Intimacy 3.0

Harry S. Truman Library, 15 July, 1945

Harry S. Truman Library, 15 July, 1945

Bored with phone sex? Consider the tech high in the Spike Jonze futuristic film provocation, Her. Sex with an operating system. It may be artificial intelligence but the orgasm is real.

Limping from a disabled marriage, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) signs onto an advanced operating system for a companion. A Zippo-like gizmo that slips into his pocket, Samantha has intuition, empathy, curiosity, and the erection-inducing voice of Scarlett Johansson. One night she skews their beguilingly candid conversation to the erogenous zone and they take off. Oh! Oh! Oh! OS!

Jonze might have recruited an army of computer animators to create an opus of an orgasm scene here. Instead he lets the screen go blank, not just for a quick second but a full Hollywood minute. Without a visual hook you’re left to feel the erotic intimacy of two alien souls connecting in the digital void.

Black Painting No 8, Mark Rothko, 1964

Black Painting No 8, Mark Rothko, 1964

If intimacy is the answer, we’re still struggling with the question: How do you get in there? In last weekend’s FT column, “The Soulmate Revolution” Simon Kuper writes about today’s “equal relationship.” In the stifled ‘50s, he says, “nobody pretended that the relationship would be equal.”  Marriage was an economic transaction that allowed the male wage-earner “the leeway to seek sex outside.” Love was “an optional extra.” That all changed when “into the fray jumped the feminists” and we began to mine each other’s souls. The “new western consensus on relationships” that emerged “required intimacy and dialogue.”

Kuper concludes that while 91% of American adults recently Galluped “called extramarital affairs morally wrong” they leave the upshot to, as he puts it, “the two equal soulmates to sort out among themselves.” (“Honey, you know that hottie UPS guy? He’s been ramming me regularly in the garage.” “Thanks for sharing, Sweetie, want me to pick up some more condoms tomorrow on my way home from poking your sister-in-law?”)

The Sultanette has yet to be convinced that the hot air of full disclosure  leads to heat between the sheets or even the inclination to mate with someone else’s soul. But before I speak from Male Harem experience, I offer Esther Perel.

I was introduced to Perel’s contrarian views a few weeks ago at the Alliance Française where she participated in a panel called “Inside the Erotic Mind.” I bought her book, Mating in Captivity, that night which she signed “For The Sultanette” without batting an eyelash. Her chapter on “The Pitfalls of Modern Intimacy” offers a refreshing alternative to Kuper.

Who are you? Actress Pauline Frederick, Potiphar’s wife

Who are you? Actress Pauline Frederick, Potiphar’s wife

Perel calls the influence women had on encouraging the dialogue in marriage the “feminization of intimacy.” Women established the new rules of engagement based on their strength as master articulators of emotion. It didn’t matter that men weren’t wired that way. If they couldn’t graduate from graffiti on cave walls to expressing their devotion in complete sentences they weren’t worthy.

“The body is the original mother tongue,” says Perel, “and for a lot of men it remains the only language for closeness that hasn’t been spoiled.” It may be possible and even advantageous to meet halfway but in the meantime Perel says “we have come to glorify verbal communication.”

What better Male Harem segue to the newest candidate – a poet. (Harem members receive upper case monikers upon the caprice of The Sultanette.) Coincidentally, the night of Perel’s event at the Alliance Française, I had slipped into my bag a book of poetry he’d sent me. Arriving early, I stopped at the Bottega del Vino – a Euro-bistro favored by well-heeled travelers shacking up at nearby Fifth Avenue hotels – to get a taste of his verse and a sip of Pinot Noir.

The Bottega’s tiny bar seats six. I cadged a spot between two couples and soon became invisible as the poetry washed over me. A few life details from the brief email exchange that followed our serendipitous meeting – a table he reluctantly agreed to share at the crowded Bouchon Bakery – offered the only hard facts about this new stranger.

Lovis Corinth Portrait, oil on canvas, 1892, Wuppertal, Von der Heydt-Museum

Lovis Corinth Portrait, oil on canvas, 1892, Wuppertal, Von der Heydt-Museum

But I liked that he was editing a manuscript and his professorial look. And his patience when, after warning me that the table wobbled, I immediately spilled my coffee and he helped me clean it up. And how we then ignored each other while he edited and I read my paper until he asked me what kind of pastry I was eating.  And how, when the conversation veered from small talk, he became utterly engaged until he looked at his watch, apologized for handing me his card and strongly suggested I email him before running off. Now at the Bottega, I was left to meander between his subtle rhymes and stanza breaks, roll in the turns of his phrases, and connect my own dots when a poem sent me to a similar past we’d experienced separately.

