Tag Archives: sex

The Penumbra

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The utter mystery of what transpires beneath the folds of the brain is profound. And love, more perhaps than any other emotion, reaches into nearly every dark shadow of our gray matter. Our brains want love, need love, and are improved by love. And sex too for that matter. According to The Scientific American Book of Love, Sex, and the Brain, by Judith Horstman, not only are love and sex good for your brain, they are good for it in different ways. More than that, one merely has to think of love or sex to benefit.

Just the thought of love or sex can improve brain performance, but in different ways. Thoughts about the two states have different impacts on performance: Love makes us creative, whereas sex makes us analytical (Horstman 88).

A friend jokingly asked me, which, in that case, would be better for SATs? Sex, obviously—but who has to tell a teenager to think about sex?

Can it be said that sex is left brain and love is right brain? On the face of it, it makes sense. Sex is obviously very action, ‘now’ oriented, necessarily focusing on details of the event. Love, on the other hand, is expansive and discursive, reaching into the future, and back into the past as well.

And this all made me think of another book I just finished, The Emotional Life of Your Brain by Richard Davidson. To easily test this notion of right and left thinking (and I did test a friend to verify) one can think about a slightly complex question involving language (the example question in the book was: name three synonyms for boredom) one looks to the left (which the right side of the brain controls) whereas when the question is a mathematical question requiring some thought (how many corners does a cube have?) one searches into the right field of vision for the answer. This is one of the ways scientists determine that the right and left hemisphere of the brain dominate different modes of thinking.

But here is an interesting consideration: likewise, when we recall negative memories we tend to look to the left as the right side of our brains is activated. Positive memories will induce a rightward gaze.

positive and negative emotions are distinguished by activation in the left and right prefrontal cortex, respectively (Richards 31).

Davidson’s research led him to discover that “positive” and “negative” emotions were largely processed in different regions of the brain. Why might this be, he asks? He speculates that it comes down to qualities that every emotion balances between: “approach” and “avoidance.”

Whether to approach or avoid is the fundamental psychological decision an organism makes in relation to its environment (Richards 39).

It is fundamental, and the brain has evolved in such a way, perhaps, in order to keep these two competing drives neatly separated.

But back to sex and love. One can see how this may fit in. Sex depends upon an “approach” sort of instinct—that seems obvious. Does that mean that love reigns in the “avoidance” hemisphere? It would seem so. I hasten to interject here that, I think, one must step away from value judgments about “positive” and “negative” for a moment to follow my train of thought. There is much more going on in each hemisphere of the brain than can be reduced to “good” and “bad.” Not to mention the obvious fact that each brain is individual (a driving thesis in Richard’s book), complex, and each region of the brain deeply, inextricably interconnected. So, that said, the more I read about the subject, the more I begin to see a pattern which begins to lead my research question: is love a mechanism that works under the constraints of avoidance or limits. Why yes, of course: I love this and not that, I love you and not someone else.

I am starting to see love as a beautiful process which quiets the noise of all the myriad choices we would otherwise be overwhelmed by. It makes for specificity. It simplifies and concentrates by naturally encouraging an avoidance of things I don’t love.

I have been focusing on the senses’ relationship to the emotion of love, and I see this sort of manifesting in those realms as well. It’s quite fascinating. I have to think more on this, follow my thoughts more thoroughly, but one thing that I find truly lovely about our brains, and love in the brain, is the complexity and the simplicity: an unavoidable truth that there is a wholeness in the peaks and valleys.

 

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The Vital Imagination

“Our true awareness of one another is intuitional, not mental. Attraction between people is really instinctive and intuitional, not an affair of judgement. And in mutual attraction lies perhaps the deepest pleasure in life, mutual attraction which may make us “like” our traveling companion for the two or three hours we are together, then no more, or mutual attraction that may deepen to powerful love, and last a lifetime.” 
D.H. Lawrence, Pornography & So On (69)

Canova, Cupid and Psyche from The Louvre

Canova, Cupid and Psyche from The Louvre

A friend who knows of my love for D.H. Lawrence recently bought me two books: a first edition, fifth impression of the 1929 pamphlet Pornography and Obscenity and the 1934 book Pornography & So On which includes the former essay and then expands upon the thesis ending with several poems on the subject. The subject, of course, can not be in doubt in either case. Having been censured and accused of writing pornography frequently in his career, Lawrence takes an understandable interest in the subject.

