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Love in the DarkPhilosophy by Another Name$

Diane Enns

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780231178969

Published to Columbia Scholarship Online: January 2017

DOI: 10.7312/columbia/9780231178969.001.0001

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Legacy

Legacy

Chapter:
(p.1) Part I (p.2) (p.3) Legacy
Source:
Love in the Dark
Author(s):

Diane Enns

Publisher:
Columbia University Press
DOI:10.7312/columbia/9780231178969.003.0001

Abstract and Keywords

Part I delves into the author’s past as a Mennonite girl inheriting Christian and Platonic paradigms of love that assume a stark division between mind and body or spirit and flesh and exert patriarchal control over female sexuality and behavior. The prejudice against “vulgar love” for women is highlighted in the writings of Plato, Augustine and Abelard, and an alternative account of erotic desire is traced to Sappho’s lyrical poems and the biblical Song of Solomon. Personal reflections on youthful passion in conflict with religious fervor weave in and out of philosophical exposition.

Keywords:   flesh, eros, vulgar love, women’s sexuality, sacrifice, Mennonites

Ruined states

WRITING begins with loss, Hélène Cixous tells us. When you are lost, beside yourself, defenseless, “without skin, inundated with otherness,” this is when writings surge forth. We are like ruined states, she says, “without armies, without mastery, without ramparts.” And in this condition of unmitigated exposure, we write, breathlessly, risking all, like lovers.1

I start at the end. Which is really a beginning, as all endings are. When we are in the middle of the ending, we do not know that a beginning lies in wait, impatient to be born. But we do not want to know. Anything but that, we plead into the darkness of our interregnum.

Then there is the epiphany, a sudden revelation or a slow drumming from beneath our skins, where that fetal beginning makes her presence known.

It was that Tuesday morning. Your face—indifferent mask of turmoil—turned away from me as I said good-bye and kissed your unyielding cheek. But I knew, despite my stubborn denial, (p.4) that you had reached the outer limit, the point of no return, because you were deaf to me and exultant in your deafness. There was only one story that would absolve you, and it was not mine. You longed only for the sweet relief of my departure, a bloodletting as calming as it was violent. There is a moment when the torment of love seems worse than the torment of abandonment. I heard in your actions Abelard’s parting words to Héloise: “How happy shall I be if I thus lose you!”2 In the vain fullness of my denial, I said, “See you next week.”

So I left and did not return.

I would never have believed that love might not be enough until it wasn’t.

What is Love?

“What is love?” has never been my question. I have never wondered whether I love. It was always a given, as any affective state of being, without need of definition. I did not have to ask, as many do, How do I know when I am in love?

Love is an emotion, probably our most powerful, although hate might be equal to it. This hardly simplifies things, for our affective lives are far more complex than our reasoning lives. We found attitudes on the power of our emotions, attitudes that orient us toward or away from the world. Resentment, rage, hate, love affect how we experience every event that surprises us and every relation in which we find ourselves. It is not reductive, then, to define love as an emotion, for an emotion is no small thing. The fact that we so often grant to love a godly status, as though it transcends “mere” human feeling, affirms rather than denies the power of our emotions.

(p.5) Although everyone has an emotive life (with maybe a few exceptions), we feel our emotions with varying degrees of intensity and awareness. Some of us are more attuned to our emotions at any given moment, feel some or all of them more powerfully than do others, and hold them in higher esteem. I am one such person, long practiced in contemplating my own and others’ emotive states. Maybe this is why I never had to ask what love is, for I always knew when and whom I loved, starting with Mr. Dressup—master of children’s imaginative television—and the boy I kissed behind the door in kindergarten.

Most of the time when we ask what love is and whether we love, the real questions are, Do I want a relationship with this person, and what kind of relationship? This is not to ask what I feel for someone, but whether my feelings match those sanctioned by this or that type of relationship. Then we wonder if this feeling is friendship love or sexual love, whether we want a longterm relationship or a brief one, a fling or a family. Discussions of romantic love are generally discussions of relationships rather than of love itself. For example, to say that love is love only if it lasts forever is merely a statement about our respect for longevity in relationships. Love, like hate, might last forever, but there are many experiences of love—maybe most—that do not. Similarly, we say that love is hard work, when in fact it is relationships and cohabiting that are hard work. To parent with someone requires an altogether different skill set than what love might generate. In this sense, we inflate the term love, recognizing the sheer magnitude of its scope. With excessive inflation, love becomes a spiritual entity or ideal, and it comes to bear little relation to what we feel when we love.

When thinking about what love is, in itself—what constitutes this emotion and what its effects are—we work against powerful (p.6) legacies. If the force of human love is displaced in the Christian tradition by God’s inexhaustible love, leaving an empty self who yearns to be loved and lovable, in the liberal tradition love’s force is sterilized and institutionalized, its fundamental condition an autonomous self worthy of love from another autonomous self. The liberal ideal of love is not transcendent in the Christian sense—projecting a perfect love onto a perfect Being—but similarly split between a perfect love and its defective imitation. Liberal love is dependent on symmetry in equality and autonomy between two persons. Measured by endurance and longevity, it is not supposed to fail. In this way, our ideals of love have been shaped by the Western Christian tradition, and we fool ourselves if we think in our secular age we have moved beyond it.

Liberal love is a seductive ideal, easy to market; we find it in all our best contemporary descriptions of ideal couple love. Irving Singer offers a particularly appealing vision of romantic love, characterized by mutual respect, care, and the desire to please. The value bestowed freely on another when we love causes both lover and beloved to be created anew into augmented versions of their original selves. There is receptivity and responsiveness, reciprocal delight and sustenance.3 In Alain de Botton’s ideal version, the couple’s love must be “mature.” This pristine form of love is marked by an active awareness of the good and the bad in each person; it is full of temperance, resists a superficial idealization of the beloved, is free of jealousy, masochism, or obsession. Mature love is pleasant, peaceful, and reciprocated. De Botton describes this love briefly at the end of a poignant story of a relationship characterized by idealization and dependency that ends with infidelity. Mature love is like the antidote for diseased love—discovered after loving the “wrong” person and failing to achieve happiness. Not surprisingly, given (p.7) our cultural dictates, but surprisingly given de Botton’s demystification of love throughout the story, he surmises that mature love logically ends in marriage.4

Liberal accounts of romantic love idealize the context or conditions thought necessary for love to occur. The ideal lovers are equal in their capacity for love, for generosity, and for intimacy. The essential condition for this reciprocal love is a strong, autonomous, or sovereign self, vulnerable enough to let the other in, yet secure enough in itself to be free of jealousy—a self sufficiently able to recognize a lover’s needs but equally able to demand generosity. This self knows itself as a discrete entity and is therefore thought capable of valuing and being valued by another such discrete self.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with these ideals. Singer’s notion of love as bestowing value on another is quite beautiful, unusually focused on what the lover gains in loving rather than in being loved. Singer alludes to the larger world engendered by the valuation that occurs through love: “In responding affirmatively to another person, the lover creates something and need lose nothing in himself. To bestow value is to augment one’s own being as well as the beloved’s. Bestowal generates a new society by the sheer force of emotional attachment, a society that enables the lovers to discard many of the conventions that would ordinarily have separated them.”5 This is a moving depiction of a mutually affirming world created between two lovers.

