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Colloquia Topics Index [link]Shamanism & Rebirth Index




Dr. Love and Mr. Death: What Do Men Desire?1

Andrew Feldmar

Thirty years ago, I was standing beside my wife, holding onto her hand, as she was pushing and swearing and slowly giving birth to our first child. At the moment the baby was crowning, I saw a small patch of wet, dark-brown hair. Unexpectedly and with unprecedented power, my heart felt pierced, my breath left me, and I was sobbing uncontrollably. Tears were washing my face. I felt seized by a superior force. This seizure repeated itself later, when through a window, I was allowed to look at my son who was squirming in the hands of a stranger in the nursery. This time, along with all the unruly emotions, I had a thought: "If anything were to happen to my baby, if he died or even hurt himself, I would die!" The area of the surface of my vulnerability had just doubled. For the first time in my memory, I felt connected, one with another, for better or worse. I didn't realize it then, but in that moment I ceased to exist as I had been: alone and free. Faced with my son, I immediately became his hostage, and replacing freedom, I was overtaken with responsibility. I felt smitten and shaky.

Cupid's arrow through the heart, involuntary enslavement, death and rebirth: these are the symptoms of losing one's usual boundaries, of falling in love. My newborn's innocence penetrated all the accumulated crust of defenses around my heart. The joy of that first Hello already contained the sting of the last Good-by. Before that epiphany, I was standing there, the hero, well armored; after that moment I felt naked and as open to the elements as was my baby. My armor protected me from wounds, but also from the depths that can open up in oneself when the other is allowed to penetrate within. My sense of isolated self gave way to a lived sense of us of which I was a part.

Each of us has started out inside another (mother). My father's sperm and my mother's egg died into the zygote that was the cell I grew from. Immediately I began dividing and growing. As a blastula, a spherical ball of identical cells, I made my journey down my mother's fallopian tube and entered her womb. There, I had to find a place to implant. The lining of her womb may or may not have been inviting and welcoming, but I am living proof that I managed to burrow my way in. The lining covered me over, and I began to grow in a differentiated way: now I could grow my head, feet, umbilical cord, placenta, liver and skin. From a wandering nomad I settled down, and let my roots take hold. For nine months I lived like a parasite in my mother's womb. I took all my nourishment from her and I eliminated all my waste into her. I was contained and she was my container.

My self-image included, all this time, the placenta, the umbilical cord and the fetus. Every cell in these three parts carried my genetic signature, whereas every cell other than these three parts around me carried my mother's genetic signature. And then it was time for the big separation. Birth cost me my environment and half my weight. I lost the womb, with all its sounds and textures and ambiance, and my placenta and umbilicus were amputated. An exile, an immigrant, I met my folks on the outside.

Nándor Fodor, a Hungarian psychoanalyst, in 1949, published a book entitled The Search for the Beloved: A clinical investigation of the trauma of birth and pre-natal conditioning. In it he wrote that "life is a continuity which does not begin at birth; it is split up by birth." The legend of the Fall of Man, Fodor suggests, is a record of our biological origin. He writes that "our last contact with God was within the womb, at the time of conception." Be that as it may, the title of Fodor's book refers to his belief that we experience our placenta as our lover and sexual partner, whom we yearn after and seek, for a lifetime after the brutal separation and loss that we suffer at birth.

The myth of Isis and Osiris seems also to contain information from humanity's common origin, the womb. Isis and Osiris were twins conceived in the belly of the Sky Goddess, Nut. The two became lovers before they were born. When they became adults, they were married. Later, Seth, brother of Isis, murdered Osiris and tore the corpse into many pieces, which he flung and scattered over the Earth. Isis then discovered and collected and reunited the pieces of her dead husband's body, was the chief mourner at his funeral, and through her divine love and power brought Osiris back to life again.

Could this ancient story have been inspired by the pattern of blood flow between fetus and placenta through the umbilical cord, driven by the fetal heart-beat to repeat, over and over, millions of times? Here is the cycle: blood ejaculates from fetus into placenta via the single artery in the cord; blood-vessels split, branch towards smaller and smaller capillaries, until the tired blood gets spread all over the large surface of the placenta; fresh blood, filled with oxygen and nutrients begins to collect in tiny capillaries that add up to larger tributaries that eventually flow into the two veins that wind their way back to the fetus through the cord, ejaculating into and through the navel… Fetus and placenta, locked in eternal intercourse, each being penetrated and penetrating, in turn.

Mapping Isis onto the veins, Seth onto the artery, and Osiris onto the fetal blood supply, illuminates the commonality of an ancient myth and a biological reality.

Let me remind you of Aristophanes' statements in Plato's Symposium. His speech, in praise of Eros, concludes with "love is the desire and pursuit of the whole." Aristophanes says that at the beginning all humans were kind of spherical beings rolling around happily. Each had four legs, four arms, two heads facing in opposite directions, and two sets of genitals, also pointing in opposite directions. Some were male/male, some female/female, and some male/female. These proto-humans came to the attention of the Gods, who decided to keep them in their place by cutting each being in half. As you can guess, from that moment on there were a lot of two-legged, two-armed, single-genitalled creatures rushing about, desperately looking for their lost half. Notice how this story puts homo- and hetero-sexuality on a par. This "just so" story and the above conclusion seem to come from the same intuition Nándor Fodor tuned into hundreds of years later.

