Siddhartha and Sex

I’m about halfway through listening to Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha on audiobook, and I found within it one of  the more beautiful passages about sex that I’ve encountered:

First, when Siddhartha is talking to his lover, Kamala, we get this:

But again and again, he came back to beautiful Kamala, learned the art of love, practised the cult of lust, in which more than in anything else giving and taking becomes one…

Then:

Siddhartha said nothing, and they played the game of love, one of the thirty or forty different games Kamala knew. Her body was flexible like that of a jaguar and like the bow of a hunter; he who had learned from her how to make love, was knowledgeable of many forms of lust, many secrets. For a long time, she played with Siddhartha, enticed him, rejected him, forced him, embraced him: enjoyed his masterful skills, until he was defeated and rested exhausted by her side.

I heard this and I was knocked into some introspection. I have a lot of anxiety surrounding sex and sexuality, in that the sense that I limit myself to certain kinds of sexual encounters. For a while, it was something that I tried to suppress by just having lots of sex, in the hope that I would become dull to the anxiety I feel when getting naked with another person. This passage resonated with me, I think, because of the martial language that Hesse uses. I will return to this in a moment. Rather than leveraging some sort of social critique here about the way men are socialized surrounding sexuality, I’ll just list some of my quirks, and leave it up to the internet to decide if they resound with any social critiques of masculinity (wink wink):

  • Intense anxiety about the length of sexual encounters
  • Anxiety or disbelief about my partner’s level of satisfaction
  • Discomfort about oral sex (receiving, not giving)
  • Inability to produce dirty talk
  • Feelings of shame after I orgasm

Now, to be clear, it’s not that all of these things happen at the same time, or always happen. I’ve had wonderful sexual encounters with wonderful people and am not trying to make myself out to be completely anxiety-ridden surrounding sexuality. Many times, however, sex is not so much a pleasure activity for me as a sort of physical and mental endurance challenge.

I think that several of those traits reflect incredible self-absorption in a sexual partner, and I’m trying to be a bit less of that.

Which is why this passage was so wonderful. I had not yet encountered a narrative that made sex so gamey. Sure, Hesse might be using some sort of archaic usage of the word “defeated,” but like it because even though he lost, Siddhartha presumably had a good time having sex–which would seem to be the very definition of what makes a game good–that there is still pleasure to be had in a loss. He had fun!

I’ve been sending a lot of query letters for my book lately, and something I tried to do when writing the damned thing was talk about my book and my life as if they both were the most badass shit ever. It’s a good strategy right now, as I’ve discovered in dealing with my particular level of self-loathing, when I write something that I think is super self-aggrandizing, I just sound a lot like a normal person. Herman Hesse has convinced me to treat sex a bit more like a game, and maybe by playing, my sexual encounters will more closely approach the pleasurable thing they’re supposed to be.

Stuff that was kicking around in my head as I wrote this:

The Reparative Life

I recently read “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading; or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay is about You” a rather lengthy chapter title in Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, and the resulting conversation I’ve been having with myself and others about what exactly it means to criticize and analyze. In her essay, Sedgwick makes a point of distinction between paranoid reading and reparative reading. She writes:

“Simply put, paranoia tends to be contagious; more specifically, paranoia is drawn toward and tends to construct symmetrical relations, in particular, symmetrical epistemologies.” (126).

She sets this up to talk about a trend in cultural criticism that sets as its object a binary opposition–for example, when looking at the ways in which women or other minorities are treated poorly, the critic’s job is to be as paranoid as possible, to see networks of oppression and place them in opposition to the correct way to do things (whatever that might mean for each critic). She describes paranoid reading as constantly seeking to expose that someone is out to get you. However this paranoia can only go so far:

“for someone to have an unmystified view of systemic oppressions does not intrinsically or necessarily enjoin that person to any specific train of epistemological or narrative consequences.” (127)

In other words, being paranoid that someone is out to get you does not liberate you from the consequences of being a person, and having to deal with person problems. Her alternative to paranoid reading is reparative readings, which

“are inadmissable in paranoid theory both because they are about pleasure (‘merely aesthetic’) and because they are frankly ameliorative (‘merely reformist’). What makes pleasure and amelioration so ‘mere’?”

Once again, a reparative reading or motive is one that focuses on pleasure and healing, rather than exposure of ills. I’ll stop throwing quotes around because if you want more, you can get a hold of the book yourself. But the point is not to say that someone is not out to get you–because, more than likely, someone is–but to talk about the possibilities that this sort of framework shuts out.

Bringing us to what this post is really about, MEMEMEME!

I am intensely critical and analytic when it comes to yours truly. Perhaps the hope of this analysis is that somehow, eventually, I will get to the foundation of each thing that is wrong with me, and that will solve my problems. I am paranoid about myself and my desires. This mode of analysis follows a paradigm that says there is a foundational reason for my failures and foils, and that if it can be exposed, then it can be replaced with a much shinier, better way of doing things (sound familiar?)

An easy one: I am constantly telling myself that I don’t know what love with a capital “L” is, or what it even looks like. I often feel sick to my stomach because I don’t believe that I am capable of thinking about someone or something else before I think about myself. I’m not just talking about people-love here, but love of many other things as well. I love philosopher Alain Badiou’s book In Praise of Love (def. check it out), where he describes in an interview setting what love is:

“It is an existential project: to construct a world from a decentred point of view other than that of my mere impulse to survive or re-affirm my own identity” (25).

Last quote, I promise.

But there is an intense parallel between what Sedgwick and Badiou–they both describe paranoia (Badiou implicitly) as a desire to expose, to show show that “I WAS RIGHT!” Badiou’s point is that love is about difference overcoming identity and the risk that entails (his words, paraphrased) and Sedgwick’s reparative mode is allowing the self to be open to healing and pleasure, which require the exposure of one’s self, rather than the exposure of something external to the subject.

So when I tell myself that I am not capable of loving things, what I am saying is that I am afraid to try and inhabit more than one world–that my survival is contingent upon paranoia. There is a risk to living any other way–living any other way threatens a total obliteration of my self by any other thing that happens to come along that day with self-obliterating motives, good or bad.

How did I arrive at this conclusion? Through analysis. This post is not meant to say that analysis is silly, because it is obviously very useful and does a TON of good. Without analysis, I don’t know where I’d be. But to desperately seek that foundational core, that principle that supersedes all others, that basic place from which the whole endeavor is built upon is a fools errand, because there’s nothing that can eventually be exposed. There will always be more, another network to navigate. There is no reasoning, in this sense, to the core of love. There is no ideal form of love that provides a frame or model for how it’s all supposed to work.

I’m not just thinking about person-to-person love, but love of subjects, love of certain ideas. I write because I love writing, because I derive pleasure from the act of typing words on a page. I don’t need to delve deeply and darkly into my past for reasons why, because the reasons are self-evident in the actions. By writing, by performing the action of writing, I love writing (unless it’s just the worst thing ever, in which case I probably should be doing something else). I love writing through the action of writing, by doing it over and over again, I receive pleasure, and (maybe) am healed. Thinking about writing is wonderful, but doing writing is something else entirely (we’re working in metaphor here, I’m very much a materialist, it’s-all-coming from-your-brain kind of guy).

There might be a false set up that claims that in order to love something, you must understand what it is. I don’t think that this is always bad (many times it is very important, like when addressing systemic injustice) but the errand of laying it all bare, so each individual part can be seen and worked through, seems almost foolish. Loving something, it would seem, is a matter of doing, of pleasure-seeking and amelioration–in other words, a journey.

Stuff that was kicking around in my head as I wrote this: