A DURABLE FIRE

by Catherine Madsen

From the first outraged my-parents-never-did-that-to-get-me, the sheer incongruity of sex with the rest of life is confounding. Even in the act— whichever "the" act is in question—there are moments of weird alienation from the beloved person, when love is not quite in play and this juxtaposition of parts seems the very damnedest thing to be doing. Instinct clashes with consciousness, and consciousness stalls: at the uncanny confidence of the body, the uncanny evaporation of desire at unpredictable points, the uncanny revival of old insecurities. (All things remain in God, says Yeats's Crazy Jane.) Which partly accounts for religion's perennial unease with sex of all kinds: we do things we regret, and other people do things we deplore, and we get lost in the alienation. Religion wonders why we can't leave this stuff alone—either completely or according to strict limits; it seems unattractive enough from a distance.

There is a kind of direness in sexual conjunction: desire, desperation, gratitude, self-transcendence or self-disgust, yearning for pregnancy or grim determination to avoid it, the incandescence and the temporality of joy. For men and women, the crossing into the other sex's physical and cultural being is a radical disorientation; with time it can become a kind familiarity with an anatomy and hormonal shifts and medical problems unlike one's own, but the initial contact is a fascination as appalled as it is delighted. And there are genuine dangers in reproductive activity: maternal mortality, infant mortality, the fallout ("nuclear" in its insidious half-life) of divorce and custody, the despair of finding oneself the parent of children with a partner one does not love. I once read an essay about a young woman's abortion: the writer's first boyfriend (both of them having been warned all through high school about pregnancy and AIDS) urging her to have the baby after all, thus abrogating what she had seen as the dark compact they had made together, that if they made love "there might have to be a death." Neither the pro-life nor the pro-choice side—nor the safe-sex educators—ever foresaw such a twist on their doctrines. Yet it follows more or less naturally from the sense of fatefulness a young couple has in crossing that line.

For gay men and lesbians, the line crossed is the boundary of social sanction; besides the inevitable haunting of the relationship by each partner's past and psychosexual makeup—which happens to everyone—the church and the state are implicit onlookers at the most private encounters, if not the mob that howls at the door. One has only the choices of despair or defiance, concealment from public view or insistence on public statement, rather than the ordinary stages of movement from private to public that (single) heterosexuals take for granted: the proposal, the engagement, the wedding. For all that, the pursuit of legal gay marriage strikes me as a failure of imagination rather than a triumph of justice; if the love of one's own sex is distinctive enough to be worth wanting on its own terms, with or without social sanction, it is distinctive enough to require its own ceremonies and legal agreements when it begins to acquire social sanction. The social history is different, and—artificial insemination and surrogate motherhood notwithstanding—the physical potentialities are different; there is something to be gained by an accurate appraisal of one's bodily situation, even when the economic relationship can be cast more or less in existing molds.

But in another sense it is not sufficient to anchor one's sexual definitions in which gender encounters which, or which body part encounters which. Certain aspects of sexuality are simply polymorphous; others are so discriminating as to gravitate not to the shape of the skin but to the contours of the mind. La différence is not simply the gender difference but the spark of heightened attention that ignites mutual response. Gerard Loughlin says in Alien Sex, with a kind of pseudo-Dionysian rejection of descriptors, that "the erotic embrace, the sexual relationship, is neither a struggle, nor a fusion, nor a knowledge . . . It is a relationship with alterity, with mystery . . . not with a being that is not there, but with the very dimension of alterity. The erotic is the lure and the embrace of the truly alien, the flesh that is other." One unforeseen revelation of lesbian feminism was that a lover who is not your biological and cultural opposite is not therefore the same but is permanently and irreducibly other; there is no escape from difference in the refusal of polarity. Women who have met this otherness in women may find it in men too, discovering them in turn not as opposite but as other: not with the wariness of mutual exploitation but with curiosity and delight and a fearless kindness. Otherness is unbiddable: it is the unexpected collision between the possible and the miracle, the body politic and the body electric.

All this can barely be said, and is alien to both the religious and the sociological discourse about sex; it is not the stuff of moral or social theory but of night talk. It exists alongside public life, in a sort of background or substrate of lived experience: all that people don't ask and don't tell, not only because of its privacy but because of its subtlety, the impossibility of fitting it into a questionnaire or a slogan or a piece of French or Latin terminology. Intimacy remains beyond the reach of law or exhortation or one's sociopolitical demographic to comprehend or to solve. Private life remains the proving ground of our character, exacting in its particularity, uncompromising in its uniqueness. Even better than physical ecstasy is a combined physical and moral ecstasy: painstaking restraint repaid with unabashed trust, the happy conjunction of delicacy and indelicacy, the incomparable privilege of requited love.

When Gilgamesh wanted to tame the wild man Enkidu, he sent him a woman; she made love with him for six days and seven nights till the wild beasts no longer knew him, and then he began to use language. The confluence—or at least the alternation—of sex and speech is a civilizing condition. Conversely, the absence of the erotic from speech is brutalizing; Caliban, who can never get near Miranda, snarls at Prospero, "You taught me language, and my profit on't / Is, I know how to curse." When religion looks at sex from a distance, purging the erotic from its speech or explaining it away as tame allegory, it forfeits a measure of its civilizing power. The line in the old Anglican marriage service—long gone, of course, from the new one—that understood erotic and domestic life at close range was "with my body I thee worship." Worship meant something parallel to honor or adore in those days, not yet something exclusively religious, but the very shift in meaning underlines the validity of the instinct; if we cannot worship our lovers whom we can see, how shall we worship God whom we cannot? A language of adoration cannot be a language of inexperience, real or feigned. It can only be a language of experience, in which spirit is at home in flesh.

 

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Source: CrossCurrents, Fall 2004, Vol. 54,  No 3.