The Heroic Nude


What spirit is so empty and blind, that it cannot recognize the fact that the foot is more noble than the shoe, and skin more beautiful than the garment with which it is clothed?

 

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Designed by Carl Sagan, the Pioneer Plaque was sent into space on Pioneer 10, depicting humanity in its most natural state to potential alien explorers.

I have scoured the Internet, talking it over with many naturist readers, but I have yet to find heroes quite like Xandr and Thelana. As far as I can tell, they are unique to the fantasy genre, in that they are the first heroes in modern times wherein their bare bodies are their costumes. Some people bring up Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov or Edgar Rice Burroughs, all of whom dabbled with nudity or naturist philosophy in their writings, to a limited degree and with mixed results. Sure, the Martian in Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land prefers to go nude, but he is also an alien, and too far removed from humanity to be relatable, going so far as to consider cannibalism proper etiquette. Burroughs, while featuring both Tarzan and John Carter in the buff in his books, devotes very little time to naturist philosophy. In Carter, the nudity is incidental and inconsequential to the plot, a matter of titillation for adolescent boys in an age before Internet porn. This isn’t to dismiss the number of genuine naturist novels written by and for naturists, but those stories typically do not fall into the fantasy genre, and too often the characters serve as two dimensional archetypes, mannequins to be dressed in the author’s beliefs. Despite my passion for nudism, Ages of Aenya is first and foremost an adventure novel, written for lovers of Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones. Now a reader might question, and I have often put this to myself, why does it matter? Couldn’t Xandr and Thelana be just as heroic without their genitals dangling? What makes being naked so special? And what is it with my preoccupation/obsession with the human form? The answer can be summed up in three words: the heroic nude.

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Naked heroes! Their bodies are their costumes!

The heroic nude is largely forgotten in our culture. Any modern representation of a naked man or woman, in art or in fiction, is almost always intended for sexual stimulation. But this wasn’t always the case. The notion that simple nudity must always equal pornography is a myth, propagated by corporations who manipulate our sense of arousal to sell their products. What’s more, the myth must be continually reinforced by increasingly sexualized imagery. Simply showing a body is no longer enough. Try Googling “nude” or “naked” and you will inevitably find every kind of erotic pose, extreme close ups of genitals, grotesque distortions of anatomy, or just flat out intercourse. You rarely see the human body in its simplest form, which is precisely why so many people find it difficult to see nudity in an honest and realistic way. When I look for artists to portray my heroes, I have a hard time explaining to them what I want to see. The average American does not accept nudity for non-sexual reasons, which is why, too often, the artists I solicit think I am asking for porn, and if they have moral objections to porn, they turn me down. It is no wonder that, after ten years of searching, the three artists I now work with live outside the country, in Brazil, Italy, and the Ukraine. Having studied art history, they understand what the heroic nude is and why it matters.

