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…


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:


I try to have a little bit of an adventure two or three times a year, if not for any reason other than to remind myself that there’s a much larger world outside of my ego (though that world is not that much larger). I usually take these trips by myself–most of my friends are not interested in bicycling five-hundred miles and camping in the rain, or staying in group dorm hostels. I also have a tendency to undersell the experiences of trips themselves, probably because I think that I like travelling alone.

I’m writing this in a public library in Katoomba, NSW, nestled in the Blue Mountains of Australia. The wind is practically blasting the top of the library off, which is comforting in a strange sort of way. There’s three people sitting at the table with me; An older fellow with Errol Flynn facial hair, who is mouthing the words to whatever it is that he’s typing–every now and then he picks up his phone, calls someone, and leaves a completely enigmatic voicemail; a young woman with a remarkably unblemished face whose phone makes a monkey noise whenever she gets a text message; another young woman who looks like she piled several sunburns on top of one another and then got another one to finish it off. A few minutes ago, a little girl ran by screaming that “Let It Go” song from that Disney movie that’s all the rage right now. I’m not an expert on the film, but I think she only knew the chorus. Adding it to my watch list.

My ankle hurts from the hike. I tweaked it a few days ago, playing soccer with a group of foul-mouthed expatriates from the UK, one of whom called me “fucking-America-cunt-bag” when I accidentally kicked him in the shin trying to get the ball away from him. He was delightful other than that, had one of those great long-on-top haircuts that’s been really popular since the World Cup.

The Blue Mountains are fantastic. They look like a stack of grey-and-purple pancakes that have been stacked on top of one another, sharply cut in half, and then had a ochre-yellow syrup dribbled on top. The wind was so intense that I had to vise-grip my phone out of fear of it flying down into the rainforest below. The Three Sisters have to be seen to be believed. There’s something totally wizardy about them.

Last night, I sat quietly as my fellow hostellers spoke German and Dutch to one another, while one Kiwi attempted to play the didgeridoo, which ended up sounding more like a fart-in-a-tube than the sort of mysterious cave echo I popularly associate with the instrument. I laid out a rough beat on some bongo drums and we all sang Toto.

I always surprise myself with how quiet I am when I travel. Normally, I want the first and last word in any conversation–I am very much in love with the sound of my own voice. I find myself very rarely entering into conversation when I travel, preferring to sit quietly and listen. It isn’t out of fear I don’t think, more just not having anything at all to say. This morning, I had a nice conversation about racism in America with the owner of the hostel, who told me that he really enjoyed a satire of the American political system he saw on the TV a few nights earlier. I responded that we didn’t really need the satire, our politicians do it all by themselves.

I love bunk beds–though I never seem to be quick enough to get the bottom bunk in the hostel dorms, I always end up making the quiet climb, making the whole frame shake with my bulk. I fell out of bed this morning due to a misjudgment in the height of the bed, though nobody woke up.

I would say the main reason to stay in a hostel is this–there’s something deeply calming about laying in a room and listening to nine other people sleep–the deep breaths, quiet snores, and blasts of flatulence are perhaps the best lullaby I know.

Desire and Programming

There’s a wonderful sequence in the film Stranger Than Fiction where Will Farrell’s character, Walter Crick, visits a literature professor (played by Dustin Hoffman) to try and figure out why he hears a mysterious female voice narrating his life, predicting his every move—including his death. They set about the task of trying to figure out whether Farrell’s life is a tragedy or a comedy, which he tracks by making little tally marks in a book as he goes through his day. Ultimately, he discovers that his life is a tragedy; which, the professor concludes, sadly, does not bode well for any sort of ending that isn’t grisly death.

I will return to Walter, but we should hold on to the idea that a life can be a tragedy, and not in the sense that it is elicits sad feelings (though that is certainly the case as well), but that a life can be (unlike Walter’s, fortunately for the enjoyment of the audience) completely without anagnorisis, the moment in the play where the character has a critical revelation about themselves or events unfolding around them.

