I gave my joy long kisses thigh to thigh
December night, the solstice of our love,
ascending toward the Christmas of the seed
and feeding the poor universe with yet
another bone devoted to a bone.
For all we knew that love is fiber, tissue,
cell leaping with intelligence of cell,
we ranted “soul” we raved “enchantment”:
two compounds ionized into rebellion.
And yet the rebel’s cry, albumin too. . . .
I mean, of course, the Dr. Watson of double helix fame, not Sherlock Holmes’ honest companion. Many months after I wrote the first sketch of this chapter of my whimsies—and by the way, I see the date August 1974 scribbled on the last of the long yellow sheets; today is the 18th of February 1976; ah, but that “today” is long gone as well, for here I am rewriting for the tenth time, and it is “today” again, a year later; and on what date are you reading these words, my dear hypothetical reader?
Flimsy giddy unsettled Time, if the philosophers had not thoroughly worn out your one and certain attribute, which is that you pass, what devastating vituperations you would have to bear from me, what deep-dredged musings on Mutability! I envy the writers of past centuries, when all the concepts that are dry with age today were still to be discovered plump and juicy, and Homer, and Dante, and Montaigne, and Schiller could make Pronouncements about Life too trite for us to utter now, so that we latecomers must say queer things, and twist our faces into grimaces, in order to be as fresh as they were with their grand and simple truths.
So not a word about Time. I was going to say that long after writing that first sketch, I saw and heard the living Dr. Watson at the institute that employs me. His serious business with colleagues concluded, he came to the students’ lounge to chat about his popular and (I have heard) nasty book concerning that same double helix. There he stood with bulging evasive eyes and a wisp of gray hair erect upon his skull as if anxious to go somewhere else. His speaking arrogant words in a very soft voice made me think of a guillotined head falling on a cushion. But what amazed me was to hear him whisper he had long believed that the great molecule consisted of three strands, not two—as if anything in living beings, or in Nature anywhere! went in threes. Only the Christian’s God goes in threes, probably in order to prove that he is un-natural, trans-natural.
Next to Dr. Watson sat his erstwhile teacher and, in a modest way, my friend, the saintly Max Delbriick, also a Nobel laureate. Because Delbrück is a little hard of hearing, what had been intended as a mini-panel quickly turned into a vaudeville routine. At every fourth or fifth word Delbrück interrupted his fellow-speaker with a resounding WHAT? (hand cocked to his ear), whereupon Watson would repeat the last fragment of his sentence, looking askance with his Uriah Heep eyes, in precisely the same undertone as before, thus acceding to but at the same time evading his friend’s command. Dr. Watson defended himself manfully, however, against the charge of having defrauded a female colleague of credit due to her. And on my side, why, I have seen so few great personages in my half-century of life that I am as thrilled as an ephebe when I look on these real presences. A few nights ago (as of which date?) I was invited to a small party to meet Hortense Calisher. I have never read her work, but what’s that to a celebrity hunter? The event in my soul is a surprise that keeps trying to stem itself even as it spreads: surprise, as if a celebrity materializing before me were a fiction mistakenly in company with a fact—while my rational self protests against the childishness of being surprised.
Seriously, I am not a celebrity hunter at all. One needs to be a satisfied cipher, a member of the chorus without heroic aspirations, to “collect” famous people. For myself, when the personage shakes my hand in the limply polite manner he uses for the thousands of cipher-hands he has to press, the message “You Are Nobody” drums to the innermost brain, and I measure my abjectness as I need never do when I am alone in my room. I shake the limp hand, I bring out the expected admiring remark, I snarl sub rosa that I, I deserve to be the fatigued congratulated hero, and finally call myself an idiot. Is one not better off at home?
