Midnight Musings on Sex as Discovery, the Lure of the Other, and the Hera-Aphrodite Dilemma
Waiting for Popcorn
I'm standing in the popcorn line at the movie theatre. I'm about to go in to see Whoopi Goldberg's new film Corinna, Corinna which, among other things, is about an interracial relationship. The man behind me in line -- a heavy-set, regular-looking guy in his 50s -- is very seriously quoting Scripture to his woman partner relating to the very subject of interraciality.
God told King Solomon, the man says, that it's important for his people to stay with their own kind. Why? Because if you have your people getting intermingled with people from other tribes, pretty soon they're going to get intrigued with the strange gods that other tribes worship. This is Jehovah talking, the guy who put the mono in monotheism (not to mention monogamy), so obviously taking up with strange Othergods would be extremely bad news.
The man behind me in the popcorn line is being seriously philosophical, not particularly racist. His tone of voice is matter-of-fact, not nasty. Just a quiet little commentary on the nature of Otherness.
Now personally, I find Otherness more fascinating than frightening, which may explain why I keep getting struck by lightning. If I saw a UFO land behind the hill over there, you can be sure that I would have to go check it out, even if it was likely to mean getting put in a cage, tortured, liquidated, or taken to some inhospitable planet and never being able to return home again. I would be one of the indigenous people (as they say) who gets fascinated with the weird Europeans when they show up on the beach. I'm not arguing that this is some higher form of existence or anything; it's just how I am.
For no reason at all, I found myself turning around and looking at the man and his decidedly less-serious-looking woman friend. They looked back at me, as in "What are you doing in our consciousness?" I struck a bit of a pose.
"The gods may be strange out there," I offered with mock sagacity, "but the sex is great." I have no idea why I said anything at all, let alone that, but that's exactly what I said. It seemed like the obvious bottom line, especially with regard to Solomon, keeper of the many hundred concubines.
The man stopped dead in his mental tracks. The woman, to my surprise, laughed in a most friendly way and threw me what I interpreted (perhaps misinterpreted) as a knowing, almost salacious, look.
I shrugged what felt like a very zen shrug. "It's a trade off," I said in the spirit of philosophical closure, with a tone of voice reserved for things very wise and profound.
None of the three of us knew quite what to say after that, so we just stood there in silence. Disliking awkward silences, I took it upon myself to continue.
"Wasn't Solomon the king who had hundreds of wives?" I asked.
The man acknowledged that he was.
"And wasn't he also supposed to be the wisest man of all time?" I probed further, feeling very Socratic.
"Yes," the man agreed, "he was."
I shrugged again, this time more rabbinically. "The road of Excess leads to the palace of Wisdom," I said, denoting conclusion a second time, passing off the words of William Blake as if he were Scripture, and trying to decide if this really followed from the previous sentences.
Neither the man nor the woman caught the cross-millennial cut-and-paste, and neither questioned the presumed divinity of Blake's wisdom. Neither did they speak, so struck were they with trying to plumb the significance of the Lesson I had gently but weightily laid upon them. Or perhaps they were just struck dumb with the weirdness you have to put up with trying to just get some popcorn in movie theatres these days. I don't know. I had already turned back to the counter and ordered my popcorn and soda from a cheerful young man who, I thought, was unlikely to ever be heir to Solomon's wisdom.
A Little Historical Perspective
William Blake said a lot of outrageous and inspirational things. For example, he penned the motto that I have had taped to my desk for the last fifteen years: "HE WHO DESIRES BUT ACTS NOT BREEDS PESTILENCE." Not bad for the 18th century, eh? Blake was speaking to something deep in me when I first met him at 13, even though I was decades away from having any idea of what that something was. Watch out all you minders of the straight and narrow path: literature most definitely is subversive.
Perhaps you remember Blake's poems from your high school English class: "Tyger! Tyger! burning bright...." In addition to his poems, many of which were not nearly as innocent as they might at first seem, Blake also drew dozens of deliciously outrageous engravings, images that would get most any high school English teacher fired if he/she were to show them to a class full of minors.