But I am skeptical of the ideal conditions that such visions of love presuppose. The logical conclusion is that we do not experience love when our love is not reciprocated. We do not love when we love jealously, obsessively, or when we shamelessly abandon ourselves to another. It is not authentic love when we love those who have wronged us, who are psychologically wounded and love us (p.8) within limits. These actual experiences of love—that is, love mixed with other emotions, love between imperfect individuals in uncertain circumstances—are pathologized within a liberal worldview. We have learned to dismiss love as the product of our blind imaginations or to reduce love to a pathology arising from the mysterious recesses of the unconscious. This reduction is particularly acute when the object of one’s love is deemed unworthy—by the relationship “experts,” the psychotherapy industry, or even well-meaning friends—as though love is love only when the beloved is wholly lovable, when lover and beloved are equal in their capacity to love, and, above all, when they subscribe to a liberal version of autonomy. If love is not an equal exchange between two such deserving, sovereign selves, we tend to call it something else: masochism, repetition compulsion, fantasy, or an unhealthy attachment. This reduction may acknowledge the force of love, but it gives the unconscious too much determining power, reducing the emotions associated with love to mere symptoms of sinister, secret desires. And so we learn, again and again, to mistrust our feelings for another as we search for what we think we should desire.

If love itself is an emotion—intense, unruly, waxing and waning, and sometimes dissipating altogether for good reason or none at all—the terms of our understanding shift. There is no ideal against which we must measure our emotions, no “true love” outside of the truth of our emotional response to another person. All love is true, then, no matter how intensely felt, because anything that we feel is not false—emotions are not measurable in terms of truth or falsity. All love is true, but not all love is propelled by the same force, the same emotional intensity. Love is only as complex as the person who feels it and the person to whom it is directed. Like other emotions, love may take on a life of its own that becomes bigger than the one who feels it. This is (p.9) not a transcendent love in the Christian sense, for there is nothing to repudiate—body, lust, pleasure; love rises from one body to embrace another. The emotion can overwhelm us, affect us beyond the immediate world of the relation of two. In this, Singer is absolutely right: love provides us with meaning. Love enhances, augments, affirms. When we lose love, it is the memory of this augmented life that overcomes us in our grieving. We recall the pleasure or pain of the emotions that permeated our lives with a loved one; we recall that movement outside of ourselves, that irresistible pull into another’s inner life.

Everyone’s experience of love has a complicated individual genealogy that winds through conscious and unconscious events and encounters with the complicated genealogies of others’ love lives. As if this were not difficult enough, these entangled genealogies also arise out of a greater collective history of the conditions for love.

Anarchic Eros

Erotic love began for me in the abyss between the sanctioned and the illicit. I was hounded on one side by the stern representatives of a Christian God and on the other by eros. In between reigned a confusion of guilt and pleasure. The ministers were armed with a congregation’s unshakeable belief in their direct line to God, inflated by the certainty of their own virtue. They laid down the law with the phallic power granted to them, as though they were one with it. But eros had no law, no phallic lineage to recommend it. Eros flowed in our veins—hot, anarchic.

The ministers read Paul’s letters to the early Christians from a red pulpit while we sat on spiteful benches in our summer dresses, (p.10) inviting admiration from the suited young men lining the balcony opposite us. We daydreamed to the backdrop of a voice relaying Paul’s exhortations against the sins of the flesh. Everywhere was this word flesh, with its equal measure of prohibition and incitement:6

If you are not “men of God,” you are “men of the flesh” (I Cor. 3:1–4).7

Is there jealousy and strife? Then you are still “of the flesh” (I Cor. 3:1–4).

“Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (I Cor. 15:50).

“‘The spirit is indeed willing but the flesh is weak’” (Matt. 26:41).

It is well for a man not to touch a woman, we were warned, and for the unmarried and the widowed to remain single like Paul (I Cor. 7:1, 8). But rather than submit to the temptations of the flesh, it would be better to marry. From the restless church balconies came sighs of relief, for Paul advised that marriage is preferable to a life “aflame with passion” (I Cor. 7:9). Each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband to resist the temptation to immorality (I Cor. 7:2). We must have ignored the contradiction: in our naive hearts, we thought that choosing marriage was choosing a life of passion. But questions and contradictions were prohibited in our black-and-white world. And so institution won over passion, as it so often does.

We forgot Paul’s exhortations anyway in moments of hot breath and searching hands. In the dark, we lusted or loved; illicit exploration after dusk in parked cars or, once, in the church sanctuary after the faithful had gone home, under the watchful eyes of God. Holy indulgence—this was the contradiction of the abyss that left us ecstatic and confused at the same time. The flesh has (p.11) its own will, we discovered—it was anything but weak—and the body has its own truth: irrepressible eros.

Did we feel guilt or only pretend to feel it, obliged by the law of Paul? How could the exhilaration of touch give way to guilt? If thy right hand offends thee, Matthew wrote, then cut it off (Matt. 5:30). The boys might have thought of this when they reached for our breasts, but eros proved to be more powerful than ancient admonitions, and guilt served as sufficient punishment until the next time. We were being what we were—skin and hair, mouth and hand, eye and mind. Giving and receiving. For at sixteen I was in love with a boy, our minds as aflame as our bodies. He suffered as only Augustine could suffer, violently torn between his aspiration for transcendence and his desire for the girl who shared his passions. So the ministers counseled him: avoid sin by not wrapping the sheets too tightly at night.

And the girl? I was already condemned by Eve’s decision, sentenced with all female bodies to exile on the wrong side of the law. More familiar with our own blood, we were closer to that flesh Paul spurned. Always-already barred from the realm of transcendence and its perks. But our secret was to know that eros could be sacred—our bodies were temples, the ministers told us. Paul said, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (I Cor. 6:19–20). We were pleased to carry within us this holiness. Like the Catholic girl in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” we felt as if someone had given us a gift.8 It did not occur to us that this gift was rather a theft. We were bought with a price; to be a temple of the Holy Spirit, we had to give up our content, our soul. We had to give up eros, pure gift without any price, sacred eros coming to us from elsewhere, taking possession, contracting our muscles, and moistening our skin.

(p.12) The conflict between head and heart, will and passion, spirit and flesh was as familiar as the daily habit of praying to an imaginary being we believed loved us more than our parents. But in my youthful love for a passionate boy, in both its sanctioned and its illicit elements, were all the gifts that love brings to us: pleasure, beauty, stimulation, passion, the warmth of another body, communion with another mind, and the inevitable encounter with another’s unconscious. We built a world around us, naive, exclusive, complicated, but beautiful.

