COMES NATURALLY #53
Spectator Magazine - December 13, 1996
(c) David Steinberg
Some Thought on the Word Made Flesh: Sex and the Holidays; "Breaking the Waves"; Luann's Folks in Bed
Putting the X Back in Xmas
Sex should be all over the place during the Holiday Season, but of course it is not. What could be more holy? More wholesome? Most whole-making and soul-affirming? Maybe if Jesus had been a woman, if the culture of our roots had been the sort to offer the role of Messenger of the True Spirit to someone of the female persuasion, things would be different.
But this culture sets ascetic mind the task of triumphing over the sensuality of the body. In this culture, the voice of reason takes it upon itself to obliterate the whisper of mystery. In this culture, as we know so well, sex is feared for its potential to rock the boat of conservative tranquillity rather than welcomed as an opportunity to find our way home to the best of our transcendent selves. In this culture the angels most certainly do not worship each other's nakedness when they proclaim the spirit of holy communion -- as do the voluptuously entwined gods and goddesses whose carnal energies bring blessing to Tantric temples all over India.
No glut of frantic present buying is going to bring back the simple ability to center in the core of our erotic selves, the ability to come home to the uncomplicated but infinitely rich and pungent fact of our embodied, erotic, sexual existences. Home is where the heart is, where the cock is, where the cunt is -- all together, inseparably united and bound. There is more soul, more comfort, more reassurance to be found in the intricacies of one small touch, electric with sex, than in a year's scurrying for frills.
"We have all been intimate with the deepest creative experience: we've all been born," says Berkeley poet and author Summer Brenner. "I think people who are lost, that's what they're most lost from. And sex. Well that is one of the simplest and most thrilling ways to get it back again."
Catholic theologian Kevin Regan agrees. "It is the function of sexual union to celebrate the fullness of the Incarnation, God in our flesh," he writes. "It is the purpose of conjugal love to realize the Spirit's life-giving action... in the spontaneous ecstasy of sexual embrace at the point of sexual union."
Lenore Kandel, the most lucid voice ever when it comes to sacred sexuality, puts it like this:
I am naked against you and I put my mouth on you slowly I have longing to kiss you and my tongue makes worship on you you are beautiful your body moves to me flesh to flesh skin sliding over golden skin as mine to yours my mouth my tongue my hands my belly and my legs against your mouth your love sliding... sliding... our bodies move and join unbearably your face above me is the face of all the gods and beautiful demons your eyes... love touches love the temple and the god are one
"The phallos is holy," advises William Everson/Brother Antonius. "And holy is the womb." So set out the frankincense and the myrrh; it is time to worship at the temple of the body, to pay homage by offering ourselves up to the paradoxical mysteries of being truly and fully and sexually alive. This we ask in the name of the Mother, and the Daughter, and the Ecstatic Spirit. Amen.
If Jesus Had Been a Woman, Indeed
Breaking the Waves, the wonderfully strange, powerful, epic of a movie by Danish director Lars von Trier that has just blown into town as I am writing this, addresses all these issues beautifully and brilliantly. Breaking the Waves is the story of Bess, an innocent, strong, and highly sexual young woman who lives in the morally and physically austere context of staunchly Protestant northern Scotland. The events in her life call upon her to affirm her fierce religious devotion to both God and her husband by expressing her sexuality in ways that offend and confound everyone around her. Bess believes she has a direct line to God that takes precedence over the harsh judgments and ascetic proprieties of her community's patriarchal religious elders. The voice of God that she hears is harsh, demanding, and unforgiving, and throughout the film we are left to wonder whether this is really some sort of supernatural influence or a voice in the head of a woman who is "not one of the regular people."
In either case, as the film progresses, her faith in her passionate mission and her willingness to deliver herself up in the service of what it demands of her is put to increasingly rigorous tests. For her unflinching commitment to doing what is right and proper, even when it flies in the face of the sexual conventions of everyone around her, she is dismissed as insane, cast out of her community and family, and eventually... well, I won't tell you, in case you want to see the film.
