Friday, December 30, 2016

The Fig Leaf Syndrome (revisited)

“Is that a gun in your pocket, Big Boy, or are you just happy to see me?”– Mae West

IT’S ALL A COVER-UP, FOLKS!

How often I’ve heard this uttered in connection with financial and political shenanigans of every strain which, disappointingly, always seem to fade from the public memory before anything can be resolved, or anyone brought to book.

And each time I hear about cover-ups, the image of a fig leaf pops unbidden to mind. Is there a connection? Of course there is. In moments of luminous clarity, the universe has always shown itself to me to be essentially one inexhaustibly funny, punny conundrum.

TRANSPARENCY is a much bandied about term these days. I’m not too comfortable with the word “transparent.” It implies invisibility – which, in turn, suggests unaccountability – a hidden hand, someone or something difficult to see. Like the Emperor’s multibillion dollar new suit. So why don’t we use the more organic description: NAKED?


Why do we get so steamed up by the idea of nakedness that we actually have laws against it? Indeed in some countries there are laws to prevent Official Secrets from being exposed. In effect, the Cover-Up is actually a protected form of official behavior, and my thesis is that this inbred fear of public exposure is ultimately linked to our attitude towards sex - whether we view it as a profane or sacred act.

The fig leaf was the preferred form of cover-up in Europe for parts of the human anatomy deemed “private.” You find it in old paintings depicting Adam and Eve after their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Why the fig leaf? Why the need to conceal this unmentionably delectable portion of our bodies? After all, the human body has been described as a Temple of Divinity, the Sacred Abode of God.

The Old Testament explanation is mind-bogglingly simplistic: having disobeyed God by eating the Forbidden Fruit from the Tree of Knowledge, Adam and Eve lost their innocence and knew Shame. But why did the Maker set them up for such a Fall? Is God basically a cosmic Peeping Tom masquerading as Scientific Curiosity?

Interestingly, the Malay word for genitalia is kemaluan – from malu which means (what else?) shame. However, the Arabs allude to the female sexual organs with the richly suggestive expression, al ghaib – “the concealed” or “the invisible” – in other words, “the Mystery of Mysteries.” (Male genitals do not enjoy such poetic licence, for obvious reasons. Colloquially, the penis is given names like batang and butoh – the onomatopoeic equivalents of “dong” and “dick” – with all their bluntly bellicose and brutal, yet cute and comical, connotations.)

Famous Nudes

SINCE THE FIG LEAF SYNDROME gained prominence during the Renaissance, we must assume that it was a purely aesthetic choice, reinforced by convenience – for, in Italy, which produced the famous nudes of Raphael, Rubens, Da Vinci and Michelangelo, the fig tree grows ubiquitously. It’s easy to imagine how the first fig leaf cover-up was conceived: here’s Leonardo happily painting his mistress in her garden under a fig tree, but when he reaches below the waistline he suddenly realizes that he can’t go for complete realism without inflaming papal passions and getting hauled up by the Almighty Church of Rome. Just then the fig tree sheds a leaf which flutters lazily down in front of his model – and gets strategically integrated into the final portrait.

In the Middle East such problems did not arise. Patriarchal notions of modesty forbade the realistic depiction of biological forms, so artists confined themselves to the abstractions of sacred geometry - wherein maleness could be represented by lines and angles, and femaleness by arcs and orbs. The dome-and-spire leitmotiv found in Christian and Islamic architecture gained wide popularity, not least because of its potent subliminal reference to forbidden pleasures. And don’t forget the genital worship suggested in the design of all pagan temples: lingams and yonis, phalluses and vulvas, lines and circles, plugs and sockets everywhere one looks.


At the root of the Fig Leaf Syndrome, a primal trauma lies buried beneath countless generations of guilt and resentment. All myths point to the source of our existential angst and collective schizophrenia: SEX! SEX! SEX! Yes, what Adam and Eve discovered after eating the Forbidden Fruit.



Plants have been doing it for aeons – but, really, you can’t get too worked up over the mechanics of pollination. Animals do it but can’t really help it and, then, only seasonally – and therefore they feel neither good nor bad about it. With animals, sex is totally guilt-free and rarely kinky. However, when WE decided to get into the act by sliding down the Timechute into physical space, we externalized our male-female polarities and got titillated by the principles of attraction and repulsion: at last we could experience the hormonal rollercoaster ride of biological necessity and non-specific year-round lust. It was so wonderfully heady and exhilarating. At least for a while…

Then we realized with profound horror that we had traded in our original, immortal, asexual androgyny for the ephemeral delights and infernal agonies of mortal, animal being. We were packaged in meat. We were The Word made Flesh!