“We take it, I assume, that pornography is something base, something unpleasant. In short, we don’t like it. And why don’t we like it? Because it arouses sexual feelings?
I think not. No matter how hard we may pretend otherwise, most of us rather like a moderate rousing of our sex” (10, P and O).

Lawrence  proceeds to try to uncover the root of the perversion of sexual feeling in English and American society. How such words as ‘pornography’ and ‘obscenity’ are used given that the meanings are so nebulous. He tracks it back to the 15th century, at the time when syphilis, or ‘pox’ began to ravage England and the royal families in particular. The recoiling in horror that ensued caused a fear and sense of ‘dirtiness’ which implanted itself deeply into the psyche of the affected societies.

“And pox entered the blood of the nation, particularly of the upper classes, who had more chance of infection. And after it had entered the blood, it entered the consciousness, and it hit the vital imagination” (63, P & So On).

The morbidity of fear, Lawrence argues, shuts us away from our own bodies. And once a feeling of shame or dirtiness sets in, all natural desire and comfort in one’s body becomes, as Lawrence puts it, “a dirty little secret.” The problem is not the words, the problem is the loss of individual instinctual relation to ourselves and eachother.

“The reaction to any word may be, in any individual, either a mob-reaction or an individual reaction. It is up to the individual to ask himself: Is my reaction individual, or am I merely reacting from my mob-self? […] Now if the use of a few so-called obscene words will startle man or woman out of a mob-habit into an individual state, well and good. And word prudery is so universal a mob-habit that it is time we were startled out of it”(9, P and O).

“Word prudery,” I love that. Now that swearing isn’t so universally shocking the politically correct mob has moved in, but that’s another subject. In Pornography & So On the second essay explores the consequences of our profound fear of consequences (I would add in here that women have several thousand years a head start on fear of consequences that, one could argue, may credibly account for the perceived, but proven false, difference between men’s and women’s capacity for arousal). Lawrence takes up those consequences as they pertain to the sad state of the visual arts.

“We have become ideal beings, creatures that exist in idea, to one another, rather than flesh-and-blood kin. And with the collapse of the physical, flesh-and-blood oneness, and the substitution of an ideal, social or political oneness, came a failing of our intuitive awareness, and a great unease, the nervousness of mankind. We are afraid of instincts. We are afraid of the intuition within us. […] Intuitively we are dead to one another, we have all gone cold” (70). 

Without naming him, Lawrence takes Clive Bell and his “Significant Form” to task, as well as other theorists of art, for a shallowness and blindness that misses the sorry truth of the state of art in modern times. Dripping with indignant sarcasm he writes:

“So the prophets of the new era in art cry aloud to the multitude, in exactly the jargon of the revivalists, for revivalists they are. They will revive the Primitive-Method brethren, the Byzantines, the Ravennese, the early Italian and French primitives (which ones, in particular, we aren’t told): these were Right, these were Pure, these were Spiritual, these were Real! and the builders of early Romanesque churches, Oh, my brethren! these were holy men, before the world went a-whoring after Gothic. Oh, return, my brethren, to the Primitive Method, lift up your eyes to Significant Form and be saved— “(93).

