Walker Percy in one of his essays discusses how modern man, unmoored from faith, has become an alienated being that can only think of life in terms of sex and death. All we have left are moments of pleasure and the fear of death. It’s a generalization, sure. But in the aftermath of my personal marital catastrophe, I’ve been struck by how many secular friends have suggested I need to just get a girlfriend and get laid. It’s the default response and a crude one at that. Percy got it right.
So here I find myself sitting on the roof in the dark, and from the stairwell bursts a man and a woman. Drunk. Talkative. I’ve had drinks myself but I’m lucid and the man engages me in conversation. Within a word or two I realize he’s gay (Check that, I discover later he’s bicurious. Either way I find the gay inflection as annoying as the macho bro’s style of discourse. Stop putting on an act and talk to me like a goddamn human being. In this way I’m an equal opportunity bigot.).
He promptly asks me to describe myself in three words. Such reductionism is destructive in a way, but it also can create clarity. For whatever reason, the first word I think of is “curious.” In retrospect, this was not the best word a straight man could have used to describe himself in a conversation with a bisexual he just met. I sent a laughably stupid signal and consequently from that point on found myself in the odd position of being in a sexually charged conversation with an effeminate bisexual (at one point he complimented my physique, which I found somewhat odd as I was wearing a hoodie and not much of me was exposed. You get my point.) I digress. The point is that I am a curious (albeit cranky) person. I like meeting people and asking them questions about what they do and where they’ve been and what they’ve seen and what they enjoy. He heard “curious” and thought “sex.” But you see, here is a modern dilemma: we no longer share a common vocabulary with our fellow man, and when words no longer mean the same thing to people, communication, knowledge, and understanding breaks down.
This word problem had already made the conversation cockeyed (heh, heh) and this is where he began to push me about my romantic relationships, and of course this involves the ex, but it also includes the second word I used to describe myself “conservative.” He found this, of course, a curious word to accompany my first word. And this is where the disconnect not only in words and their meanings, but thoughts on human nature became most apparent. Within a couple moments of telling him the usual about my thoughts on marriage (“Duty to love and protect through thick and thin” yada yada) he interjected. “No, but what do you think and feel?” I paused, taken aback, not sure what he was asking. “I am telling you what I think and feel,” I say. He shakes his head and wags his hand back and forth from elbow to wrist with finger pointed up: “No, no, no you’re hiding from something with all this talk of duty and religion. Get below the surface to what you really want in a relationship and from sex.” And now I knew where I stood with him. He thought religion and duty were messing with my head and making me suppress something. In a sense, what he proceeded to declare was that I was scared of something inside me. Be brave! Let it come forth and flower and be free! And of course “it” was sex. More specifically “it” was something other than straight sex.
I’ve never had someone try to convince me I was something other than straight. And I’ve never felt more misunderstood. A cockeyed conversation just fell down the rabbit hole.
But in a way, this turn in the conversation was not as odd as it felt in the moment. My interlocutor on the roof represented a type: the modern, sexually liberated individual with a stultified imagination. It all must come down to sex. And sex is happiness. And whereas Freud saw libido and civilization constantly in conflict and emphasized the importance of checking libido less it lead to the destruction of civilization, the liberated man of the present sees no contradiction. The problem with the world is not the wild forces unleashed by sex but barriers to sexual freedom. The releasing of pent up sexual energy leads to happiness and social cohesion, suppression the opposite. Granted, sex can sometimes have bad consequences but this is the result of people not allowing others to be free or the inability of the individual to overcome his superego, his programmed sexual identity to grasp his true ego. Total liberation, then, leads to individual and cultural bliss. Freud is turned on his head.
Most people don’t go quite this far into free-love. They are still haunted by monogamy and fidelity. Yes, man on the roof was unfettered more than most, but the idea remains: sexual satisfaction is paramount. The balancing act between individual and civilization, sex and order, man and woman, tilts quite notably to one side: the narcissistic self. And when relationships end and there is pain, it’s really too bad, but fundamentally amoral. Stuff happens, like rain, or ice-cream melting, or dirty laundry. Whether free-love or not, the underlying ethic and psychology is the same.
In Percy’s The Thanatos Syndrome there is an exchange between the main character, a psychiatrist, and a slightly batty priest that calls into question this modern psychology. The priest tells the psychiatrist a story from his childhood involving a trip to Europe and a stay with German, Nazi psychiatric eugenicists. Discussions of euthanasia of the feeble ensue. The priest then asks, “What do you think of my experience in Germany?” The doctor thinks to himself: “There is nothing to do but answer truthfully, without saying that I was more interested in his story as a symptom of a possible brain disorder than in the actual events which he related.” A valid thought. A psychiatrist’s job is to analyze patients’ stories and consider whether something is broken from a psychological or neurological standpoint and what can be done about it. I had told the bisexual on the roof a story, and he in modern fashion gave me a diagnosis: be more sexually free! And yet before Percy’s character leaves the priest, the psychiatrist pauses and says, “I’m not sure I understand what you’re trying to tell me—about your memory of—about Germany.”
Here we find the leap that the modern psychologized, sexualized mind finds almost impossible: the doctor sought to understand his patient’s story not merely as a manifestation of something wrong, but as something with meaning in its own right. The story was not mere symptom. The priest was struggling with truth, not merely projecting an inner psychosis.
Back to the rooftop. In some important ways, there is really no basis for conversation between the bisexual and myself. He believed my monogamy was deeply misguided because the human being is a pleasure-seeking sex machine. And yet here’s the odd twist: he did not judge, but rather pitied me and in his own way sought to help me transcend my psychosis. He saw my ethics as an unfortunate mask forced upon me by my upbringing and circumstances. He preached liberation to the suppressed.
But this is where it gets dark. Despite the fact that this man was trying to help me (although I suspect it was not entirely selfless considering the circumstances), he was also obliterating and dehumanizing me. He didn’t for a second take seriously my convictions as something earned through a great deal of thought and experience. He did not think that I was saying anything real about the world, but was merely emoting symptoms of inner turmoil. He had reduced me to a series of impulses suppressed and otherwise. While there is certainly something to be said about probing motives, desires, and suppressions, there exists a chasm between those who see words as only symptoms and those who believe that an utterance might actually say something true about the world. The latter treats you as a human being, a fellow pilgrim stumbling along the road trying to find the way. You may disagree but you take each others words seriously, weighing, measuring, and valuing them as statements about reality. The former, on the other hand, already has the answers (sex!), sees through your words, gives you a diagnosis from on high, and leaves. The performance is a macabre mockery of playing God—well-intentioned but freaky.
To stand back for a moment, though, it should be remembered that I’m talking about an inebriated bisexual man and a slightly inebriated straight man sitting on the roof in Harlem gabbing back and forth. This is not a clash of philosophical titans but measly creatures that bumped into each other one night and passed the time talking. In another situation an entirely different conversation could have emerged if, for instance, I hadn’t used the word “curious”. And this is where I cut the man some slack because it is all rather hilarious. If a man you met on a rooftop told you he was “curious” and “conservative”, it’s not a stretch to assume suppression. Still, I don’t think the word “curious” has been completely sexualized, but we are in New York and I was talking to a bisexual who naturally projected his own meaning of the word onto my self-description. Regardless, I suspect it would not have taken long to discover the bigger rift whether “curious” came up or not. After all, when man is primarily a sexual being, everything must come back to sex. And frankly, I find such single-minded analysis and obsession boring.