"pray outside your geography"
weakens boundaries, transports us, leads us to
pray outside the geography of the ego (or superego's)
precincts. And let he who has not lusted outside the
straight jacket of what is politically correct, throw the first
If the beloved is "initiatrix
to the archetype," this makes
us acolytes, disciples--love's willing slaves...
In the Fedele d'amore
style of romantic love, as well as
in the related troubadour literature, the bard seems to be
looking up at the beloved--as if from his knees. Love has
punctured the fortress of the poet's proud kingdom. And
if he is on his knees, then he is also closer to the ground of
This lowering of the
mast of ego--and the attendent
idealization of the lady--was in part a psychically
liberating, compensatory reaction to the extreme male
chauvinism of the middle ages (which looked down at
women). The more humbled stance allows the
troubadour to pluck the strings of another part of his soul,
a part of his soul where he realizes he is no longer in
control in some stale, accustomed way.
has an underworldly quality to the extent
that, like Persephone, the ego is being overwhelmed and
subjected to an involuntary descent. This humbling or
lowering that brings the lover to his knees also takes him
out of his head, and into an emotional depth where he is
more vulnerable, more resonate--his own chest now like a
The fall (into the
heart) opens the troubadour's psychic
structure for something else to come in. The creative
imagination activated, and part of his ego structure
obliterated, the beloved now can enter him, seemingly
inspiring his every breath. He becomes the "vassal" to the
archetype, "the servant of love"--which is also a reversal
of social power, the slightly kinky pleasure of surrender --
not unlike the powerful CEO who by night allows himself
to be tied up and dominated by Mistress Helga.
Serving is not so far
from bondage. And while "Mistress
Helga" commands the CEO with her whips, chains, and
black leather, he serves her every whim, kissing her ass by
night as he, in grey flannel, has his ass kissed by others all
The fire and brimstone
preacher rails against carnal sin,
as he collects donations for this televised ministry. But he
is preaching to himself--for the faithful feel betrayed
when the Reverend Jimmy Swaggart is later found to be
frequenting hookers in some Southern city's underworld.
Exposed, his ego structure crumbling in shame, he asks in
tears for our forgiveness...
It is not a small
feature that (unless we are
exhibitionists) we would keep our erotic comings and
goings so private. As if its our dark secret that
we have genitals, and they sometimes, an imaginal
life of their own.
The Underworld is never
far from our shame, for it is
where we feel in some way "overwhelmed" and
psychically vulnerable, the depth to which we fall when
the ego is being ravaged by something more powerful than
Rape is a kind of humiliation, a horrible thing. Yet so
many women have it on their play list of erotic fantasies.
The fantasy become a controlled event (one in which we
can relinquish control), an imaginal structure, a safe
place for the event to happen.
I am arguing that our
erotic imaginations are another
way that we go to "the Underworld." That our erotic
fantasies are Underworld fantasies. Here we can
experience what might not be "prudent" in the life we call
"real," here we can escape from the prude who otherwise
might be policing our boundaries.
The Underworld of the
erotic imagination is "where
fantasies become true," "call me now, I'm waiting for you."
Phone sex, cyber sex, porn magazines, or even Harlequin
romance novels... What's going on here?
Are we longing for
someone ... through the pages, the
photos, and the pressing of keys--a someone who has
disappeared --or yet to show up? Who is that someone
who propels us, the imaginal other at the other end of our
longing? Is it our romantic ideal? God? Sophia?
Persephone? Is that someone our own true self? Surely
our longing often leads us to "grasp for the narcissus."*
But what else might we see here?
That as a culture we
are lonely? That we are repressed?
Addicted? Or that in ways our "real life" has become too
literal and devoid of archetypal depth, not completely
adequate to the scope and reach of the soul's longing? Or
perhaps we have not allowed ourselves to become literal
enough in reaching for what the soul truly and specifically
Perhaps a part of us
can not be satisfied, or neatly fit
within the confines of Family Circle magazine, that a well-
bounded and Republican eros might not be eros enough,
or in fact, may not be eros at all.
Perhaps a part of us
still looks for love "in all the wrong
places," because those places were once where love was
(where it was last seen, or seemed to be lost).
And if the underworld
(and its longings) seem a "dark"
and solitary precinct of the soul, then perhaps we are
freer there to do, what we'd want no one else to see.
I sometimes find to be pornographic is watching
or participating in sex without its full register of feeling.
