Thursday, 15 April 2010

A personal history (first part of many)

This isn't going to be a very sexy post even though at some level it is about sex.
I've been thinking a lot lately about links between personal and sexual identity, and political and theoretical accounts of sex. I've been prompted to do this because as a writer, I'm trying to get a clearer view of where I'm coming from in my writing and the kinds of ideas that inform my writing. Many of these are not in and of themselves about sex or 'the erotic', but they inform the way I understand what sexuality and eroticism is.
We all, I guess, are influenced in our world view by a range of things we've read, seen or experienced over the course of our lives and I started trying to identify what, from my own biography, has been most influential in terms of my own perspective.
It turns out to be a real mix, and not the kinds of things I might have expected. There are academic books, human rights concerns, mainstream fiction, erotic fiction, some fairly edgy films, some experimental/arthouse films, some bits of paganism (which I came into contact with only in the last five years or so) and no doubt a bunch of other things I'll remember as I write this.
What follows isn't a complete list of influences. I haven't for example, included the comic book porn I discovered in a second-hand bookshop when I was about 14 – though I can still remember the cover, which involved a Nazi officer, Gestapo or SS or some such, whipping a woman tied and suspended spreadeagled with her clothes reduced to a few strategic rags. That was probably the first time I realised the stuff going on in my head went on in other people's heads too. Which I guess is also an admission that I'd probably had fantasies involving bsdm since the age of - well, I don't really know, but probably even earlier than primary school. While finding the comic (which I didn't buy and have never seen since) was an eye-opener and a bit of a head trip, it wasn't something that informed my values or principles and that's what this piece is about.
As a warning, this is going to end up being quite a long 'memoir' over a series of posts. And I've started with the dryer stuff, some of the academic influences.

Yes, I was a precocious teenager and yes, I had read Sartre's Being and Nothingness by the time I was 15. Existentialism asserts that there is no intrinsic or hidden meaning in the world around us, and we have to create this meaning for ourselves. As a baseline position that's fine, though of course all of us grow up in a world where things are 'explained' to us and we are inducted into sets of moral values, ways of defining situations and even the language and terms with which we understand the world. This comes to us from the weight of cultural history communicated by parents, school, etc. But it alerts us to the idea that things could be otherwise than we are currently being persuaded to see and define and value them. The most precious asset any of us has is the ability to think for ourselves. That might not be very sexy in itself but for me it meant my ideas about sex were as good as anyone else's, and I shouldn't accept anyone else's moral codes on trust.

