In favor of carnality, flesh, and warmth
On March 18th, 2020, as the novel coronavirus was infiltrating New York City and the mayor explained the idea of shelter-in-place, I messaged an old flame on Instagram and sent him the infamous V-J Day picture of the kiss in Times Square. “This is what the streets will look like,” I wrote, “when this shit is over.”
“I’m down,” he answered back, three thousand miles away in California.
That moment of catharsis still hasn’t come. The virus, even in its weakened form, continues to rage, and although many of us are over the pandemic, it’s not over.
It is human nature to try to cast blame for this frustrating non-ending. Those on the left tend to blame rural people and Republicans for their refusal to comply (if only those damn rednecks would get vaccinated!); people on the right rail against the pedantic bureaucrats reluctant to relinquish social control and release others from never-ending restrictions. But the real end of the pandemic may be as mysterious as its beginning, and like the end of a relationship, may be no one party’s fault or responsibility.
Thomas Moore writes about how romances conclude in his book “Soulmates: Honoring the Mysteries of Love and Relationship.” A former Catholic monk, Moore sees a mystical dimension to the end of a connection or stage of life, and writes that the discord surrounding it “may emerge from a great struggle of ego against fate, of personal will against impersonal factors.” In a divorce or breakup, it is the relationship itself, which has a soul of its own, that ends— not one of the people involved that ends it. That natural ending is simply recognized by one of the partners first, who takes some kind of action to formalize it and thus is seen as the initiator of demise. It’s a religious perspective that echoes the attitudes of people I’m surrounded by now, in an area where many people still go to church— where kitchen table chats full of complaints or griping often end with one person shrugging and saying, “Well, God is in control.”
Even as the severity of Covid eases, we seem to be getting farther away from a return to real life in all its physicality and warmth. The Institute for Family Studies asks if the “Sex Recession” is turning into a “Great Sex Depression.” The Wall Street Journal speaks of the development of a “digital realm where people routinely use virtual avatars to work, play, shop and enjoy entertainment.”
I wrote earlier this month that I am looking for a renewal and re-sanctification of the areas of American life that have lost their meaning. And it seems to me that romantic love and sexual passion constitute one of these areas. I may have this tendency because of my Renewalist background, a term that encompasses Charismatic and Pentecostal strains of Christianity. I believe that after a devastating event like a pandemic, such a renewal “does not mean starting over where we were before,” as Moore says. It means “the discovery of a new beginning.” But I am trying to understand why there is such insistence in contemporary life that the only path to health is through strategies that separate. We are all familiar with the concept of social distancing to prevent infection; in therapeutic culture it is now a given that “boundaries” are what lead to successful relationships. Contrast this antiseptic philosophy to Vladimir Nabokov’s letter to his wife Vera in 1923: “I am ready to give you all of my blood, if I had to— it’s hard to explain … but that’s how it is.”
I want sex to feel holy again. I want kissing to feel like prayer. I want the bed to be an altar, and oral sex to become worship. I want the physical act of love to feel like what it actually is— a glimpse into the part of someone’s soul that transcends their social self, a look behind the veil of their constructed personality. I want sleeping beside someone to take on the quality it had the first times I tried it— when, at seventeen, I was shocked to find that my dreams had intertwined with my lover’s during the night, as though our subconscious voices had spoken to one another.
Moore writes that “it would help if we would stop thinking of sex as in the slightest way medical or biological. The whole sphere of sex,” he says, “falls within the domain of soul.” I am looking for a world that is not built on vacuous boasting of dismantling one’s family for the dubious purpose of finding the “self,” but a world in which it is acceptable to say, as Nabokov did: “I need you unbearably,” and “you came into my life— not as one comes to visit … but as one comes to a kingdom where all the rivers have been waiting for your reflection, all the roads, for your steps.”
Sex cannot become an anachronism. Everything that is carnal and fleshy can never be replaced by cyber phantasms, and the appetite for real connection cannot be ignored. The erotic force is so powerful that people have always tried to emphasize barriers against it. These enclosures have shifted over time, from the natural (fear of pregnancy) to the religious (Christian morals, family expectations, homophobia). The decline in American spiritual life has meant that principles intended to give order to the mess of sexual desire no longer apply; in their wake, the therapeutic left has tried to instill a failed culture of consent that is stultifying, empty, and paranoid. It may be that Covid is now the regulating entity that we have chosen to shield us from passion’s reality. Is that why some people prefer a pandemic that never ends?
In “The Love Affair as a Work of Art,” author Dan Hofstadter chronicles the relationships of literary figures such as Madame de Staël and Marcel Proust, and how these great writers parlayed their experiences into projects that influenced the world. The epigraph comes from Anatole France’s novel “The Red Lily,” and describes the beginning of a romance: “And then it seemed to him that they might have joys which should make life worth living. Their existence might be a work of art, beautiful and hidden. They would think, comprehend, and feel together. It would be a marvelous world of emotions and ideas.”
The pandemic will end. It may already be ending. Life has a way of breaking through. “Beginnings and endings enfold into one another in a mysterious way,” Moore says, and “to be responsible” is in fact to acknowledge such mystery. People need a chance to embrace again, without having to fret over contracting a fatal disease or that a spontaneous kiss will be misconstrued as sexual assault. There may be value, at the right moment, in remembering a certain kind of recklessness, in ceasing to demonize our need for each other. Constraints on passion never completely prevail.