Not for rubies and emeralds should I entrust these degrading thoughts to a leaf of paper. Besides, that is not what the poem is about. The poem concerns itself with the strange coexistence within most of us, and therefore within our civilization, of the “romantic” view and its, shall we say, physiological antithesis. In the first stanza, I have discreetly suggested a contrast between the Nativity as Divine Love (imitated, as it were, on the human level in each romantic embrace) and the bones rubbing together in our unpleasant cosmos. The second stanza implies that we continue to play on both sides of the net. We romanticize even though we know better. We suspend the operations of the critical intellect. We want to enjoy, not know. This is somewhat like admiring a city from a distance. Must we remind ourselves of rotting garbage in alleys while we admire the myriad lights from a mountain or an airplane? Finally, even though our highest romantic visions are a chemical activity, and even though our very protest against the chemical vision is yet another chemical activity, we go on protesting all the same.
Thomas Mann handled this twinning and twining of incompatibles in his best roguish manner when Hans Castorp gazes in fascination at the x-rays of his Dulcinea’s lungs. The point is not that the lady suffers from tuberculosis. For the romantic view of woman and of love would be struck the same blow if the x-rays revealed nothing but health. What hits us so hard is the thought of these cells, capillaries, lymph, nervous tissue, these globs of protein, fats, these streams of enzymes and hormones, that crawling, pulsing, oozing, quivering, munching, dribbling internal world of ours, so difficult to conciliate with the pulsations of romantic love—
we ranted “soul” we raved “enchantment”
—the world of “beautiful human beings,” “soulful gazes,” and “adoration” which, even today, when half the terrorists are women, when tough female soldiers patrol the streets with automatic rifles in their fists, when “foul language” has passed from the garage mechanic to the surburban matron, still, even today, pervades our consciousness and informs our secret dreams. What, we cry, are we talking about the same human being? Can we ever unify these two visions? Or are we doomed to shuttle between Dr. Watson and Dulcinea? Are we obliged to give up our romantic dreams when we become acquainted with our viscera, and do these dreams depend for their existence on gross ignorance?
To be sure, the two streams reach us from different sources. The romantic is the older one, its source is farther from the present time, it grew while flowing across the lands of myth and legend, and the flowers of the marvelous came floating on its surface. The other is more recent. It has its source in the new toughness of 17th-century science, it is the river of numerable and verifiable facts: the flowers do not float on its surface, they are quickly decomposed.
Furthermore, this idealizing tendency is a creation of and for the wealthy and leisured classes. Intimations and imitations of it have always reached the proletariat, but romance gets badly bruised in overcrowded rooms. After a brief period of courtship in which a certain mimicry of upper-class romance is practiced, the poor couple quickly declines to a reality of hard work, drink and quarrels, squalling brats, dirty linen, and unsavory sanitary arrangements.
As a result, the poor are always more at home in the “strictly scientific” realm than the scientists themselves. A common working man will belch at dinner to his heart’s content. The toughest scientist, instead, will blush, hope no one heard him, and apologize if he realizes that someone did. So much for the scientific attitude!
Notions of “refined love” flourished, I believe, in upper-class Persia, India, China, and Japan. In our own civilization, we are told that the medieval exaltation of the Virgin Mary contributed to this secular exaltation; but if women were idealized in non-Christian societies, we had better reverse cause and effect and surmise that a growing prosperity and stability, and perhaps the example of the Moorish world, gave women a value and loveliness which in turn affected the worship of the Immaculate Virgin. In a society rich enough to take its women away from the labor force, to pamper them, to make them coveted possessions, to sequester them for much of the day, and at the same time not yet oppressed by too much knowledge of pancreases and the like, idealizations of love, depending upon an idealization of men by women and women by men (though never without a countercurrent of satirical knowledge) would naturally thrive; and here, in the teeth of the Women’s Liberation movement, I will claim that nothing of this happened, nor could happen, without the complicity of the women themselves, only too glad to be excused from back- or mind-breaking toil.
* From a work in progress called The Book of Elaborations, each chapter of which opens with a poem from the author’s Collected Lyrics and Epigrams (Los Angeles: Whitmarsh & Co. , 1981).
* From a work in progress called The Book of Elaborations, each chapter of which opens with a poem from the author’s Collected Lyrics and Epigrams (Los Angeles: Whitmarsh & Co. , 1981).