I don’t think Lawrence intends to be funny, but sometimes he does make me laugh with his passionate exhortations and implorings. They are over-the-top to most people’s sensibilities, but then, that may be his very point, and I really cannot help loving his consistency, good sense, and absolute commitment to his philosophy which makes healthy sense to me. In “Introduction to Painting,” Lawrence writes of the masses as “grey” people. Cold and grey. He points to Cézanne’s apples as the only instance he can find in which an artist truly paints the thing, is not afraid of the physical thing, and paints the whole thing in all its “appleyness.” I have written of Lawrence’s essay on Cézanne’s apples here, but I will end here with one last quote because I think it captures what he is on about. Lawrence doesn’t want cheapened, shallow, fleeting feelings. He argues for a true connection, without fear, between real bodies, the whole body, all the way around.

“Oh, be an apple, and leave out all your thoughts, all your feelings, all your mind and all your soul, which we know all about and find boring beyond endurance. Leave it out—and be an apple!—It is the appleness of the portrait of Cézanne’s wife that makes it so permanently interesting: the appleyness, which carries with it also the feeling of knowing the other side as well, the side you don’t see, the hidden side of the moon. For intuitive apperception of the apple is so tangibly aware of the apple that it is aware of it all round, not only just of the front. The eyes see all fronts, and the mind, on the whole, satisfied with fronts. But intuition needs all-aroundness, and instinct needs insideness. The true imagination is forever curving round to the other side” (123).

Plaster of Canova's Cupid and Psyche from The Met. The detail, which to me holds the appleyness is in that missing shoe...for some inexplicable reason Canova eliminated that powerful expression of the instinctive imagination in the finished sculpture at the Louvre.

Plaster of Canova’s Cupid and Psyche from The Met. This unfinished detail I photographed looks to me as a sandal, I can’t tell if Canova never intended to have a sandal, but to me, that (mis?)perceived detail of only one sandal left on her feet holds the appleyness. I was so excited when I saw it. Nevertheless, what seemed to me a powerful expression of the instinctive imagination, is absent from both finished sculptures at the Louvre and The Hermitage, St. Petersburg.

Fugitives From the Social World

The disaster is, however, that mankind can never accept the whole of the dream of passion, which is the dream that underlies and quickens all our life (136). –D.H. Lawrence, John Thomas and Lady Jane

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If man could once be reasonable enough to know that he is not a creature of reason, but only a reasoning creature, he might avoid making himself more prisons (136). 

I grabbed a book off of a friend’s bookshelf the other morning when I realized (with a twinge of horror) that I would most assuredly finish the book I had with me well before my morning commute was finished. By the dimmed early light I hastily perused the choices, my eye stumbled upon my dear Lawrence. I hadn’t read John Thomas and Lady Jane, hadn’t even heard of it, so with a reader’s thrill I put it in my bag.

She was aware of a strange woman wakened up inside her herself, a woman at once fierce and tender, at the same time soft and boundless and infinitely submissive, like a dim sea under the moon, and yet full of fierce, remorseless energy (134). 

What I did not know was that Lawrence wrote and published three versions of  Lady Chatterley’s Lover and John Thomas and Lady Jane  is the second one (the first is aptly titled The First Lady Chatterley). It is fascinating to reread any book, but to read a different version with all the changes, some obvious, some subtle, or likely imperceptible to me as I read Lady Chatterley’s Lover a few years back, is in many ways more so. In my memory (and I did write a post about Lady Chatterley’s Lover, but I have not yet gone back and read what I wrote at the time) I recall that the emphasis in Lady Chatterley’s Lover was really on Lawrence’s philosophy regarding the potency of a sexual relationship and the effect a true sexual loving connection can have on individuals and thereby on humanity as a whole. It is stunning in its bravery of the subject matter, and its refusal to keep within the bounds of “polite society.” And certainly that theme is present in this version as well.

But the damaged human being in him dreaded more than ever exposing itself to the false thing, the false sexuality, which is of rasping egoism, and the false social virtue, which is utter humiliation (94).

It’s the same book in a different octave. There is a little less discussion, or less detail of the sexual experience per se, and more on social dynamics, politics, and society at large. The book calls for a renunciation of the entire order of the world. Lawrence shows the disgust that a thinking feeling person can hardly suppress in themselves towards the schemes of social and political hierarchies which do nothing to promote life.  For societies to promote the potential of meaningful life, inherent in us all, seems to me, when looked at starkly, a reasonable expectation.