Here there's a lack of "relatedness" as in sex between
strangers, a sex in which "the beloved" has disappeared,
and only an "object" remains--like Narcissus turned into a
flower--and what you are left with is not quite fully
human, not quite the beloved at all.
goes back to the Greek
words for "harlot" (porno) and writing (graphy). The OED
defines pornography as "the description of the life,
manners, etc. of prostitutes and their patrons; hence the
expression or suggestion of obscene or unchaste subjects
in literature or art."
What are we to make
of the fact that the language itself
which describes pornography is moralistic, looks at sex as
an "unchaste" or "obscene" subject for literature or art,
associating it with prostitution--when in fact the majority
of what we call pornography may not involve prostitutes in
the first place? (Exhibitionists perhaps, or horny authors or
artists, or young women flirting with their dark side as they
find a new way to come up with rent money--but not
What pornography does
share with prostitution is that
something here often is held back, like whores refusing to
kiss. In this realm, clothes may be removed, without
becoming fully naked in the soul. It's an approximate or
substitute kind of eros, a sex with a lessened vulnerability
(at least in those who are its witnesses, now transformed
into voyeurs)--and so, subtle forms of erotic merging
rarely take place, another dimension that seldom fully
You can look at two
images of the same act--say two
people having oral sex. But one of the images can be
"pornographic," and the other one not. I'm suggesting
that there's a distinction between an "erotic" image and
one that is pornographic. As if pornography is what's left
when some subtle dimension of ensouled connection (the
"eros" ) is no longer there, and what remains--aroused
meat--is only two dimensional.
The erotic image,
by contrast, opens in some way to a
wider dimensionality. The soul may be huffing and
breathless, but in some way "inspired"--as if something
that started in the body is reaching beyond itself, towards
an other, or some other state. Whereas the pornographic
image remains confined, as if the soul is pinioned by the
context it now finds itself in--as in the writing and life
of the Marquis de Sade (imprisioned in the Bastille for
thirty years). And so, if something is "degrading" about
pornography, then perhaps it is due to the loss of this
subtle other, this "third" dimension of erotic space.
Pornography seems related
in some way to shame. And
this perhaps for different reasons. On the one hand we
need to cross a line (drawn in the sand by the superego)
even to enter pornography's portals. So already we are
being "bad." And if pornography seems related to our
shame, perhaps its also because the specificity of what
we desire and what we feel ashamed of may live very close
in the soul.
The linkage of shame
and desire suggests we could be
in the presence of an erotic wound, something become
derailed or stunted in our experience of love, something
that has disconnected us from the fabric of "erotic space"
or a more turned-on way of experiencing ourselves and
the world. This erotic wound, this loss, this "genital hole"
and its resulting sense of deficiency, may reflect a
crippled will in relationship to love that feels shame as its
residue, the shame of having lost a juicy part of ourselves.
And so it is to reconnect with this "juicyness" that we may
turn to pornography in the first place.
The juicy nature of
"erotic space" --charged, widened,
engorged, enlivened --occurs as part of an overthrow,
violation, dissolving, penetration, or crossing --of
boundaries. The loss of the boundary --which may
include the loss of clothing--is what now makes "the
space" so intimate. The loss or lack of boundedness opens
us to otherness. But the dissolving of boundaries also
opens us to a more naked, undefended self. Makes us as
penetrable as the erotic image we may viewing or reading
The corrosion, overthrow,
or melting of boundaries that
gives rise to erotic space gives rise as well to many
different ways to experience it. In fact, the lowering or
absence of a boundary may be an opening for the gods to
enter --or to punish us.
could experience the loss of the
boundary that gives rise to erotic space through the
perspective and shading of any of the gods. There is the
eros (and arrows) of Cupid piercing us, catching us by
surprise. Here the boundary being penetrated is our own
Having been caught
by surprise, there is the outraged
virginal response of Artemis, dealing death to Actaeon
who had just viewed her naked. Actaeon's punishment
(for violating a visual boundary in seeing the goddess
without her clothes) in itself seems evocative for
Stunned by the naked
beauty of the goddess and her
virginal retinue who were all bathing in a secluded pool,
Actaeon couldn't help but gaze at the loveliness before
him. But when Artemis saw him ogling at them, she
transformed Actaeon into a stag, and still incensed, she
then set his own hunting hounds against him. The
hounds chased Actaeon and then killed what they thought
was an ordinary stag.
And so, people who
become "up in arms" against
pornography--or what we used to call "stag films"--may be
wielding the perspective of Artemis, a protector of women,
animals, and children. Those who rail against eros's
penetrating violation may also be complicit with the
outrage of Demeter at the boundary violation of rape--both
her daughter Persephone's, as well as her own. Censors of
free speech, who might object to the more verbal aspects of
"pornography" may be re-enacting the punitive revenge of
a Hera--who took away Echo's full power of speech for the
way that the latter had been complicit in the casual flings
of a philandering Zeus.