The romantic vision is necessarily hierarchical and distinguishes between a high and a low dignity of objects and actions. It begins not so much with a generalized depreciation of the body as with a particular revulsion against excrement, and a covering up of the bodily parts whence they issue. Here I ask the anthropologists: is the disgust with excrement general? universal? do all tribes conceal their urinations and defecations, and bury the products as many animals do?
I have mentioned Mann; but Swift was more daring in this respect, and more penetrating, for he pushed the anguished question beyond the relative decency of lungs—even diseased lungs—to the shocking areas of bladder and anus, in the face of which (if one may put it comically) the Dulcinea world collapses.
His “Strephon and Chloe,” for example, is one of the wisest, deepest, and, let me firmly say, one of the sanest English poems of its age. We would be fools to deprecate it on the ground that it makes us laugh. Such topics could not be approached except by way of disarming humor. A work like “Strephon and Chloe” has a philosophical stature altogether more important than anything Pope can devise in his ambitious Essay on Man or advance in his monumentally trivial Dunciad.
Swift opens with a portrait which rests on the immemorial tradition of antiphysiological idealization, that is to say the tradition of assigning a value of “high” to that which is not physiological.
As a result, all the beaux are in pursuit; and now Swift spreads out the romantic wares of flames and darts, bleeding hearts, poetic strains, billets-doux, sighs, ogling, and the rest.
So beautiful a nymph appears
But once in twenty thousand years.
You’d swear that so divine a creature
Felt no necessities of nature.
In summer had she walked the town,
Her armpits would not stain her gown:
At country dances, not a nose
Could in the dog-days smell her toes.
Strephon carries Chloe off, and on the wedding day the full romantic personnel of Hymen, rococo Cupids, pigeons and sparrows, The Muses and Apollo are present. Comes the wedding night, and Strephon much perplexed how to invade so much delicacy with his male rudeness:
Now, however, the bride has been put to bed; Strephon strips, but shyly keeps his distance at first. Eventually he grows bold. Chloe drives him back.
Can such a deity endure
A mortal human touch impure?
How did the humbled swain detest
His prickly beard, and hairy breast!
The true reason, alas, is not delicacy, but having drunk twelve cups of tea:
How could a nymph as chaste as Chloe,
With constitution cold and snowy,
Permit a brutish man to touch her?
She “steals out her hand” to draw the chamber pot into the bed.
The bride must either void or burst.
And there is worse to come. As for the mossy cliff (by the way) is this not a masterful and repugnant double shot—at the romantic pastoral scene and at the female pudenda? Eventually Strephon is encouraged to follow Chloe’s example—
Strephon, who heard the fuming rill
As from a mossy cliff distil,
Cried out, Ye Gods! what sound is this?
Can Chloe, heavenly Chloe,—-?
As is only right, the little Cupids,
And, as he filled the reeking vase,
Let fly a rouser in her face.
For they have understood that idealization (in our Cupidinous tradition) explodes at the touch of the physiological, as a balloon filled with air does at the poke of a lit cigar.
Abashed at what they saw and heard,
Flew off, nor ever more appeared.
cries Swift, and:
Adieu to ravishing delights,
High raptures, and romantic flights,
But now comes the surprise; or rather, it has come already, for Swift has suggested his moral in a passage which precedes the bedding of the bride. It is by no means a 20th-century moral, to wit “that the sooner we drop our romantic flummery the better,” and “let us all learn to accept our natural functions, and do everything together,” etc. , etc. On the contrary, Swift is all for illusion:
How great a change! how quickly made!
They learn to call a spade a spade.
They soon from all constraint are freed;
Can see each other do their need.
In case we should think that he is jesting, he lets this advice proliferate in the long coda to his poem; and intimates that one reason why marriages go sour so quickly is precisely that reticence and illusion (“fair decency”) are foolishly thrown to the wind at once:
Since husbands get behind the scene,
The wife should study to be clean;
Nor give the smallest room to guess
The time when wants of nature press;
But after marriage practise more
Decorum than she did before;
To keep her spouse deluded still,
And make him fancy what she will.
They take possession of the crown,
And then throw all their weapons down.
