Monday, January 07, 2013
STEP AWAY FROM THE SEX: THE DESIRE TO BELONG TO ONESELF
There is one sexual “style” that has always been around and has never been admired, at least not by people I know, or at least not without being portrayed as some kind of sacrifice or failure. That is celibacy. Which is related to but not the same as “null partum” femininity (no babies). Which is related to cultural gender ambiguity, the belief that the roles of people are determined by their gender assignment. Which is related to intimacy which in many cultures is permitted only between persons of the same gender or between people in a legal sexual arrangement. But my best friends are all male and I love them without sex, which is risky. Because intimacy is often about secrets and secrets can be dangerous, especially secrets that are worth money or power. In a place where there is a shortage of money and power or where the money and power are distributed in an inequitable way, sex becomes a commodity that is highly stylized and confused at the same time -- I think because so many options are not there, not considered, not possible. Like sheltered intimacy that embraces the obligation towards children. How can you do that without at least a minimum of money?
At the beginning of my own sexuality, I went to books. (The whole culture was doing it after WWII. There were so many questions and the rise of scientific technology was making new investigations possible.) In fact, I grew up in a house of books: we didn’t talk about things -- we read about them. The same was true of my father -- my mother not so much. I was not reading porn but scholarly studies. And yet neither parent was a scholar -- they were country kids in the city, trying to be sophisticated without any guidance. At one point in my babysitting career (short) the hiring mother had a HUGE collection of true confession magazines and I read them all. But I never talked to anyone about them. In those days women’s magazines were about housekeeping and I read enough of them to be Betty Crocker Homemaker of the Year for 1957 in my 2,000 member high school, which was a huge source of merriment to my mother since I had to be forced to peel a potato for supper.
Somehow sexual intimacy for me is an intellectual pursuit. Almost anthropological. Quite literary. But rather vulgar when mixed with power and secrecy. (Secrecy is an illusion anyway. Maybe so is power.) It’s been interesting to reflect on the reactions to my posts about Clare Sheridan, who was upper class, politically well-connected, but usually poverty-stricken. I include my own reaction. Clare’s mother, a sister to Winston Churchill’s mother, had an “admirer”, a sort of rogue Serbian king who kept getting thrown off his throne and then resuming it, divorcing his wife and then taking her back. (Hold your friends close and your enemies closer.) This was a wonderfully risky/risqué relationship not unusual at the time and place. (Are you watching “Downton Abbey”?)
When a former roommate from 1961 contacted me with unearned familiarity and talked about how one of her professors (male) had regularly fucked her on the floor of his office as though that were more important than her accomplishment as a poet (she is quite good), I was repelled. Yet the intense relationships among the acting students who were my friends seem to me “earned” and even valuable, whether or not they were straight. They were never sexual. We never discussed sex, not even now. So what the heck does all this stuff mean? Anything?
At this point in my life I live for print. The equivalent in the literary past was relationship by correspondence except that this is writing anyone could read if they cared to look. (They mostly don’t, but you are this minute.) I sort of glance off art images -- intake and reflection, but not production. I don’t want to politicize any of this, nor join anything. I severely limit my correspondents and don’t share their responses. Take no hitchhikers, leave no leftovers.
Clare, like me, had a life front-loaded with eros, so that much of what happened later was pale by comparison. But she was different in that she had children, possibly weighing them down with her adult life. She was nobody’s shelter, not even her own. I suspect that, like me, she deeply valued intelligent talk but she never tells us what she reads. I wonder whether there are somewhere diaries that are much more frank that what was published. But she was always a kind of informal undercover agent and emissary so I suspect that records were destroyed. National security, you know.
One could easily accuse both Clare and me of being narcissists, but coming mostly out of self-protection more than grandiosity. Maybe narcissist is going too far -- maybe we’re just selfish. If so, I’ve got what I had to hoard in the past: time to write. Which is lucky since I’ve never made money from writing. I expected to now, but it has become impossible. I would have used money to buy time.
Teaching and ministry are burdened occupations when it comes to writing. Both are based on intimacy -- at least if it’s done properly, in my opinion -- but both have a taboo on sexuality: more of a secrecy command than most people. Both are done across a perceived power gradient, though that might not be actual. Students and parishioners both have the power of the underdog, which is enormous and defended by the law. Now that the culture is drawing back from many taboos, revealing what was there just along the shore all the while and known by teachers and clergy -- VERY well by writers -- some people are a little panicky and many just wall it out. The panic and the walls are more dangerous than the sex. “Fifty Shades of Gray” is only the beginning, a little nibble.
My celibacy, my desire to belong only to myself, is partly a practical decision and partly a romantic one. “Roman” means story. I have an intense need to process the story of my life and the lives around me. Not “what happened,” but “what does it mean?” Not to exploit them or expose them, but to understand them. I’m not talking about the people in physical proximity, but some who are far away. Maybe this is an enterprise that demands space. If so, the high prairie has a lot of it.
But step away from the sex. This writing is about desire and there are many kinds of desire.