The Second Body
by Daisy Hildyard
Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018
Reviewed by Ajay Makan
As I write in March 2022 it is impossible to ignore the fact there is a war going on in Ukraine. Visiting a news website, scrolling Instagram or in a queue at the supermarket, it intrudes and demands attention.
As a brown-skinned European I resent this. War is odious, yes, but I am frustrated by the voices telling me that there is something special about this conflict and these deaths, not those involving non-white people that are occurring simultaneously.
Politically this is a suspect position. I see clearly how a race-based reaction limits solidarity and mirrors the white ethno- and eurocentrism that frustrates me. Yet such parochialism is common in an age of seething identity conflict, and my own keeps coming back.
In these weeks of brooding anger I have returned to a book which challenges my insularity and seeks a language of universalism, but also recognises the reality of group identities.
In The Second Body the British novelist and essayist Daisy Hildyard suggests we are, each of us, bifurcated into two distinct beings. We have our first, corporeal, bodies that eat, shop and travel. Then we have a second, abstract body which, by virtue of our first bodies’ acts of living in modernity, is at once warming the Pacific ocean and destroying tiger habitats in Bhutan.
As an argument about human responsibility for planetary devastation, this is unoriginal. The beauty of Hildyard’s book is where it goes next. What is the point of knowing we are destroying the earth, she asks, if we cannot feel the planetary imprint that our second body leaves? Only if we connect with the latter will we be able to react appropriately to our position in a globalized and networked world.
So begins a quest to find this connection. Hildyard moves from the meat counter of a butcher’s shop to the potential for extraterrestrial life. She introduces us to the thought of Timothy Clark for whom humans are second bodies alone, no more than a sum of the resources we consume. She prefers the novels of Elena Ferrante and the views of scientist-mothers, who make space for the individual amid the mind boggling scale of the Anthropocene.
Hildyards tackles big questions of ethical life and responsibility, and of whether these are even possible in an age of interconnectedness. But she does so with a dose of northern British skepticism and a wry nod to her rural school teachers, who would think she is being too clever by half. She does not often succeed, she says, in finding that connection to her second body, because, she says, it is unfathomably difficult.
Which brings me back to the war in Ukraine.
Although I was born and raised in a comfortable household in Europe, I struggle to feel a connection to a Ukrainian under siege in Kharkiv (or indeed to a tiger in Bhutan whose habitat is disappearing). Yet I am incredibly moved by an Afghan or Syrian family seeking to reach Europe in a leaky dinghy. My first body’s racial connection to the latter moves me to tears, while my second body’s implication in the former remains abstract.
There are many other issues where I struggle to feel the responsibility that I rationally know I should take, as Hildyard frames the problem. THE SECOND BODY is about three such topics: global warming, ecology and animal habitats.
Privately many black and brown friends share my aloofness to these environmental issues and a quiet frustration with the sudden urgency of the politics of climate change. What about people – generally non-white – suffering unimaginable violence, we ask each other?
We know that politically this is a useless position: that if we wait to solve all human problems before tackling the planet’s, we will all drown; and that, of course, a politics of climate change can embrace racial justice too. But we feel it all the same.
Hildyard’s book appears to describe similar failures. She describes various efforts to grasp the slithery reality of our second bodies, only for it to slip just beyond her reach, leaving her stuck firmly in her first. But I would argue this is a false modesty and by the end of her essay she has gone a long way towards her goal. Hildyard’s narration involves a kind of textual sleight of hand, in which her use of language is more important than explicit arguments.
For example, given her book is planetary, super-human, only rarely does Hildyard confront the differentiated lives of people in the global south and north. Early in the text, alongside swollen rivers and wildfires, she notes a “teenager in Kolkata… missing a thumb” and “car bombs going off in Baghdad”. Then in the final paragraphs she describes a walk on a Mediterranean island with her baby daughter on her back. They reach a metal fence beyond which refugees are coming ashore. Hildyard sees “a dark-haired man with very pale eyes, having a cigarette.” She rattles the fence but cannot pass. The book ends with the words, “We couldn’t go any further,” a final admission of defeat.
To address planetary devastation, Hildyard must bracket race, child labour and borders away from her central narrative. But with these scattered, impressionistic references, she makes us beautifully aware that she knows these topics are there. Without that effort I might have read less sympathetically. There were similar winks to questions of class, urban-rural and generational divides and surely many others that I missed, because they spoke less to me.
Some would criticize this as a kind of performative wokeness. And attempts to acknowledge complexity do often look clumsy or ugly, like the man painfully enumerating his privileges before making a point. But I would argue that what Hildyard performs so gracefully is something extremely important. She acknowledges the pains of our first bodies so that we might access our second.
In his book, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity the American philosopher Richard Rorty suggested the role of a liberal thinker in a postmodern world is to move beyond truth claims, to make points textually, by allusion and style. Rorty’s description makes me think of the arch tone of the contemporary American literary magazine writer, compromised by capitalism but, most importantly, in on the joke. It’s not a trope I love. I’m too earnest, my concerns too stubbornly concrete, perhaps.
But in The Second Body Hildyard offers another version of the postmodern thinker. She playfully and ironically, but never sarcastically, exposes the stubborn limits of our attempts to think beyond ourselves, but subtly opens up routes to a common humanity by doing so.
It is with language like Hildyard’s that we might be prized away from our own, felt, preoccupations to a more radical shared politics. The Ukrainian under siege in Kharkiv is suffering in ways that my sheltered Western life cannot imagine, and it shocks me that my heart does not travel to him as easily as to a Syrian. I think it would have more chance of doing so if only the person telling me about Ukraine could offer some sign that they know other stories exist and deserve care too.