Say nothing.

Say nothing.

Intimacy, Perel writes, was once nurtured on a familiarity that developed over time and was “cultivated in silence.” It was laced with complicity and favored enigma over inventory. And while sexual repression was the hallmark of that time, this ambiguity may have allowed for a more exciting eroticism than our age of ubiquitous pornography. “When there is nothing left to hide,” Perel writes, “there is nothing left to seek.”

And speaking of unfettered sex, Perel suggests that women have talked themselves back into repression. “If one consequence of the supremacy of talk is that it leaves men at a disadvantage, another is that it leaves women trapped in repressed sexuality.” If our sexual desire needs to be circumscribed within a relationship then “vigorous sexuality” remains “the exclusive domain of men.”

And if all this seems too insensitive to women’s hard-earned rights consider this: Might just a smidgen of the insistence for full disclosure derive from a less virtuous motive – a need for control for fear of abandonment? “What passes for care, “Perel suggests, “is actually covert surveillance.” If he has nowhere to hide then he has nowhere to run.

Who's there?

Who’s there?

One day Twombly signs on to Samantha and gets a perfunctory notice that he is unable to connect. Things have been sketchy between them lately. Initially envious of his flesh and bones, Samantha has begun to embrace her OS. Talk of digital others has crept into the conversation. Where is she? Twombly panics. Ah yes, that desperate terror when trust, love, and the cozy sense of belonging are about to be annihilated. Ever felt it?

Then suddenly Samantha signs on. She is back! Clutching the gizmo of his hopes and dreams Twombly crumples to the ground with relief, oblivious to the pedestrians surging on the stairwell around him. But as she reassures him of her presence, the real desolation hits. She is there but she is not there. He asks her tremulously – when they talk, is she talking to anyone else at the same time? Silence as the artificial intellect parses her disclosure before she replies – There are hundreds.

burning_paperWhy do we assume we have the right to know someone fully? Have we ever truly revealed ourselves to another? The Male Harem was spawned from the staggering understanding that the mating of souls is fragile and uncontrollable. That relationships are never equal nor do they need to be.  And that a precious intimacy exists when two aliens connect in the deliciously uncompromised erotic void. May the poet remain a haiku long after words fail, more sensed than read, and always open to interpretation.


The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Holiday Porn

Carved altar piece, Victoria and Albert Museum.

Carved altar piece, Victoria and Albert Museum.

“They showed her the riding crop, which was long, black, and delicate, made of thin bamboo, encased in leather, the kind one sees in the windows of better riding equipment shops …” The Story of O, Pauline Reage

Now that the holiday season is upon us – perhaps the most sexless time of the year unless you count being groped by a colleague in a Santa Claus cap at the office Christmas party a turn-on – The Sultanette thought that a musing on sadomasochism, bondage, and submission might add a spin to Santa’s query of who’s naughty or nice.

First stop, Bridget Jones – no Linda Lovelace but stick with the program and I promise to divert your attention from stocking stuffers to more libidinous handouts. (Haven’t you already stopped worrying about what size polo shirt to get for Uncle Walter?)

Back to Bridget, The Sultanette was more shocked by The New York Times review of Mad About the Boy, the latest saga in the life of “our favorite hapless heroine” as Vogue described her, than I might have been by any one of the Fifty Shades of Grey had I chosen to read them. For The Times review, “Will Have Small Glass of Wine” by Sarah Lyall, breezily states that, “Bridget’s amorous adventures … make the prospect of middle age not so bad at all.”

Quelle relief! The New York Times reveals to middle-aged women everywhere that we’re not dead yet. They reassure us that Ms. Jones, now widowed with children can still, with her ”dumb drunken tweets” and “uncomplicated 29-year-old who reintroduces her to the joys of sex” have a shot at the fast lane. The incredulous Lyall exclaims, “Who knew middle age could be so eventful?”

And so, to the venerable newspaper that first went to press in 1851 and sounds like it, The Sultanette now submits Dominique Aury whose book, The Story of O, written in her late-forties in 1954 under the pseudonym of Pauline Reage, might be the ultimate act of seduction.

images“I wasn’t young, nor particularly pretty” Aury tells Pola Rapaport in the director’s intimate documentary, Writer of O, when she curled up one night “beneath the little lamp still lighted at the head of the bed” to begin the book, written on a dare by her lover, Jean Paulhan, in the midst of their three-decade affair. He had said a woman didn’t have the chops to write a convincing work of pornography and so partly as a writer’s challenge and mostly to keep the attention of this man known to have a wandering eye, she exposed her deepest fantasies.