We felt this at the time, I suppose, although it did not help when we were caught kissing in the garage by an aunt visiting from the old country—a “disapprover” if there ever was one, to borrow from Miriam Toews.9

God, Jesus, Mary, and the disciples evidently never experienced erotic passion, so they could hardly help us understand its rush and confusion. We lived our double lives, grateful for their forgiveness.

The Cannibal Husbands of Our Futures

If the women felt any dissatisfaction with their lot in the Bible, they were reminded that Paul instructed husbands to love their wives. The mere suggestion put Paul leaps and bounds ahead of the men of the Old Testament. Consider Lot, who offered his virgin daughters to the thugs at the door so they would not harm his male visitors. “Do to them as you please,” Lot said, “only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof” (Gen. 19:8).10 The law of hospitality evidently did not extend to one’s daughters.

(p.13) Paul admonished men to love their wives even while they ruled over them. As Christ is the head of the church, the husband is the head of his wife, so she must be subject “in everything” to her husband. But Paul also stipulated that husbands must love their wives “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:24–27). A husband’s love thus sanctifies his wife; she is washed clean of flaws only thanks to his love. The credit belongs to him. And here is the heart of the matter as it was presented to us at countless weddings: husbands should love their wives as they love their own bodies, for “he who loves his wife loves himself…. ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church; however let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband” (Eph. 5:28, 31–33).

The mystery held us in thrall until the full import of being one flesh hit us, later, much later. As the slave should be grateful for a benevolent master who rules without beating, a woman should be grateful for the love of a husband who rules over her with a God-like compassion. She is nurtured and cherished but also commanded to obey. This is the love of a Christian God and husband. Disobey and love will be withdrawn. The husband is told to love his wife. She is told to respect her husband. But the love a ruler has for his subjects is without respect. And to respect one’s master is not to love him. Love without respect might rather be benevolence or kindness. Even a tyrant can be kind when he so chooses. A slave owner is kind to his slaves not (p.14) because he sees in them human beings worthy of respect but because if he shows kindness, it reflects well on him. He feels better for it. The master cares for his subjects in order to serve himself, for they will work harder to please him. This benevolence does not change the fact that he controls their day-to-day lives and determines their fates. To respect his subjects would entail giving up this control over life itself. Conversely, respect for a master without love is not respect but obedience, which negates love. For when we obey, we do not love freely, but under duress, which is not love but fearful regard.

In Paul’s version of conjugal love, husband and wife do not become one flesh but one self, and it is the husband’s self that the two become. This relation does not sustain her; it sustains him. He feeds on his wife’s devotion; as her self diminishes, his engorges. A figurative cannibalism.

Hannah Arendt once said, “Strictly speaking, he who does not love and desire at all is a nobody.”11 But we girls were taught that to love we must suppress desire and become nobodies. Woman has no body in this picture except that which operates as exchange value—no self she can call her own. For a woman to love is to declare, “I am no body.” For a man to love is to declare, “I am the world—the world exists through me and I am no longer one ‘this’ among other ‘thises.’”12 And woman complies, making him the world.

For such a long time I conflated respect with fear.

Two Crucifixions

Susan Sontag wrote in her notebooks, “What I have to get over: the idea that the value of love rises as the self dwindles.”13

(p.15) In Christian love, the self is emptied into another. This love is a nonreciprocal gift that cancels out the giver. In the person of Jesus, persecuted, mutilated, and executed, we find our enduring symbol of self-sacrifice, perhaps the product of our unconscious fantasies of unconditional mother love and disappointment with its actuality. This is love without limits, love as God’s inexhaustible grace and mercy, love as the very definition of God. It is no longer we who love—bodies and minds intertwining, passions fusing—but God who loves through us. We are merely empty vessels, striving to be worthy of God’s love. In this way, Christianity erodes all agency in human love and denies the passions from which it arises—the passions that propel us beyond ourselves. How comforting to be fortified against the storm of human love, against the fear of its power, its ambivalence, against grief over its loss. We are foiled by God; human love appears weak and passive, uncertain and conditional. If our emotions and passions must be denied, our love is insignificant. But without them, there is no self who loves.

Once a month at communion we drank the blood of Jesus in tiny glasses filled with red grape juice (wine was sinful—like dancing, it could lead to other things) and ate his flesh in the form of unleavened bread. Metaphoric cannibalism again. The flesh of his body was inescapable —a body nailed to a cross, blood dripping from open hands torn by nails and from a forehead pierced by a crown of thorns —but it was a body destroyed, an act of annihilation repeated by generations of theologians and philosophers. The only violence and cruelty I was exposed to as a girl, given our restricted television hours, were those images of Jesus dying on the cross. Bleeding but forgiving, suffering in silence, but with eyes that expressed all the agony of the human condition. Be filled with awe, we were instructed, that the son of God could love us with (p.16) such mercy despite our wickedness. How powerful were those images—forever fixed on the walls of our minds. Cruelty and death, blood, gore, suffering, sacrifice, martyrdom—these were the images that accompanied the Christian love story.

Impressionable youth, we soaked it up. Emptying ourselves that we might be filled. Love was suffering in response to cruelty. Jesus did not rebel; he obeyed his omnipotent Father, who orchestrated his death for the good of others. The Mary presented to us suffered without protest; she played a minor role in our faith—she was a Mennonite Mary, not a Catholic Mary, a surrogate mother for God’s child, sacrificed to tragedy. Depicted as beatific or downcast, saintly, weepy. To us, she was lifeless, an image without content. Yet we all wanted to play the part of Mennonite Mary in the Nativity play at Christmas, trying to look suitably holy as we stood quietly next to Joseph, a wrapped doll in a makeshift manger between us. This was the life we imagined in the Family Trinity: our desires reached no further than to be Mary—mute, docile, adoring, a model of passivity. Empty and waiting to be filled by husband and infant.

We girls were masochists in the making, nothing without God. We absorbed this teaching through every sentient pore of our bodies. In the vast stillness of the church, we begged God to use us, empty and worthless as we were, inhaling his unconditional love, exhaling our nothingness. So we cried over Christ’s bleeding hands and forehead, emulating his long-suffering mother.

For who else could we emulate? There were the prostitutes who washed Jesus’s feet with their tears and hair, the raped daughters of the Old Testament, ugly, unloved Leah and her beautiful but barren sister Rachel. These were our choices. The boys could look to the disciples of Jesus as their role models, mimic their camaraderie as they ate and talked together, share their divine purpose (p.17) in disseminating truth to the masses and providing a line to God for those less fortunate. But the only woman in Jesus’s inner circle was Mary Magdalene, a prostitute, or so we were told; he had no girlfriends for us to aspire to, or at least we never heard about them. Neither did the disciples, and Paul was very clear his bed would not be shared. There was Eve, of course, but enough has been said about her—evil temptress, the woman held solely responsible for the destruction of the idyllic garden we might otherwise inhabit.

