An Englishman never quite gets over the embarrassment of having a body. There he is, a perfectly respectable, civilised head, required to hug and be kissed by relatives, to dance (randomly jerking arms and legs to music), and even to make love (whatever love is!).
The predicament is captured to perfection in the film, ‘The Painted Veil’ (2006), when newly-wed, pyjama-wearing scientist, Walter Fane, insists on parking his slippers and dousing the light before joining the sensuous and beautiful Kitty Fane in bed for the first time. It seems English sexuality will forever be associated with the chilling elastic slap of Y-fronts.
Being half-Swedish, I’ve always tried to distance myself from such horrors. At around eleven-years-old, I was alerted to my own sexuality by the innocent act of drying myself with a bath towel. The comical little appendage which, up to that point, I’d hardly noticed, began sending electric, fluorescent messages of unknown significance. Sometime later, I found myself plunged over a completely unexpected tipping point, my body fizzing with energy that surged and retreated, and then blasted me into orbit.
This was made all the more amazing by the fact that I had absolutely no idea what was going on. I knew only that I had slipped the surly bonds of earth and was floating high among celestial orbs. (By the way, this was my first real experience of meditation. To be honest, I was anyway not much in my head, aged eleven, but this naturally caused me to place full attention in the body: for a few moments, overwhelmed by the experience, my mind became completely silent. Much of what we consider sexual pleasure actually arises out of the meditative state facilitated by sexuality. It is quite a surprise to experience the surge of ecstasy felt at the beginning of orgasm just by meditating on a sofa. Likewise, the achingly sweet sadness, minus the anxiety, associated with falling in love.)
Already, at the age of nine or ten (perhaps much earlier), I had fallen completely in love with all things feminine and female. I could conceive of no greater happiness, no higher meaning, than to float around this strange new space with a real, live girl. Alas, from eleven to sixteen, I was marooned on the lonely planet of single-sex schooling: potential Barbarellas were glimpsed briefly, longingly, on buses, in streets, but were mostly out of reach. Thus, the three great human rights abuses of my education:
– a grey uniform and grey, fossilised ‘knowledge’ imposed on exploding, multi-coloured young humans powerless to defend ourselves.
– a uniform orientation to life – competitive, ultra-serious ambition – tarmacked and steam-rollered over beings that love to live life as a form of play here and now, as exemplified by a cosmos of 200 billion galaxies each containing 200 billion stars which, after 13.6 billion years, appear no closer to achieving any kind of ‘purpose’ or ‘goal’. It is quite clear that the cosmos is circular in all key respects – the whole point and fun of a circle is that it is going nowhere; it is simply now, here.
– same-sex education as part of a deliberate attempt to block a blossoming sexuality deemed a threat to all-important ‘achievement’: ‘Pay attention, boy!’
The thrill of sexual awakening must have been accompanied by guilt because I remember my relief on hearing a radio discussion in which someone said it was ‘quite normal’ for thirteen-year-olds to engage in this activity. My eleven-year-old mind interpreted this as signifying that it was abnormal for anyone over the age of thirteen to do such a thing. I promised myself I’d stop in two years!
The guilt is hardly surprising. The idea that the mind is pure but the body ‘fallen’ (pretty much a reversal of the truth) – that sex is ‘dirty’, ‘shameful’, something Media Lens editors have absolutely no business writing about – is as erroneous as it is deeply rooted. To supply just two indicative examples from my own experience, the Guardian’s former associate editor and political editor, Michael White, tweeted us at Media Lens:
‘Yet again, the Two Lens demonstrate that they are away with the fairies, happily playing with themselves on Planet Chomsky.’
Ed Vulliamy, a writer at the Guardian and Observer, sent us this thoughtful assessment of our work:
‘I’d rather be a rat in the gutter than a wanker with fuck all experience of anything stuck behind a computer blathering on’
Both comments illustrate how the wondrous, innocent, completely natural, in fact unavoidable, experience I had as a child is reflexively alchemised into something shameful and disgusting, an insult.
