Harold J Wilson
 

 

‘BORN TOO EARLY’

Pathos and  Pathology in Human Sexuality

Because we have to be born while our skulls can still pass the birth channel, human beings, unlike other animal species, are placed in a position of protracted infantile need. This has the effect of retarding our emotional development or, in a more neutral heuristic perspective, delaying it until our physical growth can catch up. As Freud among others has noted, this leaves the human baby seriously overattached to its mother until perhaps five years of age or more. The sexual development which follows on from this, in many cases quite soon (‘latent period’), is similarly affected. The ‘imprinting’ of need for prolonged nourishment, attention, affection, and stimulation, all have a great effect on the future flowering of what we like to call our ‘sexuality.’

There are, in both genders, further inputs from paternal influences, or societal, school, and relational experiences, which shape our emotional needs in the direction of a ‘sexuality’ which may either be part and parcel of the rest of our lives, or indeed totally isolated from it. One has only to remember Margaret  Meade’s ‘Coming of Age in Tahiti’ to remember the sort of  idealized orthodoxies which later were proven to be false (they told her what she wanted to hear). Although she projected a blame-free sexual initiatory experience in which women as well as men could readily enjoy their pubescent energies, it turns out that all societies, including the one she was studying,  restrict sexual behaviour for their own ends, since that kind of energy can be both creative and/or an  expensive and indulgent waste.

On the other hand, in western liberal democracies, one’s sexuality now seems an inalienable part of one’s life-style, consumer choice, and personal sense of self. As such it can be said to be ‘privileged’ and accorded legal rights and protections. Although one may suspect that this is the overall consequence of some decades of  permissive child-rearing in which it is forbidden ever to say ‘No,’ or to forbid self-indulgences in the name of overriding higher values, now, although subject to the usual restraints governing interference with others’ rights, one’s sexuality can be said to be seen as a variously gendered way of relating to others; since one’s social expressions as male or female, young or old, affluent or not, ethnic or class-influenced, are all expressions of that self-in-relation to its society of peers and others. Each person responds to life with some eros or drive to connect, personally and with some intimacy to the environing society and world. This is a conveniently broad description of what I mean by the term ‘Sexuality,’ as a base for further consideration and description – apart from its consumer meaning as a general impulse-driven desire to achieve some temporary sensual satisfaction.

In England at present, a large percentage of younger people (40%) who live together  elect not to marry unless ,sometimes, the birth of children seems to call for a  more legalized union. Marriage is in any case a highly culture-specific institution . History tends to forget that, even in Catholic societies, couples who cohabited often did not legally marry unless there were children. Marriage as a Christian‘sacrament’ also came somewhat later in time than is usually recognized. The personal bonding required for sexual relationships and for breeding may vary widely even within a society, as is indicated, for instance,  by the number of children born out of wedlock in the United States, and the attitude taken toward this by different ethnic groups.
The point which I mean to argue is, broadly speaking, that human sexuality, like the human family itself, is a fairly plastic phenomenon, drawing on incalculable and multiple causes, and difficult to harmonize into a unified understanding of ‘nature’ which can thereafter serve as a template for value judgments. Societies may set their own values and goals, but they cannot read them off a single concept of ‘nature’ which is totally convincing or morally evident. The failure and general intellectual bankruptcy of the idea of nature in Moral Theology is a particular case in point here, especially when it comes to same-sex relationships or what may be termed ‘bisexuality.’ The human capacity for loving and for relating erotically simply overflows our definitions, and bewilders our sense of what is ‘normal’.

The theory that our sexual ‘natures’ are somehow genetically determined seems to fly in the face of both common sense and scientific evidence, since those studies which are frequently quoted as ‘proof’ of this genetic hypothesis have even been repudiated by their authors or are dependent on unreliable samples. However, this does not stop liberal activists from referring to them as if all further discussion were now closed, since “Everyone knows that …etc.” 

What does seem to be evident is that, compared to other primates, we are born early developmentally, and without the capacity for physical and mental independence until many years have passed. With regard to this, I would like to frame some general hypotheses or ‘polarities’ which may help us to understand the tensions which inform and help to determine individual human sexuality. This is not an attempt to define what is meant by our sexuality but only to describe it in a meaningful manner.