Only gutless Mary was ours to claim. We were given no explanation for how a virgin could become pregnant, but I don’t remember wondering about it. For all we knew, God was responsible for the pregnancy of any girl. How clean the insemination and birth. For who could imagine the son of God squeezed by a woman’s bloody uterine walls, his tiny wet head emerging slowly through her stretched cervix and vaginal opening as she cried out in pain? Had any of us asked, the ministers might have had to devise a more elaborate denial than that required by a virgin birth.

My only encounter with Mary as a person occurred too late in my life to inspire confidence: Colm Tóibín’s fictional account The Testament of Mary gives more flesh and history to her than any biblical account. Tóibín’s Mary feels rage at the opportunistic disciples who have built a story around Jesus’s identity as the son of God. She feels grief at her son’s death, fear for her own safety, and guilt for not staying with him when he died. As any mother would. The dream of her son coming back to life is just a dream. What really happened is unimaginable, Tóibín’s Mary thinks, “and it is what really happened that I must face now in these months before I go into my grave or else everything that happened will become a sweet story that will grow poisonous as bright berries that hang low on trees.”14

(p.18) Colm, please write a novel about Eve.

The ministers did not always see the two-edged sword they waved over our heads. So busy learning how to please an invisible God, we innocent girls failed to notice how useful this instruction was. There were fathers to please, too, as well as our ministers, boyfriends, and other men who had authority over us. Instill the desire to please in a select population, and they become malleable and easy to manipulate. The process began with God and moved down the chain of command. We wanted to be loved by God, so we prayed and tried not to lie or let the boys touch us where they shouldn’t. We wanted to be loved by our fathers, so we stayed quiet at the dinner table and did as we were told. Our mothers taught us that love meant not wanting anything for ourselves. To love was to please, to be the pleasing object of another’s desire, to not have any desires of our own. To love, for a girl, was to kill her own eros—a Christian-style clitoridectomy.

So preoccupied with our desire to please, we did not know that the youth pastor who started our sex education classes was taking advantage of our trust. His talk flowed smooth as silk, and his power was sanctioned by God. We were brimming with youthful love and trust, and our innocence kept us pliant like our nimble bodies. When he asked us during one Saturday session to fantasize about a boy—as good as sinning, we had been taught—we felt the vague taste of violation in our mouths, something we would name only in the years to come. But we never thought to doubt him. Neither did we think to ask questions when he informed us of the proper position for sexual relations with our husbands (yes, only one position, and not the one you might think).

This trusted man became a statistic some twenty years later, a name in the local newspaper, thanks only to one young woman’s (p.19) courage in defying her own shame. The irony rankles: the pleasure of innocents fumbling under clothing evoked warnings of eternal burning, but men of God who knew what they were doing when they penetrated girls with the symbol of their God-given power were never the subject of sermons. No one thought to ask what the laws of eros were, if it had any, or if its anarchic nature—so vividly recalled in the Song of Solomon—might have saved us. Jesus rose from the dead, but eros remained crucified.

If Only we had Read the Song of Solomon

We would have learned of the adoration for the body that we discovered too many years later, after sloughing off the effects of moralism, the scales of shame and guilt that grew thick on our flesh. We might have thought our bodies less ugly, less repulsive if we had read

  • Behold, you are beautiful, my love,
  • behold, you are beautiful!
  • Your eyes are doves
  • behind your veil.
  • Your hair is like a flock of goats,
  • moving down the slopes of Gilead. …
  • Your lips are like a scarlet thread,
  • and your mouth is lovely. …
  • You are all fair, my love;
  • there is no flaw in you.

(Song of Sol. 4:1, 3, 7)

(p.20) We would have learned of the good that comes from adoration, for we love a body, a particular body, luminous under the touch of our eyes. Desire for a body is desire for the pleasure of adoration and its effects: we coax the beloved to life with our lips and eyes and fingertips.

Had we read the Song of Solomon, we would have learned, too, of the yearning and elusiveness of love, its sickness, the thrill of opening even at the risk of rejection or loss:

  • My beloved put his hand to the
  • latch,
  • and my heart was thrilled within me.
  • I arose to open to my beloved,
  • and my hands dripped with myrrh,
  • my fingers with liquid myrrh,
  • upon the handles of the bolt.
  • I opened to my beloved,
  • but my beloved had turned and gone.
  • My soul failed me when he spoke.
  • I sought him, but found him not;
  • I called him, but he gave no
  • answer. …
  • I adjure you, O daughters of
  • Jerusalem,
  • if you find my beloved,
  • that you tell him
  • I am sick with love.

(5:4–6, 8)

Would we have recognized the sensuousness of these lines, overwhelmed as we were by the shame of our pleasure in the (p.21) forbidden? What appeared to be as ordained as the movement of the earth around the sun now looks quite arbitrary. That sex should be the focus of a moral code seems as random as declaring that God is male or that Sunday should be a day of rest. But we were partial to arbitrary codes and worldviews. The same teacher who taught us the world was six thousand years old, as the Book of Genesis confirmed, also told us never to kiss before we were engaged to be married. I wonder that he never thought his instructions came too late.

Burning

We were given two symbols to represent our humble condition before God: the docile, obedient sheep and the burning candle flame. We were taught to love a God who demanded everything of us, who asked for nothing less than our lives, our very beings, to be devoted to serving and pleasing him. Like a candle, we must burn for others—not only to light their way but also to expire eventually for their sake. A candle fulfills its purpose by burning up. We must give and give some more, until all is spent.

Like Jesus, whose sacrifice, we may discover too late, was ultimately useless. Too late, for love, suffering, and sacrifice were already sutured permanently in the ubiquitous image of the torn and bleeding body, stripped and humiliated in order to be loved by a most cruel and incomprehensible God and by centuries of human believers fleeing the nothingness of death.

There is no great leap to make from burning up for God to burning up for our fathers, for the men we love, or for our children. Think of Mrs. Ramsey in Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse, responding to her husband’s demand for sympathy, “looking at the same time animated and alive as if all her energies (p.22) were being fused into force, burning and illuminating,” until “there was scarcely a shell of herself left for her to know herself by; all was so lavished and spent.” Later, Mrs. Ramsey secretly wonders if she wishes “so instinctively to help, to give,” in order to be needed and admired.15 And, I would add, to be loved.

When all that is left is this shell or the remnants of a burnt candle, how can we experience love as something other than need? How can we experience ourselves as beloved in our own right rather than as a projection of another’s fantasy? I may live through his life, see myself through his eyes (which might be glorious or devastating), experience his emotions, desires, and thoughts, while my own seem to hide, phantomlike, in my dreams.