Most of us manage to survive the passage from the romantic premarital condition, when even sexual intercourse is surrounded by delicate concealments and silences, and when other physiological realities are carefully beclouded, to a state of nuptial good-fellowship which comes more and more to resemble the family household we experienced as children. The little noises and smells are accepted. We tend each other through sicknesses quite damaging to the chivalric ideal. And if we are lucky, we discover in our spouses (and they in us) solid qualities to respect and admire. For Swift himself, this was apparently not feasible. Together with Esther Johnson, he performed an experiment in living which is worth studying as an alternative to our usual physical camaraderie—as an alternative, at any rate, for those who want no children. Such couples might decide to opt for marriage without cohabitation, in contrast to our “liberated” people today, who choose rather to cohabit without marriage. Swift’s way may have its disadvantages, but presumably he was able to maintain something of the romantic life by keeping his distance from Stella’s “low” physiological activities and concealing his from her.
Actually, the Swiftian solution was less eccentric than one might think at a first encounter. The rich practiced it daily under a single roof, for their mansions were large enough to allow for separate bedrooms and sanitary facilities. A great deal of formality was maintained between man and wife, and they rather visited each other than lived together in our own humbler manner. Swift achieved the same purpose in a fashion suitable to the middle classes. He lived here, and Stella lived there. Each meeting was a romantic event.
I am not positively advocating this course of life. Yet were I sure of my lady’s faithfulness, I could endure it, I could find much to relish in it, and I would take full advantage of its romantic possibilities. We would always meet in our best finery, and we would each wash our dirty dishes alone.
How many “sordid” extramarital affairs are in fact romantic escapes from the sordid? Strephon loves Chloe, and Chloe loves Strephon, but both long for the days when they knew each other less well. This is, in a sense, immature. But then all dissatisfactions with the constraints of reality are immature. It would seem that a modicum of immaturity makes the full man and woman.
For Swift, the romantic life dies never to be reborn at the first foul breath of physiological reality. But one of the most amazing facts about our species is that we are always leaping back and forth between high and low. One moment we indulge in a delicate romantic exaltation, the next we treat love and sex to every piece of invective and every coarse joke known in the language. Listening to us, a visitor from another planet would have to conclude that we all maintain two sexual partners: one whom we respect and one whom we despise; whereas in actuality we are normal schizophrenics conversing about a single person—and about ourselves—on both registers. And why? Because, as Crazy Jane says in Yeats’ splendid poem,
Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement.
Because of this rather comical and inconvenient accident, this bad joke played by the gods on mankind, we are Januses about sex, we are tangled in the contradiction, we flounder about with the most absurd inconsistencies. The coarsest soldier in the barracks, who never talks about sex except by means of a vocabulary expressing mocking contempt and humorous revulsion—precisely the way he talks about his excremental functions—and indeed, the two coarsest four-letter words in the language are, the first, a synonym for sexual intercourse, and the other, a blunt pointer at our bowel movements—this same soldier goes home for a weekend leave and moons over some sweetheart like a swain out of a Victorian album. If the gods had allowed us to make love through our fingertips, this muddle would not have appeared. By the same token, if we had to feed ourselves through the same orifices by which we eliminate our wastes, we would always dine in a private room, we would invent a double vocabulary expressive of our double feelings— a vocabulary of enjoyment and a vocabulary of contempt; and of course we would be telling innumerable “dirty” jokes about eating. As it is, we do have a few “low” words on this subject, for instance “to swill” (and the more expressive German fressen) but note the difference: we use the decorous word for normal purposes and the ugly word when the normal act of eating is actually perverted: “You’re swilling your food instead of eating it, my friend”—by which we mean that he is eating too fast, and spreading the gravy over his moustache above and his chin below. But the man who says “I f—d her” is not implying in the least that he has botched the job. He is simply in his excremental phase with regard to sex. The next moment he may be all Tancred again.