The first two polarities I want to look at may be termed Dominance and Dependence. By Dominance I do not mean being born as, e.g., Alpha Males or Females with a need to dominate others or to establish ourselves somewhere high up on a status-ranking scheme. Dominance can be defined, at least at base, somewhat more neutrally as our feeling of being included within the social values of a ruling or ranking group. It is in this sense that we locate ourselves as acceptably ‘male’ or ‘female.’ It is usually an implicit self-evaluation rather than, say, an overt need to ‘dominate’ others. For men at least, having money in your pocket, the ability to drive a car, as well as some competence in sports, studies, or recognized skills, is important, as is, obviously, one’s social sense of  status. Of course, one’s need to merit this approval by self and society may indeed lead to a desire to be domineering, superior, or to exhibit mastery over others who are viewed as  weaker or as competitors.

For men, again, the dependence end of the polarity is equally difficult. Since boys normally struggle to achieve some independence from their mothers, the emotional shift from a feeling of competence to one of need for another woman is a kind of   perceived regression which inhibits and even depresses the male sense of identity. Which is why women have to tell us what great lovers we are and let us feel that we make the important decisions ! This polarity is perhaps less difficult for women given that their separation from the mother is sometimes less painful and their own need for dominance more disguised or at least socially coded. But men often feel a need to deny or qualify their emotional dependence on sexual partners, since it takes away some of the esteem which they seek in their ‘dominance’ identity. It simply does not comport well with our ideal of male sexual status to have to recognize our deep need for affection, care, the other person’s dependency upon us, or even the pair-bonded loyalty which cuts across the other bonds with parents and friends.

So within this polarity we find both needs and conflicts, strengths and vulnerabilities. The mutual dependence of a couple may be invaded by parental relations, children’s demands, or a need for further identity-strengthening by either partner. Then there are inevitable modalities which also affect or tone the relationship with a sexual partner. A key aspect of this as I see it is the polarity of Inflation/Deprivation.

Inflation is particularly a male state, though not exclusively, when the sense of self is greatly enlarged by a surge of feeling, an afflatus or swelling of  lust, anger, or aggressive behaviour, even collectively as in an athletic or political contest. This may lead on to personal or group action, violence, or the use of force. The lynch mob is perhaps a defining instance of the destructive possibilities of this condition. But, on the other hand, in a small but important way, without some inflation a man cannot have a physical erection. On such a slender thread was hung the future of a species! Both  lust and romantic love  customarily bring such ‘inflatedness’ in their wake, though also perhaps  a correspondingly ‘deflated’ state at some point thereafter.

Deprivation is the common lot of siblings, minorities, the disadvantaged and damaged of all groups and families. Since none of us can have all the attention and advantage that he wants whenever he wants, we will have all known some degree of deprivation in our lives. But for those for whom this state defines much or most of their being, it is a different story. They may have stored-up demands which have never been acknowledged, let alone answered. For them, a love relationship opens a door behind which dominance and dependence take on a more ominous character. They may desperately need both to control the other and to be controlled by the other in this relationship. They may also be terrified by the thought of such dependence, or simply unable to respond to another’s dependence upon them.

Many of us think that interpersonal love implies a norm of mutuality and self-giving which allows for space and support that both parties need, even if it is a question, for instance, of accommodating two professional careers. Even so, we have all known in our own lives or in that of others how precarious and frightening love can be. For some people it is always this way, particularly, as it seems to me, with same-sex love partners. Many may feel that this is because of the lack of social and legal support for such relationships, yet one might also feel that it stems partly from the intensity of emotional need which places its own burden of stress upon all love-relationships, but particularly upon these. There is also the question of balancing out the ‘dominance’needs of each person, a question which provides much entertainment in heterosexual partnerships as well. My own life is an everyday witness to this aspect of the human comedy. How to fight, how to quarrel, how to repair the damage afterward, are all neglected skills in our preparation for a life lived together with a partner whom one must respect, compete with, and sometimes even “love, honour, and obey”.

Which brings me, within the brief compass of this essay, to my final and most dire polarity, a more dramatic contrast between Transgression and Transcendence, a highly Latinate pair of concepts. Perhaps they are, however, not only dire but inescapable in the deepest areas of our own personal lives.