‘It’s because we are really all proletarian,’ he said. ‘A German once made that plain to me. The proletariat is a state of mind, it’s not really a class at all. You’re proletarian when you are cold like a crab, greedy like a crab, lustful with the ricketty egoism of a crab, and shambling like a crab […] The proletarian haves against the proletarian have-nots will destroy the human world entirely” (293). 

Lawrence thought long and hard about a basic question – what ails the world? His conclusion seemed to be that it was the lack of connection, and the physical realm, in which we all exist, was an excellent starting, middle and end point to understand how we can really touch one another’s souls. But there is existing and then there is thriving.

It is the same disease in the mass as in the individual. The people who count as normal are perhaps even more diseased than those who are neurotic. The neurotic at least show that something is wrong. But the normal consider the very disease part of their normality. They carry on the hideous insanity of acquisitiveness in masses, or in solitary enterprise, with a firm conviction that it is the right thing to do (106). 

Thrive then! For Lawrence it isn’t even a choice for most – the passionate will thrive or die, at the very least internally. And it does sometimes seem as though the world is made up of zombies, the walking dead. The ‘right thing to do,’ by which society and governments usually mean- to stay in line, but get ahead, only serves to pull us apart. We become fugitives when we deviate. We are shamed for speaking out, shamed for feeling pleasure,  shamed for exhibiting feelings, for crying, for open joy, and under some circumstances shamed for loving, or loving too much. Shame is truly a weapon of mass destruction.

He often felt he’d been a fool, but he never felt he had been wrong. The word ‘sin’ had no meaning for him (123).

This is the very point for Lawrence – we must disarm, even it it is unilaterally.

 

* title from pg. 93: “She was so tired, so tired! Fugitives from the social world: that’s what it was.”

 

 

The Great Maniacs of Love

When I say “health” I mean optimism, to be truthful. Incurably optimistic! Still have one foot in the nineteenth century. I’m a bit retarded, like most Americans – Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer (49).

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A few months ago I took one of those personality quizzes that pop up like weeds on the internet. I took a few, in fact. That is until this last one, which left me fairly flummoxed. ‘Who is your literary soulmate?’ After answering what seemed like a few benign questions I discovered that my literary soul mate is – Henry Miller.

The whole point about Bessie was that she couldn’t, or just wouldn’t, regard herself as a lay. She talked about passion, as if it were a brand new word. She was passionate about things, even a little thing like a lay. She had to put her soul into it (135).

I hadn’t even ever read him. Well, I said to myself, maybe I should. I was a little afraid. In truth I had avoided my literary soul mate’s work, after all, his reputation does precede him. And I wondered if I was past the appropriate age for his ‘dirty’ book (that was the word someone used when I told them I was reading Tropic of Cancer). In fact,  I  pretty much skipped over my naughty youthful years, what with being busy with babies and all that…still, Ms. Nin and I had our mutual admiration society of D.H. Lawrence, and my literary soul mate was pals with Lawrence Durrell…so what the hell.

It’s hard to read proof when you’re not all there. It requires more concentration to detect a missing comma than to epitomize Nietzsche’s philosophy. You can be brilliant sometimes, when you’re drunk, but brilliance is out of place in the proofreading department. Dates, fractions, semicolons – these are the things that count. And these are the things that are most difficult to track down when your mind is ablaze (175).

It just so happens that my literary soul mate and I find a certain joy in the same work. I have been archiving and proofreading these past few weeks, and who knew it could be so satisfying in its concrete exactitude? – My literary soul mate, that’s who.

I feel her body close to mine-all mine now-and I stop to rub my hands over the warm velvet. Everything around us is crumbling, crumbling and the warm body under the warm velvet is aching for me…(19).

