. Mix in some mucus, bile, and "other substances," and there you have it: your first bowel movement and everybody gets a good look at it.
Or: The skin of the hand can be removed like a glove, so you too can have an unidentified cadaver on your hands -- literally. Simply don the removed skin, ink the deceased's fingertips. Fingerprints last a good long while, as excellent an I.D. as ever there was one, barring bones, teeth, and everything else gone to mush.
Or: Our relative the gorilla's knees can't lock, so its upright stance looks ... well, it looks "like Groucho Marx standing at attention."
Or: the word "preposterous": It derives from the Latin, meaning literally "ass-backward." Or: the word "fascinating": It derives from the Latin as well, fascinare: "to bewitch." From fascinum, from Fascinus, a lesser deity in charge of sorcery; his symbol: (again) the penis! The word "impudent": related to the name of the middle finger in Medieval Latin: impudicus: referring to "the finger's possible role in insults" or to "its useful length in exploring the female genitals -- a theory that assumes that, like impudent, impudicus derives from pudendum." You make the call.
Or: that dingbat: . It comes not from the heart but from the buttocks, from cleft to curves. Maybe. (This news in the same chapter where Sims lifts lyrics from Alejandro Escovedo's love song "Castanets": "I like her better when she walks away.")
Or: Frida Kahlo, a really late bloomer, according to Ovid and Petronius, who both refer to women's fake eyebrows made of fur, a real class statement for the upper-crust of Greece and Rome cursed with two distinct brows.
Then consider the words of Oscar Wilde: "The great mystery of the world is not the invisible but the visible."
Then consider the words of Michael Sims, former editor, former bookseller, former rare-books librarian, author of Darwin's Orchestra: An Almanac of Nature in History and the Arts, contributor to the Nashville Scene and other alternative weeklies, and speaking by phone from Nashville, where he lives, fresh off a sinus infection, worsened by a national book tour but bettered by the unexpected attention being paid to Adam's Navel:
"I've been reading around this topic for 20 years, easily: the intersection of cultural and natural history. But for this book I spent two full years doing nothing but researching and writing full-time. I started using all kinds of stuff I'd stumbled across and filed in the brain here and there. That was the 'guideline,' but the book did involve a lot of condensing. I'll do endless jumbles of notes, sift through them, then go to another set of notes and sift through it, go back, see how things connect, what really connects, what 'story' there is that I can't resist."
Which has got to refer to the subject of sex, and Sims doesn't deny it.
"I may have worked the hardest, and at first been the most afraid of, those sections of Adam's Navel that are 'radioactive' culturally. I read a lot about the evolution of sexuality and nurturing and motherhood, but I hadn't written much in that 'corner.' So I was a little worried about approaching the genitals and the breasts. And yet the Sunday Times of London specifically mentioned that those were their favorite chapters!"
And the titled object of interest?
"Reading around, I thought, No, I have absolutely nothing to say about the navel. Even it was too trivial for me. Then I ran across Karl Kruszelnicki, and I knew this was just too good to pass up. The same with earwax. I did consider slipping in a fictional article or something. But at no point did I want to undermine my credibility. This is a topic on which you don't have to make up anything. People already have been for 10,000 years."
Off Square Books, Oxford
Monday, August 18th,