William Blake -- wild crazy poet and artist -- lived from 1757 to 1827 and was one strange ecstatic sexual mystic, over and above whatever else he may have been. According to Robert Bly, Blake was arrested and nearly executed when a neighbor complained to the authorities that he was in the habit of fucking his wife in his garden, in plain daylight, neighbors be damned. The only thing that saved Blake's hide was that several character witnesses of high reputation solemnly testified that he was in fact an accomplished literateur and artiste. The court relented, sanctioning Blake's perversion in the name of artistic license. William Blake -- 1; Jesse Helms, Lord of Sussex -- 0.
I am going somewhere with all this but, column plan aside, I also believe it's important to remember that there have been strangely, unconventionally, and excessively sexual people throughout history -- a long and glorious tradition, you might say. If you think sexual perversion was invented in 1990 or 1960, you've got another think coming, young (wo)man! (Why I could tell you stories about your grandma and me that would set you back on your ear, no matter how much fancy latex and how many exotic sex toys you like to carry around with you....)
Going Beyond the Pale
Now, according to my Bible-curious teenage stepson, it turns out that Solomon did not faithfully follow the advice of the Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who giveth us his pronouncements on the propriety of restricting cocks to cunts of their own tribal flavor. On several distinct occasions, Solomon's cock led him beyond the sanctioned borders of Israelite cuntdom. Because Jehovah's advice is never really advice at all but rather Commandment, Solomon consequently suffered a generous share of divine punishment (Divine punishment, I mean -- not the fun kind) as a result.
That Solomon, in all his wisdom, kept going back for more Otherly adventure, speaks of more than some kind of compulsive Don Juan syndrome, more than inadequate impulse control. We're talking about the King of all the Jews here, after all. No, the point goes deeper, beyond psychopathology to the nature of psychosexual reality itself. Eros, the Greeks knew, is a trickster who doesn't like to play by the rules of reason. Coyote -- the Native American equivalent -- is equally sexy, wily, and unreasonable. If the Jews, the Greeks, and the Native Americans are all talking about the same thing, maybe we would do well to listen up....
Of Sex and Ongoing Discovery
Maybe it's just a male thing, but maybe not -- this way that the sexual drive seems to have something to do with going beyond drawn boundaries, outside the circle of wagons, crossing into the mysterious and dangerous territory of the unknown and perhaps unknowable. There's something about sex that has to do with discovery, with unpredictability, with exploration, with mystery. Maybe it's not exactly sex that involves these things. Maybe it's passion.
The couple that's been married for twenty years (or five, or two) and whose sexual ritual falls into a few familiar patterns over and over again is likely to lose interest in sex altogether. This is such a mass phenomenon these days that the sex professionals have given it a name -- Inhibited Sexual Desire (ISD). And guess what? Teaching established couples better communication skills and how to get each other off more precisely doesn't make Inhibited Sexual Desire go away. Even when people know how to correctly pleasure each other, they often don't bother to take the time and energy to do so.
The lesson seems clear: It's the spirit of discovery that wants to be kept alive, that motivates ongoing excitement and passionate sexual desire. Without a sense of discovery, even the best of sex becomes repetitious and loses its edge. Isn't it the reaching for discovery that makes extramarital affairs -- stories whose endings cannot be seen from the beginning -- so hot and so commonplace? Of course, it's also possible, and in many ways more rewarding in the long run, to go down instead of out in search of the spirit of discovery -- to pursue discovery via depth rather than breadth. Ask the tantrikas. My point is simply that discovery and exploration in one form or another are essential to maintaining the passion that is indispensable to vibrant, magical, deeply satisfying sexual existence.
Hera and Aphrodite
This is something of what James Hillman was getting at, during his talk -- the final installment of the Sex, Intimacy, and Culture Symposium this spring. Layne Winklebleck spoke to some of this in his Spectator review of that talk several weeks back.
