Blogging has meant making new friends, keeping old friends, and starting friendships with people with whom I shared space many decades ago -- same high school, same neighborhood of Portland, Oregon -- but never knew. One of those new friends has kept her relationships with church communities alive as organist, parish nurse, and mother-in-law of ministers. Her life has been a busy one so only now is she catching up with some things, like the “Bridges of Madison County” wherein Meryl Streep has a relationship with Clint Eastwood, who is only passing through, but stays faithful to her family. My friend’s reaction was “yiyiyiyiyi!”
At the same time my Netflix movie (which I really hated to send back) was “The Lover,” the Marguerite Duras movie, also about a short relationship, drawn from Duras’ life. I told my friend this, so she looked up the review and was shocked.
One of my key “documents” is Duras’ earlier film “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” which also addresses a short relationship but in a philosophical way about time, regret, and so on. The images are as strong as the newsreel images of the actual bombing aftermath which are among my earliest memories. “The Lover” was rather taken out of Duras’ hands and is so directly sexual that it demands some sophistication to see through to the issues of relationship, but it is also rewarding. A young girl has an affair with an older Chinese man, rich and spoiled and arguably the weaker of the two. She is unblinking, he is trapped, their freedom is rooted in the knowledge that this is a transient state of affairs. (The location is Vietnam -- make of that what you will. It’s before any American war.) He gives her money and initiation. He does not know that he is giving her the basis of an entire career of writing.
I could compare it to the happy year I spent as the interim minister of the Kirkland, WA., Unitarian Universalist congregation, knowing that -- as I kept reminding them -- it was an “affair, not a marriage.” This context kept out the power plays, the baggage of expectations, and left events simple enough to deal with honestly.
The real subject matter, a writer remembering a near-childhood affair, is handled artistically. It begins as many of these movies do, with a pen nib scribbling over fine paper, but before that with extremely close-up silvery images of the author’s eyebrows, glasses, blurred curves of face. We never really see the face. At the end we see the writer’s back and she answers the telephone. Presumably it is her Chinese lover, now old and visiting Paris with his wife, who assures her that he still loves her.
Now to the other end of the spectrum. Today the newspapers tell of a teenaged boy who had consensual oral sex with his girl friend, was caught, and sentenced to ten years in jail. He has been released when a judge ruled the sentence was cruel and unusual punishment and the law has been changed to make the offense a misdemeanor instead of a felony. These days, they say, girls are “expected” to contribute oral sex to their boyfriends or even unknowns at parties. It is “innocent” because, as our president said, it’s not “really” having sex, which is intercourse. There cannot be babies. But there can be some nasty VD of the mouth and throat. No one seems to think about the emotional consequences.
How is it that sexuality has become so cheap and brutal? The answer is that it has become commodified: something to sell. It has been detached from human experience and made into a stylized set of objects and rituals. The yearning, the poetry, has been removed so that all that is left is the fucking. SPAM. A privilege of high status.
The media says you must wear certain clothes, pose certain ways, own certain amenities and appliances, all commands that conflate sex with money, though sex has always been the most basic and available of experiences. After all, one can relate to one’s hand. Men can and do fuck animals. Women can and do use vibrators. We know all this. What we really need to understand has nothing to do with belongings but rather has to do with love.
Some would separate sex from love, commodify love as well. You must buy flowers and chocolate, jewelry, clothes, and so on. Money proves who loves whom. Merchandisers don’t want the young ones to find out that what’s really important is paying attention, protecting the future esp. for children, and not losing one’s community. The great love stories are always about the danger of losing commmunity and family.
With the rise of anthropology in the 19th century, we have all been fascinated with the idea that a culture could allow free and easy sex while preserving order, you might say “bonobo happy.” Even Margaret Mead was distracted by that possibility, though later the Samoan girls she had believed said they made it all up. We see both the French and Japanese or SE Asians as people who accommodate sex in the extreme and outside of marriage, people who don’t have “prudish hangups.” But in fact, those cultures are strongly patterned and simply assign compartments to limited licenciousness, like a Scandinavian needle park for addicts.
In America we are so deeply confused by the plurality of cultures, all struggling against each other to establish some overarching consensus that can be written into laws, depended upon in marriage contracts, made a foundation of economic stability -- for it is families who guarantee stable societies where commerce can flourish -- that we have little integrity. Teenagers don’t trust their parents, aliens from the country of the past, and instead ask each other for help. Like the girls in “Lisa, Light and Dark” who try to help a schizophrenic friend by themselves, kids are NOT up to the task of advising other kids. In fact, these days even medical authorities and church officials -- much less teachers -- are no longer trusted, nor do they enjoy consensus.
“The Bridges of Madison County” is a very old story, but the coherence and dependability of the woman’s world -- that legendary American spine of the family farm in the Midwest -- is not always valued by contemporaries. Instead we admire the footloose photographer who crosses cultures everywhere, always belonging to himself and pretty much only himself. Their affair is a moment to rest, to regard the alternative, to consider that path and reject it -- not as hated or bad, but as simply not their right path. Not that it would be morally wrong to take that turn, but that after mature consideration it would not balance out with the shock and damage for her family or the curtailment and burden for the man.
The great frustration of being human is that you can only live one life and that most of us stick it out in one chosen or born-into culture. A few lucky people (artists?) have a chance to make their own culture and community, but it might be fragile. In this place, next to the Blackfeet Reservation, many come to move out of their own culture into what they imagine to be Blackfeet culture. What a shock they get! Without family, without the right skills, without a shared history -- they’d better bring something really valuable with them in terms of their personal identity as well as a lot of tenacity -- determination to make it work. Sorta like marriage. Sex is like Indian Days, a vivid celebration. Real relationship is seasons, generations, trust and hope until the tribe accepts you. Loves you.