What is important to understand about the heroic nude is context. For most of the Classical and Renaissance periods, which encompassed Greece and later most of Europe, the people of those times did not literally conceive of their heroes as nudists per se. Homer goes to great lengths, in fact, to describe Achilles’ armor, and Heracles often wore a lion’s mane. But what mattered to the Europeans of antiquity was the human ideal expressed through nudity. Michelangelo’s David, for instance, is more than a character from Hebrew scripture; he is man in his highest and most idealized form. For the Ancient Greeks especially, the human form was the apex of natural design, the highest expression of art, utterly divine. This is an important distinction, because it set the Greeks apart from the rest of the world. At roughly the same time period, you would find, in Egypt, gods with the bodies of animals, Ra with a hawk head, Anubis as a dog, and Bast as a cat. In India, the Hindus worshipped Shiva, with her many arms and blue skin, and Brahma with his three faces, and Ganesha, whose head resembles that of an elephant. Other cultures were even more extreme in their conceptions of a supreme being. For the Hebrews, god was and is invisible and unknowable. The deity of the Aztects, Quetzalcoatl, was a feathered serpent. Only the Olympian gods looked human, and naked. You can easily identify Aphrodite, goddess of love, in any museum, since she never wears any clothes. Zeus, Poseidon, Apollo, Hermes and Artemis also appeared, in sculpture and in paint, with the bodies of superheroes, but unlike Superman and Batman, they didn’t need skintight clothing to show off their muscular physiques. For the Greeks, the gods did not exist in some lofty, inconceivable realm, nor look upon mankind with indifference, contempt or judgment. Man was not born into sin. Nor was he, as the Vikings portrayed, the product of giant sweat. In fact, Zeus found mortal women irresistible, frequently descending from his abode on Mount Olympus for a hook up. In depicting these divine beings with human attributes, with muscles, bones, veins, and genitalia, god and man became inseparable, which had a profoundly positive effect in how the Greeks perceived themselves. Like the gods, man could be inventive, and could rise above his meager roots to achieve whatever his imagination allowed. Is it any wonder that Daedalus, father of Icarus, managed to fashion wings and fly? Sure, it’s only a story, but what hero from the Bible ever displayed such ingenuity? This positive outlook gave rise to history, geometry, drama, philosophy, and democracy. The Greeks elevated humanity, from lowly creatures groveling before god-kings, to divine beings with reason and individuality. Without the Classical world, our modern society would not exist as it is today. We could never have dreamt of going to the moon much less stepped foot on it. And the heroic nude is a big part of that achievement. With Hermes, a masterpiece borne of marble by the hands of Praxiteles circa the 4th century BC, the heroic ideal is made manifest, the highest of man’s aspirations, man made larger than life, inspiring, divine.

Hermes, a heroic nude masterpiece.

So what happened? In a word, Christianity. The collapse of the Roman Empire was followed by centuries of disease, warfare and poverty. During these harsh times, it was easy for Europeans to reject the world of the senses, and, taking cues from Plato and Judaism, early Christians focused on the heavenly kingdom, and the world of the spirit. Unlike Zeus, the Hebrew god YHWH did not mate with Mary, conceiving without sex, for the physical body was relegated to an “earthly” vessel, to be discarded in the afterlife. Nor could humanity, in his sinful bodily form, ever hope to achieve divinity. Instead, man became a shameful creature, born into sin and destined for the fires of Hell. Only by God’s grace could he hope to be saved. Anything of the material world, whether it be food or sex, was of the Devil, which is why so many monks lived in seclusion, away from women, often castrating themselves to overcome their carnal thoughts. Countless pagan religions, for whom communal nudity was used, in both ritual and celebration, became “demonized,” and their practitioners, deemed witches by the new, conservative faith, were tortured and burned. At the height of the Christian world, the heroic nude was abandoned, and the human body became a thing of evil, of temptation, to be rejected if possible.

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A revival of naked pagan rituals is practiced today.

Flash forward a thousand years, to the sexual revolution of the 1960’s and 70’s, and we find a counterculture rebelling against Church doctrine. But while many people become sexually “liberated,” attitudes toward the human body, deeply entrenched for centuries, do not wash away. American society, founded, in part, by a Christian Puritan cult, remains deeply divided. It is a country with a billion dollar XXX film industry, that delays all live broadcasts for seven seconds lest a performer accidentally reveal a nipple. With the advent of the Internet, these divisions run deeper. Graphic and unnatural depictions of sex, things that would shock even the most depraved Greeks and Romans, are at the fingertips of any man, woman or child, and yet Facebook censors a woman breast feeding. A perfect storm of deeply rooted Platonic/Christian beliefs and an equally powerful counterculture has resulted in our current schizophrenic state, and what we have forgotten in all this, is how to look at ourselves and see human beings.

We have forgotten that our bodies are good things, that nakedness was the ideal. Through my fiction and my art, I have tried to revive this age old tradition, to bring about a new Renaissance, which is why Xandr and Thelana, as modern vestiges of the heroic nude, are so compelling to me. Their costumes are their bodies, because they are descendants of Apollo and Aphrodite, of gods and heroes that raised our thinking from our prehistoric and superstitious beginnings. Xandr and Thelana carry the Olympic torch of heroic nudity so that we might see within ourselves something divine.