Breaking the Waves, awarded the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes, is a wonderfully unusual film in any number of ways, the kind of film that you walk out of strangely transformed in ways that you don't quite understand. Most significantly, the film addresses the confluence of sex, love, and transcendence in precisely the way this culture so desperately tries to ignore and deny. But the film is unusual in other ways as well. Von Trier's hand-held camera (for once an effective technique rather than a gimmick), and his way of jumping directly to the emotional essence of scene after scene, combine to create a unique rhythm and feel, maintaining a powerful, moment-by-moment intensity that runs continuously through the three-hour film. There is constantly the feel of having arrived in the middle of something important and so having to catch on quickly to get up to speed. As it turns out, this is not so difficult to do, only unfamiliar. The result is a kind of filmic poetry -- with all the unnecessary verbiage and context stripped away, leaving the heart of the matter to stand nakedly on its own.
The film's portrayals of sex, particularly the early scenes with Bess and her new oil-rigger husband, are startlingly direct and intimate, but in a way that is quite different from the graphic emphasis we are used to when sexual activity is portrayed on film. Where we are used to seeing sexual intensity codified as heavy breathing, high passion, and thrusting hips -- people carried away by the throes of ecstasy -- Breaking the Waves manages to offer equal, or even greater, intensity by focusing on quieter and in many ways more intimate gestures, such as the wonder with which Bess takes her husband's penis in her hand for the first time, or a long, long continuous shot of the gradually evolving look on Bess's face when her husband first enters her.
Both in these sex scenes and in its overriding message, Breaking the Waves directs our attention to the essential innocence that lies at the heart of sexual experience -- the exposure, the vulnerability, the mystery, the willingness to confront and experience the unknown and the unexpected. As a heroine, Bess plays the true innocent, and in this way she is not unique. What makes her exceptional is that the power of her innocence and the intensity of her sexuality are shown to be one and the same, rather than opposing forces of good and evil competing for her soul. (The same is true -- albeit in a secondary way -- for her husband, Jan, who, for all his gruff oil-rigger culture and his sheer physical bulk, is a tender, loving soul who is able to lead Bess to new worlds with neither arrogance nor condescension, and to appreciate her unusual countenance for both its strength and its purity.)
As the film makes clear, it is the ability of these two to appreciate and care for each other across the wide gulf that separates their cultural worlds that gives their emotional connection meaning and that invests their sexual connection with exhilarating passion and joy. Breaking the Waves makes the familiar point that these two lovers could not have their glorious sexual connection without their deep emotional intimacy, but it also emphasizes the absolutely essential nature of intimate, vulnerable sex as the primary language without which passionate emotional connection cannot survive.
It is the need to maintain the power of their sexual connection that drives Bess and Jan through the odd twists of the film's story, and that in the end leaves them both triumphant. Breaking the Waves is an appeal to recognize both the essentially sacred nature of sexual expression, and the importance of holding on to sexual truths even when they lead you to paths that are sure to be misunderstood and condemned by all those around you.
Father Joe Bob says check it out, my child.
Please, Not in Front of the Children
In the name of ongoing documentation of sex showing its head in unexpected places, I was delighted and amazed to see sex as the undisguised subject of nothing less strange than the comic strip Luann. Early in November there were a few strips in which Luann's mom and dad are shown, lying together in bed, kissing and caressing, Luann's mother sensuous and seductive with her negligee falling off her shoulder, Luann's father openly delighted to be thus courted, if somewhat uncertain about his middle-aged sex appeal. Now Helen thinks I'm silly to even take notice of this and it's certainly true that there was nothing really sexually graphic about this little flake of comic culture, but still I cannot remember any other time when a comic strip has included any portrayal of characters who are actually being sexual together, even at the rub and nuzzle stage.
Am I wrong about this? Anyone one out there who can help me out, please do. I'm not talking about comic strips like Cathy that endlessly dissect the foibles of dating, fear of intimacy, and the frustration of relationships that come and go in the course of the search for the perfect mate. I mean comic strips that show people being turned on, wrapped up together, and so on, just like sex is one more normal part of life. Seems like a new one to me, and if so it's just one more sexless corner of mainstream culture brought back into the pink of life. (I am flashing for a moment on the scene near the end of Yellow Submarine in which the grayed-over people, plants and landscapes subjugated by the Blue Meanies are reinvested with color by the triumphant Fab Four.)
I think an appreciative nod is due to Luann creator Greg Evans for opting to touch on this so tenderly, at least for a few days. I wonder, too, if the absence of sex in comics is because no one has ever thought to address sexual issues, or because distributors and publishers have nixed earlier strips that wanted to go this route. I bet it's the latter, but I don't really know for sure. I'll try to track that one down and report back somewhere down the road.
[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see www.spectator.net). If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at firstname.lastname@example.org. Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]
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