THE SPIRIT AND THE FLESH
A Review of BODY PLAY: The Book, Volume 1
edited by Fakir Musafar
Review Copyright © 1995 by William A. Henkin
Originally published in Spectator
The frontispiece of this book shows a full-front black-and-white portrait of the young adult Fakir Musafar in Buddy Holly glasses, dark pressed slacks, and a dark tie over a starched white French cuff shirt, his right arm raised to hold a cigarette near his mouth, his left elbow resting on a candle-shaped lamp. The self-portrait is a study in strict formality, accentuated by the subject's extremely tiny waist which is achieved, we may surmise, by rigorous corseting. Elsewhere in this volume are pictures of Fakir with forty-eight ½-pound lead weights attached to his chest and torso by fish hooks, Fakir baring his buttocks-to-shoulders tatoo, and Fakir hanging from a tree by flesh hooks that pierce his pectoral muscles, performing the O-Kee-Pa ceremony as he also did in Dances Sacred and Profane: the classic film that did as much as anything to make him a cult icon. If someone is supposed to have personal experience with a subject about which he claims to have knowledge, Fakir can demonstrate his expertise about body play a term he coined 35 years ago in spades.
But while experience for experience's sake may be an essential feature of the shamanic life, it takes a showman to turn such training into performance art. In body play Fakir Musafar has made fetish art from some of his favorite spiritual disciplines, and in Body Play he has documented the process as clearly as a poet, opening up the back rooms of his mind with impish glee, like a bright, once-isolated child who has gladly found his metier: like the child he was, perhaps, when he started his first-person experiments with the effects of body play on his own consciousness in 1940s North Dakota.
BODY PLAY: The Book is composed of very slightly altered issues # 1 - 4 of Fakir's clean, highly idiosyncratic magazine Body Play and Modern Primitives Quarterly. Like the magazine, the book is devoted to both the physical and the spiritual arts involved in body play. While Fakir himself is amply on display as an art object in these pages, his is only one of many bodies played with, one of many photographers who contribute images, one of many writers who reflect on topics near and dear to the hearts of modern primitives another term of Fakir's coinage such as branding, tatooing, piercing, cupping, cutting and scarification, body sculpting, hand and foot binding, uddiyana bandha the yogic art of belly suck androgyne consciousness, and ecstatic body rites like the O-Kee-Pa and the ball dance. In a book of this scope, where body play itself is the subject, the term "play" cannot be limited to its usual meanings. As Fakir writes in his opening editorial,
Body Play is a process that courts unusual feelings and states of consciousness which, in the end, result in elevated consciousness (we know something we didn't know before). In practice, Body Play is aimed at increasing "body awareness".... You pierce an ear, you are aware that it exists. You constrict the torso with a tight corset and you are constantly aware that it exists. When the new "body state" feels "natural," the effect is heightened to again bring back the desired state of "body awareness".... Finally, no matter how extreme ... the "change of state," that change feels natural and you are empowered.
The process of empowerment through body awareness is not new in our society: Wilhelm Reich made it a foundation for his form of psychoanalysis; upon Reich's theories Alexander Lowen and others built the whole bioenergetics movement. Moshe Feldenkrais, Ida Rolf, Joseph Heller, and their colleagues and disciples used "body awareness" as a biofeedback mechanism and a teaching tool; kinesiology and dance therapy are based on it, as, in a different way, are all the distinctly American forms of modern dance, from Martha Graham and her descendants to Keith Hennessy's contact improvisation.
Like the best of these psychologists and movement artists, Fakir has had an original vision, the ability to execute that vision in forms that communicate with other people, and the grace to move beyond the limits of his own history, reputation, triumphs, and fears. Consequently, he has made a lasting contribution to the aesthetic of our times.
Predicting the standing an artist will have 50 or 100 years after he makes his major efforts is surely a fool's errand, especially when the fate of the whole human race seems as precarious as it does today. But if a reviewer can't undertake a fool's errand, who can? And so I stake my reviewer's reputation to posterity: when the dust settles and no one but grad students of abnormal psychology can remember who Jesse Helms was, the work of Fakir Musafar will live on in the art, literature, and iconography of Western ecstatic spiritualism. BODY PLAY: The Book demonstrates why that is so.
This book is available from Insight Books, P.O. Box 2575, Menlo Park, CA 94026-2575. For $24.95 plus shipping and handling. Fakir Musafar's web site is http://www.fakir.org.
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