Sunday, January 07, 2007

Venetian Tendancies. Florentine too.

Back in Whitby. This is continued from Thurday's excruciating post, about my falling in love with a girl.

Being a resourceful child and with nobody I could confide in, I sought out information on my problem at my local library. Here I met and befriended a dead bearded Venetian named Sigmund. Come on, twelve or thirteen years old, I felt there was something wrong with my mind and it seemed sensible to start with the one psychologist I had actually heard of. I didn't realise that he would be obsessed with sex. Naïve isn't the word.

I soon found that on best prognosis I was
"amphigenously inverted (psychosexually hermaphroditic); i.e., their sexual object may belong indifferently to either the same or to the other sex. The inversion lacks the character of exclusiveness."
I had always suspected that whatever was wrong with me would involve long words. I was amphibiously perverted, like some sort of deviant newt! Sigmund at least reassured me that I was not a "degenerate". People like me existed throughout history, he said and didn’t usually have any other sort of mental problem. In fact, some of us had achieved remarkable things. Woopey.

However, elsewhere in his works, I began to suspect something else entirely. I appeared to have become completely unstuck from Freud's psychosexual stages of development. I had sucked my thumb, but years had passed since I grew out of that and it hadn’t once occurred to me to stick anything up my arse.

In all seriousness, everything that I read even about infantile sexuality was so alien to my own experience that I began to entertain the possibility that I wasn’t developing normally. And truthfully, this was a far happier prospect than being ambidextrously diverted.

I may well have been a bit behind my peers with the old psychosexual development. I don’t know, because sex was only ever spoken about in the vaguest of terms. What I did know was that I remained more or less completely disinterested in the contents of my own or anyone else's underpants, whatever disgusting practices I read about in books. I did, however, develop a healthy preoccupation with naked bodies.

I’m not entirely sure how I managed to fill my official school sketchbook with (largely imaginary) nudes, produce a pop art version of Botticelli’s Venus and illustrations for The Emperor’s New Clothes as part of my school projects without anybody batting an eyelid. But the teachers, in that precious gouache-splattered sanctuary that was our Art Block, remained unfazed. One particular sketch in vigorous 9B pencil, of a naked man from behind, standing on a cliff edge with legs slightly apart, buttocks clenched, face and fists raised to the sky, was described as "Rather jolly!"

Venus from The Birth of Venus by Botticelli (naked lady)David by Michelangelo (rudey nudey man)Through art and its appreciation, I could identify a palpable, if entirely aesthetic crisis. This is beauty, that is beauty. They are different. But is one better than the other? Perhaps.

I am unconvinced by the slope of Venus’ shoulders and David was obviously posing on a cold day. But that's accuracy, not beauty.

I am in far more awe of David as a work of art. I could (and did) copy Venus, whereas I couldn't sculpt something close to that in any medium. But that's skill, not beauty.

Venus is, perhaps, more beautiful. Her hair is fantastic and she has a softness to her. Her pose actually seems more natural, she is more animate, more sensuous...

And even trying to write about her I falter completely, because I have spent so much of my life trying not to arouse suspicion. It is quite hopeless.

Adam from the Creation of Adam on the Sistine Chapel Ceiling Then there was the difficulty of interpretation. I loved all Michelangelo's naked chaps, particularly the painting on the Sistine Chapel Ceiling. And particularly Adam, I guess. I mean look at the guy. Is he not beautiful? He is stunningly beautiful. Once again, he was created on a very cold day, but hey.

And the other chaps on the Sistine Chapel Ceiling are similarly lovely. Muscular, but well-padded with it, wonderfully curvaceous and powerful and generally a bit of all right. See, I ought to be writing erotica, I'm so good at this.

And naturally, I said to an older friend who was about to go to Florence on a History of Art trip, "Those men on the Sistine Chapel ceiling are really sexy!"

My friend thought this rather funny. "But they all look like fat women," she said. "Michelangelo was gay, so he painted men who looked like women."

And for the first time I began to entertain the possibility that the lines we draw around this stuff might be completely wrong. There seemed no reason why sexuality would hinder a person's aesthetic frame of reference. Botticelli was also homosexual, but Venus isn't masculine. She isn't even slightly androgynous. She might not have the large breasts and flat stomach which characterise the current feminine ideal, but that is what some beautiful women look like in their birthday suits. I knew because I'd seen them.

And Adam is the same. He is not something out of Cosmopolitan Magazine; he does not fit with out modern ideal of masculine beauty, which is far more svelte - far more like David, in fact. But there are certainly some beautiful men who like that in their birthday suits. I'd seen them as well (I was on the school French Exchange Program, you see).

Unless sexuality could be reduced to a fetish for one set of goolies or another, we were surely attracted to degrees of masculinity or femininity (plus either, neither or both)? Masculinity or femininity are the cultural constructs we project onto the biological reality - in all its wondrous and complex variety - of maleness and femaleness. They are transient and often contradictory, but they do have a massive bearing on sexual attraction and how we understand our own sexuality.