Society has evolved over thousands of years to manipulate and dominate us, not just through fists and guns but, far more efficiently, by turning us against ourselves. As Thoreau wrote of US slavery:
‘It is hard to have a Southern overseer; it is worse to have a Northern one; but worst of all when you are the slave-driver of yourself.’ (Thoreau, ‘Walden’, Penguin, 1983, p.49)
The ‘fall of man’, ‘original sin’, the idea of sex as ‘filth’, are strategies to ensure we turn to fake religious authorities for absolution from manufactured guilt. Because sexual urges intensify as they are blocked, demonised and repressed, we can be manipulated endlessly, in fact increasingly, because the harder we try and fail to suppress our desires the more guilt-ridden and dependent we become.
Our society has trained us to view our bodies, our sexuality, with disgust; to feel deeply ashamed of our own natural instincts. How convenient for a system that forces us to defy these instincts at every turn: to sit in darkened classrooms, in the first flush of youth, as spring blooms outside; to slog away in darkened exam halls in summer; to suffocate in corporate offices for years and decades serving a corporate machine waging war on nature that can only end in our own defeat.
While it is all but impossible to zap through TV channels without seeing someone being shot in the head – with the most extreme forms of sadistic killing and torture as standard – images showing the female nipple have actually been banned by Facebook and Instagram. Human nakedness and lovemaking are conspicuously not ‘mainstream’. They are relegated to the loveless underworld of the gargantuan global porn industry, where millions of precious female bodies are fodder for the domineering male ego, where tenderness is as taboo to porn culture as sex is to ‘mainstream’ culture, where users are slathered in yet more layers of guilt.
Above, like ‘Seinfeld’ in the marvellous episode, ‘The Contest’, I have deliberately avoided using everyday terms to describe sexual body parts and acts because they have almost all been transformed into terms of abuse that cannot be mentioned without triggering negative connotations and sneers. Like the V-sign and middle finger, the ‘harshest’ words in our language all relate to the ‘disgusting’ body, bodily functions and, above all, sexuality.
What on earth does sex-as-sin have to do with religion, or with any sane worldview? What sense does it make to imagine the force of attraction that propels the wondrous explosion of life in all its miraculous forms as something a Cosmic Creator would revile? Are we to believe that some crusty old figure on high beholds this world blazing with life He created only to shake His head in disdain at a teenage boy utterly captivated by the beauty of a girl passing him in the street? Does He look with grim disapproval at a bee buzzing around a rose? Such idiocy belongs, of course, not to any God, but to the mind of man.
Brain In A Jar – The Break Out!
In 2015, Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! interviewed Noam Chomsky on the happy event of his remarrying at the ripe age of 86. This was a fascinating, because rare, example of a leading figure on the left actually being asked to say something about love.
Specifically, Chomsky was asked why he had said that ‘life without love is empty’. As readers will know, Chomsky never fails to surprise his questioners with some startling insight or obscure fact, some hidden dimension exposing false assumptions in the question. His response on this occasion was shocking for the fact that he had nothing at all to add:
‘Well, I could produce some clichés which have the merit of being true – a life without love is a pretty empty affair. It’s a…’
It wasn’t that Chomsky had been interrupted, his voice simply trailed away as if he didn’t know what to say. He had already indicated his lack of enthusiasm for this line of questioning when he commented: ‘I have always been a very private person.’
But the issue of love, the emptiness of a life without love, is about far more than private romance. In fact, it is a huge and crucial subject about which Chomsky has never had anything to say. And he is not alone. I’m focusing on this tiny exchange because he is our most influential dissident, but also because I’m not aware of any other contemporary, high-profile leftist ever having discussed the issue.
