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the sentiment of the flesh

Nothing falls out of the air, not even divine inspiration – especially for a student trying the work on a hot and lazy summer afternoon in Amsterdam.  I climbed on my bike and cycled along the Amstel river towards the Tuschinski theatre close to the Rembrandtplein. This beautiful art deco theatre was founded by the Polish tailor, Abraham Tuschinski in 1921. I was drawn by the red poster featuring two entangled bodies. The film, Le sentiment de la chair was showing – and the words, when I said it out loud had this poetic rhythm and warmth. I was curious.

It was not an easy movie to watch and some people walked out.  Héléna Onelli (Annabelle Hettmann) is studying medical illustration. Her fascination with anatomy extends to a rather strange enthusiasm for finding potential flaws in her own physiognomy, inside and out. Getting some unnecessary X-rays, she attracts the interest of young radiologist/lecturer Benoît Govian (Thibault Vincon) who does not find anything wrong with her.  Their mutual interest in human anatomy leads them to a torrid love affair. Héléna asks Benoît to go further in his exploration of her body and the lovers have no limits in their intercourse. Her need to keep pushing the boundaries of physical exploration both erotic and clinical awakens something in Benoît. Héléna’s capability to memorize every detail of Benoît’s body and Benoît’s irresistible curiosity to uncover the ‘interior’ secrets of Héléna’s body, even using a MRI scanner lead them to a dangerous journey with no limits…

At one stage professor Benoît remarks that “a thousand painters died not knowing the sentiment of the flesh. Many more will die not knowing”. This is a reference to French philosopher and art critic, Dennis Diderot, who wrote Essay on Painting in the eighteenth century. He maintains that the realism in a painting derives from form and that life originates from colour and writes:

“It has been said that the most beautiful color in the world was this lovely redness of innocence, youth, beauty, modesty and chastity…for indeed flesh is difficult to render; this unctuous white, even without being pale; this mixture of red and blue which imperceptibly perspires. This is blood and life which create the colorist’s despair. He who has acquired the feeling for flesh [le sentiment de la chair] has progressed a lot; the rest is nothing in comparison. Thousand painters have died without knowing flesh; thousand others will die without feeling it”. 

Driving back on my bike, disturbed but also intrigued, I thought “this is what theology should strive for “ – a sentiment for the flesh. Many theologians have died without truly knowing flesh.

The aim of my research since then has been to open “deeper and deeper inquiries” within theology regarding the body and to explore how the body and the experiences of the body can serve as a “grounding source of knowledge” in theology. The quest is for a theological anthropology that can reflect a deeper understanding of the rich and complex dimensions of bodily life. The quest is for a theological anthropology that has this sentiment of the flesh.

See also: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OC3PICgtTY0 and

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