Women (according to Mary)

Women come off pretty badly in Christianity. Through Original Sin they are held responsible for everything in the world since the Garden of Eden. Women are weak, unclean, condemned to bear children in pain as punishment for the failures of Eve, they are the temptresses who turn the minds of men away from God; as if women were more responsible for men’s sexual feelings than the men themselves! Like Simone de Beauvoir says, women are always the ‘other’, the real business is between a man in the sky and the men on the ground. In fact women only exist at all as a kind of divine afterthought, put together out of a spare rib to keep men company and iron their shirts, and the biggest favour they can do Christianity is not to get dirtied up with sex, stay chaste, and if they can manage to have a baby at the same time then they’re measuring up to the Christian Church’s ideal of womanhood – the Virgin Mary.

This, it has to be said, is a pretty good summary of what has unfortunately and for far too long been a prevalent attitude within Christianity. Intriguingly, this summary is offered by Mary, one of the characters in Ian McEwan’s short story ‘Psychopolis’.

Looking into one another’s eyes

In his essay ‘Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community’, Berry laments contemporary society’s ‘gravitation of attention from the countenance, especially the eyes, to the specifically sexual anatomy’, noting that

the countenance is both physical and spiritual. There is much testimony to this in the poetic tradition and elsewhere. Looking into one another’s eyes, lovers recognize their encounter as a meeting not merely of two bodies but of two living souls. In one another’s eyes, moreover, they see themselves reflected not narcissistically but as singular beings, separate and small, far inferior to the creature that they together make. In this meeting of eyes, there is an acknowledgment that love is more than sex.

How to think more about sex

A little while ago, I mentioned having come across the notion that men think about sex every seven seconds but couldn’t remember where I had read it. Now I know. I must have dipped into the Third Way issue of Jan./Feb. 2013. It’s Simon Jenkins who brings this up in a review of Alain de Botton’s How to Think More About Sex. Looks like de Botton’s book is set to address this lamentable shortfall, urging us to give a bit more thought to sex. I have to get hold of that book. Quickly!

Seriously, though, I do agree with Jenkins’ comment that we tend not to ‘give enough quality reflection to this fundamental human drive’. So, yes, I really will make sure to get a copy of How to Think More About Sex.

Of bikes, poems in the dark and sex strikes

Fifty Shades of Feminism, edited by Lisa Appignanesi, Rachel Holmes and Susie Orbach, proves to be a fascinating collection of fifty brief reflections by an intriguing mix of voices: poets and novelists, politicians and social activists, journalists and physicians …. It also features women from a variety of cultural and racial backgrounds.

The contributions are, as I said, brief. Fifty chapters in about 300 pages, that does not leave much room for the individual authors to express their thoughts and reflections. And yet, in the first 100 pages (which is as far as I have got) I have already come across a few thought-provoking observations and some moving and also sometimes shocking stories.

Nathalie Handal, for instance, mentions her Lebanese grandmother, who rode a bike at a time when, unimaginably for us, it was considered a sin for women to do so. And she reports this story from Afghanistan:

Nadia’s son joined the Taliban. Her daughter wrote. Every evening, she would wake up in the middle of the night to write poems in the dark so as not to raise any suspicion of her audacity – a woman writing. When she finished, she would go to the window and like magic see her lines perfectly straight on every page. She hid them under the mattress. The day they found out her brother was killed, her father, in rage and in grief, shook his daughter’s bed and the pages spread across the floor like a testament challenging fate. He beat his daughter to death. Nadia did not say anything to her husband, she knelt by her daughter’s body, held her tight, went to the window where her daughter once read her verses, and fell.

Handal goes on to reflect on the need of women, in every culture, no matter what the nature of their oppression, to be brave and take the responsibility to define themselves.

She also notes that ‘men wage war when they lack imagination’ and that, ‘without the evolution of women, no society can evolve’. And she points out that Nadia’s quietness in that story from Afghanistan ‘was not silence but an assertion, I will not lie any more’.