Putting aside, momentarily, the misogyny, racism, and misanthropy, (none of which I think he actually propagates or truly is, so perhaps we ought to just put it aside altogether, and read deeper, feel the current.) the book is quite wonderful. It is very funny, thoughtful, and moving. Miller has a genius for description, or what he himself would say, “…it’s one of those little details which makes a thing psychologically real….you can’t get it out of your head afterward” (118). From each individual relentless  louse shacking up with him in the down-at-the-heels digs he stays in, to his bosom buddy louts he hangs out with – he has an instinct for the details, the perfect turn of a phrase or punctuation that brings his world, such as it is, to teeming life.

There are people in this world who cut such a grotesque figure that even death renders them ridiculous (138).

Miller makes full use of grotesque language, there is indeed a plethora of words I would not use (the ‘c’ word – wow, never read that so many times in one sitting), or ones that I would not use in the same way (the ‘f’ word -I maintain a policy of [just approaching the border of absolute] ‘exclusively for expletive use only’)  But, even his harsh language does not mask the real sympathy that he has for men and women. Especially the downtrodden, used up, broken-down type. True, most of his friends are jackasses, but at the reader’s happy distance, we can laugh with Miller over their hilarious ridiculousness.

My literary soul mate and I will have to argue (long into the night, no doubt) over our differing opinions of Hugo (194), but I suppose that’s a tussle that’s only suitable for a true literary soul mate. Where we are in perfect harmony is our desire to experience joy and live the ecstasy that is life. Where mine is an instinct, his was fully realized, for good and bad, cold nights and grimy days- but it is fully felt, and that’s the thing that binds us.

Do anything, but let it produce joy. Do anything, but let it yield ecstasy. So much crowds into my head when I say this to myself: images, gay ones, terrible ones, maddening ones, the wolf and the goat, the spider, the crab, syphilis with her wings outstretched and the door of the womb always on the latch, always open, ready like a tomb. Lust, crime, holiness: the lives of my adored ones, the failures of my adored ones, the words they left behind them, the words they left unfinished; the good they dragged after them and the evil, the sorrow, the discord, the rancor, the strife they created. But above all, the ecstasy! (252)

 

*title from pg. 181: “I understood why Paris attracts the tortured, the hallucinated, the great maniacs of love.”

Etiolated Lives

She was the doorway to him, he to her.  At last they had thrown open the doors, each to the other, whilst the light flooded out from behind on to each of their faces, it was the transfiguration, the glorification, the admission. 
-D.H. Lawrence, The Rainbow (87)

IMG_1258I recently watched an adaptation of Women in Love. I like it well enough, but there were more than a few mystery bits that I had no recollection of from the book. Upon closer inspection I saw that the adaptation was actually of both Women in Love and The Rainbow.  Now that I’ve read The Rainbow I’m sorry I didn’t read it first, not least of all because Women in Love continues the story of Ursula and Gudren. But more than that, for missing out on the natural development of the story in which Lawrence shows an unraveling of human confidence in love over the generations.

Is heaven impatient for me, and bitter against this earth, that I should hurry off, or that I should linger pale and untouched? (265)

The story follows three generations of women, finding, failing, or groping with anguished hope towards love: “the admission”- I love that. Admitting entrance to the other into one’s soul as well as admitting to oneself that the possibility exists. Running  forward chronologically, the story seems almost to run backwards novelistically. The satisfaction of true love comes early in the first section concerning the Polish immigrant widowed mother, Lydia Lensky. Tom Brangwen falls in love with her, and after the usual bouts of trammeled passion they arrive at their font of love. Things are more difficult for Anna, Lydia’s daughter adopted by Tom:

And in this state, her sexual life flamed into a kind of disease within her. She was overwrought and sensitive, that the mere touch of coarse wool seemed to tear her nerves. (314)

The tragedy here is passion without love. Lawrence describes with startling insight the gaps that motherhood fills, still, when Anna marries Will Brangwen having made the all important physical connection,  emotional  communion eludes them. Through their children the painful smolder of life and love half-lived is abated until eventually, separately yet peaceably, they find a lesser path, but at least it is a path –

