I am patient when it comes to the non-presence of bodies. Maybe that is because there is more interest and beauty in the fragmentary. Certainly a kind of mystery arises when you are constrained in some manner; forced to puzzle out flesh and blood where there is none, feel your way around a mind. There is an unexplainable satisfaction when finally presented with that body—you get to compare what is before you with what you have created for yourself. But all that is insignificant next to feeling for that first time, eyes locked on each other; the shock of everything coming together: voice, body, thoughts, touch, taste—all the senses overwhelmed by new and pleasurable forms of communication.
Hunger is so closely connected with communication because it is a language of its own. To overload the visual in the beginning seems almost counterproductive in getting to know a person. Like devouring a meal without using any sense but taste, we are soon satiated but not in any meaningful way. If blindfolded at a feast, I would be forced to smell, touch, and taste cautiously, exploring each item put before me—a pre-experience almost more gratifying than consummation, the focus that comes with constraint. How else could I learn what my appetite was only indifferent to as opposed to what I was ravenous for?
When I have been hungry with no body to feed on immediately, my pleasure grows in learning every aspect shown and not shown, reading not just words but diving between them; a game where we hide the treasures of ourselves deep beneath the waves of sentences. Sometimes we learn about each other through others’ words and images: I once communicated with someone in emails that were nothing but Shakespeare’s sonnets. A few lines would appear, then the other person would respond with more from other sonnets, writing letters with words not their own, but still communicating everything they wished within them. We grew so hungry speaking in this way—restrained but overflowing—that I requested, and he sent me mute desires, explicit images cut from magazines; a kind of puzzle I would decipher on the phone to him after their receipt. But we had never laid eyes on each other, only feeling each other’s wishes and thoughts via those words and pictures. A few months later we met; we knew each other immediately from our descriptions and embraced, overcome by the thrill of lips pressed against each other, tasting desire that was as genuine as what had come before.
The shock of everything coming together: voice, body, thoughts, touch, taste—all the senses overwhelmed by new and pleasurable forms of communication.
There is a truth that is present when both trust their hungers; it requires the most intense honesty to desire instinctively and not be swayed by lack of regular sight, to put one foot in front of the other in the dark knowing there is a solid step, then another as you make your way. Perhaps we still wear masks like this, but I have found that these are the truest there are; the person that exists underneath is sometimes held back by the noise and complexities of face-to-face life. We forget that our true self is also a mask, one that we are often the most afraid to wear. ‘… [E]verything is a mask that is not death.’ Cioran knew, didn’t he? This fan of faces, masks, that we hold in front of ourselves like a line of defense and denial.
‘When otherness is stripped from the Other, one cannot love—one can only consume. To this extent, the Other is no longer a person; instead, he or she has been fragmented into sexual part-objects. There is no such thing as a sexual personality.’ So says Byung-Chul Han in The Agony of Eros. It is the otherness I desire, but only recognise that in fragments; for after all is there such a thing as a whole—the person unbroken, finished? Whatever else a person—personality—is, its component fragments must share in each other. An Other as a whole fills me with fear: unchangeable in every aspect, immovable in its perception of self and anyone else. I do not like smooth lines but jagged ones, to cut myself on and bleed in as they may cut themselves and bleed out. Consumption as symbiosis; otherness as interchangeable parts, genders—synaptic. There may not be a sexual personality, but all personality is sexual, if we define that as intimate, and intimate as a recognition of the need for contact outside the self. Even the rejection of it is a kind of intimacy, knowing that one’s needs are best fulfilled by the touch of their inner world.
I was 10 or 11 the first time I attempted to write my fantasies. The force of what I imagined on paper surprises me now—I had something in my head that I couldn’t possibly have understood, desire-wise, in the way an adult does. It must have been my mind creating something out of the images I’d seen before—stolen glimpses in those vintage magazines. If I had seen a woman pleasuring herself, another with a man, two women with one man, why not two men and one woman? But I also knew I hadn’t seen that particular combination before and that I was assembling a fantasy in the way years before, I would have assembled a house or tower out of Lego; the principle was the same, only the materials were different. It was only a few lines—a paragraph at most, complete with illustration—of being fucked while sucking another man’s cock. I was of course the woman, but at the same time detached from the idea of complete womanhood, so I could only think of myself as an abstract, aroused idea. Not the woman actually giving and receiving pleasure, but neither a child—the freedom to be when there is no pressure or exploitation to be someone else’s fantasy. I remember writing ‘joy’, and now I think it must have been the closest word I knew to ecstasy, which I wasn’t yet aware of as a concept or understood enough to use.