Handal’s chapter is followed, rather fittingly, by Natalie Haynes writing about ‘Sex, Feminism and the Ancient World’. It’s a fitting sequel, because Haynes talks about Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata, in which the women of Greece, having got fed up with their warmongering men, decide to hold a sex strike. They will not make love as long as the men keep making war. Does the strategy work? The play being well-known, we all know the answer. But even if we didn’t, it would always be a foregone conclusion. There are some tactics that cannot fail.

And Handal is absolutely right to suggest that, ‘without the evolution of women, no society can evolve’.

Enter Herakles

Somehow Geryon made it to adolescence.

Thus opens the next chapter in Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, which is entitled ‘Change’. First though, still a twelve-year old, Geryon meets Herakles:

Herakles stepped off
the bus from New Mexico and Geryon
came fast around the corner of the platform and there it was one of those moments
that is the opposite of blindness.

‘One of those moments that is the opposite of blindness’. These are the kinds of phrases I so admire in Carson’s work.

Having become a teenager, Geryon acts his age:

He had recently relinquished speech.

His mother can only resort to irony:

Maybe I’ll just keep talking
and if I say anything intelligent you can take a picture of it. She inhaled.

Geryon had taken up photography, while his mother wants to know about his new friend:

So Geryon what do you like about this guy this Herakles can you tell me?
Can I tell you, thought Geryon.
Thousand things he could not tell flowed over his mind. Herakles knows a lot
about art. We have good discussions.

Carson’s story touches on many subjects. One of them is the issue of sexual awakening, a problematic one for Geryon, largely due, of course, to the abuse suffered at the hands of his brother:

Sex is a way of getting to know someone,
Herakles had said. He was sixteen. Hot unsorted parts of the question
were licking up from every crack in Geryon,
he beat at them as a nervous laugh escaped him.

Tell me, said Geryon and he intended to ask him, Do people who like sex
have a question about it too?
but the words came out wrong – Is it true you think about sex every day?

All the while he is deeply affected by Herakles: ‘Geryon felt all nerves in him move to the surface of his body’ ‘His voice washed Geryon open’ ‘Staring at him Geryon felt his soul move in his side’.

There are lovely descriptions of his behaviour, that of a true introvert:

Why do you have your jacket over your head?
……………………………………
Can’t hear you Geryon. The jacket shifted. Geryon peered out. I said sometimes
I need a little privacy.

He is still working on his autobiography, which has progressed from the sculpture work he did as a child to producing a photographic essay.

This was when Geryon liked to plan
his autobiography, in that blurred state
between awake and asleep when too many intake valves are open in the soul.

I can relate to that description of the early morning as a time ‘when too many intake valves are open in the soul’. That he worked on his autobiography ‘from the age of five to the age of forty-four’ also resonates with me. As I have said on the ‘Story’ page, quoting Walter Brueggemann, our ‘story must be told, tested, and retold countless times’ as part of our ongoing attempt to make sense of our lives.

There is a wonderful moment when Geryon catches the arm of Herakles’ grandmother, which ‘was like a handful of autumn’. Her voice in turn is likened to ‘old coals’.

Geryon gets lovesick, which Carson again captures beautifully. Having come home with a t-shirt his mother hasn’t seen before, she wants to know where he got it from.

Herakles gave it – and here Geryon had meant
to slide past the name coolly
but such a cloud of agony poured up his soul he couldn’t remember
what he was saying.

Each morning a shock
to return to the cut soul.
Pulling himself onto the edge of the bed he stared at the dull amplitude of rain.
Buckets of water sloshed from sky
to roof to eave to windowsill. He watched it hit his feet and puddle on the floor.

Rain lashing the kitchen window
sent another phrase
of Herakles’ chasing across his mind.

The chapter that introduces Geryon’s lovesickness is entitled ‘Fruit Bowl’. There is much that could be said about it, especially as the motif of the fruit bowl is an important and a recurring one, having already played a significant part in connection with Geryon’s fraught relationship with his brother. Once again though you will just have to read for yourselves.

Then the inevitable happens: Herakles ends the relationship.