And since she was nearly forty years old, she began to come awake from the sleep of motherhood, her energy moved outwards. The din of growing lives roused her from her apathy. She too must have her hand in making life. (395)

Let’s pause here for one brief moment to remind ourselves that this book was written in 1915. What Lawrence so boldly put forward- the physicality of life’s desires, is a truly remarkable thing. Sure, it’s no longer difficult to find myriad books focused on sex, even focused on the female’s perspective of sex, but it takes profound nerve to combine those human needs with a divine call to love.

Always, always she was spitting out of her mouth the ash and grit of disillusion, of falsity. (412)

The story ends with Ursula. The depth into which Lawrence takes the reader is awing and inspiring. The questions and possible answers he raises become deeply embedded in the reader’s thinking and feeling soul. Woven into each part of the story are philosophical musings on religion, God, the suffragette movement, the horrors of corporal punishment, the sickness of institutions, the emptiness of formal education, social hypocrisy, and then, at long last he gives us – the rainbow, spread over it all, in regal refulgent splendor.  The beauty. The beauty.

She wanted so many things. she wanted to read great, beautiful books, and be rich with them; she wanted to see beautiful things, and have the joy of them forever; she wanted to know big, free people; and there remained always the want she could put no name to. (384)

Concupiscent Misreadings

girl_eating_oysters_oestereetstertje_by_jan_ste_poster-r4edaef2141d049adbd7427522df616cc_q9f_8byvr_512The Frick Collection is having a special exhibition of works from the The Royal Picture Gallery Mauritshuis in The Hague while it is being renovated. My daughter and I stood in the line which wrapped around to 5th Ave. the other day to see it. One room is entirely devoted to Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. It is a lovely painting of course, but we were somewhat bemused over why that painting deserves a room of its own. I suspect Colin Firth is to blame. Never mind, the second room has many more stunning paintings: Rembrandt, Ruisdael, Hals and others.

We were transfixed by a lovely little still life of fruit by Adriaen Coorte. I said to my daughter, after reading the title, “Hm. How odd. They don’t look like apples, they look like peaches.” I couldn’t figure out why an artist would put a stone-fruit crease in apples. She politely ignored me and it wasn’t until I looked at the brochure much later that I read the title again: Still Life With Five Apricots. I swear it had said apples. Maybe I have an apple preoccupation. I blame Eve.
“How could you let me blather on about apples?” I asked her.
“I was just confused how to argue with your opinion about what an apricot should look like,” she answered.
“Because,” I hissed- if one could hiss via a text message exchange,  “I thought it read apples! Apples!”
sigh. The truth is, most of my friendships are epistolary and my ability to misread or commit egregious typos is pretty spectacular. It’s like my brain has this powerful editor that works itself into a sputtering froth always trying do things like make apricots look like apples.  Who will save me from myself? Clearly not my daughter.

Anyway. Never mind false apples and fake pearl earrings, the painting that really deserves a room of its own was Jan Steen’s  Girl with Oysters. The smallest painting in the exhibit, my daughter breezed past it, drawn as she was to the painterly virtuosity displayed in a fabulous cuff of lace on the far wall, but I made her come back so she could appreciate the brilliance of the little scene of a girl sitting demurely on a bed eating oysters with a look of complete joyous lasciviousness in her eyes.

I have decided that the reason why pornography depressed me so much is that it absolutely lacks that look. Without getting all D.H. Lawrence about it by contemplating the life affirming potential of passionate Love, I think the reason perhaps why pornography is so weird (and I freely admit that my familiarity of the genre is very limited and dated) is that it’s all business. Animalistic business. I find a lot of modern literature and art suffers from a tendency towards the crassness of porn. Mistaking explicitness for authenticity. There is so little delight. So little celebration. Pornography misses the sweetness in the apple’s sin. In Girl with Oysters, completed in 1660, while not even addressing the separate question of Love per se, Steen has captured the very essence of what’s different and wonderful about human sex: it’s the fun.