Since eros involves
the dissolving or crossing of (ego)
boundaries it can have both Plutonic and Hermes-like
overtones as well. In the former case, our boundaries are
being penetrated by something deep but alien to our
prevailing sense of self. This penetration could be
experienced as a form of violation, a loss of purity, or as
something that transforms us by virtue of admitting
contents into the self formerly held to be "other."
Almost all kinds of
"pornography" fall down to Hades
and take on the Plutonic shading of erotic space to the
extent that we enter a kind of pleasurable (or outraged)
projective identification with the image, a contageous
kind of erotic empathy. That is, we find ourselves now
experiencing something of the erotic intensity of any
Plutonic exchange--the intensity of penetrating and being
penetrated. Here the image itself has gotten under our
skin as we begin to experience what was originally the
experience of another's body.
In the case of Hermes,
its as if something stolen is being
smuggled and managing to communicate itself past our
normal boundedness. Our Mundane Sentries have either
been bribed or begun to relax, our self-cherishing
distracted by fascination, as for a time the image, words,
or thoughts of another person seem every bit as shiny and
fascinating as ourselves. We have begun to face outside
the known, familiar contours of our own geography. Or at
least its a start.
In terms of pornography,
this boundary-crossing that
may free us from the bounded topos of the superego's
tight leash, also gives rise to a charge that seems to enter
us as repression's straight jacket gets lifted--and we enter a
territory felt in some way forbidden. Even if the images
we experience here are "pornographic" and not "erotic,"
still, the territory we've now entered may represent a
wider space than we had just been inhabiting. And this
could be true even if the topos of the image is severely
restricted--say, hogtied, bound or gagged.
its enjoyment of the
image, at least or at last represents an ascension of the
imaginal, a mode of experience that seems to speak more
directly, more viscerally to the soul. Now the image
becomes quite shiny and fascinating indeed. Here the
imaginal other undresses, revealing herself--undressing as
well our own yearning. Some limiting "reality principle"
has gone on vacation, leaving possibility more possible,
more available to desire.
At the same time, pornography
often seems a bi-product
of repression, and its resulting sense of lack--as if it would
barely exist, or be necessary as "outlet" if our erotic lives ||
were rich enough on their own.
Though also (and however
politically incorrect in our
present day to admit) isn't there sometimes an itch in the
soul for a sex that doesn't have to possess the full register
of "relatedness?" A yen for a sex that isn't contexted by
cultural sanctions, agreements, or correctness --each of
them limiting by a restrictive, other-referenced morality
and the resulting employment of a boundary.
And so this itch for
the forbidden or unbounded... for a
sex that's "off the records" (because it would otherwise be
forbidden or shamed). As if Cupid has a more impersonal
wing, from which darts an unbounded, elemental
lightning bolt --that flares, singes us abruptly--and passes,
leaving no strings attached.
we are a nation prone to "reaching for the narcissus,"
we are nearly as quick to proscribe prohibition.
But this reflects the
tension of an American dichotomy,
going back and forth between an unbounded, optimistic
idealism (you're free to have it all, including "sex, drugs,
and rock and roll," liberty and opportunity for everyone, a
democratic fantasy where anyone can be President...) and
then a rigidly enforced policing by the superego.
While sex is the subtext
in so much contemporary
media, at the same time we have John Ashcroft, the
Attorney General of the United States, not only attempting
to enforce statutes against what is deemed pornographic,
but ordering the breasts on statues to be covered as well.
The impulse to wage
prohibition reveals something
fundamentalistic in the psyche, shows a lack of self trust
in relation to instinctual appetites--as if we are still
wanting a king, or needing an external ruler to tame what
we find unruly about ourselves--and for this job
enthrone the superego, or those who become its
However, what we shame,
make wrong (or make
prohibition against) can no longer fully speak to us. It can
only echo dully some boundedness in the soul. Then
something in our imaginative faculty may grow frail, as we
miss the chance to get to know ourselves better. Before
making prohibition, I would first want to be curious.
What does it mean that
I reach for this or that? What
is the god, the archetype standing behind it? What is its
function? What seems to be missing that leads me to
reach in this direction? What does my reaching put me in
or out of contact with? What significance do I give it? And
what significance might be there that I don't fully see?
(What are the
good questions to be asking here, ones
that deepen rather than shame, that help my reachings to
step out of their closets, out of their robes?).