By contrast, the brilliant activist and psychotherapist Erich Fromm cut a lonely figure on the left in the 1970s, when he wrote:
‘I believe that love is the main key to open the doors to the “growth” of man. Love and union with someone or something outside of oneself, union that allows one to put oneself into relationship with others, to feel one with others, without limiting the sense of integrity and independence…
‘I believe that the experience of love is the most human and humanising act that is given to man to enjoy and that it, like reason, makes no sense if conceived in a partial way.’ (Fromm, ‘On Being Human,’ Continuum, 1997, pp.101-2)
But this just scratches the surface. First of all, what is love? How does love as romantic attachment – the impassioned need for another – relate to love as an urge to share with and care for others? And what is the relationship between love and reason? While we know that romantic attachment inhibits reason (‘love is blind’), compassionate love appears to neutralise this filtering effect of desire – a journalist who genuinely cares about the suffering of the Iraqi people will discuss the death toll from the 2003 invasion in a very different way from a journalist who prioritises career security. So, if desire filters and distorts reason, and if compassion dissolves these filters, what is the relationship between these individual filters and Herman and Chomsky’s ‘propaganda model’ describing how truth is removed from society by systemic political, economic and cultural filters?
And what about the problem of love and ego? When we help others, we place ourselves in a position of superiority over them. Our ego is bolstered by the awareness that we are lending sympathy and support; it feeds on the awareness that, ‘I have the wealth, strength and knowledge that they need and do not have.’ We may not be beautiful, wealthy and powerful, but if we are unusually ‘good’, ‘caring’ and ‘altruistic’, our egos can still feel far superior to people acting out of merely ‘selfish’ motivations. This is why people often surprise us by responding angrily to offers of help – they may feel humiliated, patronised, by our presumption that we know better (a pain intensified when the helper is a child advising an ageing parent, for example). It’s sometimes even difficult for people to read a book recommended by others for this reason. And, of course, supporting people can harm them, can make them dependent and weak – our ego might actually be engorging itself at their expense.
And what about the relationship between love and the craving for attention that is such a central feature of the ego? In my experience, many of the noisy people ostensibly trying ‘to make the world a better place’ are actually seeking attention, an alternative route to status and fame, a way of boosting their egos. Nothing is less reliable than the claim that individuals achieving high public profiles are working for the benefit of others.
So why don’t left dissidents talk about these issues? Why don’t they talk about love and sex? Why don’t they talk about desire, about human emotions in general (other than anger and ‘concern for others’)?
A key reason is that they reject discussion of ‘personal issues’ as a distraction from the effort to generate political change through raised awareness of state-corporate deceptions, injustices and crimes. All personal talk – even about personal experiences that would be of immense value to activists treading a similar path – is rejected as ‘self-indulgence’ and that old favourite ‘navel-gazing’. This is tied into an ethic of self-negation and self-sacrifice – we are to give our time, energy and strength to help others. This is viewed as a counter to the ‘mainstream’, ‘me-first’ culture promoting self-indulgence and political indifference.
It is certainly true that ‘mainstream’ culture works hard to keep us focused on trivial personal issues – celebrity scandals, makeovers, fashion – and away from dangerous political awareness. But the effort to understand emotional phenomena is anything but trivial. On the contrary, it is key to the task of becoming a mature, critical-thinking human being.
To reiterate, it is precisely by training us to not take our feelings seriously that we are made to subordinate these feelings to activities we instinctively hate: ‘religious’ self-repression, youth-crushing state education, soul-crushing corporate conformity, the obscenity of killing and being killed in the name of patriotic ‘duty’.
If we have no ability to feel, understand and respect our most intense feelings, if we have developed a fierce ability to override them, we have lost our capacity for emotional and intellectual self-defence. If what I feel doesn’t matter, than I will become a victim of what I have been relentlessly trained to think by people who are not actually working in my best interests.
Fromm described how modern man is trained to develop a ‘marketing character’. These are people who view themselves as personality packages to be bought and sold on the job market, as cogs that should fit smoothly into the corporate machine. Fromm noted that strong emotions like love and hate ‘do not fit into a character structure that functions almost entirely on the cerebral level and avoids feelings, whether good or evil ones, because they interfere with the marketing character’s main purpose: selling and exchanging’. (Fromm, ‘To Have Or To Be,’ Abacus, 1978, p.147)
‘they do not care, in any deep sense of the word, not because they are so selfish but because their relations to others and to themselves are so thin. This may also explain why they are not concerned with the dangers of nuclear and ecological catastrophes, even though they know all the data that points to these dangers’. (My emphasis)
In other words, the problem is not, as many leftists imagine, that we are trained to selfishness; rather, we are trained to self-indifference, self-negation, a relationship to our feelings that is ‘so thin’.
