By Tim Parks.
If Brahma is a more endearing creator than Jehovah it is because he wasn’t pleased with what he had made. The great god found the world dull and dusty. Death was the answer, suggested Shiva. Living forever, people were bored. A time-limit would galvanise, give dignity. But in that case some way of replacing the population would have to be found. Brahma brought together a few trusted fellows and explained what was required. The pleasure took them by surprise. What was that for? To put a fresh shine on the world, they were told. Otherwise it might get dusty again . . .
I’m always taken aback when people talk about the eroticism of food and drink, of sunbathing and massage. This is mere sensuality. Or avoiding the issue. No experience even remotely compares with true eros, with long and lavish love-making. It is perfectly understandable that people should imagine its having been tacked on to creation afterwards, so extravagant is the pleasure it brings, so far beyond what is necessary. Never does the world seem so freshly painted, so brightly enamelled, so new, for heaven’s sake, as after the best sex. But, alas, depending on where you’re up to in life, it may be full of new complications too. A lesser authority than Brahma’s would have issued a health-warning.
Over billiards and beer a friend is explaining why he is leaving his wife and two children. He’s playing with unusual speed and precision. His eyes are brighter than the beer could account for. ‘And the girl is twenty-three,’ he explains. French. So intelligent. ‘Intelligently pert breasts?’ I enquire, ‘Perceptively warm thighs?’ He laughs. He is deliriously proud, confused, unhappy. ‘I feel I was never really in love with my wife,’ he says.
Eroticism paints out the past. In this sense it is the most potent myth-making and myth-destroying power we have. How those first encounters are told and re-told, cherished and savoured over and over again. How solid and irreplaceable they begin to seem. I did this, you said that. When your hand first . . . When your mouth . . . Beneath all the structure of domestic economy, in-laws, even children, it is on this bedrock that marriage rests. But only once? Is it never to happen again? Suddenly solid ground is quicksand . . .
‘As soon as I’m in the door, I feel suffocated. I married too young.’ Thus Franco, potting the black. ‘I never experienced real passion.’ Before la jeune-fille très intelligente, he means. And is setting up the table again. He is smoking too this evening. I have never seen him smoke before. ‘I feel I will die if I go home,’ he says. I ask him if he wants more children. He doesn’t. ‘Perhaps it’s all a terrible mistake,’ he says, ‘but at least I will have had this passion.’ Should I tell him that when we first met years ago he had seemed very passionate about his wife? Who is nothing if not intelligent . . .
Women. Another Indian myth – sexist, if you wish to be offended – has it that when the gods became scared of a man, scared of his developing spiritual powers, they would send him a woman. Or alternatively they might send Indra to seduce his wife and make him jealous. In either case, the turbulent feelings would disperse the power he had accumulated. So Franco, whose expertise once took him round all the capitals of Europe, now finds his life in pieces. Lawyers, quarrels, returns, departures. Then more women too. For if marriage has a way of declining into dusty routine, myth-making likewise can lapse into tawdry chronicle. The third marriage, the fourth. Meantime, my billiards is improving.
Eroticism has this in common with an addictive drug: that there is a coercive element to its pleasure with which part of us is in complicity, and part not. Thus ever since time began men have been trying to enjoy eroticism without being destroyed by it. Societies, religions can be defined in the way they deal with this conundrum. Polygamy, monogamy with repression, monogamy with affairs, monogamy with prostitutes, serial monogamy. Not to mention individual solutions of great ingenuity, or desperation: Victor Hugo with the door knocked through the wall of his office, to let in a girl each afternoon. Auden’s flare for finding call-boys in every town. Picasso who simply refused when wife and mistress demanded he choose between them. Then there is always the hair-shirt of course. But perhaps the thing to remember when you wake up with a life full of fresh paint and tortuous complications is that eroticism wasn’t invented for you, nor merely for the survival of the species perhaps, but for a divinity’s entertainment. Nothing generates so many opportunities for titillation and schadenfreude as eroticism. Which is why it lies at the centre of so much narrative. How the gods thronged the balconies of heaven to see the consequences of Helen’s betrayal! And your friends are watching too. Your antics have put the shine on many a late-night conversation.
On the borders between mythology and history, that wily survivor Odysseus was the first who learnt to trick the gods. And perhaps his smartest trick of all was that of lashing himself to the mast before the Sirens came in earshot. There are those of course who are happy to stand at the railings, even scan the horizon. Otherwise, choose your mast, find the ropes that suit you: sport, workaholism, celibacy with prayerbook and bell . . . But the kindest and toughest ropes of all are probably to be found in some suburban semi-detached with rowdy children and a woman who never allows the dust to settle for too long.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tim Parks was born in Manchester in 1954, grew up in London and studied at Cambridge and Harvard. In 1981 he moved to Italy where he has lived ever since. He has written eleven novels including Europa, Destiny, Rapids and, most recently, Cleaver, as well as three non-fiction accounts of life in northern Italy (most recently A Season with Verona), a collection of ‘narrative’ essays, Adultery and Other Diversions, and a history of the Medici bank in 15th century Florence, Medici Money. He has translated Moravia, Tabucchi, Calvino and Calasso, and lectures on literary translation in Milan.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, August 9th, 2007.