Transgression , to begin with, has become a kind of  western adolescent requirement which asks young people to rebel , even in some small sense, against their parents , to  secretly acquire experience of drugs, sex, intimacy of some kind. Above all, western young  people are asked, somehow, by implicit or peer influences, to go beyond their parents, to relate privately to their peers, and to have some sense of their own importance, no matter how unearned by work or responsibility, as ‘individuals’. Our uniqueness as individuals is often thought of as ‘God-given’ somewhat in the same way that we describe a natural disaster as an ‘Act of God’, that is, something beyond ordinary causality and incomprehensible by its very nature!

But Transgression has always, even in dimly remembered Victorian times, been an option which conferred some joy or feeling of liberation upon its perpetrators. Whether it involved running away from home, drink, resort to prostitutes, drugs, gambling, active homosexuality, or merely an ambitious fantasy life, it brought a kind of release of energy to its adherents, not always young. Somehow, the crossing of taboo lines and rebelling against recognized authorities generated psychic energy – for good or ill – and this functioned also in art as, well, - take  for instance Dada and Abstract Expressionism.

More recently, Transgression has become a postmodern fad as well as being an important aspect  of the ‘Counterculture.’ Unfortunately, what is popularly considered the ‘Counterculture’ has been all too obviously coopted as  part of the major consumer culture (rap music, recreational drugs and sex), and so ‘Transgression’ has become another consumer item – even for folk who consider themselves socially marginal.  Far from its origin as sin and devilment, it has often become popular consumer fun for the Yuppie crowd as well, particularly in the pseudo-sexual and fake ecstatic dancing to rock music, as well as in altered norms of sexual behaviour, although its more sinister aspect has been revealed in look-alike crimes such as the recent spate of  schoolyard executions by juveniles, by what is described as ‘going postal’  in workplace murders, and the concept may perhaps be extended to include political suicide bombings as well.

Alduous Huxley, some years ago, in his The Devils of Loudoun, spoke of both ‘negative’ and ‘lateral’ transcendences. Briefly, these terms indicate a ‘downward’ dissolution of the self or, ‘sideways’, a displacement of the ordinary self in favor of some alternative  style of  identity. This description strikes me as being somewhat similar to what Michel Foucault meant by ‘limit experiences.’ Foucault found that he could escape his sense of  a confined rational selfhood through elaborate and ritualized sadomasochistic sexual relations. This was sufficiently the case so that he has been accused of persisting in anonymous bath house sex with multiple partners in San Francisco even after he knew that he was HIV positive. However, Huxley’s use of these concepts seems to me to lead to a concurrence of definitions in which ‘transgression’ and ‘transcendence’ appear to share similar meanings since they both describe a state of mind which involves ‘going beyond’ our ordinary or ‘normal’ condition of selfhood.

Transcendence has been a word used for many years to mean some kind of positive and often ‘spiritual’ overcoming of our limited ordinary mind-set so that we become capable , at least for a period, of seeing more into the inner meaning of life, or of  the cosmos which we inhabit. This may be induced by a regard for natural beauty or by the contemplation of a work of art, or it may be that some kind of meditative experience provides a threshold which opens toward an enriched perspective on the meaning of our existence. Many people find this threshold in classical music; some have also encountered it through controlled doses of psychoactive drugs such as peyote/mescalin or Lysergic Acid/lsd which reveal a panoply of natural forms as pulsating patterns and colors, and of human personalities as shifting mythic personae or masks. Obviously, spiritual disciplines such as those of the oriental religions provide a more trained and graduated  means of ‘seeing through’ everyday reality to some higher level of perceived meaning.

‘Falling in love’ appears to be a relatively uncontrolled chemical threshold which provides a similar sense of Transcendence for the period of time in which it obtains. Because it is so uncontrolled and uncertain, however, it also provokes a radical sense of insecurity and vulnerability, leading to jealousy, anger, and acute emotional discomfort. I can answer for this personally, since it has happened to me on more than one occasion, though I should hasten to add that it can prove to be a romantic or sexual infatuation respondent to one’s emotional vulnerability and need at a particular time. 