What was I feeling
just before I reached for it? And are
there other forms of "it" that might have less hidden cost?
love itself, and like all dramatic
forms and many of the arts--requires "the willing
suspension of disbelief." The literal surface of life gives
way to the imaginal possibility as we accept an illusion (in
the case of pornography, one created by pixels, or ink) and
in some way take it to be real, becoming aroused by it.
The mind seems good at this, in fact, is doing this all the
time as it gets turned on (or repulsed or frightened) by
images, fantasy, the imaginal productions of the mind.
Like the fire and brimstone
preacher railing against
carnal sin (and who is later found to be feeding from his
own erotic trough) both the superego and the
pornography it might rail against show us two different
vectors in the soul that are in collision with each other.
These two vectors can still seem surprisingly tensed in the
American psyche, as if the Puritanism in which this nation
was founded has stayed with us in some way, just beneath
our "free," freedom-loving surface.
And sorry to be pricking
at or penetrating the
"freedom-loving" bubble of our collective ego-ideal, but
"pricking at" and "penetrating" are Plutonic actions, and
as Pluto's (self-appointed) spokesman it is my task here to
ask the following questions:
Can you imagine the
French ever allowing themselves
to be subjected to the prohibition of wine and other
alcoholic beverages-- or making it illegal to smoke
cigarettes in a cafe?
Is there another Western
democracy that for seventy six
years of the twentieth century had federal statutes (ie., the
Mann Act) that could arrest any man who travelled across
state lines with a woman not his wife?
Can you think of another
Western nation outside of the
United States where strangers of the opposite sex are less
likely to make eye contact in a public place?
The American idealization
of "freedom" and the
contrary impulse to wage prohibition are two vectors
affecting our sense of Eros--and they are forever lining up
on the opposing aisles of the American politic. And which
side we vote for seems to reflect characterological
leanings as much as political.
those who are thought of as
"conservative" seem to identify with the superego--
whereas other people--mostly those thought of as "liberal"
tend to feel impinged upon by the values (if not the
superegos ) of conservatives. Yet when it comes to
pornography, the matter is further complicated beyond
that of the tension between two characterological/political
stances toward libidinal drives--for here we are also
dealing with a gender issue.
The Gender Politics of Porn
I've had numerous men
enter therapy with me in order
to deal with their conflicted relationship to pornography--
but never a woman. At the same time, it is generally
women who feel more threatened in some way by
pornography--with the threat being either the feeling that
women are being objectified, or the fear that eroticized
images of other women might seduce the men in their
lives, leading the men to deflect or leak sexual energy
away from their relationships.
The susceptibilty of
a woman, or women, to being
objectified by a man, or men, is very real. It really
happens--and in the world of pornography it happens a
lot. Though this obliviousness to the deeper reality of
another's soul isn't just a gender infraction practiced by
men toward women.
Women do this toward
other women all the time, and
men do it toward other men. We are engaged in a process
of "objectifying" any time we have a projection onto
another, any time we devalue or idealize, any time we
view another person through a conceptual lens, seeing the
other as being "a certain way," a confined entity.
All forms of "objectifying"
are thus each a form of
imaginal experience, a kind of "tripping" that may take us
out of the freshly arising and more naked encounter of
one form of presence meeting another. Having a "real"
relationship with someone thus involves a continuing
dialectic between our imaginal objectifications and who
"objectively" the other might be. Yet even who the other
"objectively" might be isn't static, but a work in progress.
And when someone is being "objectified," their contours
are no longer being freshly and clearly perceived, but have
became reduced or tainted by the subjectivity of the one
"guilty" of objectification.
In terms of a woman's
fear that erotic images of other
women might lead her man to deflect or leak sexual
energy away from her, this too can really happen. When it
becomes problematic, this often reflects a disparity
between the man's erotic anima and the real woman he's
in relationship to. But when such is the case
the disparity may have arisen due to sexual inhibitions on
the parts of both the man and the woman.
In the "battle
of the sexes," however, we would do well
to pick our fights wisely. And a battle over pornography is
generally not a good fight for a woman.
Women who are more
confident in their own sexuality
tend to have less of a problem here, and tend to handle
the issue more with a sense of humor--or a sense of
curiosity as to what really gets their men off. In this way
the attraction to certain kinds of erotic imagery can
become part of a couple's inquiry into the nature and
mystery of sex, the nature and mystery of each other.
Rather than erotic
images leading a couple to close
down to each other (by creating a context of either shame
or victimization) the kind of curiosity and inquiry that
I'm recommending can help a couple enter and share a
more expansive "erotic space," one in which each member
of the couple can take turns initiating or following the
other's lead into territory that until now may have been
walled off, repressed--or felt unsafe to reveal.