Truly, we encounter the dark side of love when in our desire to be loved we lose precisely that which is best in us and maybe easiest to love. Yet how selfish it can seem to some of us—especially if we learned love from a mutilated body draped on a wooden cross—to keep something back for ourselves, to hold on to that which we should never give. And to do so we must love ourselves, believe ourselves lovable simply for being, rather than accepting the nothing that God (or someone else) has declared us to be without his grace. We burn and soon come to desire the burning. This erotic—indeed, orgasmic—madness of the medieval mystic Teresa of Ávila is evident in her vision of an angel’s visit: “In his hands I saw a long golden spear…. With this he seemed to pierce my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he drew it out, I thought he was drawing them out with it and he left me completely afire with a great love for God. The pain was so sharp that it made me utter several moans; and so excessive was the sweetness caused me by this intense pain that one can never wish to lose it.”16

(p.23) Find the Clitoris

For how many men in the world does the clitoris remain undiscovered—literally or metaphorically—and for how many women, its pleasures undiscovered?

When I was in fifth grade, we girls were given a blue booklet with delicate sketches of young women on the cover, hair and skirts swirling together. “It’s wonderful being a girl” was written in script that dipped and curved like the feminine body we longed to inhabit. We were informed of our power to create life and of the monthly death of lonely eggs along with their disappointed nests. It was 1972, and we glowed with our own mystery and waited for the magic to begin—to become beautiful and shapely like our mothers, to bleed discreetly and symbolically, to be desired and loved by the man who lived in our dreams.

No one told us about pleasure. We anticipated the bliss of warm lips and weddings but were unprepared for the pulse and throb in the unnamed regions of our bodies. We thought sex was intercourse, nothing more, nothing less, and assumed when the time came, we would know how to receive a man. For a girl to lose her virginity had nothing to do with her centers of pleasure. We were vessels, and the loss of virginity signified a rite of passage only: the loss of a dream of sexual pleasure that would be defined by us. No one ever mentioned the clitoris. Our discovery of its significance filled us with a confusion of delight and shame. The message was consistently mixed: our bodies were disgusting, our bodies would be beautiful to someone, our bodies should be repudiated, our bodies will produce life. But it was never about pleasure.

We were not prepared for the turn of suddenly legitimate desire—the psychological leap this fact required us to make on (p.24) our wedding night. One signed paper to reverse the years of prohibition, anxiety, and guilt. One ceremony to erase the work of our imaginations with the full force of disappointment.

Because when we finally lost our virginity, we were shocked to discover it wasn’t about us at all.

Shame

When love is sanctioned as the desire of the subject to please the master and of the master to rule over the subject, however benevolently, fear enters into the equation. The ruler fears insubordination, the subject fears the ruler’s anger. This is how we know the exchange is not one of love, for love does not admit fear.

It was 1979, and I was at a summer youth retreat. I could not go swimming because the boy who loved me did not want other boys lusting after me. The thought of displeasing him caused so much anxiety that I left my swimsuit behind so as to have an excuse, and when the boys tried to throw me in the lake fully clothed, I screamed and kicked until they left me alone, perplexed by the vehemence of my protests (and probably bruised). I did not question my boyfriend’s motives, believing myself somehow to blame—not yet aware of the weight of Eve bearing down on me. Neither did I feel the incredulity I feel now at the memory of this anxiety—how strong was the shame over something within me equally desirable and dangerous and how strong my fear of a boy’s anger. This shame and fear gave consent to his power over me—and in this consent we find one of the secrets of domination. Whether in an individual or a population, docility and obedience (p.25) are easy to procure when one is born into inferiority and taught that salvation lies in pleasing one’s superiors and fearing their displeasure. Easier still when the order to obey is sanctioned by religion. The initial justification is eventually forgotten, and the ordained simply becomes the normal.

Women who avert their gaze when facing men, cover their bodies to disguise their shapes, hide their alluring hair and mouths, or sacrifice desire on the altar of faith and marriage may have accepted the threat of their own erotic power. They may forget or deny that this threat is the origin of the limits imposed on their freedom, decreed by someone’s God. What dangers lurk in obedience and the desire to please.

When we became young women we sat separate from our male peers in church to avoid distracting them from their worship. We were warned not to be too affectionate with them because touch meant something different to men, so our friendships rarely crossed the gender divide. For a long time, shame held us in check, preventing our curiosity about these unwritten rules—but not long enough to shake the effrontery I felt on travels in later years when Buddhist monks would not meet my gaze or Muslim men would not shake my hand. We may blame patriarchy for this predicament, but I was the one who felt at fault in these scenarios, and I was the one who would pay the price for any transgressions.

Shame marks like a stigma. It is through the eyes that we encounter one another as worthy. In this meeting, open face to open face, we acknowledge and affirm the other’s existence; we respect this other self who faces us; we become aware of our mutual vulnerability, our shared exposure. But when the other forces us to lower our gaze and refuses to look into our eyes, we (p.26) are negated, rendered invisible. It is a declaration of inequality or unworthiness. There is no justification for this shaming. The message is clear—the one who lowers her eyes is not of equal worth. No one knows this better than those who force women to cover their faces and look away.

How far into the body will the fear of women’s erotic power invade? As of 2014, some 125 million girls and women in the world have had their genitals partially cut or completely removed. Sometime between infancy and the age of fifteen, girls are held down by their mothers and other women and cut by a traditional circumcisor, often without anesthesia or proper instruments. The clitoris and labia might be cut off completely, and the skin sewn together with the exception of a small hole for urination, menstruation, penetration, and childbirth. As a result, a woman can expect a lifetime of health risks: cysts, infections, infertility, difficult childbirths, multiple surgeries to widen or tighten the opening, or even death during the cutting.17

Not to mention a lifetime without sexual pleasure.

In the name of tradition, desire is prohibited to women. A girl who remains uncut will not be considered suitable as a wife, for it is believed her desires will lead her astray. In some communities, if a girl does not marry, the family will not receive the coveted dowry: a cow. Yes, a cow for a clitoris.

Vulgar Love

The arrogance of the man at the red pulpit is the arrogance of Paul is the arrogance of Plato. Arrogance is the gift of a male God, passed down through the generations from father to son. Christianity inherited the prejudices of Greek philosophy against (p.27) the body, against woman, against the world of the here and now. Jesus, like Plato’s Socrates, is man’s link to transcendence—escape from the misery of body and world. In the New Testament, we find the same model of discipleship evident in Plato’s texts—the celebration of a masculine lineage, the submissive adoration of the Father of philosophy or theology. Wisdom is passed down from father to son, a proliferation of motherless births. As always, the birth of ideas trumps the lowly birth of existence through the bloody cavity of the mother’s body. Ideas without flesh are pristine. Clean virgin births.

