Friday, February 26, 2010
Our dear comrade, and author Sion Liscannor responds to my post "OOPS",feb. 23rd, and the comments it engendered
Some thoughts on a comment posted recently by Art Fanatic.
“I believe that males are supposed to be attracted to males, but then subliminate that desire and express it in an acceptable manner, including affection, sports, art and everything else, but not sex.”
Dear Art Fanatic,
I respect your point of view, but it raises many questions for me.
Firstly, there is the question of who it is that ‘supposes’ that males (or anyone else) are meant to behave in a certain way and not in another way. Again, who is doing the ‘accepting’? Who decides what is right or wrong? Who writes the rules of what is acceptable or not acceptable?
What I take you to mean is that all relationships (sexual or otherwise) take place within the context of a larger human society, and that society imposes certain rules, which society expects us to conform to and which we ignore at our peril.
We know that there are no absolute rules. Different societies and different epochs write the rules differently. What is sublime behaviour in one society and one epoch needs to be ‘sublimated’ in another.
Our society, as all societies before it, has inherited a heap of conflicting taboos, prejudices and religiously imposed strictures. Western society in particular, since Christianity exterminated the religious practices of the Classical world, has associated sex with shame and guilt.
Almost all sexual activity in our society needs to be ‘sublimated’ in one way or another. At one level it has to be legitimized by marriage; at another level it has to be redeemed by association with concepts of romantic ‘love’.
Even the ‘free sex’ lobby has tended to support its views by reference to physical and/or mental health or political liberation. It seems we cannot simply ‘do’ sex without calling in the gods, or Freud, or Karl Marx, or some guru or other, to give it the OK.
I would propose an alternative view: We could also regard sexual activity not as an end but as a means to an end. There is no such thing as a sexual relationship. There are human relationships which are enhanced in various ways by sex.
I am uncomfortable about the rather vague term ‘enhanced’ (though not as uncomfortable as I am about the even vaguer term ‘sublimated’). What I mean by ‘enhancement’ is that relationships can be made more intimate, more honest, more noble, more inspiring etc when sex is involved. Sex is a means by which one human being meets another in a more complete way. Most of the serious business of life is about such meetings.
That elements in our society have conspired to associate sex with guilt and shame simply shows that our social values and attitudes have been distorted in order to hinder such ‘meetings’ of individuals. Western culture is a wounded culture. Any culture that restricts the meeting of human souls – and which does so in the name of some higher morality – is a wounded culture. Fortunately, sex has an infinite capacity to heal. And it always returns to us however many times we try to drive it away.
Secondly, when we sweep away the ‘suppositions’ of what is ‘acceptable’ or not ‘acceptable’, where does that leave us with regard to the question of how we are to conduct ourselves in respect of sexual relationships? Such relationships are between individuals, not between individuals and society.
It is necessary that society legislates for human relationships in the economic sphere and in the sphere of human ‘rights’ – by which I mean everything to do with the concept of equality before the law.
But society cannot or should not attempt to legislate in the sphere of personal relationships. Personal relationships belong to the spiritual sphere, and it is in the spiritual sphere that human beings can be free. Friendship and love are part of spiritual freedom.
Society cannot legislate in this sphere, so it becomes the task of each of us to be responsible for his own conduct – and to be answerable to himself for his conduct. Personal relationships – and personal relationships which are deepened by sex in particular – are the part of our lives that require the most intense sense of responsibility.
It is an unfortunate consequence of our social conditioning that we are largely taught to ignore the cultivation of a sense of responsibility in the sphere of personal relationships. Society would persuade us that we are responsible for the welfare of the state, the nation, our caste, our clan, our family and all the rest of it.
Actually, it is in personal relationships that we require the deepest sense of responsibility, because it is here where we can directly do the greatest good and the greatest harm.
Thirdly, what is ‘responsibility’ in respect of same sex relationships, and in particular in respect of the inter-generational relationships which are of specific interest in the forum of ‘Pink Hell’?
Imagine for a moment that we were living in an Earthly paradise. I conceive of such a paradise not in terms of Eden gardens and sandy beaches and palm trees: I conceive of it as a world free of the burden of the past. A world without history, a world without religious traditions; and hence a world free of guilt and shame. A world in which each human soul could develop according to his or her own nature, without the pressure to conform to other people’s ideas of how we should be. There has never been such a world, but we can imagine it.
I find it interesting to speculate what sort of relationships might be possible in this imaginary free world and what part human sexuality might play in them. What interests me most about this imaginary world is that the possibility of hurting and of being hurt would be greatly diminished. For most of what is ‘hurtful’ or ‘damaging’ or ‘harmful’ about intergenerational sexual relationships is not inherent in the relationship itself: it is the product of the social pressures and tensions that surround the relationship. A boy is likely to be ‘hurt’ in such a relationship in consequence of the confused feelings of guilt or shame with which he has been socially conditioned.