It is just this "walling
off," this difficulty a man may
have experienced in getting a woman to join him in the
erotic space that turns him on, that often keeps his
relationship to pornography so charged, so ongoing--that
keeps him in some way, erotically lonely. This condition
itself is resonate with the underworld god, Pluto--whose
wife isn't there with him for nine months out of every
A man needs to feel
he has autonomy and ownership of
his own genitals. When this is at issue, the man has some
work to do, and a woman would do well not to become a
scolding presence or a transference object in some
lingering power struggle the man may have still going on
with his mother. That's not a very sexy transference--and
a woman's anxious demands around her man's visual
eroticism puts a police whistle in her mouth, puts her at
odds with the traffic of her man's erotic flow, which
generally isn't such a hot idea.
And as long as we're
speaking "in general," its often
better when a woman can find a sexier way to join with
him, and wear the damn teddy, if that's what it takes. Or
for him to wear the teddy, if that's what's on the menu--
and to take turns meeting each other in the way each loves
to be met. But we men are simply more "visual" in our
eroticism, so why fight it? This shouldn't be a newsflash
to women. Why else are they so unfortunately obsessed
about their own weight--subjecting themselves to
objectifying scrutiny, lest their appearance fall outside the
gauntly current contours of what is considered visually
Erotic vision & mytho-historical context
It has been argued
that the process of socialization and
inculcation of values that would support the raising of
children has attempted to leash or curb a non-
monogamous tendency that may actually be more native
to male sexuality. But this argument--which turns a blind
eye to the fact that women are actually much better
equipped for multiple partners biologically-- is part of a
common gender squabble I would prefer not to enter
here. Instead I would like to now take this exploration in
For, the often polarizing
issue of monogamy** aside, the
tension or conflict about what to do with visual images is
not just an American thing, not just a conservative vs
liberal thing, not just a male vs female thing, but it goes
back to the beginnings of the Judeo-Christian tradition
where there was an injunction against the making or
worshipping of "graven images."
This was a Patriarchial
injunction that might (wisely)
turn us away from any literal, and thus limiting
representation of the Godhead-- but it was also the
attempt to steer the early Hebrews away from competing
Great Mother cults whose worship made use of statues
and other imagistic representations of the goddess.
Might we say "the
repressed comes back to conquer,"
and see the proliferation of erotic images on the internet
as a resurfacing of goddess worship of a sort? (And is
there not something holy in what we find beautiful, in
what raises our energy, in what makes us swoon, or grow
weak in the knees?).
A beautiful woman is
a "knock-out." A man's visual
eroticism primes him for this blow that might knock out a
part of his ego structure, where cupid's arrows might
"pierce him to the root," shift his assemblage point, open
him for an encounter where he might lose or relinquish
control, where he might fall from his overly structured
perch, where he might fall...in some semblance of love.
Is this not what religion
is supposed to do, to help us
merge or bind together with the sacred other? (And if I'm
going too far with this, perhaps its out of an attempt to be
faithful to my earlier inquiry: "What does it mean that I
reach for this or that? What is the god, the archetype
standing behind it?").
What the inquiry --which
is here an inquiry into
pornography-- reveals, is that first of all we are dealing
with imagery, and in some cases we may be dealing with
compulsion, and so it might help if we understood what
pornography can become, and what it generally is when it
becomes a "problem" under discussion in therapy. In its
most denuded sense, its a compulsive use of imagery.
But the need or desire
to relate to imagery isn't a
problem in itself--poets and visual artists are doing it all
the time, as are Jungian analysts. The soul itself has a
compulsion for the visual image, downloading dream
images the night long.
But here we are talking
about erotic images, images of
naked people--and other people who may have fallen into
the habit of looking at these images.
If there's a problem
here, the very imagery in which it
is being presented may begin to give us some bearings. I
mean we're talking about a fall into something (an
involuntary descent)--a compulsion in other words--that
is conflated with vision, nakedness, and sex.
The imagery here ("the
fall" & "nakedness") may place
us in the Garden of Eden. It could place us in the myth of
Innana, the Sumarian version of the Persephone myth:
the goddess who falls through seven layers of existence,
losing clothing at each, until finally she arrives naked in
the Underworld. Or the imagery of a descent that is
linked with a sexual act might place us in the Persephone
So a question here,
would be that of trying to find the
right link, the right story, the right mythic background
that might shed some light on the turf to which we've
fallen. One thing initally jumps out at me, however. And
that is, that the Christian myth, for all its richness, may be
almost useless to us when it comes to sex, let alone
pornography. I mean it certainly makes it difficult where
the central figure in the myth is never portrayed in an
erotic encounter, and where even his mother is innocent
of having had sex.