There appear to be some common features of this condition which involve a heightened sense of one’s own reality and that of the beloved; a sense of beauty and mystery which both attracts and awes; there is also a sense of yearning which reaches toward, and even perhaps beyond, the beloved object of one’s feeling. The Greeks, after all, believed that Pothos or the Goddess of  Yearning was, like Mnemosyne or memory, an essential aspect of  poetry, and of the poet’s mentality. To have any real appetite for the transcendent as a higher reality, one needs both to yearn for it and also, following Plato’s insight, to recollect some hidden innate memory about it/her.

One might discuss human love under any number of topical headings which other  writers no doubt have done and will do. But there is no point in trying to be exhaustive on such a subject since it will always bear further reflection from multiple points of   view. Consequently, I would like to switch now, without apology, from an impersonal to a personal narrative and bear witness from my own life to that transcendent reality of human feeling which I have just been describing in a more distant manner.

Bertie died during the Spring of my first year at Williams College in northwestern Massachusetts. I was writing largely Jacobean poetry then, and didn’t, in any case, want to blaspheme against the dignity of her dying by composing anything florid or exploitative. So I approached her death with great respect, and downplayed my own feelings, since we had not really known each other for that long and I was not anxious to dramatize myself. Still and all, I was weeping a lot, in class and out of it that spring, but grief focussed me and my grades even improved.

The second poem, a ballad, claims a little more for Bertie and me as lovers, since our emotions were intense and erotic, if short-lived, and because we meant something important to each other if only for that period which could not be prolonged in this life. So I attached my feeling for her to the English Spring and its transition to that summer of passion which did not come again for us, but which returns in the cycle of nature. She was a powerful presence and I had no doubt that my strongest emotion, then as now, was not of grief but gratefulness for having known Bertie at all.

The third poem, a sonnet, simply chronicles a moment when I was waiting by myself for an hour in the late spring morning in an Irish pub in London’s Camden Town before going on to meet a friend for lunch in his nearby apartment. Bertie’s presence overshadowed me briefly and I felt ‘the tears of it’ as one feels the urgency of both the arriving and leaving of an old friend . As always, one desires to respond with sentiment but not with the false feeling of trying to ‘hang on’ to the moment.  So you must greet the beloved presence, and then allow it to depart.

Prayer (1953)

Help Bertie, Lord, for there may be
As much pride in her as there is death,
Though her slender bones blow fearfully
As milkweed in the currents of thy breath.

Yet thy streams are dawn-sprung,
Of  the light begotten, Lord,
Rising from early ground,
In the depth of the morning, thy gentle might
May by the young things best be found.

A dawn breeze thou and may her vague youth,
Caught and trembling in the strange force,
Oh God, be all overborne with thy truth
That the tall child never grow to worse.

 

Ballad (1963)

Quiet upon the windy edge of May,
The summer slumbers into being born,
Like a child who sings his sleep away,
Strange in the sudden shadows of the morning.

Each summer is the child of our desire,
It sings itself awake and then asleep,
Stranger alike to us, to ice and fire,
Its eyes not open long enough to weep.

What lives from our desiring knows no pain
But every year the green and golden light,
Young in the apple orchards and the grain,
Calm as the deep breath of the summer night.

And nothing of this summer fails or dies,
What could not live beyond us lives between.
The birds wing northward yearly and their cries
Awake our loving in the land again.

 

For Roberta Herrick  (1998)

Knowing that I had lost you, did I know
Also that the wound would cover over
A warm hurt just behind the eyebrows, slow
To release like a hesitant rain shower,

But never entirely to clear away, so long
As I do not turn you into an idol of memory
Or cling to moments which are like a song
Which opens both to speak and to remain empty.

The future traffics by in each direction,
The while an image rises in my head
That like the shadow of a migrant swan
Bears me greeting from the honored dead.

It sweeps across the surface of reflection;
The yearning strikes us sharply and is gone.

