I want to be Esther Perel

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She is just so cool and says everything I need and want to say.

Commenting in Salon last month on Beyoncé’s Lemonade video that grapples, in part, with her cheating partner (“I know you’re cheating on me.”), Esther Perel in the article titled “Grief sedated by orgasm, orgasm heightened by grief”: Beyoncé, “Lemonade” and the new reality of infidelity“, applauds the singer’s frankness and platform used to plunge the public into the taboo infidelity, a conversation which Perel believes should be opened repeatedly. In fact, she believes that’s her job as a therapist and author–to help couples find themselves and their options past the ravine that betrayal opens between partners.

After noting the European and American moralistic difference in how couples suffer infidelity, she suggests Americans need to lose the strictures on discussion and judgment of both perpetrator and victim (think Hillary Clinton for staying when she could have left), which shames and thereby stifles examination of and learning from infidelity to repair,  renew or reject relationships shattered by infidelity.

After profiling American attitudes about the subject, she exhorts:

Given this reality, it’s time for American culture to change the conversation we’re having about infidelity—why it happens, what it means and what should or should not happen after it is revealed. The subject of affairs has a lot to teach us about relationships—what we expect, what we think we want, and what we feel entitled to. It forces us to grapple with some of the most unsettling questions: How do we negotiate the elusive balance between our emotional and our erotic needs? Is possessiveness intrinsic to love or an arcane vestige of patriarchy? Are the adulterous motives of men and women really as different as we’ve been led to believe? How do we learn to trust again? Can love ever be plural? 

These are important questions to begin the healing and ensuing path in any relationship that is pierced with this not always fatal rending. As Perel states, infidelity has existed longer than marriage, though she does not justify it as right for having lasted. She merely points to the reality of its persistence.

And just as Beyoncé is fire and ache, Perel is compassionate logic and measured reason, which is her (both) allure.

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Esther Perel on the “Erotic Arts” and Julia Kristeva on the Abject: My Morning Muse

I am unsure why I fell into a musing about horror, Kristeva, the abject, power and fantasy after listening to this video clip I found on my Facebook timeline from one of the sites I follow, but maybe it was the mention of words like freedom, sovereignty and imagination. I immediately thought of a graduate school read on The Powers of Horror by Julia Kristeva, probably because Perel also mentions fantasy that we imagine but would not like to live out. I have often been asked by lovers about my fantasies, and often have hesitated, asking which ones, the ones I want to live out or the ones that merely help me out in the shower that I would never want to live through. Just as often, the inquirers do not understand the question nor my fear of being judged. They just want to know them all.

And what does this all have to do with the mistress? I thought about that too. What about that space that fuels eroticism, the missing body of the wife, the absent body that haunts the mistress relationship, incurring pain of guilt and separation of the cheating spouse based on the conception or misconception of marriage as merging. If eroticism is as Perel often claims in her writings a creative space fueled by seeing the other as strange, separate, then the pain that is associated with separation, difference, separateness–the pain of separation–may be what contributes to creativity and thus, the plagued mind of the cheater also fuels eroticism.

When a man (or woman) engages a mistress, he experiences fear, fear that his wife will find out, that a divorce will ensue, that the life he has built will be crushed, his family lost to him, his life, essentially; he fears death. He comes in contact, in the words of Julia Kristeva in her book The Powers of Horror, with the abject, something that triggers a space where boundaries between self and other, subject and object, are broken down and the real or reality of what we are, who we are, not in symbolic terms but in reality, is experienced–the world as meaningless or chaotic (Modules on Kristeva in cla.purdue.edu). Kristeva exemplifies this notion with what we experience when we view the corpse. Seeing a corpse evokes the state in the viewer of a space of realization that we are mere bodies subject to death at any moment, and returns us to a recognition not merely that we are mortal but that existence is the disorder of mere living matter in various stages of decay. It is the fear, she avers, that is prelingual, the moment of first recognition or knowing of separateness of mother and child (Lacan) every human experiences (Modules).

The getting-caught-and-losing fear of the unfaithful spouse is the unconscious encounter with that primal fear, not only of death but of the meaningless of the human/living existence, and is produced in the recognition that occurs in the relationship with the mistress. It is also a space of the imagination that allows for creativity. The separateness that allows for fantasy (seeing spouse as an other and not an extension or part of self), according to Perel, is also evoked, shares that space of the mistress maintenance. The impulse to merge in marriage, to be as one, is the human need to avoid that separateness experienced at birth and continuing into the childhood recognition that the self is not the mother, but the marital space is also a constant reminder of that separateness, that inability to merge as daily existence has each spouse questioning whether the other is even of the same species on some days. How could he even think I would want sex when I am so tired and stressed? What is a man made of? This experience of separateness is the re-experiencing (or nearly) of the primal pre-lingual space of the abject, the chaos of human existence, that momentary recognition, though not cognition–just being there–of that meaninglessness.