Julia Kristeva writes that “all the philosophies of thought, from Plato down to Descartes, Kant, and Hegel, that have aimed to give the experience of love a strong hold on reality have pruned out of it what is disorderly in order to reduce it to an initiatory voyage drawn toward the supreme Good or the absolute Spirit.”18 There is nothing left of love if we prune out the disorderly, for in the realm of human relations there is only disorder. This does not mean we cannot understand or conceptualize these relations, but it means we must always attend to their context and comprehend the limits of our analyses. We have to live with the contradictions. What this refusal of disorder has meant for Western philosophy is an awkward, arid treatment of love, for it should be obvious that if we prune out the disorderly, we necessarily eliminate the body and the vast range of emotions at play in our intimate attachments. Philosophers have had to work diligently, and no doubt painfully, at this task.

What a powerful legacy with which we have been saddled, a combination of Western Christian and philosophical scripts regarding love that render ugly so much of what is beautiful about the physicality of love. But disorder inevitably creeps back into both philosophy and theology. Their gods are not as clever (p.28) as we make them out to be. We must look for the “deviations,” where passion refuses to submit to institution, if we want a different economy for erotic love than what religion and philosophy have bequeathed to us.

Four centuries before Paul’s famous description of love to the Corinthian Church, Socrates and his clever friends sent the flute girl away in Plato’s Symposium so the men could get down to the serious business of intellectualizing love, filled with wine and infatuated with their own thoughts. I wonder what the flute girl was thinking as she left the party. In Plato, we witness the birth of the exalted philosopher, rising like a phoenix from the ashes of corporeal life, with its unpredictability, impulsivity, and risk, to embrace a disembodied realm of ideals. Pure masculine lineage and earnest, homoerotic discipleship, the birth of beauty in thought, contempt for the vulgarity of woman—these are elements of the legacy: man’s birthright. Exeunt the flute girls.

The wisdom of love is taught to Socrates by a woman, Diotima, but she is not actually present at the party. This is not our only example of a woman “whose wisdom, above all in love, is reported in her absence by a man,” Luce Irigaray reminds us.19 Women are supposed to be pleased with these crumbs from the master’s table. Diotima, after all, is clearly a brilliant woman, capable of instructing the incomparable Socrates, who is hailed at the end of the party as the most noble and wisest of men, untroubled by harsh weather, hunger, or the ardent advances of the gorgeous Alcibiades. We should be grateful that Plato included her, but we do not even know if Diotima existed except as a literary device. She disturbs the text as an incongruous and sober representative of the defective sex. Imagined by Plato, obedient to his will, rising to the occasion of his benevolence in using a woman to convey the voice of a man.

(p.29) What do we learn of love in the Symposium? That there is vulgar love—for women, for the “least intelligent partners”—when only sex is wanted; this is a diseased love that is ugly and disgraceful, crude and impulsive.20 And there is noble love—for boys and for philosophical wisdom. Noble love comes from the heavenly goddess, Aphrodite, who, we might note, was not born of a woman. This love turns out to be obsessed with control and moderation—as older men mentor and instruct their young lovers, who seem to have little autonomy themselves and are expected to be submissive. In Aristophanes’s speech—perhaps introduced as comic relief—we hear the timeless, happy love story of intimate attachments, one half searching for her other half. Once found, without reason, “the two are struck from their senses by love, by a sense of belonging to one another, and by desire, and they don’t want to be separated from one another, not even for a moment.”21 It is not only sex that drives them but also something mysterious—an unnamed lack.

But love, for Plato, must be brought to its perfection, and this can happen only if we turn to the ideal, despising the “wild gaping” after a body in the pursuit of wisdom and justice. To love what is noblest, we have to reject the physical and look to the divine: the goal is to see Beauty itself, an idealized Beauty “not polluted by human flesh,” of which a man’s beauty can only partake in a shadowy sense. The philosopher (for it is always a philosopher) who ascends to this ideal will eventually give birth to “many gloriously beautiful ideas and theories, in unstinting love of wisdom.”22

Before Plato arrives at this absolute end, he gives us a provocative detour in the person of Diotima. On the way to describing the ascent from physical to transcendent love, she tells us that the purpose of love is to give birth in beauty. For a moment, love is (p.30) presented to us as movement—love in a state of becoming.23 Love gives birth to children, but also to ideas and to a kind of renewal of oneself in relation to another. When someone makes contact with a beautiful person, says Diotima, “he conceives and gives birth to what he has been carrying inside him for ages.”24 In this way, love generates beauty and goodness. We can believe this to be true without agreeing with the rest of the dialogue, in which Plato recuperates this “becoming” into the hierarchy of “Forms”—an implausible theory celebrating ideals over actualities that even Platonists seem embarrassed about. Desire begins with bodies—we need not leave the body behind, as Plato tries to do.

We might call the Symposium a tribute to love—and it is surely that in places—but it is also a betrayal of love if we value the sense given to love by Diotima, that it is a gift one lover gives to another. Each draws out of the other the beauty and goodness that are there, carried within them as though their souls are pregnant. One lover is renewed in the presence of another. This is why we say to our lovers, “You have made me a better person.” But Plato ultimately recovers his Platonism at the end of Diotima’s speech, for the Beauty we must reach for “always is and neither comes to be nor passes away,”25 and, wonder of wonders, it turns out to be Socrates who embodies this ideal. Unaffected by the material world or bodily constraints, a divine figure, the alpha male of philosophers, Socrates is the manifestation of Love itself, a divine Love, a God.

We do not know what the flute girls did after work. While the inebriated philosophers pontificated, life was being lived down there in the midst of vulgarity, uncertainty, risk, birth, and death—inescapably corporeal. No clean ideas there, no virgin births, no Platonic Forms to sully life.

(p.31) Ambivalent Pleasure

For fifteen years, Augustine of Hippo loved a woman of “low social standing”26 whom he had to renounce in order to marry appropriately. He writes that he was deeply attached to “the woman with whom [he] habitually slept” and that to abandon her “cut and wounded” his heart, leaving “a trail of blood.” But those were the years in which he was still “a slave of lust,” as he puts it, still indulging in the “monstrous heats of black desires.”27 I think about what this Carthaginian girl might have had to say on the matter of love and desire for her philosopher-man. Was she his muse? Was it his passion for her that led to his definition of love as craving? Could she have known how fateful was Augustine’s decision to crave the love of God rather than the love of a girl of low standing, how firmly it would suture Western philosophy and Christianity?

