Thursday, 10 October 2013

Imagination, and the poetry of sexuality

The biggest single factor in sexuality, the engine of sexuality, is the imagination.

It is through our imagination that we get turned on. Someone is sexy to us because they appeal in sme way to the latet desires of the subconscious, they tap into something within us that can only be accessed through the imagination.

What is the imagination? It is the ability to creatively generate new ideas, new conceptions of reality and ourselves, to conceive of previously non-existent possibilities. Desire is the power that drives the imagination - the fusion of our most basic needs with the need to change and adapt and evolve. The tension between conserving our energies to survive, and the compulsion to keep moving and keep adapting. Out of this friction comes the imagination, the muscle that takes from the old to build something new. It conserves identity, and at the same time forges new expressions of it.

In the case of sexuality, this can be understood as the tension between biolgical imperative and also the need to explore issues of personal power, identity, relationship, and the boundaries of the self. In all things there is a desire for human trancendence. The mind seeks always to test its limits, to transcend itself and the boundaries of its own self-conception.

Desire, or Eros, is more than just the physical act of a sexual encounter. There would be no sexual act without Eros, the kernal of desire awakened in the human mind, and which seeks to manifest itself. It as a will to power, a desire to manifest our agency as something which has an impact on the world.

Why? Well, to put it in vaguely evolutionary terms (so shoot me) there is a value in this agency. It s important that we at least act like we have agency, that we are more than a just a collection of reactive impulses.

In no other arena than human sexuality is this tension and convergence more stark. We have impulses tha pre-conscious, biological needs that we experience as bigger than ourselves. The need to procreate is much bigger than any one human individual's desire. At the same time, the need to assert individual power is hugely powerful in evolutionary terms. The self-consciusness involved in decision making and planning and adapting to uknown environments is what defines the human being's evolutionary adavantage.

The convergence of these seemingly competing needs, the convergence of instinct and agency, is where the imagination becmes a hugely powerful tool in itself. We are able to negotiate change, while maintaining a functional and integral sense of identity, only within the scope of the imagination. Faced with hostility and dramatic change, the imagination allows us to transcend the limits of our instincts and perceptions and to envision new possibilities, abandon what doesn't serve us and adapt to what does.

John Stuart Mill famously distinguished between higher and lower kinds of happiness. There is the happiness of basic instinct, the fulfillment of animal desires. And then there are hgher forms of happiness which manifest themselves in ideals and political change, in artistic expression and the accumulation of knowledge. I suppose you could call it the happiness that emerges out of a sense of transcending limitations.

This disitnction from Mill corresponds to the two aspects of Eros we have have been talking about. Basic need fulfilment and the impulse to self-transcendence. It seems Mill is mistaken however, in thinking that these two kinds of impulse are competing. There is a tension, undeniably, but the tension itself forms an important and necessary evolutionary function. What defines the human being is the ability to negotiate these two desires, these two shades of one's nature. But in reality, the needs to feed ourselves and procreate, are not any different from the needs to transcend the limits of our perceptions. They both serve to keep us alive.

It's important to distinguish what is being referred to here as an 'evolutionary impulse' from any debate and controversy surrounding the technical meaning of 'evolution' in science. Like quantum science, it is all too easy for public debate to co-opt technical theories as for what Noam Chomsky disparagingly calls 'theory'. What he means is dialogue that does not correspond to phenomena that can be tested. Dialogues like the one you are reading here, beloved reader, are probably exactly the thing Sir Noam detests. The only test of these kinds of dialogue are whether or not they resonate with the truth of one's experience. When Hamlet utters '..the proud man's contumely..' it clings to our minds not becaue we can test its veracity scientifically, or ineed through any method. Rather, because it enters into our subconscious and the gracefulness of the words create a foundaton of truth.

So when it comes to a word like 'evolution', it is used here more as a cacth-all, semi-poetic reference to what can broadly be called 'life-force.' That impulse or set of impulses that makes us want to stay alive, that ensures our survival. What 'evolutionary' means in this context, is just the principle of survival, the core drives in human experience that ensure we put a priority on continuing to live, rather than actively courting our own destruction.

Eros then, could be said to be the combined tension between animal drives, and the emergent drives of human self-consciousness. It is wrong to say they are competing in the sense of there being this violent struggle between the two. It's more accurate to say that there is a 'necessary turmoil' between these strands of human survival.

In the imagination, we are able to negotiate this tension. Human happiness no longer needs to be carved through the middle into 'higher' and 'lower' drives. Neither do we need to view our impulses as morally good or morally bad. All that needs to be known is that survival, and the means by which we survive - our desires- are complex and beyond simple mathematical solutions.

Only in the imagination, through the constant generating of new and ever more subtle possibilities, can the tensions of the human heart be understood and acted upon.

So where does all this fit into sexual experience? Well, as has been said, the tensions we are talking about, the frictions between basic needs and needs of self-transcendence are the starkest they can be in human sexuality. That's why love poetry and romantic stories contnue to seduce us. They go right to root of our existential tensions and conflicts.

For love to exist in the realm of basic desires we need to be willing to adapt. Love and sexuality are somtimes thought to be one and the same thing. Others think our problems come from a conflation of the two. One thing is certain - creating intellectual distinctions doesn't make this particular human puzzle any easier to solve.

In sexuality there are the attractions of our basic needs, and the attrations of our need to self-transcend. When the two meet, the attraction is particularly disorientating. The convegence of needs manifets itself, and there is no escaping it. One way or another we have to act on it. The basic desire to procreate, and the equally powerful desire to transcend those needs leave us with an exquisite tension. This is why we look to stories and movies and poems to reaffirm our agency, to leave us with a simplification of the experience. It's overwhelming.

But when the imagination is fully commanded, when the imagination is understood and not feared, when the imagination is treated as a functional and powerful tool in the process of human survival, these overwhelming tensions needn't leave us with any existential hopelessness.

The reason that they do leave us in this way, is because or culture does not value the imagination. The imginative muscle is seen as something that needs satiating at best, that is neutralised with simplistic affirmations of unrealistic need fulfillment. The homogeous nature of western culture proves this to be true. Our limiting and severely abusive dictates aound female beauty are perfect examples of the principle of Eros having been castrated. The imagination becomes saturated and bombarded with infantile and mindless messages and images. All of us know them to be inane, but the resources by which they are disseminated are so powerful and so pervasive, that it doesn't matter what an one individual feels or thinks. Their own capacity for reason is drowned out.

Equally as restrictive and insidious as the limits placed on female beauty, are the limits placed on what consitutes masculinity. As if masculinity could and should only be a set of simple and easily identitified virtues.

When the imagination is castrated in this way, sexuality becomes violent. We feel powerless in the face of our own needs and the imperatives of our desires. Our sense of agency is robbed from us, because the creative and poetic impulse has ben extracted from our sexual experiences.

This violent sense of powrlessness manifests itself in either puritnism, or aggressive exploitation. Because they come from the same root, the castration of the human imagination, a preciousness about sexuality, and the tendency towards rape are really just aspects of the same trauma. The loss of agency through the basterdisation of our imagination.

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