A Pertinacious Azure

The part in each of us that we feel is different from other people is just the part that is rare, the part that makes our special value – and that is the very thing people try to suppress. They go on imitating. And yet they think they love life. 
– André Gide, The Immortalist

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The back flap of The Immortalist frames the story as one which is about a man’s struggle to live within the polite bounds of society: the “d” words out in force – dereliction, debauchery, debasement. And yet I found it much more subtle than that. I can see that in 1902 it would have stretched the faux-morals of the day, but in this day and age the actions of the protagonist Michel would be almost quaint. What makes it a good read, in fact, is that it is subtle. The more fundamental questions that torture are never so clearly defined as society at large would have us believe. We are immersed in our sea of grey reality wondering where the hell the clear blue is. 

‘What! You too Michel! But you didn’t begin by insulting me,’ said he. ‘Leave that nonsense to papers. They seem to be surprised that a man with a certain reputation can still have any virtues at all. They establish distinctions and reserves which I cannot apply to myself for I exist only as a whole; my only claim is to be natural, and the pleasure I feel in action, I take as a sign that I ought to do it.’ (100)

The character Ménalque who makes the above declaration is a man that lives outside of society’s narrow and arbitrary strictures, and is quite comfortable. I kept waiting for Gide to let the “moralizing” begin, but, luckily, he doesn’t quite get there. Yes—there are punishments served up, but they are not real punishments, they are only Michel’s self-flagellating perception.

So it turns out he is anti-bourgeoisie- so what? I am a bit of a failed bourgeoisie myself, (I just don’t care enough for things or social ambition to bother)  so perhaps I am not the right person to be shocked by Michel’s histrionic  search for justification of tangible pleasures of the non-materialistic type. It is an exercise in depression for me to consider the way that societies encourage open lust for, say, the latest Apple electronic device, yet consider the desire for personal happiness (ye gads, not that!) to be a depraved selfishness or at best a cultural weakness.

I have a horror of rest, possessions encourage one to indulge in it, and there’s nothing like the security for making one fall asleep; I like life well enough to want to live it awake. (95) 

Much of the book is wrapped around the corporal experience. Michel suffers from tuberculosis, and the intensity of illness—of being forced into such close appreciation and dependence on one’s body alters his emotional state throughout his convalescence, recovery and subsequent role reversal when he must nurse his angel of a wife Marceline who contracts the dreaded disease as well.

‘I should like an explanation for your silence.’
‘I should like one myself.’ (95)

It’s Michel’s curiosity that propels him. His fear of feeling nothing, of giving into the malaise which society cultivates and needs in order to function smoothly falls away from him by an illness that produces a physical malaise which humiliates whatever put-upon mental inclinations that cling to him. He is fascinated by people that don’t  self-inflict what fills his soul with despair. He wants to live, to feel, if only he could run away from the idea that that is somehow wrong and bad- even though some of his studies are on the ignorant depraved side of things…but that’s life—complex.

Nothing is more discouraging to thought than this persistent azure. Enjoyment here follows so closely upon desire that effort is impossible. Here, in the midst of splendor and death, I feel the presence of happiness too close, the yielding to it too uniform. (157)

In the spirit of gross Colonialism (in this case French) they travel to Africa where Michel really discovers and indulges his senses in the…presumed looser morals of the natives. It’s that myopic idea that just because “your” people aren’t watching and scandalized, no one is. Not to mention ascribing ones own warped ideas onto a people in which there is very little true understanding. Never the less, if we substitute what is more true—that inner country of knowing, where the passions of the body and soul can meet—if we’d let them, then the point is well made. That is the persistent azure—and it endures.

‘One must allow people to be right,’ he used to say when he was insulted, ‘it consoles them for not being anything else.’  (91) 

*The Immortalist translated from French by Dorothy Bussy