 

Why I Do Not Call Myself an Atheist



“I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of the imagination—what the imagination seizes as beauty must be truth—whether it existed before or not.”

John Keats



Let me make a few things clear: I am not a Christian and I am not religious, nor do I align myself with the Intelligent Design crowd. I am a firm believer in evolution, as the evidence for it is overwhelming, and I thoroughly enjoy the writings of noted atheists Richard Dawkins and Philip Pullman. In other words, I am a big a fan of logical thinking. But the same feelings of uncertainty I once had for my Christian faith, I also have for atheism. Like Socrates, who argued that the path to wisdom is to admit ignorance, I am skeptical when anyone tries to argue abstract concepts with certainty. Any certainty we have about existence is arrogant, and atheists’ certainty about the non-existence of God feels equally arrogant. But atheists insist that any non-certainty about God automatically makes me an atheist. They even discredit agnosticism, saying that it is a weak position, a transitional phase for people coming out of the oppression of religion and ultimately synonymous with atheism. Since they account for less than 10% of Americans, it would seem they are trying to bolster their ranks via definition. You don’t have to not believe in God, you simply have to have uncertainty. Considering the Greek root of the word a-theos means no-God, this definition seems disingenuous. I could call many atheists textiles, based on the fact that they are not nudists, but non-nudists will never go around calling themselves or identifying with that term, since that is a judgmental definition based on my own world view. I also reject the false choice I am presented with, the either-or supposition of atheism. Penn Jillette, magician, comedian, and now outspoken proponent of atheism, has made the case that it is impossible to sit on the fence when it comes to belief in God. When you wake up in the morning, you either expect your living room to be there or you don’t. Again, this is a weak argument and a narrow analogy. Naturally, I believe in my living room more than in God, but belief is a matter of percentages. When we watch something on TV that is happening halfway around the world, we only partly believe it is real. Our lack of sensory perception accounts for this. The tsunami that hit Japan was a terrible tragedy, but how much more emotional, how much more real would it be, if we lived in Japan to experience it first hand? Or if we knew people who suffered radiation poisoning? Or if we ourselves were the sufferers of radiation poisoning? If you were to ask me whether I believe in aliens, I could honestly say I don’t know. There could be a group of alien believers and non-believers, arguing passionately for either position, and again I’d have to stand in the middle. The same case may be made for God. I may not know whether God exists, but that does not mean for certain that he does not.

On YouTube, there is a fascinating series of web documentaries called Why I Am No Longer a Christian by Evid3nc3I highly recommend this video to anyone who has gone through the anguish of “losing God”. But, while I share many of the same feelings and experiences as Evid3nc3, I disagree with him toward the later part of the series. He goes from radical devotion to the Christian God to a radical devotion to evidence. While evidence (and literal truth) is an integral part of the human experience, it is only part of what it means to be human and to be alive. There is also metaphorical truth, which comes from the right brain (he is a computer scientist, I am a writer), which is part of imagination, without which there could be no invention. Human society is often a matter of self-invention. I sometimes believe, as Arthur C. Clarke postulated in 3001, that we may someday be living with dragons and unicorns because we will simply make them. Someday, TRUTH may become a matter of enterprise. With evidence alone, the Wright brothers could never have invented the airplane. Certainly, there was evidence that things can fly, such as birds and bats and insects, but there was also the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that humans have never flown. It took a leap of faith for the Wright brothers to connect the dots of evidence, to believe that the force of “lift” can work for man made wings as it works for birds.