Wherever we turned we saw images of ourselves. This Hall of Mirrors was a regular funhouse, but narcissism eventually gets out of hand. As sexually-split entities inhabiting gender-differentiated bodies, we could now enjoy sticking our protruding bits into every inviting orifice and eventually turn SEX into the biggest business of all time – simply by making it illicit unless sanctioned by a secular or religious authority.

Moral Responsibility

I USED TO WAKE UP in a cold sweat, heart pounding, from dreams in which I would find myself attending a grand buffet where everyone was formally attired, and all of a sudden I’d realize I was wearing a T-shirt – and nothing else! Worse still were the episodes in which I would walk through a door and onto a stage, facing a packed hall, with absolutely no idea how to entertain the audience and no memory of any script. Slowly it would dawn on me that my predicament was even more ludicrous than I’d thought: people were squirming in their seats and tittering because I was completely starkers. Classic nightmares, boringly Freudian – but what did they reveal, apart from my modest assets?

Some people are very secretive. I’m the complete opposite. No question of right or wrong: it’s the way we’re horoscopically or psychologically constituted. However, I’ve always felt that one has a moral responsibility to evolve towards greater openness, greater honesty, greater transparency… in other words, NAKEDNESS.

In which case my scary dreams of public exposure weren’t necessarily a bad thing – merely an indication that deep down I was still afraid of getting hurt. To be more precise, my social ego was afraid of losing status. Without the protection of one’s fig leaf or sarong or double-stitched jeans, one is susceptible to malicious attack or ridicule. One is vulnerable – but is it such a healthy thing to be invulnerable? Isn’t it much healthier to be in direct contact with RAW REALITY and the NAKED TRUTH?

I’ve tried it. It doesn’t hurt. And once your reputation is ruined you never have to worry about it again.

All You Gotta Do Is, Act Naturally…

“… for Heaven, just Heaven, sends a fearful religion to cruel souls.” – Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, 1788

THE PATRIARCHAL RELIGIONS - the ones that see God as a father figure - have one thing in common: the misguided notion that the naked human body is an utterly reprehensible, prurient object – a terrible thing that must be covered up from public view. In such a society, it’s okay to exploit the poor and deceive the masses – so long as you keep your trousers on!

How else is it possible that some humans can wander into an old-growth forest with all its splendor and majesty and breath-giving beauty – and whip out their chainsaws? Me, I could only think of whipping off my clothes and jumping into the nearest river with a wild whoop of pure abandon. Call me a pagan. The raw beauty of Mother Nature is the only embodiment of divinity on this Earth that can make me fall to my knees and weep for joy.

A few years ago I was walking with a friend through the jungle towards a magnificent waterfall when I came upon a Land Rover full of forestry officers. I nodded a friendly greeting and one of the men came over, ogled my companion, and asked me point blank: “Have you seen anyone swimming naked around here?” I was taken aback. Was this guy a mind reader or something? I responded evenly: “Why do you ask?” The fat forestry officer with the sleazy aura of a Hollywood-type South American border guard explained conspiratorially: “We don’t want people to come into our state forest reserve and do immoral things.”

If I could beam myself back to that instant in time and space, I would have retorted: “Do immoral things? What, you mean like LOG the place? You don’t wish to see this beautiful country DENUDED, is that right?”

Instead, I merely smiled sardonically and walked on, shaking my head in disbelief. For hours afterward I felt an involuntary shudder whenever the image of that hypocritical sleazebag flashed into my head. Good heavens, the wriggling can of worms some folks have for brains! Perhaps I ought to put up a sign outside every forest reserve: “SNOG, DON’T LOG!” Or “DON’T BE RUDE, COME IN NUDE!”


Is it any wonder, then, that in a patriarchal society, prominent people are often the target of sexual innuendoes and outright scandal? The idea of “immorality” is always applied to sexual indiscretion, but never to breaking the Golden Rule - Do as you would be done by – which is, essentially and ultimately, the only true measure of morality.

[Originally published in JOURNAL ONE, 1996. First posted 1 February 2007. Reposted 7 August 2014 & 5 June 2015]

2 comments:

Greenflash said...

Antares, right on the nail's head! Your thoughts invokes a sort of epiphany on the ever popular issue of sexuality...that the masses of us out there are cogent about (internally) but are still quite reticent (externally) about. Great that you expressed it all out eloqently in writing!

Antares said...

Never too late to say thank you, Greenflash! Wonder why I don't recall reading your comment when you posted it... in any case I felt richly rewarded when I revisited this post, bless you :-)

Incidentally, this article first appeared in JOURNAL ONE sometime in 1996. I subsequently trimmed it down for OFF THE EDGE but the managing editor spiked it at the last minute. I guess in Malaysia they prefer the banana leaf when it comes to cover-ups!