The depth of Augustine’s feelings makes the Confessions delightful reading, although it dulls considerably as he progresses from the love of the flesh to the love of God. Writing in the last few years of the fourth century as a man in his forties reflecting back on his youth, he indulges in the most severe self-flagellation, reminding himself of his “carnal corruptions” so that he may love God and reject the “foulnesses” of his past. He describes in painful detail how he “ran wild in the shadowy jungle of erotic adventures,” clouded by “muddy carnal concupiscence” and befogged by the “bubbling impulses of puberty.” In the bathhouse one day, as the sixteen-year-old Augustine feels the “thorns of lust” rising above his head, his father is delighted to witness the stirring of his son’s virility, exclaiming that he would soon be a grandfather. But looking back on those years as a man wracked with guilt, Augustine is miserable over his (p.32) debauchery, over the years spent “rolling in the dung” of Babylonian streets with his miscreant friends.28

Hundreds of years later, Abelard, one of the most important French philosopher-theologians of the twelfth century, suffered as much spiritual agony as Augustine, with the addition of physical torture, for he was punished with castration for his amorous attentions to the intelligent and beautiful Héloise. As the story goes, he fell in love with Héloise while she was living under the care of her uncle Fulbert. Abelard was becoming a famous scholar, but when he met Héloise, philosophy lost its title as master of his passions. Predictably, he stopped working, started writing love poems and songs, and cleverly worked his way into Fulbert’s favor so he could become Héloise’s tutor. He wrote to his friend Philintus describing his new affliction: “I was a philosopher, yet this tyrant of the mind triumphed over all my wisdom; his darts were of greater force than all my reasonings, and with a sweet constraint he led me wherever he pleased.”29 The tyrant was eros.

But when Abelard and Héloise were discovered during one of their “more tender conversations,” Fulbert banished Abelard from the house—not, however, before Héloise became pregnant. She did not want to get married—a mistress is free, whereas marriage is the “tomb of love,” she told Abelard—but he persuaded her to marry in secret, give birth at his sister’s house, and then live with the nuns at Argenteuil. The plan did not work. Uncle Fulbert would have his revenge and sent someone in the night to castrate Abelard in his bed. The jealous and shamed Abelard, in a move that he later admits to Philintus made him blush at his weakness (a rather understated response, we might think) forced Héloise to take her vows as a nun so that no other man could have her. He himself wandered for a time and then retired (p.33) to a monastery. He confesses to Héloise in a later letter, “What a comfort I felt in seeing you shut up,” satisfied that she would no longer return to the world.30

The letters between them after these tragic events convey all the familiar dualisms of emotion against reason, body against soul, and flawed human love against God’s omnipotent love. Most prominent is the battle for control over the senses—over passionate, uncontrollable feelings for another human being. This struggle to triumph over matters of the heart causes great torment and ambivalence worthy of Augustine’s confessions. In Héloise’s letters, we find more pronounced ambivalence; she defies a faith that would condemn her extraordinary and virtuous love. This is what makes her letters splendid reading, a point to which I return later.

In Abelard’s initial letter to Philintus, he is already clear about the hierarchy of the mind over the body, but the power of love allows him to ignore it. After his castration and separation from Héloise, however, he returns to philosophy, hoping to find “a remedy for his disgrace”—an asylum to “secure [him] from love.” Abelard’s most definitive statement on this point (one that characterizes much of the philosophical tradition): “What great advantages would philosophy give us over other men, if by studying it we could learn to govern our passions? What efforts, what relapses, what agitations do we undergo! And how long are we lost in this confusion, unable to exert our reason, to possess our souls, or to rule our affections?” Love is “a troublesome employment,” and extravagant passions must be forgotten, says the wretched, castrated man. Reject pleasure.31

Abelard remains torn, however, between his heart and his head. He rails against love, on the one hand, chastising Héloise for making him miserable by being so loving and faithful (p.34) and begging her to release him. “Allow me to be indifferent,” he writes, “I envy their happiness who have never loved; how quiet and easy they are!” He is angry for his own weakness in writing to her and angry that love is such a deceptive tyrant. On the other hand, he admits he still loves Héloise. Although he tries to avoid her “as an enemy,” his wandering heart eternally seeks her. The passion still lives in him—“the fire is only covered over with deceitful ashes, and cannot be extinguished but by extraordinary grace.”32

The conflict that causes Abelard to say he both hates and loves Héloise is the result of serving two masters: religion leads to virtue, Héloise leads to love. And so he loves what he feels he “ought no longer to love.” This deep split within Abelard necessitates the splitting of Héloise. The person he loves has to be separated from the passion he is supposed to detest, and because he must detest the passion, he must hate Héloise as well. She keeps him from God—as well as from philosophy and sanity. He accuses her of destroying his piety, and yet his passion is too great; he feels shame, a “perpetual strife between inclination and duty.” He wants desperately to be saved from her—his salvation requires her withdrawal. Regard me no more, he begs her: “How happy shall I be if I thus lose you!”33 Abelard was not the most sensitive of men.

But despite his hatred of the world, his despair of the “poison” or even “evil” of love, and despite his reasoning powers, Abelard confesses to Héloise, “My wandering heart still eternally seeks you, and is filled with anguish at having lost you.”34

He should have listened to Héloise, not God, for she had an answer to this conflict: “When we love pleasures we love the living and not the dead.”35

(p.35) Rigor Mortis

Who among us would want to be loved by someone who says, “I will myself to love you?” Does this not imply that I will make myself love you because I really don’t? An emotion can never be willed. This is what is most profound about human feeling—it cannot be coerced or legislated but always plays the part of the rebel, spontaneously bursting on the scene, unrehearsed, unruly. Emotions never lie.

We need to consider the unconscious motivations behind this boring repetition of prejudices in Western philosophy, prejudices that create entire catalogs of pathologies. The psychoanalysts have one explanation, the feminists another. But the prejudices persist, if more subtly, in milder forms.

Pathological is what the German philosopher Immanuel Kant calls love when it is not governed by the will—this is romantic love, which just happens to us. He distinguishes this kind of love from “practical love,” an attitude of concern that we can will ourselves to have for others.36 He does not stop there, though. We find out, as Martha Nussbaum puts it, that when we indulge pathological love, it “draws us away from the correct moral attitude, sapping and subverting it.”37 Romantic love is thus something of a threat. “Good” love, in contrast, is an act of will.

The philosopher’s disdain for disorder in matters of love persists. Consider Jean-Luc Marion’s opening to his philosophical investigation of love, The Erotic Phenomenon. He points out that philosophy today remains silent on love—for the better, he adds, because when philosophy speaks of love, it betrays love. In fact, he adds, “one would almost doubt whether philosophers experience love, if one didn’t instead guess that they fear saying anything (p.36) about it. And for good reason, for they know, better than anyone, that we no longer have the words to speak of it, nor the concepts to think about it, nor the strength to celebrate it.”38

Why would philosophers know this better than anyone? It seems, rather, that philosophers are saying more about love now than ever. Whom does he include in this group, and would they be happy to be informed that they do not have the strength to celebrate love and, indeed, that they fear speaking of it? Marion believes the simple reason why philosophers cannot say anything about love is that they lack a concept for it. Who betrays love in this instance—those who write of love without a concept or Marion himself when he writes, “To declare ‘I love you’ sounds, in the best of cases, like an obscenity or a derision, to the point where, in polite society (that of the educated), no one dares seriously to utter such nonsense”?39 If we no longer have the words to speak of love, and if philosophers know this better than anyone, I would argue the obverse: everyone else knows better than the philosophers that it is the concept that betrays love and that philosophers are afraid to say anything about love only because they prefer to take cover under concepts.

