Monday, June 19, 2017
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
EVE AND LILITH
Here is Eve. She is a real woman. She is as complex and contradictory as any man, because she is a fully-formed human being. She has her own moods and cycles, which are a mystery to boys and uninitiated men, but which are understood and accommodated by mature men. She can conceptualise, idealise, theorise, dispute, debate, think profoundly, think shallowly, have whims or have a fixed purpose as men can. But she is different – physically different and because of this mentally different. No – I did not say inferior or subordinate, and I did not say ruled by her feelings. I said different. She menstruates. She can carry a child in her womb for nine months and give birth. She lactates and can feed a child from her body. And even if she remains a virgin or is never pregnant, please do not say these are trivial things. From puberty to menopause, she receives a monthly reminder of her physical being. Often this renders her more realistic than men about both the potential and the limitations of the physical world.
And here is Lilith. Or at least here isn’t Lilith, because she doesn’t really exist. Lilith is not a real woman but women as imagined by men when they are idealising and fantasising. Lilith is women as seen by men’s sexual desire. Lilith makes men put women on pedestals, paint or sculpt them as goddesses, pose them in pornography. Lilith is always beautiful, always sexually available. Lilith is present when a schoolboy wanks to on-line porn or when Delacroix paints bare-breasted Liberty leading the people. She can inspire both the crass and the sublime. But she is not a real woman. She is the (heterosexual) male conception of a woman.
Why am I stating the obvious like this now?
Because recently I was reading the journals of Charles Brasch, and I came across this spectacularly silly statement by Brasch (entry of 13 October 1952):
“I have long thought that the male body is a far more beautiful and subtle creation than the female, & even penis and balls in their nest of hair less obvious than female breasts – penis a fickle leaping lightning conductor & somehow less merely physical than the too often merely gross breasts.”
As a homosexual, Brasch is entitled to find men’s bodies more sexually arousing than women’s bodies, and that is all that really stimulates him to write this. But it is foolish to leap from this to the denigration of women’s bodies and to phrases such as women’s breasts being “merely physical” and “merely gross”. I am greatly attached to my penis, enjoy all its functions, and would say that it defines me as much (and as little) as a woman’s reproductive system defines her. But if one is going to compare “penis and balls” with anything female, surely the appropriate comparison would be the mons veneris (or mons pubis), nested modestly in its hair, which some of us find pefectly delightful and a source of wonder – if such language doesn’t sound as if it is wandering into Lilith territory. As for women’s breasts, they have been a source of male sexual arousal since time immemorial. My own idealised artistic image of woman’s beauty would be the ample-breasted woman protecting children in David’s “Intervention of the Sabine Women”.
And what of these concepts of grossness and all this stuff about the male body being “more beautiful and subtle”? Surely this is idealisation and its opposite. Real men’s bodies are as often smelly, gross, obese and ill-formed as women’s bodies are. In writing such things, Brasch is really thinking of whatever is the male equivalent of Lilith – a non-existent idealised form – perhaps Michaelangelo’s David or some classic statue of a Greek athlete, but not many real men.
Art is often idealisation and this is not a puritanical sermon against it. But too much idealisation and physical reality is belittled. Lactating breasts, swelling wombs, menstruation, birth – I might have found these things mysterious and foreign when I was a kid, but I’m now happy with them as good and necessary parts of life. To see any of them as “gross” is a sign of immaturity. The female form does not repel me and is in no sense less “subtle” than the male form. And let Lilith and her male equivalent still inspire artistic endeavour, but not cloud our rational minds.