New – fresh, innocent, exciting … we are curious primates, irresistibly drawn to things that look different, that we have not tried before. Advertisers bait the hook with words and images that attract our insatiable appetite for novelty and variety. Our hunger for “newness” is in direct conflict with the jaded repetition of most of our very ordinary lives. The searing surge of sexual attraction we feel when we fall in love, soon dissipates as we grapple with the practical realities of earning a living, calling the plumber to fix the blocked kitchen drain, packing school lunches, and giving our harassed spouse a peck on the cheek as he hurries out the door to join the flight to the concrete city hive.
How do we see enchantment, magic in the ill-tempered scowl of our frazzled life partner who has been sitting behind a desk all day? Where do we find a frisson of excitement in distant eyes? How do we continue, year after year, to arch with delight at a touch that has grown so familiar and find intimacy in the tangle of tasks that require left brain engagement? When do we allow time for romantic reverie, erotic fantasy conjured up in expansive imaginings? Alain de Bolton, in his new book, How to Think More about Sex, proposes that the ethos of modern marriage “with its insane ambitions and its insistence that one person can plausibly hope to embody the eternal sexual and emotional solution to another’s every need” sets us up for bitter disappointment. He suggests that love, sex and family were wisely differentiated from one another historically for very good reasons. Like oil and water, they do not mix. The elevated high of romantic love that inspired the chaste troubadours in the twelfth century to write sublimely beautiful songs and achingly beautiful poems was fuelled by the sleepless suffering of unrequited love. Raising a family and earning a living were never urgent desires of lusty eighteenth century Parisian libertines. Says Bolton, “the impulse to raise a family has been well known to the largest share of humanity since our earliest upright days in East Africa. In all this time, however, it seems to have occurred to almost no one (until very recently, evolutionary speaking) that this project might need to be fused together with constant sexual desire as well as frequent sensations of romantic longing at the sight of a fellow parent at the breakfast table.”
Love and marriage. Horses and carriages. We are conditioned, admonished, to balance our wet erotic urges with the harness of constrained convention. And yet, the swoon of a stolen kiss, the delight of a brush of skin, the intoxicating scent of newness, awakens the beast within our bellies. What we think is romance, or love, nearly always comes in the guise of someone who makes us feel all shiny and new. And the fee at the tollgate of adultery may bankrupt us, liberate us, or lead us on a circular road right back where we started – new horse but same carriage.
In Greek mythology Thanatos was the daemon of death. Thanatos and Eros dance together, two polarised forces. Eros thrusting into the hot rush of life. Thanatos sucking us like the undertow into cold dark waters of death. Perhaps the monumental challenge we face as modern-day humans is to navigate through the narrow inlet between these two Titanic forces, paying homage to both.
Without Eros there would be no great works of art, no new inventions, no unfurling of passion that galvanises us to cross continents, discover the hero within, experience events that crack us open like juicy pomegranates and flood our lives with sweet pink juices. Eros confirms our existence is real, vital, infinitely creative.
The icy blackness of Thanatos quenches our flame, pulls us down to the stark finality of endings. Ego deaths are accompanied by a retinue of unspeakable isolation and grief. Loss of a sense of Self so often ensues after a dance in the flames that burn us black, leave us charred, irrevocably. When we step aboard the sailboat of a committed long-term relationship, we are required to use the compass of common sense to deal with the myriad practicalities of survival. We are summoned to bend with the winds of change as they hurl fiercely against our sails. We are asked to be humbled by our own humanness and the contradictions of living with another who is so different and yet so familiar as to seem invisible to the arrow of our ardour.
It may be impossible to feel weak at the knees with a heated rush of lust when our rumpled partner staggers through the front door after a long day at the office. It may be ludicrous to feel anything but resignation as he burps in unrestrained satisfaction, leaves the loo seat up, uses the last of the milk, and clips his toenails while sitting on the side of the bed naked and not so sexily exposed.
A night in an unfamiliar hotel, a steamy romp on fresh new sheets while the kids are at a sleep over might fan the flame of passion. Maybe it could be a shared adventure with just a hint of danger that throws you trembling, quite unexpectedly, together once more. Homo not-so-sapiens may require plenty of thrills, spills and surprise to bring out the hirsute wild man or wild woman in us all.
So as you lie together on rumpled sheets, or hold his hand and feel his skin against yours, remember to open the window wide. See in the softness of the moonlight the innocence of his familiar face. Remember there was enchantment there once. And if we use our artist’s eye and our poet’s imagination, we will find it there again.
Madonna – Like a Virgin