I wrote that fantasy because it came into my mind, and I was aroused. Why I chose to write it rather than imagine it while I used a wave-polished curved stone to pleasure myself—a perhaps natural precursor to fingers, lips, cock—is unknown to me. But after writing it, I pushed it into a bedside drawer messy with other papers, forgotten until the day my father came up to my bedroom and said he wanted to talk to me. My mother had found it while cleaning out the drawer, and it alarmed her. I had never expressed my quietly growing desires in the way that children sometimes do, blurting out awkward questions about sex—not awkward to them, but to the parents who understand the act and its various forms, who then must try to explain it in a matter-of-fact manner.
He sat on the bed opposite mine—my sister and I shared a room for a while—and proceeded not to question why I wrote it, or how I came to have such adult desires in my head, but say instead that he thought I could write, and perhaps I should just think of my mother if I did something like that again and not leave such things to be so easily found. That was it. I wasn’t punished, reprimanded, told what I was doing wasn’t acceptable, or asked what was wrong with me. Sex was not an issue—the writing of it or the imagining. Looking back, I think it must have jolted him, to see something like that; that early—if at all. Whatever he thought, he allowed me to believe there was nothing wrong, only that in mentioning my mother, that it might not be something everyone would understand—or want to see, if they did. But I didn’t interpret that as something I should feel ashamed of, then or now; it was more the realisation of the private, individual nature of sexual fantasy.
Later I would come to understand that for some, fantasy is weighted with shame, whether it is someone else’s or yours. Each person has their own perspective of that stigma. But to me, even though I understood someone’s reasons for thinking something sexual—in an un-consecrated sense—was shameful, with others I couldn’t understand how they reconciled that part of themselves with the hypocrisy of seeking out the very thing they condemned. The conflict within yourself must be immense when you wish or think yourself to be of a standard which, for lack of a better word, is considered clean or pure, only to soil yourself with its antithesis. It makes me think of propre—in the glossary of Hélène Cixous’ The Newly Born Woman, the translator Betsy Wing explains her translation of this as Selfsame, ownself:
‘It [propre] also means “proper”, “appropriate”, and “clean” … [s]ince woman must care for bodily needs and instill the cultural values of cleanliness and propriety, she is deeply involved in what is propre, yet she is always somehow suspect, never quite propre herself’.
The ideas of cleanliness and sexuality, the impurity of fantasy. It seems impossible to me, the concept of repressing a sexual way of being, instinct, or curiosity because it is believed to make you a superior—propre—being. But it is all around us, and so we are bombarded in one form or another with new ways of telling us we are not normal.
It has always seemed to me that there is a perspective that views sexual desire—more than any other—and its implications as the constant struggle for control over a better self, and the increasing self-perceived duty of some men to exercise that control. Maybe this is due to roots in the concept of original sin, although that was not a sex act. But temptation and knowledge, the supposed new realisation of the shame that is the result of giving in to the former in order to satisfy the curiosity of the latter, is the template that continues to be used today. If normal was the Garden before the serpent, then Eve represents hunger and its dangers. We seem to have simply recreated the model of the Garden as the ideal of normality, and Eve’s descendants as the example of what it means to be flawed. Woman more than man is held up as someone who cannot control herself, and so must be controlled. Her appetite—whether for sex, food, equality, knowledge—is in need of regulation. The consequences of exceeding what is considered allowed result in chaos for the would-be controller, as if men expect another casting out, the final moral disintegration of civilisation as we know it. But the true—perhaps better—self is one that has autonomy, even if it suffers at times from the weight of it. Any aspect of life, including and perhaps especially hunger, is an experiment that will necessarily be full of mistakes and lessons; not merely the expectation of joy.