 

These three poems, in their way, chronicle my feelings over a period of  fifty years toward Roberta Herrick, who died on March 23, 1953. The first poem, Prayer, was written when I was still 18, just after her unexpected death, and the subsequent Ballad when I was 28 and living in England. I have set these first two to singable guitar melodies.
Bertie was a quite wonderful young person. I first met her at a church youth conference in West Virginia in 1951 when she was 16 and I a year older. I remembered her acutely for a year until we could meet again in 1952  when we both found each other. I began to write sonnets that summer while working construction in Morgantown in the north of the state and sending them to her in Bluefield, her home city to the south. Her full name was Pauline Roberta Diane Herrick , descended from the British poet Robert Herrick, and herself a concert harpist, half-Italian, half-British by birth, and adopted by her mother’s subsequent American husband, Walter Bass Perkins.

I used to quote poems to Bertie and she would correct my recollection of the lines. I was amazed, not only that I could remember poetry, but that she could remember it better. When I look back on her humour, her almond shaped eyes, her tall graceful body, her dark blond hair, her unselfconscious sense of herself, my God, what a first love, what a splendid woman. What a major challenge to me! Not only excited, I became also predictably uncertain, inadequate and tormented, as I went off to my New England college to meet the further demands of life and higher education. I remember writing,

Seize lightly, caress with an open hand;
Mark how the locusts’ cry mocks the flowers as they die;
The same blight falls on them,
The hidden voices of the summer land.

I forget why we stopped writing for a season. I guess that remote contact was just so frustrating, but Bertie did come up to visit us in Morgantown for Christmas. She had an amusing story about a local college man on the bus who tried to chat her up. She claimed to be a university Psych major and asked him leading questions which embarrassed him. Then she took on my poor father. He played a renaissance LP, the Missa Papae Marcelli, on his machine in the study during dinner, so Bertie looked naively at Pop and said, “Why do all those old Italian songs always have the same words ?” My father stared at her in perplexity and gasped, “Uh, it’s a mass.” I never saw anyone do that to my father before, but he saw the humour of it later, and my mother and two younger sisters also soon grew to like my friend.

After she went back to Bluefield, Bertie wrote me that she felt we should have made love more completely at Christmas. This was a measure of both her courage and her own self-awareness. I myself waited anxiously to see her at our Spring break. When I got home in March however, I was a bit scared and nervous about calling her. So I put it off for a few hours. When I did call, later in the afternoon, I got hold of her little brother Butch. He was in a state of near panic and hysteria, his older sister having died five minutes earlier in the bathtub of a sudden brain hemorrhage from Septicemia. I went down for the funeral and tried to be useful and supportive to her mom, Aida. It was all a little unreal since Bertie, for me, was and still is alive.

The first of  these three poems I  wrote while 18, just after her death, the second at 28 some ten years later, and then the third in London  in Quinn’s Pub in ’98 .. I never wanted to sentimentalize Bertie’s death or think of her in some falsely idealized way. I wanted her to remain as alive for me as she always was, and perhaps, selfishly, to be my muse, to help me write poetry. But I did hear from her a year after her death while I was   in the Williams College library reading room one night. I heard her say, “Jay” in my mind and I  went out of the room and walked about. I heard her say it again. I didn’t know who it was speaking to me at that point, but the next day I remembered that it had been the anniversary of Bertie’s death. Maybe she was saying goodbye.  If so, it has been a long farewell.

These texts and the accompanying  narrative indicate how an early experience in my life illustrates the polarities which I have referred to; first those of ‘dominance’, trying to be an adequate lover-male, then being frustrated by a combination of distance and yet emotional dependence and becoming estranged a little; then, out of the deprivation of death, finding some further transcendent meaning . Obviously, there was the  major inflation of falling in love in all this, but where the Transgression ? Oh, that’s easy.

Romantic love is always transgressive since you both adore and yet betray the object of your affections. You fall well short of her and yet go beyond her in your yearning. You want more than she can give; you give less than she needs. It seems apparent now that Bertie had more to give in her brief life than I was capable of receiving. And then afterward, identities may shift and eros cannot always repair them. I feel now as I did then, that Bertie was more of a woman-person than I knew how to handle. Perhaps, given such a powerful attraction, we could have married. But then I might very well have lost her, due to my own limitations. I understood that then, while missing and longing for her, both before and after her death. Still now, for me at least, the poetry of love remains and a marriage as well which is always a challenging work in hand !