So, the way fantasy is sometimes a place we wouldn’t want to go, but do go in our imaginations is illustrative of this drive toward the abject. People who fantasize about rape, bestiality, necrophilia, humiliation, torture, and more, but would not necessarily want to actually live such fantasy, perhaps dabble in if not downright dive into the abject, something to awaken them consciously or unconsciously to that space of fear of the merging of subject and object with self and the dead material around us, bodies, dead or alive, decaying living or once living matter. In those fantasies, people–we–recognize ourselves as just that–living/dying matter–and it produces fear but also eroticism, a place to create through imagination, the going into and pulling back from that chaotic space, the urge, the freedom and sovereignty, as Perel says, of creating due to that disorder, going into the dark, but emerging from it, improvisation and breaking from the structures of our imaginations–the taboo which keeps us from violating customs and practices that preserve society like incest–a reprieve, a vacation into fantasy.

The mistress as metaphor for so many strands of meaning, of human, is what draws me to the subject. There is a place for everyone–desire, fantasy, death, morality–a living creative space that is not merely the object of the gaze, like watching the ecstasy of performers in the orchestral symphony. We watch, intrigued by the performers’ expressions of perceived pain and pleasure that comes with the drilling discipline that fills their fingers and mouths over the millions of practicing hours they endured along with the erotic merging improvisational space into the music. But the mistress is also a collective space of participation and creation evoked by the non-mistress. I guess that explains my morning muse courtesy of Perel–once again.

For Passion’s Sake Separating Self from the Other–Esther Perel on “Mating in Captivity”

Esther Perel, rooting out the cause of sexual boredom in marrieds in her essay entitled “Mating in Captivity”(http://www.powells.com/essays/perel.html) directs married couples to rebel, to actively challenge fear in order to balance desire against love and thus recharge their sex lives. She challenges each to see the “other” in their partners.

She begins her article defining the problem, “the dilemmas of desire”, long term married couples experience, when passion, and thus sex, is murdered by the inherent contradictory needs and conceptions of love versus desire. She says, “couples around the world are chasing the desire dragon” trying to keep desire alive, which takes reconciling the need for security and familiarity with the need for newness and separateness. She affirms, “To sustain desire toward the other, there must be an element of separateness,” a creation of space that requires each of the couple to let go of, or at least suspend, fear. It takes foregoing the security of familiarity and sameness and the conception of love as sweetness and intimacy, and allowing the “mystery” in the other to flourish by seeing his or her otherness. The recognition and appreciation of otherness incites eroticism. That takes distance–scary.

Most people’s conceptions about love are based on “reciprocity” while desire is more “selfish”, and passion, in long term marriage, is traded for security, leading to boredom, both of which–passion and security–Perel says, are illusions. Of course, she advocates in the end devoted time for sex, even planned, and invites fantasy and rebellion as a mindset for charging up the mental loins. She ends with a cleverly conceived concluding conception: “Like the child who jumps off a mother’s comfortable lap, running off to discover and explore, before returning to the safety of home base, we adults continuously seek to balance our contradictory needs for connection and freedom, comfort and fear, the grown-up version of hide and seek.”

The draw of this essay is not so much the novelty of the information or advocacy to give up the illusion of the oneness of couples and to be brave enough to realize that we are all essentially, in the words of Brian Doyle in “Joyas Voladares”, “alone in the house of the heart”, but in the writing of the essay. She has an ease in her prose that comforts the reader, creating lovely imagistic analogies to convey the essence of her message, one like her last simile of the child running from the mother’s lap. She uses discreet bits of well-turned phrases to illuminate the more poignant points. I especially enjoyed this passage:

These elements we seek, the ones that combined, light the flame of eroticism, exist and thrive in a space I think of as otherness. The best intimacy is the one that respects this otherness. Individuality and difference are accentuated, and you actually see the other person as a separate being. As expressed by the great narrator, Proust, ‘The true voyage of discovery is not about discovering new landscapes but in seeing with new eyes.’ In those moments we stand on opposite ends of this space we see each other with new eyes. Our separateness is what allows for risk, vulnerability, and erotic charge of the unknown.

Standing on opposite ends of a space and “the erotic charge of the unknown” are two notions and phrasing that made me sigh in contentment upon concluding this piece. She takes what could be cliche’d psychological dicta–give each other space–and infuses a phenomenological dimension to the psychological.

The general patterns of behavior are underscored in this essay–we tend to meld into and conflate our spouses with ourselves–but individual perception is put in relief, something I call the gaze, in a more general and not historical-theoretical context.

Walking through daily life, people depend upon their anonymity and interior-absorbed space. They walk through streets in the anonymity of a crowd, invisible, thinking of where they have to go and what they have to do. It is only when someone recognizes the walker/thinker and calls her name or looks in her eyes with an i-know-you look that the comfort of the invisible world of thought and “self” is shattered. The reverie is interrupted and the self is pulled from her space into the world of another, into the community.

We forget about this general condition and comfort of lone self when we dive into marriage or any relationship to escape what some mistake for loneliness, most probably due to the fear of that conception–loneliness–or an angst about one’s own self worth. Am I doomed to be trapped in my mind, with my thoughts? Me? To zoom in, when the lover is in the gaze of her other, this separateness is capitalized. It is a nanosecond recognition that she is an object–of desire–a body, a repository of fantasy and fluid, a separateness, as Perel serenely states. She is seen. Maybe not as she “truly” is but as a strangeness that comes from not being a part of the self, like seeing one’s hand floating in space, disconnected from its arm. That space allows for possibility–what can I do to or with this other?–because this other is not me, doesn’t think like me, or fear like me. What does she want/like? The gaze turns the trite plea for space, I just need some space, to the reality: we are each alone in this world, and that is fucking hot!