Take the beard. Fortunately, we’re now reaching a stage where men tend to do whatever suits their own looks and tastes, but there were very few twentieth century heartthrobs who had beards. Meanwhile, there have been many cultures in history, as there are in the world today, where any man without a beard would be considered effeminate and thus not at all attractive.

A beard is a biological indicator of a sexually mature male. The idea that one can be attracted to a person without this feature is not at all surprising, because there’s so many other indicators we have to work with. However, that this - or underarm and other body hair, broad hips on a female, the foreskin etc. - might be treated as positively unattractive would be very surprising if we were to consider sex as a perfectly binary, purely biological, impulse.

You’ll be glad to know I wouldn’t have put this in quite so many words when I was a child, but I was beginning to see it.

Still, I couldn't get away from what seemed a very obvious fact: that in general, women seemed more beautiful than men. This was especially the case back then when boys were all sorts of weird shapes, sizes and textures, the poor things. This seemed so obvious that I wasn't afraid to say as much. The conversation would go like this;
"Don't you think that women are more attractive than men?"

"Of course not, I'm not weird."

"But surely you can see that women are better looking than men are?"

"Yes. But that's not the same thing. If I was only attracted to people because of their looks, I would be very shallow indeed."
So maybe that was my problem. Maybe I was not ambiguously inserted at all, but just extraordinarily shallow. After all, beauty did matter to me. Not the sort of uniform geometric beauty that might get a face on the cover of a magazine (and, as I say, varies from age to age), but something more universal, something which it would be impossible to elaborate further on without sounding extremely pretentious. Possibly because it's not universal, but something entirely personal to me. But I hadn't worked that out yet.

There's going to be more after this, sorry. Has to come out, but I will pace it...


Sally said...

OK, its late, I have had a drink or three (highly unusual for me) but this post is so full of wonderful stuff I am tempted in.

Freud was a nutter. The End. Postscript: Jung said Freud was a nutter, to Freud (though using longer words).

Michaelangelo's David: Even as a thirty something I could not look at reproductions of this fantastic man without getting flushed. Once in art class (a mature student by then) I had the brilliant idea of turning the reproductions upside down, and drawing the degrees of light and shade. It worked.

Men being caught out on a cold day: I was once informed by a proper artist, (a well endowed male) that its not the willy that tells, its the size of the balls (this so shows I have had a drink) that was important to the artists of those days.

Beards: Any facial hair - yuK. Did you ever read Roald Dahl's 'The Twits' on beards ?

Genders: In my experience, and those of my friends of all persuasions, there are many genders in many degrees between the opposites of male and female. Unfortunately we were not told this when we fell for our own gender, perfectly naturally, in our teens. Now, over the hill marked '50', I can appreciate the attractiveness of my sixty five year old lesbian friend, and deal with my massive physical attraction to a very feminine in a rugged sort of way, twenty year old son of another friend: everything is so much easier to work out when one is old. You Goldfish, are working this out light years earlier than many of us.

I am so glad you are sharing this with us. It is fascinating and uplifting. Glad it is coming out too.

Sage said...

Yes, women are SO much more attractive than men. I love my guy to bits, but pictures of men don't affect me the same way a Victoria Secret fashion show does. I tend to think it's univeral, and women who disagree are repressing their true feelings, but that's likely a false concensus effect. I've written more on my theories around these feelings here a while back if you haven't already read it.

The Goldfish said...

Freud is a nutter. The End.

Yeah, I think I wrote a psychology essay along those lines once... ;-)

I am fairly indiscriminate about facial hair (although I do remember the Twits, yes!). Well, AJ has a little beard you see and it does suit him. I think it depends entirely on the individual. Similarly with armpit hair. Some of us wearing some outfits can get away with it (I think we can all get away with it in the buff), on others, it looks odd. And then there's the practical matters of whether you sweat much, skin sensitivity, energy available for shaving an area that doesn't need to be on display etc..

Sage, of course I read your Breast Appreciation post as I have read every post you've ever written. You also touch on one of the great difficulties I have always had, which is about how not to look at women in that way. I am afraid that still fills me with guilt. :-/

Anonymous said...

I suspect that it is, at least partly, society pressure. I would imagine that the Swedish, for example, being, apparently, more relaxed about their bodies in general, have also got it sussed that aesthetic appreciation doesn't always mean sexual attraction.

It is also why Section 28 was so horrendous - hopefully now children are being told that it's fine to love whoever you love. It may be just a phase, it may not, it's all normal. And that will make future generations more relaxed about all this sort of thing.

Not so subtle hint: voting in 2007 bloggies is under way (closes 10th Jan). Just trying to drum up support for my personal favourites!