Freud, Marx and psychoanalysis – the Frankfurt School and others
The Frankfurt School of philosophy was basically a bunch of social philosophers with interests in Marxism and Freudianism who worked out of the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt in the 1920s and 1930s. Mostly, they reacted to the rise of Nazism by getting the hell out of Germany while they could, in the mid/late 1930s, because by background (some had Jewish associations) and political views they were pretty much sitting targets for the Nazis.
Principally I encountered Herbert Marcuse (indeed even went to one of his lectures in the UK many, many years ago – which dates me as well, Iguess). His Eros and Civilization (1955) is a vision of a non-repressive society. Marcuse sees capitalism (though in hindsight, one could make the same argument for almost all political systems) as seeking to repress our instincts.
At one level socialisation and taming of the Id is necessary – a society in which instinctual violence is a routine way of solving problems would not be a clever direction to follow. Yet to what extent is sexual regulation necessary?
Briefly, nonconsensual sex is problematic and does need some level of regulation. Yet respect for individual choices in terms of sexual freedom – by which we're largely talking about multiple relationships, polamory, bdsm and other fetishistic sexual practices, and full acceptance of gay/lesbian/bi sexual identities and practices – is a way to liberate creativity and authenticity in life experience.
There's a balancing act here. On the one hand, as Freud claimed, 'Our civilization is, generally speaking, founded on the suppression of instincts.' Sexual energy is channelled into creating political and economic systems. On the other hand, releasing sexual energy into sexual channels is one of the key ways individuals are able to develop their own identities.
I wouldn't propose this without a number of important qualifications. Many of the key artistic and literary works in our history were, actually, produced in periods of political repression and are to some extent the product of repression (and the need to find ways to critique repression). Many more were produced by individuals whose own sexuality was fucked up, and to some extent express their fucked-upness for our understanding, interpretation and education. I'm thinking, for example, of Richard Burton and TE Lawrence. But the general theme and questions seem to me to be as relevant as they were when I first read Marcuse's work.
There were others who were never part of the School but whose ideas nonetheless ran somewhat in the same channels. Wilhelm Reich was one. He was a strange bunny, initially a psychoanalyst who had worked with Freud. He moved to Denmark, then Sweden, then Norway to escape the Nazis (Jewish background again, and communist until he was thrown out for being too radical). He even had to leave Denmark for Sweden because he ran into trouble for 'corrupting' Danish youth his his 'German sexology'. He settled in the US in 1939 – where again he had occasional brushes with law enforcement and at the end of his life was imprisoned, sadly because one of his assistants had violated New York state laws relating to the alleged health benefits of his 'orgone accumulators'. He died in prison in 1957.
To be sure, he lived in difficult times and living inside his skull must have been a difficult and tortured existence. I'll start by dismissing all the orgone therapy and bion stuff out of hand. In his later life, let's say by the 1940s, he was very likely quite mentally ill. What principally interested me were his earlier publications, The Mass Psychology of Fascism for example. It seemed to me when I first read it, and seems to me still, that authoritarian rule survives on a fiction – that a 'strong' state and 'tough' laws (including on sexual relations) can create social stability, which many people are prepared to sacrifice personal freedom for.
Bottom line on all this: there's a message in here about understanding and appreciating the role of instability, and about how trying to follow any rules other than your own conscience is not only self-limiting but self-defeating. I guess in my mind this gells with the stuff I read on existentialism and to some extent forwards to ideas about paganism. There's also a recognition that there are links between our sexual life at an individual level and the mass structures of politics and economics - even if the precise nature of these may not always be clear. At one level. of course, they can be traced to very clear concerns about legitimacy and inheritance but I'll deal with this in a later post. For now, what I want to stress is the insight that mass social structures are often based on psychological and sexual repression, but it's unclear what benefits flow to individuals from the current 'balance' between repression and tolerance.
Incidentally, Reich's personal papers and unpublished manuscripts were, in accordance with his will, kept private for 50 years after his death and thus became publicly available in 2007 – so it may now be time to revisit his work.

Carl Jung
While we're on the subject of social psychology and psychoanalysis, at one point I was also interested in Carl Jung. No, I haven't read all 19 volumes of his collected works. But the bits I have read and understand seem to me to be sensible, in particular the general assertion that repressed/unconscious material is not necessarily sexual in orientation (which doesn't mean none of it is sexual, of course); that in order to understand the archetypes that are the stories we tell ourselves about our world and ourselves, and the complexes that motivate us, we need to maintain a creative dialogue with our unconscious through (among other things) interrogating our dreams, and questioning the assumptions of dominant norms and worldviews. Shutting ourselves off from these things results in a life that is also shut off from human meaning.
Jung's study of symbolism is something I'll come back to in later posts.

Mix'n'match academia!
I'm sure the idea of mix'n'match Sartre, Marx, Freud, Jung, Marcuse and Reich will be anathema to some, and it's hardly a basis for a clear and consistent theoretical perspective on life, the universe and everything. But all this stuff does point to a couple of broad principles. Firstly, meaning in life is never pre-given; we have to construct it and think for ourselves about what we're doing and why. And secondly, there is something about mass society that seeks to channel and constrain sexual energy and libido in very repressive ways. Some of this control is necessary for society to exist at all, and yet much of it is unhealthy at an individual level. It may not stultify creativity; in some instances it might even stimulate it, since creativity is that kind of creature – but often creative production under such circumstances comes at very great individual cost. And in general, a freer and more tolerant society, one in which wider forms of sexual expression are possible without repression, is going to be much more fulfilling and healthy for the individuals who make up society.
This blog is to some extent a 'work in progress' and I'll put up more stuff in the future covering, among other things, more academic material (postmodernism for example), plus literature, film, music, paganism and maybe even comedy.
As always, I'm interested to debate points I've made here and learn from what kinds of influences others can trace in their own lives. So comments are always welcome...

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