And so, if we look
to Christianity to help us better
understand or deal with pornography, I think we may
have chosen the wrong story, the wrong mythic
background. For it seems we might initially grasp onto a
sense of ourselves as being sinners should we look at
beefcake or "girlie pictures." In a sense this would be a fall
into Hell-- which is where sinners go, which is at least
But I don't find the
nuance helpful. For we're back in
the tension of fundamentalism's rubber band, back into
fire and brimstone if we stray from the superego's tight
leash. And without having added one thread of
understanding of what the soul is really hungry for, what
its really reaching for. Going this route only leaves us
with a one trick pony--the virginal impulse to wage
prohibition, like the prim Nancy Reagan saying "no" in her
war upon drugs. And that hasn't exactly worked out too
What the inquiry also
suggests is that behind
pornography there is really the hunger for an encounter
with the goddess (or god), an encounter with the beloved
in a sexual form. We are longing to be transported into a
greater depth, a great intimacy than the world we've been
living in--which may be the real problem.
That this longing shows
up as a pornographic
symptom, as something that may now come under
therapeutic scrutiny--that is, as a compulsion that is
"stronger than we are," as something that overpowers us
in a sexual way--perhaps shows us yet another way that we
have become Persephone.
Persephone easily loses
herself. She grasps for
something external (the narcissus) and becomes
immediately involved in an experience that overwhelms
her, something that takes her over, takes her under.
She also has something of a passive quality, having
difficulty moblilizing her own resources, or mobilizing
through mythological space under her own power. (She
enters the Underworld on Pluto's chariot, and leaves
similarly riding on another's set of wheels, those
belonging to Hermes).
When we are longing
to be "transported into a greater
depth" -- or intimacy--by the use of erotic images, we thus
may have (unknowingly) entered the Persephone myth.
Only here, the "flowers" that we would pick and choose
have become a field of erotic images.
If the myth of Pluto
and Persephone is a--or the
archetypal field standing behind pornography, then we
might see different parts of ourself in the different figures
in the myth (we might also recognize a narcissistic feature
in our relationship to pornography as if the images of
pornography are the narcissii we are plucking, that which
is leading to our fall from "unconfined space," that which
is reinforcing a separate sense of self). Thus, a man
surfing the internet for porn is at once a victim of this
process, someone being seduced, and thus, Persephone-
like--but he also stands in the role of the perpetrator,
imaginally raping one woman after another with the
effortless power of a god (Pluto), enjoying these spoils
with the merest flick of his mouse.
Having landed in the
right myth, finally seeing our
dilemma in a mythic context, seeing what lies behind the
image, what has been ruling it-- might make some useful
difference. Here it might free us from the literal--the
profusion of tits and ass--as we begin to reach toward a
deeper, richer, alternative set of imagery. Which to me
seems in the the right direction--for the "problem" in the
first place was a yearning, a hunger, a compulsion for
At the very least,
when someone is feeling overpowered
by a compulsion for porn, it is generally helpful to begin a
process of inquiry: who am I here? Who or what am I
taking myself to be when I go to these images? What is
motivating it? What is this self like? Could there be a
deeper need that the soul is really hungry for--and if so,
what is it?
In this way, any hidden
or unmet mets that have taken
the form of compulsive imaginal activity can begin to be
"fleshed out." And the blind, repetitive stupor of
compulsion can give rise to witnessing--and thus, more
insight into the process, and what is motivating it.
Here, further facets
of inquiry might be: If a
relationship to imaginal images or literature has become
so pronounced, what is this saying about one's flesh and
blood relationships? If turning to erotic images is
compensatory--as is often the case--how is eros limping in
the rest of one's life? And what practical steps might be
taken to get eros on a better, or more embodied footing?
Although there may
be something deeper, something
right about the soul's desire for erotic images,
the form it takes can have a "hidden cost,"
one that can fail to see the goddess in the garbage, one that
can cheapen in some way the beloved, as well as ourselves.
That at times we knowingly allow ourselves to be
cheapened perhaps tells us how hungry we are for a naked
encounter, any encounter with the beloved.
As part of the hidden
cost, there are some other
problems here: With pornography the vulnerability of
desire is not shared with another. In this way a more
authentic self does not socially emerge from its shell, our
passion not shared with the world. In this way
pornography has a flavor of closet narcissism. Instead of
another person and the complications that come with
them, we merge with an image, Eros imprisoned in the
imagination, a throb in our own greasy hand.