When I was 19, I got Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill tattooed on my left shoulder. I put together a little drawing in Photoshop, brought it to a tattoo artist, and he quickly inked it onto my pale skin.

Why Sisyphus? I chose him because of a particular chapter in Albert Camus’s essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” (Chapter 4) which you can read here if you like. Just a taste:

One does not discover the absurd without attempting to write a manual of happiness. “What! by such narrow ways–?” There is but one world, however. Happiness and the absurd are two sons of the same earth. They are inseparable. It would be a mistake to say that happiness necessarily springs from the absurd discovery. It happens as well that the feeling of the absurd springs from happiness. “I conclude that all is well,” says Oedipus, and that remark is sacred. It echoes in the wild and limited universe of man. It teaches that all is not, has not been, exhausted. It drives out of this world a god who had come into it with dissatisfaction and a preference for futile sufferings. It makes of fate a human matter, which must be settled among men.

All Sisyphus’ silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is his thing.

With this essay, and a number of other existentialist/absurdist bits of philosophy, I thought I had a pretty solid belief system. The universe is fundamentally devoid of meaning; therefore, the only meaning that is even within the realm of rational possibilities is meaning that I create. This seemed powerful enough at the time that I should get a tattoo of it.

In “Why Write?,” John Updike places Camus as one of the last examples of the writer as hero, that this type has been replaced by the educationalist (pp. 7-8). It seems natural that I would choose the last hero of literature as my hero, being perhaps an educationalist myself.

I have always been thrilled by a neat line between what I perceive as bravery and intellect. Being alive is hard, and there are many guidebooks out there to doing it well. Existentialist philosophy is a guidebook that says that there is no guidebook, which turns out to be kind of a shitty idea, even though I was (and to an extent, still am) captured within its thrall. I have a friend who is fond of saying that he dislikes the sort of liberating notions that are at work within existentialism/absurdism because they imply that by making the right moves within the philosophy, you can somehow elevate yourself above brute experience. I tend to agree with him.

This philosophy appeals to particular kinds of people, and not to others. It appeals to me because I have always wanted to believe that we are not enslaved to our circumstances, that we have choices, even if those choices are only what to believe. However, I find that sort of thinking to be a bit too simple now, for this reason: I am actually a slave to my circumstances and desires, both of which I have middling to no control over. And, as it turns out, so is everyone else.

Moving away from the implicit bias stuff into more abstract territory–It was not my choice to be born, it was not my choice to be raised in the manner that I was, and I didn’t make a conscious decision to find pleasure in certain things and displeasure in others. I will still likely pursue sex, love, and food regardless of my position towards them. I think that desires can be retrained, but they often require a complete change of one’s situation into one where they are reconditioned with new desires (which doesn’t seem like that much fun, to be honest).

Given the immutability of certain desires, I think we are left a difficult task to undertake—how do we unlock what our desires are, and how do we determine if they’re ones that should be suppressed/given free reign? Taking myself as an example, I have a tendency towards self-immolation, a tendency to call myself stupid for wanting things. When I want consensual sex, there are huge amounts of baggage in my trunk that say that this desire is unworthy and unfulfilling, when in fact, the act of sex fulfills the desire for it. Usually, for me, after fulfilling my desire, all these other things external to that desire announce themselves, causing a lot of guilt and sometimes deep depression.

This is where reason comes in, and can be helpful for dealing with my subconscious emotional reactions to fulfillment of desire. Making the point to myself over and over again that sex and love are two different things, two things that can operate in harmony and often build on one another, but are different things. In order to keep myself sane and satisfy many of my desires, it’s OK that all of them aren’t being met at the same time.

Sure, this isn’t quite liberation, but it helps. And it definitely doesn’t work all the time, but it helps.

I chose sex as my example for two reasons; one, because it is personally relevant to me (as described above), and two, I feel that white men (myself included) need to be participating in talking about sex in a way that isn’t perpetuating a culture of misogyny and the objectification and dehumanization of anything that is not white men (women, LGBT folks, minorities).