I want you to be free.
Don’t want to be free want to be with you. Beaten but alert Geryon organized all
his inside force to suppress this remark.

‘Tunnel’ is where we leave Geryon for now, suffering, as he is, the consequences of ‘the human custom of wrong love’, as Carson puts it.

Why I read the Song of Songs V

Auguste Rodin, Kissers

Auguste Rodin (1840–1917), ‘Kissers’

Many of us will have come across statistics like: the average man thinks about sex every seven seconds. I have always thought this to be a rather timid estimate. My fifth reason for reading the Song of Songs is that it makes me think about sex all day.


I have been seriously tempted to hit the ‘Publish’ button after finishing the previous sentence. Perhaps I should have done. I am rather worried though that I could be misunderstood, that I could be taken seriously. Of course, I don’t buy that statistic. It seems ludicrous to me, and yet I do believe that there is nothing wrong with thinking about sex all day. In fact, given Christianity’s tarnished reputation in this area, perhaps more of us should think about sex all day, provided we manage to move beyond that endless preoccupation with sexual ethics to a simple enjoyment of our sexuality and sensuality. Should that not always have been the starting point, in our thinking and our talk about sexuality? The Song of Songs would seem to suggest so.

So, yes, I read this delightful book because it makes me think about love, sex and sensuality. Nothing wrong with that, is there?

‘When anyone escapes, my heart leaps up’ – Sharon Olds’s Stag’s Leap

Sharon Olds, Stag’s LeapStag’s Leap by Sharon Olds is a book of poetry, written after her husband had left her for another woman. I picked this up the other day because (a) I needed something to read over lunch, (b) the subject matter intrigued me, (c) the blurb had succeeded in deepening my interest, (d) the book has won the T. S. Eliot Prize 2012 and (e) I felt like buying a poetry book (I actually bought two as it happens, but that’s a story for another day). Olds’s book also reminded me of Anne Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband, which similarly won the T. S. Eliot Prize, deals with the loss of a husband, is published by Cape Poetry and which I had enjoyed.

Stag’s Leap then. This is a sequence of poems (though not quite a narrative poem in the sense of Carson’s Autobiography of Red) divided into six parts – January–December, Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall, Years Later – in which Olds reflects on love, the body, sex, loss, betrayal, divorce, pain, grief, anger, hatred ….

There are many poignant moments in these poems, but the earlier reflections in ‘January–December’ and ‘Winter’ moved me the most.

Now I come back to look at love
in a new way, now that I know I’m not
standing in its light. …

I am not here – to stand in his thirty-year
sight, and not in love’s sight,
I feel an invisibility

In the absence of love, Olds reflects, all that remains is ‘courtesy and horror’.

And yet, despite the horror and the pain, there are admirable expressions of tenderness and love even at the moment of separation:

In the last minute of our marriage, I looked into
his eyes. All that day until then, I had been
comforting him, for the shock he was in
at his pain – the act of leaving me
took him back, to his own early
losses. But now it was time to go beyond
comfort, to part. …

Olds finds it possible to think back on how blessed her life had been, partly because she had been able to love and had not lost her husband while he still loved her.

Here is another surprising and rather touching revelation:

… When anyone escapes, my heart
leaps up. Even when it’s I who am escaped from,
I am half on the side of the leaver. …

The poems talk about Olds’s shame at having been left by the one who knew her best. She notes how every hour is a ‘room of shame’ but also how there’s a ‘being of sheer hate’ inside her and how, since it cannot harm him, she can wound him, in her dream.

And she reflects on having lived with an idea, an illusion of her former husband, whom she did not truly see or know.

‘Years later’, she says:

… Maybe I’m half over who he
was, but not who I thought he was, and not
over the wound, sudden deathblow
as if out of nowhere, though it came from the core
of our life together. …

Even so, she can’t let go of him yet but holds him on a string, watching her idea of him pull away yet stay, her ‘silver kite’.

These poems poignantly express the conflicting emotions experienced in the wake of betrayal and loss.