But now, picture us on the romantic summit, and ask, How can this “unearthly” delight subsist when we know full well, and would have to confess if questioned, that the beloved, man or woman, is subject to the same gross daily physiological blights as an army sergeant? It survives because of a vital distinction between information as idea and information as perception. We live quietly with many a piece of information (for instance the slaughter of cattle) that would make us retch if absorbed through our own eyes or ears. We know what is behind a holiday, a famous actor, a king at his coronation, but we crave and cherish the idealizations all the same, we carefully keep our distance, we do not constantly punish our dreams of beauty with reminders of kitchen-truths. And here is the reply to fanatics of honesty whom these illusions offend. These illusions are demands, aspirations, desires, which subsist in us whether or not we think they can ever be realized by mankind; hence the romantic life which we try to maintain in ourselves, or, far more frequently, ascribe to others (the beloved, the actor, the king), is as authentic a phenomenon of our natures as our grossest visceral facts. We play the romantic role for one another not in the least as a lie, since both partners in the game possess the correct information as idea, but as episodes of idealizing dramatic art, as perpetual holiday, as living enactments of a hope, or rather a hunger, for mankind.
Consider how naïvely, or rather pseudonaïvely, we let ourselves be taken in by cosmetics. It takes a strong hater of mankind—like Swift again—to keep tormenting himself with the realities under the lotions, dyes, colors, and what have you. Like Baudelaire, most of us delight in these ephemeral improvements on Nature. Here, too, we pay homage to the eternal youth and beauty that ought to be and rid ourselves of a primitive and perfectly useless realism, relegating it from the salon to the business quarters where it belongs. A sentimentalist is a person who deludes himself (or others) into thinking that reality can and does operate at the level of romance; but a wise realist cultivates the romantic plot in his garden and culls from it a foretaste of the heaven which he has no expectation of ever seeing.
Apropos of heaven, let us recall that our need to idealize by veiling the body addresses itself not only to lovers but also to leaders and to religious figures. Once again, it is one thing to know as an idea and another to see, hear, and smell, or even to be told. God became man, says the Christian. The Incarnation requires full submission to all human physiological activities. Hence there is not the slightest taint of heresy in sending our Savior to the privy. On the contrary, true doctrine demands it. And yet such an image is more destructive of religion than anything the Higher Criticism could ever advance.
The closer the affinity between a given physiological action or condition and our eliminatory functions, the more unromantic it appears to us—even today. A lady will always excuse herself—from anything—on the ground of a headache in preference to pleading a diarrhea or a constipation. A headache—or a broken leg—is a presentable reverse, whereas the stomach in its various manifestations takes us down the ladder toward regions of indecency, Byron exploited this fact to the best comic advantage in a famous episode of the second canto of his Don Juan, when the young hero discovers that seasickness and romantic love are incompatible colodgers in a man’s system. Love, he says, is bold against “all noble maladies,” but does not like to meet “vulgar illnesses.”
But worst of all is nausea, or a pain
About the lower regions of the bowels.
If Don Juan’s thoughts had strayed away from Donna Julia because of a bullet in his shoulder, one dignity would have been supplanted by another—love by a wound. Here, instead, dignity is ousted by indignity.
Scientists feel this like other mortals, but Science does not. For Science, a fart is as good as a fanfare. And that is why the “scientific way of life” is reputed (among scientists too) to be unbearably drab. We cling to the romantic vision for our “mental health,” if you wish. Romance makes value judgments. Science turns them into a field of inquiry.
I have given it as my opinion that the romantic vision begins with a perhaps universal revulsion against excrement. Since mammals are generally fastidious in this respect, it is hard to conceive of man as ever having wallowed happily in his feces, even though babies are known to be less delicate. Since our excrement attracts flies and bacteria (and so forth), it constitutes a source of danger to us. We may suppose therefore that nature’s mechanism to separate man from this source of danger is to make the smell “inherently” offensive to adults. Not to infants, because in them it is unnecessary: their parents move them to and fro.
But if this is so, then the romantic vision is not a mere illusion. It is an illusion only in the sense that what is bad for our health is not therefore shameful and unmentionable. Shame probably appears because parents, for whom the smell and “mess” are offensive, wean children from their excrement by ridicule and exuberant gestures and noises of disgust. Thus even our civilized shame is remotely grounded in the ultimate physical reality, and if out of this shame the antipodal romantic vision arises, we can go yet farther and connect Spenserian idealism—the complement to Swift’s horror—to that shudder against our waste product for which Nature has perhaps provided.