He is likely to be ‘hurt’ by the mockery or rejection of his peers, who are victims of the same conditioning. He is likely to be hurt by the tension between the idea of himself which society has indoctrinated him with, and the alternative self that he discovers in and through the relationship.
So where does this leave us when we return to such relationships in the real world? What does responsible conduct look like in the face of the pain that such a relationship might bring? One might conclude that it is absolutely irresponsible to even consider a relationship that might bring such a hell down on the head of a boy. Unless, of course, personal relationships are of such value that they justify the risk. I would contend that relationships have an absolute value whereas social pressures are merely contingent. There is a choice: we can submit to the prejudices of society or we can have courage for the truth.
It is in this respect that I have the greatest difficulty with the concept of ‘sublimation’. To me sublimation either suggests dishonesty about the nature of a relationship or a refusal to accept human nature for what it is.
When I was a boy I was involved in several ‘sublimated’ relationships. I mean by this that I had relationships to adult males who were clearly sexually attracted to me but who insisted on limiting this relationship in one way or another. In one case the adult was a teacher who tried to preserve a formal ‘professional’ relationship to me; in another it was a priest in the role of a ‘spiritual counsellor’ who used that role to pry into the details of my personal life; in another it was an adult who cultivated a sort of ‘Iron John’ friendship that involved every kind of physical contact except sexual contact.
I have said that in the examples I have mentioned there was a clear sexual attraction from the side of the adult. I assume that most of the readers of this blog were boys once and that they will be familiar with the kind of ‘sublimated’ relationship I am describing. Sexual attraction is often revealed most starkly by the efforts people make to conceal it. A man who is ‘sublimating’ or concealing his feelings is like an actor who is playing a part. It is a dreadful thing to live out your life in such acting. And for the boy it is dreadful too if the relationship is one that is of value for him. It means that he will never really meet you. You offer all the peripherals of a friendship while denying the essential part of it.
In discussing the role of sex in relationships we tend to allow ourselves to be fixated upon physical acts, as if sexuality was made up of the various crimes that might be filed on a police charge sheet. Moralisers and legislators and pornographers are united in the fact that they all mistake the sexual act for sex itself. Sex is actually everything before and after. The bodily sexual act is simply the soul’s way of giving itself a break from sex.
If sex is at all it is everywhere and always. Sex is more like pollen than we suppose. It is in the air. It is around us and between us. That is why a boy usually knows when someone desires him. There is therefore no point in denying sexual attraction. What you do about it is, perhaps, another question, and it will depend on personalities and circumstances. But the first step, surely, is to stop denying the presence of sexual feeling.
This brings me to my second reservation about ‘sublimation’: that it involves a refusal to accept human nature for what it is.
I have several times in the above spoken of ‘human souls’ on the one hand and ‘bodily actions’ on the other. But we know, of course, that the distinction between soul and body is a fabrication. If we are in any doubt about it sex is always there to remind us. The concept of ‘sublimation’ rests on the erroneous belief that we can separate ‘bodily’ components of desire from ‘spiritual’ components of desire, and that we can transfer our desire from one realm to another. We don’t need to be philosophers to demonstrate the absurdity of this view of things: our ordinary experience of life makes it abundantly clear.
‘Sublimation’, I suspect, really means withholding ourselves from entering truly into a relationship with all that it involves – including our feelings, our desires, our needs – and substituting something else in place of that relationship. Sublimation means acting out a fantasy life of spurious relationships on the one hand and satisfying our sexual urges with such substitutes as pornography and masturbation.
Sublimation is, of course, a lofty spiritual ideal and has a long history. Plato seems to have thought of it first (though there are unkind rumours that he didn’t quite live up to his ideals in respect of some of his later youthful friends). Mahatma Gandhi liked to test the perfection of his sublimation skills by sleeping between a pair of attractive young girls. People who behave like this belong in a Freak Show. I cannot but feel that they have profoundly lost their way.
It is possible that I have a distorted view of sublimation. As the offspring of a Catholic Bishop I tend to regard myself as the product of a failed effort of lifelong sublimation, and I am grateful for the failure.
Finally, have we ever considered the point of view of the boys on the receiving end of these noble efforts of ‘sublimation’?
In two of the examples I have cited above from my own boyhood I felt a profound sense of frustration at what appeared to me to be mere cowardice or dishonesty. Like all adolescents I tended to see things in terms of black and white – but the fact that boys see moral issues in such stark terms doesn’t mean we shouldn’t respect their views. In these two cases I forced the sexual element of the relationship into the open. Why? I didn’t do it because I found either of the men sexually attractive in the way that I found boys of my own age attractive at that time. I did it in part because I really valued the friendship and all that it gave me, and I wanted it to be ‘true’. I also wanted to be able to give something in return for all that I received.
This ‘giving’ was an important issue. This ‘giving’ didn’t cost me anything and it transformed a lop-sided relationship into a reciprocal relationship. I enjoyed the fact that I was desired. It meant that I had something of value to give. A ‘sublimated’ relationship might look fine from the point of view of the sublimating adult, but in truth it is a distortion that belittles the boy whom it would protect.