In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins makes the excellent point that evidence for God is equal to evidence for fairies. He states that anyone believing in fairies is no less justified than a Christian or Jew or Muslim for their faith. But my immediate reaction upon reading this was, so? Why shouldn’t we believe in fairies? While Dawkins makes an excellent case for evolution and for why there is no evidence for God, he fails to make the case, just every other atheist fails to make the case, for why we shouldn’t believe. Atheists are completely confounded by religious people. They don’t seem to understand why people have a need to believe in something beyond everyday experience. They apply the same rigid scientific scrutiny to religious dogma and are frustrated when 90% of Americans don’t come to the same conclusions. Despite his vast scientific knowledge and his steal-trap logic, Dawkins is dumbfounded by the ignorance of religious people. Atheists like him seem to think that it’s only a matter of time before humanity moves away from superstition toward an age of evidence-based enlightenment. But they have been waiting for hundreds of years already, and I do not believe their day will be arriving any time soon. The origins of science and the origins of religion come from the same place. It is a crossroads from when mankind first looked to the heavens and asked the BIG questions: Who am I? Where did I come from? What is my purpose? In order to give answer to these mysteries, some looked outward to the physical world, to evidence; these left-brained individuals would evolve to become the first scientists, and later, the first atheists. The right-brained people, on the other hand, looked inward. Using imagination, they invented stories about gods which gave their lives meaning and purpose. In The History of God, historian Karen Armstrong argues that the authors of religion, the Sumerians, Babylonians, Israelites and Greeks, did not believe or seek out literal truth, as fundamentalists and scientists do today, but metaphorical truth. For the earliest humans, religion did not take the place of science, but was closer to poetry, art and fiction. This theory makes sense when one considers the absurdity of Ancient Greek myth. For instance, did the Ancient Greeks literally believe in the story of Ouranos (the sky) who was so busy fornicating with Gaea (the earth) that her children could not come out of her womb? Not until Kronos (time) dismembered his father, allowing his brothers and sisters to spill forth? To me, the metaphorical aspect of Greek myth has always been apparent, a means for an ancient people to express their feelings for a world in which they had little understanding but that possessed them with awe and wonder. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins states that a garden is wondrous enough without there having to be fairies (or God) in it. But Dawkins has it backward. It is not that nature lacks sufficient wonder to be without fairies, but that nature is so wondrous, human beings cannot help but be inspired by it, be moved to invent a thing like fairies.

Belief serves many purposes. For scientists, evidence-based belief has practical uses. A biologist could not do his job if he were to believe in Creationism, which is why the Intelligent Design movement died so quickly. But for most people who are not scientists, belief, or faith, can be a great comfort. This explains the 90% of Americans who claim to believe in God or in a god. Just as the ancient Sumerians, people today have the same need to put their faith in something transcendent, in something more meaningful than raw, physical data. Why else would so many people in Britain claim to be of the Jedi religion (more than Judaism!) when they know, for a fact, that the Force is merely a fictitious plot device from a movie? My mother is not a religious person and does not go to Church, but she is a firm believer in God. I have always sensed that she has no interest in literal truth. She has no desire to study the Bible, to prove or disprove it either way. For my mother, belief is a personal matter. The belief that someone is watching over her children is a comfort to her, and as she approaches her 80th year, the notion that something awaits beyond death must also serve some comfort. 

I was baptized Greek Orthodox, raised for eight years in a fundamentalist Baptist school, and married into a Muslim household. So, as anyone can see, my religious background is diverse. There was a time when I believed in the literal truth of the Bible, as I was taught at school, but even as a child I had my doubts. I never accepted the morality of the Abraham story, when Abraham was told by God to sacrifice his own son, Isaac. I never accepted that non-believers, born in countries that did not practice Christianity, would go to Hell. As I entered college, the things I learned in science, religion, and history classes quickly dispelled my indoctrination, which was very distressing for me at the time. Like Jean-Paul Sartre, I felt a God shaped hole in my life, which I tried to fill with philosophy and science, but it has never been satisfactory. As for atheism, I could find no solace in a philosophy that chiefly defines itself with non-belief. At first, I thought it might be fear of declaring myself an atheist, as many of my friends suspect me to be. But years after denying Christianity, the idea of atheism still leaves me feeling empty. There is just something about it that my right-brained brain finds shallow and unfulfilling. To quote Karen Armstrong, “The poets, novelists and philosophers of the Romantic movement pointed out that a thoroughgoing rationalism was reductive, because it left out the imaginative and intuitive activities of the human spirit.” Modern day atheists focus their arguments on easy targets. They attack fundamentalists, in part, because both camps speak the same language of literal truth. Where are the atheist rants discrediting Buddhism or Taoism? After a long time seeking, I came back to examine the Orthodox faith. Even though I do not consider myself Orthodox, I can appreciate the concept of mystery central to the religion. In the Greek Church, the Bible is not the WORD OF GOD, but simply inspired by God, and is prone to being fallible just as the authors of the Bible were fallible. For a Greek Orthodox believer, no one can know the mind of God, it is a mystery. In the monasteries of Sparta, built on mountaintops so remote from the rest of the world that you almost get a sense of Heaven, the monks and the nuns who live there exist in a transcendent state. The peace I have seen in their faces defies definition. How would offering them literal truth improve their lives? How would turning them to atheism make things better?