I’ve been reading recently about the shootings in Santa Barbara. Elliot Rodger, the murderer of six people, left a manifesto, from which I have clipped a portion of:

The Second Phase will represent my War on Women. I will punish all females for the crime of depriving me of sex. They have starved me of sex for my entire youth, and gave that pleasure to other men. In doing so, they took many years of my life away. I cannot kill every single female on earth, but I can deliver a devastating blow that will shake all of them to the core of their wicked hearts. (from USA Today)

While it is very easy to dismiss this man as a crazy person, and much of the news media has already done so, I think there is something very telling going on here about the way that violent masculinity handles desire. Presumably, from this statement, this person wanted sex at some point, and was not getting it. I don’t think this is the desire being expressed however. I think that this man wanted power, and he called it sex. He wanted to dominate, and “wicked” women sensed that and oh-so-cruelly denied him this. I imagine that he must have felt that he had no other recourse, no other way to feel powerful than by exercising it over other people in the form of killing.

This is where the real crime occurs. There are ideologies that are easily dismissed as fringe or crazy talk, that shouldn’t be taken seriously. Men’s Rights Activism claims that men have been dealt a horrible injustice by feminism and equality movements, and as activists, men must fight to regain equality. This ideology is just plain wrong, but this kind of sickness is a perfect home for a person like Elliot Rodger.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with desiring to feel powerful. It feels good to know that your decisions have effects that matter, that you can do things and other people can respond to them. Cause and effect can be satisfying. But, conflating sex and power, which this man did, and which I think needs to be articulated, has devastating results, and masks the real analysis that needs to be happening—critiques of masculinity and violent power structures.

The best way we can give voice to those who were silenced by Elliot Rodger is to attempt to undo the ideologies and modes of thought that supported his violent acts. He sowed violence and death into the world, and news medias can humanize him as much as they like, but this humanization hides a much deeper problem. We need to stop being surprised that fucked up people are doing fucked up things–that is an insult to the people who are left damaged in the wake.

It seems trivial to return to Stranger than Fiction. Walter Crick decides, eventually, that he wants to face his death in the way his narrator has arranged it, because it would make a very wonderful story. A man who lives his life according to clockwork is killed by a mistake that one of his clocks makes (there’s some deus ex machina at the end, but I won’t spoil it).

All of us, in a sense, are living according to some sort of clockwork that has been preset for us. But that is no reason to give up, or collectively throw our hands in the air when we know it’s happening.

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:

Waiting for Patrick

I get nervous about writing about specific things that I love or once loved. It is easy for me to mount a defense of the field that I work in, of literature and artistic production as a whole, because that is the sort of vague “love” that disintegrates and becomes its own separate, distanced logic when pressed. But when I try to talk about something specific, something that is of great personal significance in an academic and analytic manner, I get very nervous. So nervous that I don’t do it.

In a number of ways, I think my writing often explores things that I find interesting or emotional. There’s consent in this relationship with my audience. I choose a number of things to write, and then they are shaped into content for that audience. I’ve agreed to it. But when I take something that has a meaning to it that I don’t fully understand, that I am not fully prepared to write about, writing becomes a dangerous activity, because I don’t know exactly where it is I’m headed, or why I’m headed there in the first place. I know something happened, something very important. In a sense, I cut myself open for my reader and challenge them to interpret the entrails, hoping that they have the skill (empathy?) to read such things.

So, reader, here are three scenes; take them. I don’t want anything back:

Scene 1

I have never liked basements. In the first house I remember living in, the basement floor was always cold. There was a place to do laundry in the corner, a musty old storage rack that didn’t hold anything, a guest bedroom, and another small room that held a couch, a chair and a television. Cobwebs were always hanging from the ceiling, no matter how much I swung at them with the end of a broom. My grandfather was fastidious about recording things on his television in Texas, and he would often send out recorded VHS tapes of movies and television shows as Christmas presents. I remember fondly the King Kong movie from the 70s he sent out that had a flash of breasts that I paused, rewound, paused rewound for nearly three hours. I don’t remember when I discovered some of the tapes with episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation on them, but when I popped one in the VCR, and sat back to watch, I was unprepared for the formative obsession I was about to develop. Opening monologue:

“Space. The final frontier.”

