The love that dare not speak

Brokeback Mountain‘s financial and critical success may well mark some sort of societal progress toward greater tolerance for sexual nonconformists. But does it really represent progress in our understanding of what true love might consist of – or does it simply reinforce widespread, materialistic views? I have yet to see the movie – and being a contrary sort, the more I hear how important it is, the more resistant I become. But I must admit I’m curious about whether it offers any real challenge to the popular dogmas about love, i.e.:

1. Love is a feeling of strong attraction toward someone or something.

2. The quintessential expression of love is in romance, which derives from the desire for sexual union between two individuals.

3. Sex is a pleasurable form of self-indulgence whereby we seek gratification through mutual possession. Unless directed toward procreation or sublimated in romance, it tends to become anti-social and/or debased.

4. The highest form of love involves self-sacrifice.

It probably won’t surprise anyone to hear that, though my opinions about non-standard expressions of sexuality are thoroughly mainstream,* I’m an arch traditionalist on the subject of love itself. Which is to say, I cling to what had been more or less the consensus view in the pre-modern period, at least among mystics, believing that:

1. Love is the practice of uncalculating generosity, thoughtfulness, and respect for the integrity of others.

2. The quintessential expression of love is in the friendship of equals, and derives from the impulse to learn, to give, and to share.

3. Sex in the context of love can be a joyful form of self-transcendence in which bodies are continually re-discovered and re-created.

4. The highest form of love involves immersion in timeless, selfless Presence.**

Once upon a time in America, homosexuality was “the love that dare not speak its name.” If those days are finally coming to an end, I’m glad. I don’t believe that sex and spirituality are as antithetical as many traditional religious teachers assume; I’m cynical enough to suspect that the main reason for organized religion’s hostility toward sex is the desire of religious authorities to maintain a monopoly on self-transcending experiences. (How else to explain blanket prohibitions against alcohol and drugs?) But I worry that an excessive focus on sex, whether by religious people or by secular humanists, simply reinforces reductionist views about love and sex, and plays into the hands of those who seek to profit through the trade in bodies. We must beware the advertiser’s shell game: Are you lonely and insecure? You need more/better sex! And here’s a short cut. Buy this product.

In place of the pre-modern mysteries of soul, spirit and original sin, we are now taught to believe in such abstractions as personality, intelligence and sexuality. I’m not sure this represents a step forward. In either case, we are made to feel helpless without the intercession of experts. To my way of thinking, “soul” and “sexuality” are equally vapid concepts, the only difference being that “sexuality” is even less poetic. The ideologues of the market are all too happy to have everyone buy into the idea of self as bundle of desires. You are what you want. If you’re not in tune with your sexuality, you must be unhappy and repressed.

Well, fuck that! I’m less interested in the love that dare not speak its name than the love that dare not speak at all. True communion is always wordless, is it not? Past a certain point, language becomes not merely extraneous, but downright obscene.

*I.e. that homosexual behavior is natural for those with that orientation; that pedophilia is as inexcusable as rape; and that bondage/discipline and sadomasochism, while acceptable between consenting adults, is awfully silly and somewhat repellant in its celebration of power and humiliation.

**It may be unclear from the way I set this up that I don’t intend the two definitions of love presented here to be mutually exclusive. Obviously, the fact that we have one word to encompass so many different things can both help and hinder clear thinking. It can help to remember that what the Greek Bible calls agape and caritas are not as separate from eros as we like to imagine, and that eros in turn may often be difficult to disentangle from caritas, etc. It reminds us to keep the passion in compassion, so to speak. But obviously this multiplicity of meanings leads to confusion if we forget to distinguish between them, and allow the eros component to overwhelm the others.

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