FROM TODAY, IT’S ALL DOWNHILL (21 June 2011)
Now for the bad news: sex is a metaphor for human life itself. Both are all right, in their place, and if indulged in moderation. Both have been subject to millennia of sentimental, if not hysterical, overselling. Worse, sex is like a meal: nothing to touch it if done to a tee; yet more generally dull, trite and liable to leave its victims (if sufficiently repugnant) sprawled on a hospital trolley.
The trouble with sex is that for generations it has been on the defensive against something it was never meant to be. First strode in the Christians, for whom marriage offered the only trans-substantiation for what would otherwise be the lowest of the low. Then, tumbling on its own apologies emerged the Descent of Man, which struck Victorian propriety nonetheless like a hard punch to the face. As Charles Darwin puts it,
Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work worthy the interposition of a deity. More humble and I think truer to consider him created from animals.
The only redemption, in the eyes of those latterday romantics who populated the Twentieth Century novel, was to elevate sexuality into an elemental force, both primal and sublime: with a mystic lustre as the core of human experience. Phallic Consciousness became the mot juste.
Of course, it was the Darwinians who’d got it right. I remember a biologist telling me how both worms and humans were essentially no more than digestive tubes: that the difference between us was that their bodies consisted of two layers, and ours of three. Are people better than tubes? Of course they are: in their consciousness bestowed through language and empathy, and the myriad revelations that consciousness makes possible. But it is that lowly status marks the full extent of our evolutionary heritage. There is nothing divine about physical desire, which many of us monsters of decrepitude survive (or have to survive) entirely without. What concerns me that love is a tyranny that ends generally in disappointment. It leads us astray and almost never makes good what it promises. George Melly used to say that losing his libido was like “being unchained from a maniac.” Oh, no; if you want to find what makes people different from annelids or nematodes, here is not the place to look. True love in old age is doubtless a glorious thing, however rare; but more often sexual desire in an ageing body is a source of frustration and shame: if not in ourselves, then in those who judge us. And who are there to judge us? Precisely those people who believe most avidly in the delusion of love as part of this fountain of youth, with its unspoken implication that anything about older people must be vaguely sordid.
The contemplation of love is most wearisome as it afflicts that most dismal of ages: middle age. A couple of years ago, remembering my youth in a Yorkshire market town famous for its castle and its rain and its coach parties, I decided to pen something:
Love should be like a hatchling butterfly:
Tearing free from worn-out skin,
Bursting with new blood its once-crushed wings, and
Ready to surpass the sky.
But middle age brings whiskery lust, for us
Or feathery, like dust – gristly with intimacies:
Mumbled in judicious teashop undertones, to a furtive
Crumpling of nylon macs, or pitched against a public
Squall of brats.
Either way: you know you ought not to be there,
Caught in the light. You ought to know better.
Shouldn’t be out, not at your age, where you can be seen and shamed.
Decrepitude is melancholy: warm, dark, moist –
Primal, I suppose; like your abode before you were even born.
What inner child survives, in me?
Ah, mine wouldn’t die.
Mine didn’t grow.
It reposes, clenched fist of a foetus that it is, gripping
My life’s misjudgements, binding them tight.
A lifetime’s chatter fills my ears.
My silence is big enough to swallow worlds.
Yet still I need to feel another’s hand.
Addled love is a clock cranked backwards.
A crab scuffling sideways
Writhing, worming pinkly on a skewer like a caterpillar:
Awaiting resurrection as a soft-boiled egg
To be absorbed into the dark belly of the earth.
It’s said that Somerset Maugham gave an extempore speech in which he enumerated the consolations of old age. So distressed and entangled did he become in silent cogitation that a few members of the audience rose to his aid. “Oh, it’s all right”, he explained. “I was just trying to think of any.”
Come close and let me whisper the sole consolation of age. It is that that you lose the capacity, or the endurance, for overwhelming emotion. It has been said that the opposite of love is not hate. That the opposite of love is indifference. And after a certain point, all you can afford to do is to let things go, to write them off. What set my mind going was that I found some poems about wounded love, which were incandescent with hatred. I pitted them against an enfeebled croak which I’d knocked up myself:
TO ABANDONED LOVERS
Beyond the horizon lies not mystery but indifference.