All of this can keep
us in the ego's separative realm, a
realm not conducive to sacred events. By and large, a
man surfing the internet for pictures of naked women is
simply offered the male's primitive ideal: an infinite
number of sexual options and (imaginal) sex partners--
with the absolute minimum of commitment. And instead
of depth, or real human intimacy, we are offered variety:
Black and Ebony
With the internet we
can dial in our specific fantasy
from an alphabet of options without having to go on a
date or jump through any real life hoops. Today any
schlub with a computer can log on and enter some portal
of desire, the Pleasure Palace turned into a democracy, as
he enjoys (at least the visual) perks formerly reserved for
sultans with the vastest of harems.
With the internet (until
now, at least) there has been an
almost unparalleled growth in permission, a remarkable
lapse in the prohibitionary impulse, an ongoing affront to
the "Moral Majority," a losing of the skirmish by the
superego. This is id territory--and the more optimistic
side of the American spirit: see anything, have anything,
the world at our finger tips. (And for whatever its
antipathy toward us, the rest of the world is become more
and more Americanized each day). Some genie has
escaped from its bottle, and it is hard to imagine what will
ever induce it to return.
"You Must Change Your Life"
like television, the often eroticized
images of the internet don't usually shift our assemblage
point into a greater intimacy with the beloved. Most often
we are just offered eye candy, a visual lark, a consolation
for the horny, a carte blanche for indulgence, the ego I
(which grasps for pleasure while avoidant of pain) only
And thus there remains
a deeper need in the culture--
and in the soul--for meaningful imaginal experience that
might offer us a gateway to step beyond the monotheism
of ego consciousness, and into a life of greater intimacy--
and not just with our personal beloveds, but with the
beloved as world.
Latin cultures perhaps
were pointing us in this
direction (and away from a "monotheistic," or enclosed,
singular kind of vision) with Carnival, Mardi Gras, and
Saturnalia. These holidays (holy days) spoke to the soul's
need for freedom, for reversals of context, for diversity,
for the soul's capacity--if not need--to try on the vantage
of "the other."
What a wonderful idea
to have the town's fool --or
drunk-- be given the pulpit one Sunday a year.
What lovely liberation in getting to wear a mask, or to have
a whole culture at the appointed time in the year give
itself over to the unlived part of life.
This seems an honoring
of Hermes/Mercury, and of the
mercurial aspect of the soul, the trickster, who is not
bound to conventions. Whereas in our culture we all seem
to take ourselves so seriously almost all of the time, and in
a way that seems to strengthen a fixity in our way of
viewing the self--the ego made more stolid, more solid.
In American culture
our egoic insularity generally only
breaks down when there has been some kind of calamity,
something overwhelming like 9-11, or a "natural disaster"
that leaves us feeling more vulnerably open to "the other."
Otherwise, in our culture this open-ness to the other, and
to the trickster quality in particular, is mostly only
allowed to comedians--or to children, and then only on
one night a year--when they "trick or treat" on Holloween,
and get to step out of their normal personas, and see
through the eyeholes of other possibilities.
So we find ourselves--as
is often the case--with soul-
needs the culture isn't addressing. In this case, the need
to be able to feel our way beyond (or "see through") what
we have become, the self-images we have latched onto,
what we have taken ourselves to be, a bounded self...
But equally important
is the usually untapped potential
to feel or see our way through the images of the other we
have latched onto, what we have taken them to be, that
similarly veils the deeper reality. Here one thinks of the
Sufi mystic and poet Ibn al-Arabi.
In 1201 while circumnabulating
the Kabah, Ibn al-Arabi
had a vision. He had seen a beautiful girl, named Nizam,
surrounded by a heavenly aura, and realized that she was
an emanation of Sophia, the divine Wisdom. His
ephiphany helped him to realize it would be impossible
for us to love God if we relied upon the (philosophical)
intellect--yet we can love God, and the beauty of God that
we see in his (sic) creatures. We cannot see God himself
(sic) but we can see God as he (sic) reveals himself (sic) in
such creatures as Nizam, who inspire us to love. (Forgive
all the "sics," but in the current cultural context if I'm
going to rant on--and on--about pornography and such, I
should at least give the appearance of being politically
correct --whenever I can remember to bring it off).
This way of seeing,
that makes use of the imagination
as a faculty of revelation is theophanic. It is to see
through a literalizing kind of veil that can only see the
other in a limited, physical, or objectifying way. It is to
see the other as a manifestation of diety--which on one
level, all of us are.
The experience of Ibn
al-Arabi was echoed some eighty
years later by another poet--Dante, when he caught a
glimpse of the young Beatrice Portinari. As soon as he
caught sight of her he felt his spirit tremble violently and
seemed to hear it cry: "Behold a god more powerful than I
who comes to rule over me." From that moment on Dante
was ruled and instructed by his love of Beatrice, which
became the image of divine love for Dante, a love which in
The Divine Comedy leads him on an imaginal journey
through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, to a vision of God.
