Monday, July 23, 2012

Thirty-Six: Noonday Demon

Whenever I read discussions about the state of sex these days, what I find is fear. I read about the ways sex is approached and regarded, about the current state of courtship rituals, and what I find is a subtext of fear. We're afraid these days, and it's hard to put a name to exactly what we're afraid of.  Yet if you read all the social analyses of sex, it is there. Sex--- or lust, or longing, or desire ---is still the noonday demon. That term is St. Augustine's, I think. I always liked the description: lust or desire as the noonday demon, as the dark force that spring upon its victims even in daylight, the predator that doesn't have to wait for a new moon midnight to go hunting.

We're afraid of allowing desire or lust or longing to gain a foothold in social interactions, in social settings. It's dangerous to hug, lest one party feel a sexual frisson. It's dangerous to admit that desire can be there at any time, in any social interaction, since admitting that somehow undermines or devalues everything else about the interaction. It's not new to understand that desire and lust can be dangerous. The Greeks knew how dangerous Aphrodite could be. But what is new is the insistence that any trace of sexual desire or sexual sensation somehow corrupts and devalues everything else around it. We give a kind of power to desire that the Greeks and Romans never did, nor the courtiers of Heian Japan. If sexual desire makes an appearance at any moment, it displaces everything else and lessens the value of everything else around it.

I'm not sure what the wellspring of the fear is. Is it the fear of loss of control, of not being able to master desire? The Greeks knew all about that, but they never saw it as a reason to reject desire. It may be a fear that desire or lust erase the "serious" in life, that if you look at someone with lust in your heart you can't possibly think that they could be of any other value. We're not good at that in this society, in this time and place. We're not good at admitting that we can put multiple values on things, at admitting that people can be more than one thing.

We're afraid, too, of the noonday demon in a way that comes down to a fear of the imagination, a fear of what happens behind the eyes. Oh, we're afraid of the gaze itself, but what lies farther along that route is a fear of the imagination. Desire enters at the eye, and the imagination shapes it. I suppose that's about control. To be desired is to lose control, to be subject in some way to another's imagination.

Desire enters at the eye: that's always and ever true. We're visual creatures as we move through the world, and what we see becomes what we want. What we see becomes raw material for hopes and longings and dreams and the stories we tell ourselves. And that gets to be taken as a negative thing, as an oppressive thing. Desire is equated to a desire to subjugate, to oppress. To admit to desire is bad enough amongst the so-called "social justice" writers, to admit to fantasy is worse: it's taken as an admission of violation and a will to oppress.

Sometimes I read current discussions of desire and lust and sex and think that the imagination itself has become an enemy. The imagination is the natural haunt of the noonday demon, a place not so easily disciplined, a place where the external world is re-shaped. Though maybe that's the real fear, the fear that being part of another's imagination is all about loss of control, a loss of some kind of autonomy.

That may be it, and if you're reading this, tell me what you think: are we afraid of any kind of fantasy, any kind of desire, that we can't control in others?

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