Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Mousing around

Well-fed cats are better mousers than starving cats. If getting mice out of somewhere, say a barn, really matters to you, you'll feed your barn cats well. It's one of those odd things that, like the nails that Thoreau used to build the cabin at Walden Pond,  doesn't necessarily strike you as important. If you think about it a bit, though, an unsettling thought will hit you. Not necessarily morally unsettling, although it will be for some, but something that will shake up some basic assumptions you might have about the way nature works for cats, and lots of other predators, don't kill only, or even primarily, out of need. Or, to put it another way, laws of nature and natural law are clear different things.

I thought about that reading an interview with Esther Perel. Perel is a therapist who works with people who have had affairs. In the interview, she notes that the majority of people who do so are happy with their marriage. Lot of research backs her up in this. It's an unsettling proposition because it unsettles the old familiar notion that people cheat because they are living in a love- or sex-starved relationship or marriage. (In my experience, the person who is being starved of sex or love is usually the one being cheated on and not the cheater.)

We don't have to take everything Perel says as gospel, therapy is more of an art than a science, but I think she has some interesting stuff to say. Stuff that might unsettle us in a good way.
... the vast majority of people we come into contact with in our offices are content in their marriages. They are longtime monogamists who one day cross a line into a place they never thought they would go. They remain monogamous in their beliefs, but they experience a chasm between their behavior and their beliefs.
I wrote about this myself three years ago:
Infidelity is also an equal-opportunity affliction. And not just on the receiving end. People of all types cheat on their partners. Even women who find cheating repugnant and who speak scathingly of others who have done this will surprise us and themselves by having affairs.

So it seems to me that the first thing anyone, woman or man, would want to do when thinking about love and commitment is to acknowledge that they are capable of cheating. Actually, that doesn't go nearly far enough. What you need to do is admit that if it ever felt easy and safe enough to get away with, you probably would. I say this because I've lived long enough that I've seen women—quite a few women—seriously mess up because they didn't worry enough about the possibility that they would cheat. They worried plenty about their partner cheating on them but it never occurred them that they could ever do such a thing themselves until they did.
And then they go to see someone like Perel.

If they see Perel in particular, she will tell them that they shouldn't feel so guilty about it. That may strike you as typical therapeutic dismissal of moral and character issues, and that is almost certainly partly the case, but I think she has something right here.
Very often we don’t go elsewhere because we are looking for another person. We go elsewhere because we are looking for another self. It isn’t so much that we want to leave the person we are with as we want to leave the person we have become.

That’s the one word I hear, worldwide—alive! That’s why an affair is such an erotic experience. It’s not about sex, it’s about desire, about attention, about reconnecting with parts of oneself you lost or you never knew existed. It’s about longing and loss. But the American discourse is framed entirely around betrayal and trauma.
It's about "longing and loss". Long time readers might remember my suggesting that that is what Brideshead Revisisted is really about. I think all genuine religious feeling comes out of longing and loss. Waugh was onto something very important when he has Charles Ryder and Julia Mottram find and refind God, respectively, through affairs.

And it's not just Waugh who uses this sort of motive to drive a story of redemption.
The woman said to him,“Sir, give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
That, as many will already know, comes from the story of the Samaritan woman at the well.  It's sometimes said that Jesus didn't say much about sexual morality so we should assume he didn't think it that important. But he did say something about it.

Before getting to that, a bit of cultural background. In the antique world women went to the well in groups in the morning. To go alone later in the day when there was a man at the well was a deeply improper act. It's sort of like twerking in a flesh-coloured bikini is now; it sends a message about the woman doing it. The Samaritan woman was looking for sexual attention and the audience John wrote his Gospel for would fully have understood what this woman was going to the well for. They would not have been surprised that Jesus answers the question above by raising questions of sexual morality:
Jesus said to her,
 “Go call your husband and come back.”
The woman answered and said to him,
“I do not have a husband.”
Jesus answered her,
“You are right in saying, ‘I do not have a husband.’
For you have had five husbands,
and the one you have now is not your husband.
What you have said is true.”
There is some numerology at work here. Seven is the number of completeness. We shouldn't necessarily think that this woman literally had five husbands and one lover before she met Jesus. The point is that she'd had a lot and the Evangelist makes the number symbolically significant in that her final lover, Jesus, is the seventh and therefore the completion of her desire. No, Jesus was not her sexual lover, although, as we shall see, what he does with her does cause scandal. Rather, Jesus offers her something that will fulfill her deeper need which like the cat pursuing mice or the married person pursuing affairs, is not simply a matter of physical need.