Our word for intercourse, sex, comes from a Latin root meaning to cut or sever. Nexus means to connect, so why, when we make love, do we have sex and not nex? Robert Stoller in Sexual Excitement: Dynamics of Erotic Life concludes that "it is hostility -- the desire, overt or hidden, to harm another person -- that generates and enhances sexual excitement. The absence of hostility leads to sexual indifference and boredom. The hostility of erotism is an attempt, repeated over and over, to undo childhood traumas and frustrations that threatened the development of one's masculinity or femininity." A trauma that threatened one's existence, regardless of gender, was birth. Separation. Parturition. Stanislav Grof named the four phases of birth: Bliss Inside; No Exit; Bloody Battle; Bliss Outside. Notice that the sequence of experiences constituting sexual arousal and orgasm echoes or mimics the birth sequence. Also note that the phenomenology of both No Exit and Bloody Battle include rage and hostility. The desire for survival that is ruthless. Desire per se is ruthless. Love mitigates this ruthlessness but doesn't always overcome it.

"A life contracts death already and birth still in the spasms of the orgasmic chiasm," Alphonso Lingis writes, paraphrasing Merleau-Ponty. "Nietzsche identifies the inner sensation of life with exultation and not with contentment - life is the feeling of gratuitously expanding force within, not the feeling of the filling of hunger, an emptiness being compensated for with a content," Lingis continues. For Sartre human relations consisted in loving and desiring alternately. Devotion to the subjectivity of another is love; sexual desire is the concrete form of every project to possess that subjectivity. The presence of one fades out the other.

And then there is communion, or co-presence. Two can dance together in such a way that neither leads, neither follows, but miraculously both feel moved by something greater than either of them. The music dances them, they both surrender to it, not to each other. String quartets at times manage to play as if the four were one. There are magic moments when the musicians, the music, the composer, the audience, all feel one. There is a sense of participation, rejuvenation and bliss.

Meister Eckhart writes, "The soul, in hot pursuit of God, becomes absorbed in Him…just as the sun will swallow up and put out the dawn." This expresses the relationship of the Spirit to the soul. In erotic parlance, to be slain and to be in gloria are one and the same thing. What a dangerous maneuver it is to get close to the Other: how not to be swallowed up, how not to be annihilated by the Other? how not to swallow up, annihilate the Other? And yet, how to allow oneself to be assimilated, how to surrender to what is between self and Other?

James Keyes wrote, "The meaning of marriage, as I now see, is that two people become so addicted to each other that they cannot live happily, or even live at all, apart. The addiction, each equally for the other, is their total security, and each renews and redoubles the strength of the other through an ecstatic exchange of benefits as long as they both live." He wrote this in 1972, when the notion of co-dependence wasn't in fashion yet. Change the word addiction to devotion and read the passage again. What foolish daring! What dangerous inter-dependence!

In many mythologies Sun and Moon, Breath and Substance, Soul and Christ are married, progenitive pairs. The Soul (which must as Eckhart says, "put itself to death") is to be thought of as the Bride of Christ. There are inseparable connections between initiation, marriage, and death, and alimentary assimilation. The word marriage itself seems to contain mer (Sanskrit mr to die); many words, in sacred texts used to denote the unification of the many in the one, imply both death and marriage (the Greek teleo, for instance, means to be perfected, be married, die).

In the I Ching, Trigram 61, Inner Truth, cautions against dependence on inner accord with one's beloved. Dependence upon inner accord jeopardizes inner truth. R.D.Laing said, "Do not depend for safety on feeling safe in the safest embrace. The sweetest thing in all the world (and one of the most dangerous) is to love and to be loved in return."

To love the other is to see the other as the other is, whether or not this is how the other needs to be seen, and regardless of my need to see him or her differently. To love myself is to love me as I am, not as I feel I need to be in order to be loved. Laing wrote, "All alteration of self, of other, making self and other other than we are is deception, not true love." Later he added, "Terror of each other spells the extinction of each other. Communion is mutual extinction of mutual terror. Communion: joy in, celebration of our co-existence in this world we share, co-presence, our beings being together in the most intimate, in all possible, spiritual, mental and physical ways, completely. Our only sustainable existence is through co-existence. The culmination, fulfillment, realization of, the perfection of existence is co-existence, co-presence: healthy, holy communion. This is our hope, our only sustaining hope of deliverance from our body of death, death's body."

What are the risks of opening oneself to the possibility of sexual communion? One risk is that it might just be an illusion. I could be betrayed or I might betray. "To know the other, and to be known, in the Biblical sense, through communion-in-sex, is possible, I think." R.D.Laing continues, "Why go to such lengths to avoid it? We may miss or avoid this possibility by faking it, hardening our hearts against it, by repudiating it, or, tragically, despite our yearning for it, it may never come our way. Nevertheless, I believe sexual communion to be a possible actuality, one of the most precious, sweetest, feared, envied, dreaded, hated, hazardous possibilities in life."

Men want what women want. We all want connection. Connection that doesn't have to be paid for by loss of autonomy, by subjugation, by exploitation, by submission to domination. Connection that makes one freer, not less free. Disconnection engenders pain and unmitigated agency leads to death. I will close with a quote from David Bakan's The Duality of Human Existence : "The proper way of dying is from fatigue after a life of trying to mitigate agency with communion."




Presented for discussion at The Whip, Vancouver, CA
as part of the Philosophers' Café series
presented by Simon Fraser University
October 22, 2000




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