Yet, other states and actions stand low in our estimation without being directly connected with elimination. In the poem from which I quoted, Swift mentions sweat. Now there is such a thing as a “noble perspiration” which bedabbles our brows. Swift, however, mentions places less noble than the brow, and we realize that it is chiefly though not entirely the bad smell which is at issue here. We are extraordinarily sensitive to bad smells, considering that this sense is the least important we have. Why are we repelled by all sorts of body odors? Surely there is no survival value in disliking bad breath. Shall we affirm, then, that these are nonuniversal and late “ornaments” and supplements to the basic human revulsion against excrement?
And what about our snot—the very word is horrid—and what about nose-picking—where there is not even a bad odor to blame? Cleaning our nails in public is “not very nice” but picking our noses is ludicrous and vulgar in the extreme. At this point we are bound over hand and foot to romantic illusion: science discovers no foundation.
Since our romantic valuations remain so unrepentantly alive, our language and our literature are compelled to follow suit. We may be philosophical egalitarians, but we continue psychological hierarchists. In the first place, the “gutter language” which is now permitted in lieu of Swift’s mock-bashful aposiopesis (“Can Chloe, heavenly Chloe,—-?”) has not by any means been elevated to a new dignity simply by being permitted, and encouraged, and repeated ad nauseam. Our writers are mistaken if they think that bringing the old foul words into the parlor cleanses the words; no, they befoul the parlor, now as in the past. For language is stubborn.
In the second place, the written language has a peculiar power of magnifying what it names. To name a thing or an action in print is to give it ipso facto especial consideration. To write it down for all to read is to frame it and to point the finger at it. That is why so-called realistic writing is in fact hyperbolical. Take again these perfectly innocent physiological emanations of ours, our little noises, our little smells— what do they amount to in our everyday lives? To very little indeed. We scarcely give them a thought. We cordially disregard them. But they damage the romantic life if they occur in public, and when we find them worded in a poem or a novel, the words leap from the page and not only report the little noise or smell, but because they report it, and in and by the act of reporting it, cast the personage in an unfavorable light, comic or serious. For literature is always emblematic. We readers know that the author rummages in the bottomless hamper of reality, and we know that anything he lifts out has been particularly chosen for that distinction, and is therefore significant. If he chooses a belch for Hector (or something “worse”), it can only be in order to bring him down.
Thus the writer continues willy-nilly to make emblematic use of the ancient connotations. Furthermore, the wise writer does not seek to change these traditional connotations and does not want them changed. He does not want our famous four-letter word for sexual union to acquire a fragrance of innocence, delight, and romance; he needs its foul connotations for the occasions when foulness is what he requires.
The physiological realities are not all on the same level of unromantic coarseness. Some are so low and undignified that we have no words to dignify them. Describe them in plain English monosyllables or by means of Latinized terms—it does not matter; the moment an author chooses to apply them to a character, that character is lowered. But sexual intercourse is in the middle range. I have spoken of our Janus-like attitude. As a result, an author has a goodly range of words to pick from. He has Dulcinea words, Dr. Watson words, and army sergeant words. Our novels, stories, plays, and poems show the modern writer hard at work trying to efface these distinctions. He assiduously uses army sergeant words in Dulcinea contexts, for example, almost as a sort of political protest against hierarchies in language, as if low words were underpaid coal-miners. Fortunately he fails. Language is more stubborn than he is potent.
Shall we ever get ecstatic unions of lipids? Will enchantment accrue to pituitary glands? Why do neon lights become Jesus less than candles? I see no conclusion to this high comedy. Our scientific ideas, with their appropriate language, are so many juniors whacking away at their romantic dads, whose blood seems to replenish itself as fast as it flows. It is a double comedy, as Turgenev understood when he wrote Fathers and Sons. The romantic father is always being demolished by the brutal facts, and the scientific son is always meeting a Dulcinea who forces him into a rhapsody without foundation.