I knew you like a Christmas toy that had, without enchantment,
Been worked to bits.
I knew you like a Lost Property kiosk (where nothing was mine).
I knew you like an envelope whose letters had been entirely read –
Which had been made transparent by the rain
And whose contents, through damp, were beginning to burst slightly.
So much for my effort. I wrote it in response to a work by Fleur Adcock, entitled ADVICE TO A DISCARDED LOVER:
Think, now: if you have found a dead bird,
not only dead, not only fallen,
but full of maggots: what do you feel –
more pity or more revulsion?
Pity is for the moment of death,
and the moments after. It changes
when decay comes, with the creeping stench
and the wriggling, munching scavengers.
Returning later, though, you will see
a shape of clean bone, a few feathers,
an inoffensive symbol of what
once lived. Nothing to make you shudder.
It is clear then. But perhaps you find
the analogy I have chosen
for our dead affair rather gruesome –
too unpleasant a comparison.
It is not accidental. In you
I see maggots close to the surface.
You are eaten up by self-pity,
crawling with unlovable pathos.
If I were to touch you I should feel
against my fingers fat, moist worm-skin.
Do not ask me for charity now:
go away until your bones are clean.
Pure hormones, dear Lady; and nothing to which a Sunday school harmonium cannot lay waste. Only now it gets worse. Here’s one by a Rumanian Poet, Nina Cassian:
LADY OF MIRACLES
Since you walked out on me
I’m getting lovelier by the hour.
I glow like a corpse in the dark.
No one sees how round and sharp
my eyes have grown
how my carcass looks like a glass urn,
how I hold up things in the rags of my hands,
the way I can stand though crippled by lust.
No, there’s just your cruelty circling
my head like a bright rotting halo.
With the menfolk, we have an added encumbrance: testosterone. Horizontal jogging, you’re supposed to call it; and it afflicts us with an urgency that is in precise inverse proportion to any minute physical regard our Belle du Jour might have for us:
IN PARIS WITH YOU
Don’t talk to me of love. I’ve had an earful
And I get tearful when I’ve downed a drink or two.
I’m one of your talking wounded.
I’m a hostage. I’m maroonded.
But I’m in Paris with you.
Yes I’m angry at the way I’ve been bamboozled
And resentful at the mess I’ve been through.
I admit I’m on the rebound
And I don’t care where are we bound.
I’m in Paris with you.
Do you mind if we do not go to the Louvre
If we say sod off to sodding Notre Dame,
If we skip the Champs Elysées
And remain here in this sleazy
Old hotel room
Doing this and that
To what and whom
Learning who you are,
Learning what I am.
Don’t talk to me of love. Let’s talk of Paris,
The little bit of Paris in our view.
There’s that crack across the ceiling
And the hotel walls are peeling
And I’m in Paris with you.
Don’t talk to me of love. Let’s talk of Paris.
I’m in Paris with the slightest thing you do.
I’m in Paris with your eyes, your mouth,
I’m in Paris with… all points south.
Am I embarrassing you?
I’m in Paris with you.
James Fenton, that last. For here are the plaintive squeals of those who have been mauled by the biggest scam since pyramid selling, the myth of courtly love. Sex, enjoyed properly, is a fragrant trough in which we should disport like rampant hogs. This the Georgians understood, as indeed they understood so much, without mawkishness or false glamour. I shall take my leave today with Alexander Pope’s epitaph for a young couple who were struck by lightning whist taking shelter under a tree:
Here lye two poor Lovers
Who had the mishap,
Tho very chaste people,
to die of a Clap
In the vernacular of our own and sorry age: Sorted.
The poems by Stephen Jackson are from his latest book, DEAD PEOPLE ON HOLIDAY (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Dead-People-Holiday-Stephen-Jackson/dp/1450039685/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1297164227&sr=8-1