Marion’s betrayal becomes apparent: “Of course, I am going to speak of that which I barely understand—the erotic phenomenon—starting from that which I know badly—my own amorous history. May it disappear most of the time within the rigor of the concept.” And his final revelation—the ultimate derision of experience in the name of transcendence—comes in the conclusion of this text:

When God loves … he simply loves infinitely better than do we. He loves to perfection, without a fault, without an error, from beginning to end. He loves first and last. He loves like no one else….

(p.37) God precedes and transcends us, but first and above all in the fact that he loves us infinitely better than we love, and than we love him. God surpasses us as the best lover.40

Here is the idealization of love, motivated by a discomfort with what we might “know badly.” A transcendent view of love that renders it idealized and ethereal, trivializes the extraordinary capacity of the ordinary human individual to love by giving credit only to God or some other metaphysical ideal. The stronger the love and the more we perceive love to be inexplicable or irrational, the harder we try to deny its humble origin in human emotion. Love becomes sacred rather than embodied; we deny its fleshly constitution and its vicissitudes: it can be weak or strong, accompanied by desire or protectiveness, mixed with anger, pain, or irritation. Our love can deepen or cease altogether. But if God is love, then our own love is defective, a flimsy imitation. If love never fails, as Paul told the Corinthians, if it “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (I Cor. 13:4–7), then we who fail to love without conditions can never hope to achieve “true” love.

What a cold, arid world we are left with: the philosopher and the Christian, desperate to shed the body and put faith in a transcendent realm or spiritual being we cannot see or know, declare “I love you” to be an obscenity and hide such nonsense under the rigors of conceptual systems. Plato, enamored with an ideal form of Beauty against which no human body can compete. Abelard, tormented refugee of passion and desire. Kant, prisoner of the will.

We live with these legacies and their ugly effects. Who hated the body more, Christianity or philosophy? I moved from one to the other, exchanged one set of fathers for another. Each was (p.38) intent on teaching me shame—for having the wrong body, the “nothing to be seen”41 that nevertheless invited looking and possessing, the body-without-phallus that prevented a direct line to God or Reason. My access to truth and holiness had to be mediated through their male heirs, but at the price of the experience out of which all my thoughts originated and to which they returned.

Leave these men to their best lovers, I say, for who would want to bed the man who prefers the gods of his imagination over the warm body beside him? Let them bury their amorous histories under the rigor of the concept where blood drains and bodies stiffen. Let them have their rigor mortis.

Notes:

(1.) Hélène Cixous, “Coming to Writing” and Other Essays, ed. Deborah Jenson, trans. Sarah Cornell, Deborah Jenson, Ann Liddle, and Susan Sellers (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991), 39.

(2.) Abelard, “Letter III,” in The Love Letters of Abelard and Héloise (London: Dent, 1901), 49, http://sacred-texts.com/chr/aah/index.htm.

(3.) Irving Singer, “Appraisal and Bestowal,” in The Nature of Love, vol. 1: Plato to Luther, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 3–22.

(4.) Alain de Botton, Essays in Love (London: Picador, 2006), 202.

(6.) Michel Foucault established the relation between prohibition and incitement in The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Random House, 1978). He writes of the production of “specific effects on desire” when it is deliberately transformed into discourse: “effects of mastery and detachment, to be sure, but also an effect of spiritual reconversion, of turning back to God, a physical effect of blissful suffering from feeling in one’s body the pangs of temptation and the love that resists it” (23).

(7.) For verses from the Bible, I use The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Revised Standard Version, ed. Herbert G. May and Bruce M. Metzger (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962).

(8.) Flannery O’Connor, “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” in A Good Man Is Hard to Find, and Other Stories (New York: Harcourt, 1955), 88. O’Connor writes: “I am a Temple of the Holy Ghost, she said to herself, and was pleased with the phrase. It made her feel as if somebody had given her a present.”

(9.) Miriam Toews, All My Puny Sorrows (Toronto: Knopf, 2014), 251.

(10.) Jacques Derrida suggests this story exemplifies a conjugal model of hospitality, “paternal and phallogocentric,” that transcends ethical obligations and by doing so subjects others—Lot’s daughters in this case—to “the violence of the power of hospitality.” But it would seem that the exchange of Lot’s daughters is at the very heart of hospitality, their sacrifice an ethical obligation in itself from the perspective of (p.167) “the familial despot” (Of Hospitality, trans. Rachel Bowlby [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000], 149–155).

(11.) Hannah Arendt, Love and Saint Augustine, ed. Joanna Vecchiarelli Scott and Judith Chelius Stark (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 18.

(12.) Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel E. Barnes (New York: Washington Square Press, 1993), 481.

(13.) Susan Sontag, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964–1980, ed. David Rieff (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), 264.

(14.) Colm Tóibín, The Testament of Mary (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2012), 86.

(15.) Virginia Woolf, To The Lighthouse (London: Grafton Books, 1977), 38–39, 42.

(16.) Teresa of Ávila, The Life of Teresa of Jesus: The Autobiography of Teresa of Ávila, trans. and ed. E. Allison Peers (New York: Doubleday, 1991), 274–275.

(17.) World Health Organization, Female Genital Mutilation Fact Sheet, updated February 2014, http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs241/en/.

(18.) Julia Kristeva, Tales of Love, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), 8.

(19.) Luce Irigaray, “Sorcerer Love, a Reading of Plato’s Symposium, Diotima’s Speech,” trans. Eleanor H. Kuykendall, Hypatia 3, no. 3 (1989): 32.

(20.) Plato, Symposium, trans. Alexander Nehemas and Paul Woodruff (Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett, 1989), 181b, 186d.

(21.) Ibid., 192b–192c.

(22.) Ibid., 210b, 211e, 210d.

(23.) This is Irigaray’s interpretation in “Sorcerer Love.”

(25.) Ibid., 211a, emphasis in original.

(26.) Henry Chadwick, introduction to Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), xiii.

(28.) Ibid., II.i.1, II.i.1–2, II.iii.6, II.iii.8.

(31.) Ibid., 42, 46.

(32.) Ibid., 45, 43, 58, 44.

(33.) Ibid., 43–45, 48, 49.

(34.) Ibid., 54, 58.

(36.) Immanuel Kant, “The Doctrine of Virtue,” part III of The Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Mary J. Gregor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), Akad. 500-1, para. 447 ff., cited in Martha Nussbaum, “Steerforth’s Arm: Love and the Moral Point of View,” in Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), see 336–337 n. 3.

(38.) Jean-Luc Marion, The Erotic Phenomenon, trans. Stephen E. Lewis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 1.

(39.) Ibid., 3.

(40.) Ibid., 10, 222.

(41.) Luce Irigaray writes that woman’s sexual organ “represents the horror of nothing to see” (This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977], 26).