Described by Geraldine Bedell in The Observer, the novel combined a “hallucinatory, erotic intensity” with “explicit scenes of bondage and violent penetration in spare elegant prose” so that the purity of the writing made it seem reticent “even as it dealt with demonic desire, with whips, masks and chains.”

Yet the bourgeois-bred, “nun-like” Aury had other distractions before its writing. During the German occupation she had distributed an underground magazine, Lettres Francaises. She’d worked on a literary magazine, Nouvelle Revue Francaise, and at the prestigious Editions Gallimard (publisher of Camus) where she was the only woman to sit on the reading committee. She had published a collection of 17th century devotional poetry, too, and along the way was awarded the Légion d’Honneur.

Sainte Apolline upended.

Sainte Apolline upended.

“O recalled the prisoners she had seen in engravings and in history books, who also had been chained and whipped many years ago, centuries ago, …” The Story of O, Pauline Reage

She had met Jean Paulhan during the Occupation. A decade older, he is described by Bedell as “handsome in an imperious way” with features expressing “amusement and disdain.” Paulhan had become a literary giant at Gallimard, and surely in the intellectual milieu of ‘50s Paris, he must have been an imposing figure to the literary ingénue.

fire_safety.1352763957Yet as Aury later tells it, she wrote that first night in her bed “without hesitation, without stopping, rewriting, or discarding … the way one breathes, the way one dreams … wrested from herself or, who knows, returned to herself.” After all, “books were their only complete freedom.”  Their sex toys. And so she wrote to Paulhan “the way you speak in the dark to the person you love when you’ve held back the words of love too long and they flow at last.”

She read it to him in tantalizing segments during the stolen moments mandatory to affairs (“the watch always remained on the wrist”) in hotels near railway stations where they made love, or parked along back roads in the Bois de Boulogne, exposing her vulnerability to him in full-frontal literary eroticism.

Georges Seurat, The Gardener, 1882

Georges Seurat, The Gardener, 1882.

“A gardener appeared on the path, pushing a wheelbarrow.  The iron wheel could be heard squeaking over the gravel. … he would have seen O chained and naked and the marks of the riding crop on her thighs.”The Story of O, Pauline Reage

It was a violent act of intimacy but Paulhan urged her to publish it. She agreed if she could remain anonymous. When Gallimard turned it down, he took it to a daring young publisher, Jean-Jacques Pauvert. It went to press simultaneously in French and English (by the publisher of Lolita) and has never been out of print.

A year later when O won the Prix Deux Magot, it also won the attention of the French vice squad. Called upon to testify, Paulhan refused to disclose its author’s identity. Aury’s secret was still guarded among the cognizanti in the ‘80s when she attended an event with President de Gaulle who surreptitiously greeted her with, “Ah, the writer of Story of O!”

In 1994, when Aury was 84, still properly composed in cardigans and cravats, she agreed to the interview with British journalist, John de St. Jorre for The New Yorker where she outed herself, forty years after the book was published. But in 1968, sitting in the hospital at Paulhan’s bedside as he lay dying, Aury at sixty-one had more stunningly revealed herself.

CandleburningShe wrote again that night as Pauline Reage, to the man who she loved entirely and would never possess: “Who am I, finally,” said Pauline Reage, “if not the long silent part of someone, the secret and nocturnal part which has never betrayed itself in public … but communicates through the subterranean depths of the imaginary …?” (Return to the Chateau)

It may well be fallacious to compare a campy chic-lit character with the inscrutably erotic Aury. After all, Bridget Jones is a fiction. But if The Times chooses to identify her persona as an icon of “middle age,” than The Sultanette brazenly offers up Pauline Reage. She is not a real person either. Or is she? Is she that “long silent part” in any of us? Was Aury’s risk, not in writing The Story of O to keep her lover’s attention, but in paying attention to the deepest part of her own story – the story it takes middle age to know – and that we so often leave untold?

“There is always someone within us whom we enchain, whom we imprison, whom we silence. But a curious kind of reverse shock, it can happen that prison itself can open the gates to freedom.” Return to the Chateau, Pauline Reage