In Hillman's Greek mythological terms, there is a basic conflict between the energy the Greeks attributed to Hera, goddess of all goddesses, and the energy they assigned to Aphrodite, goddess of beauty. Hera, as Hillman explains, is (among other things) the goddess of coupling. She is the representation of the desire (in men as well as women -- these gods and goddesses are not to be taken too literally or genderspecifically) to be paired, to be bonded, to be committed to another person, soul to soul, for all time.
In the Greek Pantheon, Hera is married to Zeus, god of all gods and, among other things, quite the philanderer. Hera's antithesis in spirit, and competition (one could say) for Zeus's loyalty and attention, is Aphrodite, the beautiful young woman, the passionate seductress, the unbearably compelling counterurge to the longing for union -- the urge to start again and again from the beginning, the spirit of outward discovery and autonomy, the spirit of a kind of freedom that is inevitably opposed to the need to couple in Hera's way. No one can tell me what to do, says Zeus when he is under the influence of Aphrodite. No one can bind me or bound me. This is the urge to be infinitely expansive, for all things to be possible.
As the Greek stories go, Zeus gets fascinated over and over again with Aphrodite energy in one form or another. Each time, Hera is utterly furious with him. As Hillman emphasizes, the one thing that Hera's coupling urge cannot tolerate is being uncoupled or disattached. To Hera, Zeus's fascination with Aphrodite is not exuberant, playful reaching out for adventure, but abandonment and betrayal of the essential primacy of the couple itself.
What are we -- as women and men -- to do with this contradiction, with this existential tension between the desire to couple and the desire to keep alive the spirit of adventure and discovery? Members of the audience asked Hillman this question so often that he became quite exasperated by their persistence. He consistently refused to offer a remedy for the dilemma. There is no answer to this tension, he insisted. This is not a psychological problem to be analyzed and resolved. It is rather an inevitable, essential enigma to be simply marveled and appreciated, a source of perpetual conflict that animates the very erotic flux of existence.
I'm with Hillman on this, as I am on many things. The only rest from this sort of instability is in the grave. You can tear your hair out about this for the rest of your life, or you can accept the inevitable and stop complaining about how complicated the forces of life are. You can tear your partner's hair out about this for the rest of your time together, or you can respect -- perhaps even rejoice in -- the wicked unsettledness that erotic existence drapes over our shoulders. Life is richest when the mysteries are appreciated for being mysterious, when unresolvable dilemmas are appreciated for being unresolvable.
Embracing Madness Yet Again
In their book We've Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy and the World's Getting Worse, Hillman and LA writer Michael Ventura speak of love in this way:
"When you realize that love is all about heartbreak, you're all right. But if you think it is about fulfillment, happiness, satisfaction, union, all of that stuff, you're in for even more heartbreak.... Love is a very funny place to go for safety.... Your idea of love, what you've thought of as love, what you expect from love, what you cling to as love -- this is what you [have to] give up.... Love is a madness.... The question is... what is the madness looking for? What does the madness want?"
Love as discovery, not a safe warm bath. Sex as discovery, not a safe warm bath either. Heartbreak and madness are part of the show as surely as both Hera and Aphrodite are here to stay.
To my mind, the inherently unstable nature of both love and desire is a madness to be celebrated and glorified, not an imperfection to be fixed; an energy to be ridden and be ridden by, not just an interruption to peace and quiet to be subdued and tranquilized at the first opportunity. Aphrodite need not be a threat to Hera -- the spirit of discovery, the urge to go beyond, can be brought into the heart of the coupling if Hera will embrace Aphrodite as her sister rather than cast Aphrodite out as her enemy. This requires an embracing of turmoil, and a letting go of one kind of safety, neither of which is a simple matter. But isn't the vitality, in the end worth the uncertainty?
Spoken just like a man, you might say. Somewhere I think I hear Hillman and the full Greek chorus laughing at my foolishness. This is, after all, precisely what Hera will not do. Two minutes after I plead for embracing the contradictions, here I am trying to make them go away. Ah well, as everybody knows, that's how it goes.
Spectator, September 16, 1994
Copyright © 1994 David Steinberg
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