There was some other stuff, but that was what really got me, clued me in to something mysterious and wonderful. The person I am now wants to dismiss this admiration as trite, but there’s a child somewhere in the folds of time pushing back harder than he can. And my heart isn’t really in it.

Descending into the creepy basement became bearable because it meant that I got to watch the adventures of Captain Picard and his intrepid crew, zooming around the galaxy, righting wrongs, asking deep and penetrating questions. I remember one in particular, “Where Silence Has Lease,” where the ship flies into a pocket of space that is not anything at all, but it turns out to be a giant laboratory for a malevolent space-scientist-god. There’s a particularly chilling scene where the crew is wandering around in an exact replica of their own ship that is mysteriously empty. Close to the end of the episode, Picard explains what death is to one of his crew members, who unbeknownst to him is the scientist. He says:

“Considering the marvelous complexity of the universe, its clockwork perfection, its balances of this against that, matter, energy, gravitation, time, dimension, I believe that our existence must be more than either of these philosophies. That what we are goes beyond Euclidean or other “practical” measuring systems, and that our existence is part of a reality beyond what we understand now as reality.”

The sound that filled the room after this was the sound of my six-year old brain melting. I couldn’t understand a lot of what was being said, but for some reason, I felt like I needed to lodge this information away somewhere until a later date. I still have it packed away, and it still gives me chills, and not from the simple denotation of the words. It’s something deeper, something I can’t quite unpack, and maybe never will be able to.

Scene 2

I am sitting in the audience at the Cort Theater in New York City. The stage is a few rows in front of me, the set a familiar one: a tree and a bench. There isn’t much in the background, just a few bits of rubble strewn about over a weathered hardwood stage. I leaf through my Playbill, ignoring the advertisements for makeup and other shows, and instead look a the cast page, reminding myself once again that this is really happening, that I am about to see Patrick Stewart perform on stage. It is 2014. I am older. I know he is just a man, just another person living out there, who happens to perform, but there’s that child again, yelling something I can’t quite hear.

I’ve told myself that I’m going to try and get his autograph after the show, that if I get the chance, I will tell him my story, and he will understand and appreciate the impact he’s had on my life. Maybe afterwords, we’ll go out for drinks and become good friends. Eventually, I get to eulogize at his funeral. This is what my mind does, creates ridiculous scenarios and follows them to their conclusion. Is it the child’s or mine?

The lights go down, and the audience goes silent. The actors enter, McKellen and Stewart, to raucous applause, and the play begins. I remember a set a friend designed for this play, a set that takes place on a playground, a swing-set and a see-saw in place of a bench and a tree, a child-cast Waiting for Godot, which he did mainly to avoid working hard on constructing a miniature balsa wood set design. At the time, it was satisfying for me on a level that the original stage directions were not quite satifactory.

Sulfur burns my nostrils. Someone nearby has farted, which somehow seems appropriate given the blunt, vulgar corporeality of the play on stage. The actors are performing with the skill and humor of age, and I am slowly lost in the performance, spellbinding in its inanity and sense of detached pathos.

Scene 3

“That passed the time.” Vladimir utters this after the mad dance of Pozzo and Lucky concludes for the first time.

It cuts. I no longer want an autograph, I don’t want to see the actors after the show. The memory lodged in my heart worms its way free and expands in my chest. I have to let it go, or it will rip me open. The actor gave it to me, and now he gets to take it away, demanding the return of his furniture of his universe.

He is just a man, a man who meant so much to a child who needed so very much. Now I need different kinds of nourishment, for I am something different now.

The play finishes, I stuff my Playbill into my jacket, into my heart, and I leave. The child looks back once, and then he comes along with me. He didn’t really want the autograph either.

Not really.