Let's go back to what Perel says again:
We go elsewhere because we are looking for another self. It isn’t so much that we want to leave the person we are with as we want to leave the person we have become. 
Isn't that what the woman at the well really wanted too?

Of course, Jesus didn't literally mean that the woman would never be physically thirsty again nor did he mean that she'd never be horny again. She had to drink water the rest of her life and she had sexual needs for the rest of her life too.  I doubt very much that she became celibate after Jesus had left.

Do you feel "really alive" or are you leading a life of quiet desperation?  I ask because if you don't feel really alive you won't be the only one who suffers as a consequence and that will be true whether you actually get around to cheating or not.

Eventually, Perel's non-judgmental attitude towards people having affairs got to be too much for the Hanna Rosin who was interviewing her at Slate and who is, not incidentally, married. Rosin bluntly asked Perel if she recommended having an affair:
No more than I would recommend cancer and yet a lot of people finally understand the value of life when they get sick.
Jesus' disciples were also taken aback at his seeming acceptance of a dubious sexual morality:
At that moment his disciples returned,
and were amazed that he was talking with a woman,
but still no one said, “What are you looking for?”
or “Why are you talking with her?”
The reason they didn't ask those questions is because they thought already knew and they were "amazed". "Shocked" or "scandalized" would be better words.

There is a kind of morality that, particularly when applied to sex, tells us to hate the desire itself. To always regard wanting as a sign that there is something wrong with us. I think Jesus is much closer to Perel and Waugh here than he is to your typical Christian moralist.


  1. have you ever considered putting together a page with links to the different posts you did when you blogged through Brideshead (or for that matter Mad Men)? I recommended them to a friend who was reading the book at one point but I just had to say to use the search box.

    1. I've put a "Brideshead Revisisted" label up at the bottom of this post. Clicking that will get all the posts that I have remembered to label to come up, although not in a tremendously useful order.

      I have a long term plan to revisit and rewrite all the posts that deal with favourite recurring subjects—Brideshead Revisited, Body Heat, Mad Men—and repost them, quite possibly on another blog I have created but never use. The posts on those subjects continue to draw regular traffic even now. Among other things, I know I have changed my mind about a lot of things as I went along and it would be interesting and useful for me.

  2. Jules,

    I came across your post today as I was looking for more content surrounding Perel's interview. She touches on something that I experiencing profoundly at this point in time. I've kind of been hating myself, fearing for my marriage, torn apart, frozen in one spot, etc. Tying this topic in with Jesus and the woman at the well was, I think, an amazing idea. But here is my question: do you think it is really possible, in real life, not literature or interviews, to refind God through affairs? I have lost God recently and I'd love to find him again, but it seems like I have to choose between being happy in spiritual life and trying to rediscover my social/sexual identity. Thoughts?

    1. Bradley,

      I'm not sure I fully understand but I'll blunder my way through an answer.

      I found my way back to God when I was cheated on many years ago. I didn't think I was ever going to be happy again at the time. I was a three-quarters destroyed mess of a man capable of only two emotions: rage or helplessness. Everything I tried to do only made the situation worse and I was too scared to do the one thing that needed to be done, which was to break off the relationship. In my darkest moment I turned to God. After that I was able to start rebuilding, it took several years to do so by the way. Never in a million years, however, would I suggest dating the woman I was with at the time to anyone for any reason. Some people find God sitting on death row but no one would suggest committing murder in a death-penalty state as a reasonable way to find God.

      I don't think setting out to have an affair is a good way to do anything. The lesson to take from Perel is to not hate yourself for wanting it. The emotions that drive us to think this way are important and we should pay attention to them. You're not a damaged or bad person for thinking this way.

      And, as any good confessor would say, no matter what you may have already done, if you have done anything, redemption is always possible with God.

      I obviously know nothing of your case but what I'd recommend is getting a copy of Robert Glover's No More Mr. Nice Guy and give it a read. He doesn't talk about finding your way to God, I don't know if he even believes in God, but he has some good advice about what to do when you feel as you've described your feelings above.

      That's not professional advice, just my blundering best.