Even after ten years, it is not so easy to give up on Aenya, to move on to a new book. As far as I can tell, it's a good story, with enough drama, action, monsters, and exotic locations to satisfy any lover of fantasy. What brings me back to it again and again, however, are the heroes. I have scoured the Internet, talking it over with many naturist readers, but I have yet to find anything quite like Xandr and Thelana. After all, they are unique in the genre, as their 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, to a limited degree and with mixed results. Sure, the Martian in Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land prefers to be nude, but is 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, 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. There have also been a number of naturist novels, written by and for naturists, like Co-Ed Naked Philosophy by Will Forrest, but while his musings are sometimes worth the read, the novel fails as fiction. As with most naturist books, his characters are 2-dimensional archetypes, mannequins to be dressed in the author's beliefs. 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.
The heroic nude is largely forgotten in our culture. Any representation of a naked man or woman, in art or in fiction, is almost always for sexual stimulation. But this is an unnatural attitude, a myth propagated by mega-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 not enough. Just type the words "nude" in any search engine and you will find every kind of erotic pose, extreme close ups of erections, artificially augmented breasts, and grotesque distortions of anatomy in XXX cartoons. You rarely find the human body as it truly is, 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 for Xandr and Thelana, I have a hard time explaining to them what I want to see. Americans simply do not accept nudity without sexual intent. Often, the artists I am soliciting 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 found come from outside the country. One lives in Brazil, the other in Italy and another in 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. The Greeks 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 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, there was nothing more beautiful than the human body. It 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 you would find, in Ancient Egypt, gods with the bodies of animals, Ra with a hawk head, Anubis as a dog, Bast as a cat. In India, you find Shiva with many arms and blue skin, Brahma with three faces, and Ganesha with the head of an elephant. Other cultures were more extreme in their conceptions of god. For the Hebrews, god was and is invisible and unknowable. The supreme deity for the Aztects, Quetzalcoatl, was a feathered serpent. Only the Olympians were human, and often, naked. In fact, you can easily identify Aphrodite, goddess of love, in any museum, since she never wears any clothes. For the Ancient Greeks, the gods were not up in some inconceivable realm. They did not look down upon mankind with indifference, or shame or judgment. Man was not born into sin. Nor was man, as the Viking myths portray, the product of giant sweat. In fact, Zeus found human females so attractive, he could not help but descend from the heavens to mate with them. By depicting gods as human in every way, with muscles, bones, veins, and genitalia, god and man became inseparable, which had a profoundly positive effect in how the Greeks perceived mankind. Like the gods, man could be inventive, could create, do anything imagination allowed. It is no wonder that Daedalus managed to build wings and fly. 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 gone there. And the heroic nude is rooted in this tradition. With Hermes, Praxiteles achieves the heroic ideal, the highest of man's aspirations, man made larger than life, inspiring, divine.
So what happened? In a word, Christianity. The collapse of the Roman Empire was followed by centuries of disease, war and poverty. In such a harsh existence, it was easy for Europeans to reject the world of the senses. Taking cues from Plato and Judaism, early Christians focused on the heavenly kingdom, the world of the spirit and the afterlife. YHWH could not/would not mate with Mary (conceiving without sex), nor could man ever hope to achieve divinity. 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 physical world, whether food or sex, was of the Devil, which is why so many monks lived in seclusion, away from women, often castrating themselves. Worshipers of nature (who often went naked during pagan rituals) became "demonized", which meant they were witches in the eyes of the new faith, and as witches, were tortured and burned. The heroic nude became utterly forgotten, and the human body a thing of evil, of temptation, to be rejected if possible.
Flash forward a thousand years to the sexual revolution of the 1960's and 70's when the counterculture rebels against Church doctrine. While many become sexually "liberated", attitudes about the human body, deeply entrenched for centuries, do not wash away. American society is deeply divided. It is a country with a billion dollar XXX film industry that delays the Superbowl 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 human beings as human beings.
We have forgotten that our bodies are good things, that gods and heroes often went naked, that that 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 once inspired and elevated 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 and in our bodies something pure and good and divine.
Reading: J.D. Salinger, Neil Gaiman, Edgar Rice Burroughs