Later I would come to understand that for some, fantasy is weighted with shame, whether it is someone else’s or yours. Each person has their own perspective of that stigma
How do we desire and retain our identity? Now that I am out in the world again, the thing I still secretly fear is that what I refer to as love will swallow me, leave me as isolated as when I was without it. The reasons why I love seem to inadequately define it; they could be applied to any close friend or lover. The essence of love sometimes seems to be not a thing—however abstract or tangible—but an action; that of drowning, to be engulfed. Do we fight to maintain a self that swims while giving in to a self that allows itself to be drowned in emotion? On reading de Beauvoir’s letters to Sartre, she seems almost giddy in her declarations of love: ‘. . . I love you so, love you in the real sense of the word. I have a passionate need for you.’ Her voice sometimes betrays the slight anxiety of the lover who has not received a letter when it is expected, as if it signalled the start of being forgotten. At others she is euphoric as she is sucked deep down into the whirlpool of what she sees as the most perfect of relationships; paradoxically, while they have no physical or emotional claims on each other, the language of de Beauvoir’s letters suggest that she claims Sartre wholly in her emotions and desires that reciprocity as well, at least in that form.
Maybe the best we can hope to achieve is the idea that love for another person and theirs for us is a sun inside the body, radiating heat that warms and helps us to grow. But is physical presence necessary for that warmth and growth? They suggest not, although she at least craves it, sending him kisses, imagining touching him. Perhaps it is lack of dependence that is the key, although when I read and re-read her letters, that very dependence on his love—the words and thoughts that are so much part of him—is revealed every time she wishes to see him again. With every ‘Most dear little being … My sweet little one … My love’ that is written and rewritten like a charm to prevent her from disappearing in his heart, the woman who writes so logically and forcefully about women shows herself to harbour the same fear as anyone else in love.
‘I dreamt last night that you were forgetting me …’
Is this a dream that people in love share? I have had this dream—although I would more accurately call it a nightmare, for my heart hurts on waking. The thing that I am afraid of most is being forgotten by the ones I love while I am still in their lives; like a ghost, desperately trying to remind them of my presence. Paradoxically, I once told a therapist that when exiting someone’s life I assumed they completely forgot about me; all memories wiped out in a single stroke.
I have had this dream about both XY and my partner. I worry that he will leave me, or that one day he will see me in the street and I will be just another stranger, a blank look on his face when I pass by. When I have this dream about XY (and both are recurring), our words have disappeared and all that remains is page after page of white space. I try to write to him but there is no trace of his existence, and I am left dreaming that I am de Beauvoir’s mythomaniac; that he was only a dream lover I had been writing into an unprovable reality, living half a life over the years in the darkness of my mind. He helped me back into the world, but when I searched for him in the light of day, no man walked by that had his face. And as I wait for my heart to stop its too-real ache, I think that all flesh made from words must eventually return to the white space from which it was created. In the digital age, dust to dust must mean the first email from which we entered each other’s lives to the one in which we finally exit them.
Byung-Chul Han again: ‘By means of social media, we seek to bring the Other as near as possible, to close any distance between ourselves and him or her, to create proximity. But this does not mean that we have more of the Other; instead, we are making the Other disappear.’ XY, does this mean that in writing, I never had you, nor you I, and that when that final email passes—then, and only then, we will come to know each other, in full otherness and electronic fragments? It feels like such a futile communication, the way he puts it, and yet I think it is precisely how we chose to use it that has created that almost mythical proximity: one that feels real because it is, for if there are no physical markers we can use to denote realness, the shared desire that it be real has made it—and us—so.
Tomoé Hill is a contributing editor at Minor Literature[s]. Her essays can be found in in Lapsus Lima, Empty Mirror, Berfrois, 3:AM, and Numéro Cinq, as well as the anthologies We’ll Never Have Paris (Repeater Books) and Azimuth (the Sonic Art Research Unit, Oxford Brookes). She is co-editor (with Andrew Gallix and C.D. Rose) of Love Bites: Fiction inspired by Pete Shelley and Buzzcocks (Dostoyevsky Wannabe). You can find her on Twitter @CuriosoTheGreat
Art by Yanina Spizzirri.