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Soul, Yes, but What About the Body?

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 OPINIONS









Soul, Yes, but What About the Body?

by Bert Archer







We
are not, as a society, quite at ease with sex yet. It could be argued that this
is a good thing, that if the mystery, taboo and salaciousness of sex were ever
to evaporate in the bright light of reason and broad social acceptance, sex

would quickly get damnably dull. Yet a slew of new books maintain that if we
were better able to incorporate eros into our everyday lives, we’d get a lot
more pleasure both in and out of bed.


    

Thomas Moore, the ex-monk responsible for Care for the Soul,
joined the chorus of self-help heavyweights urging us to reclaim lost tantric
wisdom with his vision for “cultivating life as an act of love.” I first
encountered Moore’s thesis in “Sex (American Style),” an article he wrote for
the September, 1997 issue of Mother Jones. In it, Moore spoke in
general but very attractive terms of “allowing plenty of room in our own and
in others’ lives for the eccentricities of sexual desire, of taking the role of
lovers rather than doers and judges.” He suggested that a “more substantive
weaving of sex into life may be accomplished by softening the barriers
between ordinary living and sexuality,” and that “because sex is so full of life,
it is rarely neatly arranged or easy to deal with.”


    

For me, Moore’s comments really hit home. I was in the
midst of writing a book arguing that we needed to better incorporate sex into life and thought I could use Moore to bolster my own arguments. I was thus
intrigued, a year later, to get my hands on Moore’s longer treatment of the
issue, his book, The Soul of Sex. Flipping through, I was surprised to
find the following lines: “Leisure, less exploitation and more honoring of nature,
some openings of time and space at work, some relief from the purely health

and convenience aspects of food, some imaginative building in public and
private life, and public gardens, the keeping of old buildings. This is all sex.”


    

I’d apparently glossed over some stuff in the Mother Jones
article. So I rustled through my stacks of periodicals, found the original
piece and read it carefully, cementing my suspicion that Moore and I were not, after all, in the same camp.


    

“I will never forget,” Moore writes in Mother Jones, “the
afternoon, shortly before we moved from Massachusetts, when our family
gathered our neighbors together for a good-bye ritual. We created a small,
spontaneous ceremony in which we all said something from the heart about
our history in the neighborhood and about the loss we were all feeling. This
moment reflected an intimate way of living there. We could have kept our
thoughts and feelings to ourselves, but the closeness of that moment
represented the Eros, the sexuality, of living among good friends.”


    

After I’d finished cringing at the picture of a circle of neighbors
holding hands with heads bowed offering solemn statements about how
much Betty’s generosity of spirit would be missed and how much everyone
learned from little Freddie’s shenanigans, I wanted to scream out:
NEIGHBORHOOD FAREWELL RITUALS ARE NOT SEX!!! Nor is hiking or
reading a good book or many of the other things Moore lists. To define these
fine things as sex — and it is the purpose of his book to do so — is not only
verbally sloppy, but ultimately regressive.


    

But regression is really the point of the book. Moore lays his cards on
the table as early as page xii of his Introduction, where he discloses, “I’m not
fascinated by erotica, but I do enjoy a good painting or photograph of the
naked human body, or an intelligent erotic film.” And the telling example he

puts forth of “the most impressive nude” he’s ever seen is the Venus
by Lucas Cranach The Elder (1472-1553). Of course the eroticism of Cranach’s
Venus couldn’t be much more muted and repressed. Gone are the labia and
erections of the Greeks and the early Arabs, the curves and the holes and the
flesh and the hair of the Mesopotamians (and most any culture other than
the Northern and Western European). Even the smells and tastes of Chaucer
have been negated by the same sort of anti-erotic disinfectant Moore tries, in
this truly disturbing book, to foist on us.


    

For Moore, it’s all about repression. In his chapters concerning the
eroticism of celibacy (go figure), he speaks of the value of not having sex as a
“different kind of sexuality.” He then goes off some sort of deep end by
beginning a discussion of the importance of what he calls “daily celibacy,”
which does not, as it happens, mean not having sex during certain days, but
rather having moments of being alone or being seen as something other than
part of a couple. But what’s this if not a complete ironing out of words and
their meanings? What’s the point of using a word like celibacy for a concept
like being alone? It’s part, I’m sure Moore would say, of working the erotic
into everyday life, of seeing everything in terms of eros. But unfortunately
he’s spreading the notion of eros so thin that it simply breaks apart in his
hands.


    

By preaching repression, Moore leaves us exactly where we were at the
start of his book. You don’t have to teach modern North Americans sexual
repression — it comes quite naturally. At every one of the several junctures in
this book at which Moore sounds like he’s challenging the status quo — as
when he seems to defend and recommend pornography — he backs off, back
into the world of friendly neighborhood rituals. Pornography, as it turns out,
is not good when it offends and disturbs, as Mapplethorpe does, or when it
appears sexist or is “associated with violence and sacrilege.” There are so
many subtleties of meaning and reception involved here — the possibility that
sexism, objectification and violence are different in sexual fantasy and play
than they are in sexual or social life, for example — that Moore simply
suffocates under a pile of Jungian security blankets. Pornography is only good,
it seems (despite Moore’s labyrinthine and ultimately disingenuous
protestations to the contrary), when it is ancient, Indian and no doubt
archetypal — that is, sufficiently distant from ourselves to be wholly cerebral
and eminently unthreatening.


    

The Soul of Sex would not be so bad if it were not so
misleading. What it proposes is to make us see the world as a more erotic
place. What it does is lower the erotic bar, hoping to convince us to derive

diluted forms of erotic pleasure from things like fountains and chairs and
gardens and butterflies. We are told to stay away from such “unpleasant”
things as actual pornography and aggressive or stylized sex. And to make us
feel good about staying away from them, we need to doublethink ourselves
into believing that abstention is itself erotic. Moore ultimately devalues the
human side of eroticism, valuing it most highly when it transcends the
human into the divine. By saying things like, “Orgasm carries us to a place
that is not in the human realm,” he seems reluctant to realize that orgasmic
eroticism is nothing but human. It has no other side. The erotic is perhaps the
most particularly human quality we enjoy.


    

Though Moore begins well, with praise of hair and other sexual
specifics, he leads us over the course of the book away from sex into religion.
And no matter what religion is being discussed — and he discusses a lot of
them — Moore never manages to convince me that religions that have always
believed and persist in believing that masturbation is wrong (Tibetan
Buddhism), that homosexuality is wrong (the otherwise sex-positive
Hinduism and all but one or two others), and that non-reproductive sex of
any sort is wrong (Moore’s own Catholicism), have much to add to
understanding the erotic.









©1998
Bert Archer
and Nerve.com