It is a terrible irony that the head-trapped leftist approach also ‘functions almost entirely on the cerebral level and avoids feelings’, that it is similarly focused on persuading us to view our most powerful natural impulses as trivial, self-indulgent, a distraction from what really matters.
No child feels happy being force-fed nonsense about the six wives of Henry VIII; none feels comfortable trying to best his or her classmates in exams – suffering the painful swelling of ego in ‘success’, the searing bitterness of ‘failure’; none feels at peace as an ‘educational’ campaign is waged to destroy his or her love of relaxing playfully in the present moment. These are deeply-felt agonies and the whole point of early education and work is to train us to override our resistance, our rebellion; to accept our pain of conformity as ‘normal’, ‘the price we have to pay’; to brutalise ourselves in the name of ‘pragmatism’ and ‘success’.
Any young person who was taught to respect and follow his or her deepest feelings would not be the least bit interested in going off to kill and die for ‘the Motherland’, the ‘Fatherland’, or any other wretched phantom state relative.
That, of course, is why such self-respect is discouraged and limited. It is also why these issues should be a key topic for anyone interested in making our society a saner place.
Consider that the BBC reported in November on a ‘global epidemic’ of inactivity in children aged 11 to 17. The causes include this:
‘Young people in this age group are very encouraged to work hard, to study for exams. Often for very long periods of the day, they’re sitting in school doing homework and then they’re not getting these opportunities to be more active.’
This hard work studying for exams is a relentless training programme forcing youngsters to defy their emotions, to become unfeeling and head-trapped, like Walter Fane in ‘The Painted Veil’. One notable victim of this training, Charles Darwin, wrote with rare honesty in his autobiography:
‘My mind has changed during the last twenty or thirty years… Now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry… I have also almost lost any taste for pictures or music… My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts…’ (‘The Autobiography of Charles Darwin’, 1809-1882, public domain e-book, pp.138-139)
The truth is that political radicals reject issues related to feeling, not just because they believe it’s an ‘indulgence’, but because, like Darwin, they are themselves head-trapped intellectuals who have similarly lost a taste for feeling, for all discussion of feeling.
It couldn’t be clearer from my own experience that when I work intensively on political writing and social media (with Twitter my main focus) – analysing the latest corporate propaganda, challenging journalists – my heart also becomes cold and hard; talk of ‘feelings’ comes to seem irrelevant and embarrassing to me, too. As Somerset Maugham wrote:
‘Sentimentality is only sentiment that rubs you up the wrong way.’ (Maugham, ‘A Writer’s Notebook’, Penguin, 1993, p.291)
When we think too much, feeling as such rubs us up the wrong way! We hate even to be touched. Away from the Colosseum of political debate, it seems equally absurd to me, in fact inhuman, to live as a flinty brain in a jar with an ice-cold warrior heart (you’ll have noticed just what a cold, hostile place Twitter is!). Intense thinking is not neutral, it cuts us off from warm human emotions, from a recognition of their crucial importance.
A world where feelings are not felt, understood and respected, is a world where unfeeling adults are easy meat, suckers for the crude stimulation and exploitation of agonising, bottled up desires, fears and guilt they are powerless to digest.
The theory is that head-trapped leftists might one day end up creating a peaceful, just world out of head-trapped, but rational, people who have little or no ability to understand and respect their feelings.
But in reality, this is not possible: to be addicted, repressed and guilt-ridden is to be at war with oneself, with the rest of nature and with everyone us. Political activists have no option but to learn to discuss and deal with the issue of desire. The ‘private’ is, quite obviously, political.
Part 2 is available here.
David Edwards is co-editor of www.medialens.org