Naked thoughts?


Another extract from The Philosopher’s Beach Book

George Formby got his cheeky implications wrong. In his ‘Hi-Tiddly-Hi-Ti Island’ (a Pacific beach paradise with fantasy images to rival Gaugin, but without the latter’s sinister side) he offers what appears to be an escalating scale of sexual provocation when he suggests that ‘the girls there are all full of sport’ leading to ‘and wear their frocks a trifle short’, and ending with ‘and some are simply wrapt in thought’ in Hi-Tiddly-Hi-Ti Isle. Trouble is, it doesn’t quite work like that – and never did, not even in the 1950s when he recorded the song. No; when it comes to nakedness, glimpses of flesh and whisps of material are always going to be more sexy than straightforward, in-your-face, all-shapes-and-sizes-accepted nakedness.

We’ve already looked at paradise, so what about nakedness? Should the genuine philosopher, straining to appreciate the existential implications of being alive, prefer to be naked on the beach?

Among ‘textiles’, nakedness is associated with sex; but among the naturist fraternity it is just the most beautiful and natural way to be. Feeling the breeze and sun on your body, outside with no clothes on, you feel ‘in’ the world in a way that the clothed cannot. Even under an overcast sky, with a breeze whipping in off the water, there is something wonderful and liberating about displaying your goose bumps to the universe at large.

And clothes are problematic anyway. They make social and existential statements that may or may not reflect the reality of who we are. Uniforms take away our individuality and encourage us to conform to the social role they represent. A major feature of the ingenuity of British teenagers lies in modifying their school uniform in a way that is provocative and rebellious while remaining just about within the letter of the school law. But clothes make statements in so many ways: the hijab and burqa, the veil, the clerical collar, the punk outfit, the studded leather jacket, the judge’s wig. Clothes are eloquent. But are they necessarily honest? Martin Heidegger, in his Being and Time (caution: this is a great book, but not an easy read), argued that we are often tempted to adopt particular social masks rather than being ourselves, to play a role rather than act with authenticity. Clothes play a large part in affirming such masks.

Clothes may also reflect the wearer’s attitude. The extreme example of this is The Dandy – the title also of a new book from Nigel Rodgers. He makes the point that Dandyism is not simply a matter of fastidiousness of dress, it is a way of thinking about oneself, an aloofness of thought and behaviour, an elevated state of mind.   At a more mundane level, designer labels perform the same function – they say more about you than flesh ever can.

But there is a negative side to nakedness, for it is associated with death and with poverty. We are encouraged in the New Testament to clothe the naked as a means of giving them basic aid, and none can forget the terrible images of naked bodies piled up in heaps at Auschwitz. To choose to be naked is one thing, to have it imposed is quite another. Those who are naked have no status, they reveal their human vulnerability; to humiliate someone, first remove their clothes.

But ever since Adam and Eve were said to feel shame at their nakedness, and reached for the fig leaves, a minority of religious people have been trying to regain their lost innocence. A major dispute within the Jain community in its early days was whether monks should remain naked (‘sky clad’ was the delightful term used) or accept a simple form of clothing. Some became clothed, but nakedness remained the ideal. Nakedness for the Jain is a sign of renunciation, of absolute simplicity and innocence. Those who have nothing, not even clothes, symbolise the value of non-possessiveness. And that, of course, holds true for the long tradition of naked asceticism within Indian religions. Of course, the temperature helps; naked ascetics do not thrive in polar regions.

Simplicity is one thing, innocence another, and the quest for innocence through nakedness is best exemplified in the Adamites, a 17th century English sect who undressed to worship. Nakedness expressed innocence, absolute equality (and, no, we’re not talking physical features of a personal kind) and open honesty within the community. They saw it as a return to the Garden of Eden, a celebration of what humankind was meant to be, going naked and unashamed before God.

So, as you look about you on your literal or metaphorical beach, consider what the textiles are saying with their clothes, however casual or minimal; from designer gear to distressed jeans, clothes are eloquent at presenting a personal image that may or may not be the truth about the wearer. Clothes categorise people and therefore also divide them. By contrast, there is a natural camaraderie on a naturist beach.

And if philosophy, particularly of the existentialist sort, includes exploring who we are and how we relate to the world and to other people, affirming ourselves in honesty and acting with authenticity, would it not be better of philosophers remained naked? Weather permitting!!

For more about The Philosopher’s Beach Book, click here.

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