In The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs, the author describes the strange phenomenon of cognitive dissonance, which he experienced while practicing the Jewish and Christian faith for one year. He describes the sense of peace he found in honoring the Sabbath and the serenity he found in the act of prayer, even though he did not believe any divine being was up there listening. In the same sense, I have tried to find a spiritual dimension in the natural world. Whether my sense of spirituality, or God, is all “in my head” is irrelevant. The love I have for my wife and children is also “all in my head”. I cannot prove or disprove love, and I have no evidence to back it up, but it is the most powerful and important part of my life nonetheless. Other atheists may choose to lump me into their camp based on their own definitions, but that label feels too confining for me. I am someone who believes that metaphorical truth can be just as valuable to a society and to an individual as literal truth, and that to dismiss the myths of our forefathers as nonsense and ignorance would be to do a great disservice to mankind. There is certainly great evil done in the name of religion, but evil is here to stay, whether we choose to call ourselves men of God or men of Reason. Someday in the future, I believe, the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, and other such religious texts will sit on the shelf as great literature from antiquity. We will no longer regard these works as literal truths, but will value them no less. We will find in their archaic stories meanings to help us understand our own time. We will read the Bible and be aghast by the amorality of the Abrahamic story, or the tolerance for slavery, or the Mosaic Law which advocates the killing of homosexuals. But we will also be enlightened by that perspective, in seeing how far we’ve come in our society and, perhaps, how far we may still need to go in a future present with ethical challenges yet undreamed of (alien prejudice, maybe?). We will marvel at the poetry of Psalms and the teachings of love professed by Jesus Christ and Buddha. This will become what religion will mean in the future, and whatever new definitions exist for people of that era, I will count myself among them. 

God is One



I read an article today in the St. Petersburg Times by Stephen Prothero, author of God is Not One.


In his essay, Prothero refutes the growing popular notion that religions are essentially the same, an idea proposed by the likes of the Dalai Lama and one of my heroes, George Lucas. He makes the valid point about the Iraq War and how our misunderstanding of Islam has created lots of problems for the U.S. I agree that if Americans had a better understanding of the Koran and its role in politics, we probably would not be trying so hard to turn them into a democracy. On the other hand, history has proven time and again that thinking the other guy’s religion is a heresy never leads to any Kumbaya sing-alongs. Prothero makes the point that each religion has different goals and ideas, that Buddhists are atheists and don’t believe in sin, unlike Christians and Muslims. But I don’t think that what the Dalai Lama or George Lucas meant was that all religions are identical, but that all religions end up in the same place. It’s like many highways going to the same city. Granted, Buddhists care about ending suffering, Christians about salvation, and Taoists well, if I were to say it wouldn’t be Taoism—but aren’t those things more similar than not? Isn’t Heaven a place where suffering does not exist? And wouldn’t Buddhists call a world without suffering a kind of Heaven? 


I do think, we can all agree, that all religions do have certain things in
common:

 

1. Religions strive to better mankind.
2. Religions generally advocate good over evil. (Aside from Satanism and
Norse God-ism, hurting others is a No-No).
3. Religions deal with the Other; in other words; they deal with things
beyond normal everyday experience.
4. Religions make life meaningful.