So, I’ve been having sex. I’ve had good sex. I’ve had not so good sex. I believe the best sex is yet to come.
I’ve been in relationships lasting just a night, to several years, and most things in between. Heck, this one time I nearly got married. Ha!
So that’s where I’m coming from. Oh, I’m also a white male, heterosexual, Catholic.
But yo I’ve been reading. I’ll give you the bad news first. It seems like sex has gotten people into trouble sometimes. In Homer’s Iliad, Helen sleeps with Paris, there’s a war, thousands die.
In Simon Armitage’s recent dramatization, an argument is constructed between Helen and Andromache. Andromache says:
“When you walk into a room the men smell sex. The women smell death.”
“No,” replies Helen. “The women smell sex. That is why they detest me. The men smell death, and it smells exciting, because it smells like war. They smell meat, blood.”
Lily Cole’s Helen (most readers hear it here) speaks of jealousy, and of our mortality, of temporality. Not quite la petite mort, more the very nature of the struggle as we might see it through today’s eyes: to fight to reproduce, yes, but to fight for the prize of sex, the real, tangible reward; the vindication of oneself in another. Proof of life is this. Proof of life is this proof of death, and in sex there is immortality.
It seems like we are all going to kill each other.
But, it’s ok. People have thought about this. A few centuries later, Andreas Capellanus wrote De amore, or The Art of Courtly Love (trans. by John Jay Parry (New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1959), in which he considers ‘what love is, whence it gets its name, what the effect of love is, between what persons love may exist, how it may be acquired, retained, increased, decreased, and ended, what are the signs that one’s love is returned, and what one of the lovers ought to do if the other is unfaithful.’ At this stage, one is still tempted to suggest that war is the best option. But O, this suffering!
‘Love is a certain inborn suffering derived from the sight of and excessive meditation upon the beauty of the opposite sex, which causes each one to wish above all things the embraces of the other and by common desire to carry out all of love’s precepts in the other’s embrace.’ (p. 28) Last week, I wrote ‘we are dealing with the mind, with imagination, with memory’. Capellanus is in some agreement: ‘That this suffering is inborn I shall show you clearly, because if you will look at the truth and distinguish carefully you will see that it does not arise out of any action; only from the reflection of the mind upon what it sees does this suffering come. For when a man sees some woman fit for love and shaped according to his taste, he begins at once to lust after her in his heart; then the more he thinks about her the more he burns with love, until he comes to a fuller meditation. Presently he begins to think about the fashioning of the woman and to differentiate her limbs, to think about what she does, and to pry into the secrets of her body, and he desires to put each part of it to the fullest use. Then after he has come to this complete meditation, love cannot hold the reins, but he proceeds at once to action; straightway he strives to get a helper and to find an intermediary. He begins to plan how he may find favor with her, and he begins to seek a place and a time opportune for talking; he looks upon a brief hour as a very long year, because he cannot do anything fast enough to suit his eager mind. It is well known that many things happen to him in this manner. This inborn suffering comes, therefore, from seeing and meditating. Not every kind of meditation can be the cause of love, an excessive one is required; for a restrained thought does not, as a rule, return to the mind, and so love cannot arise from it.’ (p. 29)
And to prevent further confusion and mischief, Capellanus provides us with guidance. Thou shalt not covet! Avoid nuns! Avoid prostitutes! And, after a consideration of an Arthurian tale (this is, after all, Sex and Art), Capellanus provides us with The Rules.
One might argue that this guidance and these rules have regularly been ignored, which is how, broadly speaking, we got to where we are today.
But, we do seem to be living in a peaceful and free world. How? To answer that question, we may have to turn to great thinkers such as Freud, Lacan, Butler, Kristeva, Laqueur, and Foucault. These thinkers may also undoubtedly be partly responsible for this peaceful, free world we are inhabiting. We have been improving our minds. In an almost inexplicable combination of chivalry, nobility and sexual freedoms, we are here.
So let us turn to these thinkers, and, as they did, let us turn to art, to discover how and why we exist in this current paradigm, this gestalt, this world amongst worlds of Sex and Art.
Firstly, let us see how modern man, in his mind, begins to ‘think about the fashioning of the woman and to differentiate her limbs, to think about what she does, and to pry into the secrets of her body, and [how] he desires to put each part of it to the fullest use’:
This is an excerpt from Don Bogen’s poem, ‘A Language’ (from An Algebra (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009)). O, how we must put ink on paper! ‘Then after he has come to this complete meditation, love cannot hold the reins, but he proceeds at once to action’! ‘Voice | in the mind, | I want your wet mouth’. O, these images we make in our mind! All of our arts! ‘[A] sigh | breathing hieroglyphs, | my fingertips reading | the scroll of your back.’ For which man that loves is not an artist, painting the greatest frescos in the great halls of his head nightly!
We must, of course, remember that Andreas Capellanus wrote De amore a long time ago. It was not until ‘[s]ometime in the eighteenth century, [that] sex as we know it was invented’, wrote Laqueur (Making Sex: Body and Gender From the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), p. 149). We are thinking kinda different now, here. We are very much between the meditation and the action here, if “between” is the word; we are in the language. The image of the female back, the words with which to describe that image, the words with which to describe how he describes that image. Our hieroglyphs, our marks on paper, our poems, our frescos in the great galleries of the metropolis. The reader, the lover. This post-structuralist sex.
Man has written his thoughts down, he has written his thoughts down, he has made love, he has reproduced. The ease with which he now thinks! The ease with which he reproduces!
As essayist, I am reader and writer, lover and beloved. I’ve been having sex. I’ve been reading sex. I’ve been writing sex.
We are making ourselves clear.
P.S. In this column I hope to dialogue with readers. So please send me your questions, complements, concerns, thoughts, etc., to [email protected]
John North is a poet. Awarded the degree of Masters of Arts with Distinction at the University of Manchester in 2012, after graduating with a BA (Hons) in 2011. A Poetry Editor at the Cadaverine.
Poems have appeared in journals including The North, Kaffeeklatsch, The Interpreter’s House, and The Manchester Review, and in anthologies CAST: The Poetry Business Book of New Contemporary Poets, and The Best British Poetry 2014.