In A History of
God, Karen Armstrong makes the point
that unlike Aristotle, for both Ibn al-Arabi and Dante the
creative imagination can do more than simply conjure
images derived from a perception of the mundane world;
(and just to back-track for a second, is there anything
more mundane than porn?).
For Ibn al-Arabi and
Dante the mode of perception is
such--as with an image that is properly erotic versus
pornographic--that vision opens out to a wider kind of
space; and in their examples, a space in which spirit and
soul seem conjoined. For Ibn al-Arabi and Dante the
imaginitiva thus becomes a faculty of revelation, the
soul's agency of gnosis un-needful of a mediating
If the Underworld is
"where the images of the departed
dwell," to what depth are we taken as we recall the
examples of Dante and Ibn al-Arabi? And what might their
experience(s) have to teach us? How might we free our
imagination from its more "mundane" layers... so that like
Dante and Ibn al-Arabi the imagination becomes capable
of functioning as a faculty of revelation... no longer
blinded by the literal surface of things in a way that veils
Here I would provide
no recipes, no easy answers... for
this last question seems an inquiry one might better hold
and walk with and consult for the rest of one's days. In
fact, when you think about it, the world's great spiritual
traditions are the attempt to answer this question--a
question that brings us to the heart of inner work, and
why we might consider doing some. As individuals,
perhaps we might each take on the question as a kind of
koan held up to the creative imagination itself--and thus
in its own way, allowing it to answer us.
What I can say, and
what I do know (all too well) is that
inevitably we come to a juncture... where our lives, our
sexuality, our way of being in the world, begins to feel
stale and repetitive...
Our lives seem to be
requiring something other,
something new from us. And we feel caught in a not yet
resolved tension between what we are holding onto, and a
sacrifice we have yet to make.
We stand before an
abyss. On one side of it there is
"more of the same." On the other side, a frightening, but
exciting Unknown. Here, the voice of yet another poet--
Rilke--arises from wherever the wisely departed dwell, as
if to guide us...
He had been meditating
upon what the ancient Hebrews
might have considered a "graven image"--in this case, the
now headless torso of a statue of Apollo that Rilke had
often viewed in the Louvre.
Even lacking its head,
and after many many centuries,
in Rilke's poem, "Archaic Torso of Apollo," he finds the
erotic light in its body still glowing like a gas lamp, the
light blinding in the curve of its breast, and in the swerve
of its thighs there's a smile that keeps on going. What a
sensuously happy light this is!
Rilke tells us the
light in this body sees us from every
part of itself, as if this enlightened body is a true standard
to which we are the comparison, as if the light in its torso
is a great mirror such that any part of it can reflect us, and
thus the conclusion--and terrifying challenge-- of his
poem's startling, final line:
You must change your life.
* "grasping for the narcissus"--is the title of the
section in which this
essay/chapter appears in my forthcoming book, 'Takes' on
Persephone, Narcissism, & Other Musings of the Erotic Imagination.
In the myth of Narcissus and Echo, Narcissus becomes so fascinated
by a previously unrecognized dimension or reflection of himself
that in grasping for it (for what he already is) he perishes, and is
turned into the flower that now bears his name.
In the myth of Persephone and Pluto, it is a grasping for a
headed version of this same narcissus flower that initiates
Persephone's descent into the Underworld.
** re: monogamy & the Judeo-Christian tradition: Today
we tend to
look at the practice of polygamy, say when it surfaces in the news
amongst certain Mormons, as if its some kind of deviance or freak-
show. But if the roots of our own (Judeo-Christian )tradition center
around monotheism, this "mono" quality did not (originally)extend
Not many of the early Hebrew spiritual figures can match Solomon
with his 300 wives and 700 concubines. (And parenthetically, who
would need porn if you've got 300 wives and 700 concubines?). But
even when they fall short of Solomon, almost all of the Old
Testament patriarchs--with the exception of Abraham's son Isaac--
had multiple wives or concubines, one of the earliest
"perks" of Patriarchy.
This historical "newsflash" might be one that fundamentalists
won't like to hear. For the historical facts might call into question
fundamentalism's sexually restrictive righteousness, a righteousness
that assumes itself to be the continuing heir of values and practices
from the Biblical past. (Were it not for the shame-felt exposure of
his hypocrisy, perhaps Jimmy Swaggert's episode with the prostitute
places him as a continuing heir of the Biblical past).
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