Is Eros All?

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Having been here in London for a total of three days, I have come to the conclusion that if a play isn’t about sex, it isn’t going to show up on the London stage. Okay, I’ll amend that a little: if a play is about finding the perfect nanny, or battling orcs, it might sell a couple of tickets, although god knows why anyone would still be buying tickets to The Lord of the Rings. (Over the summer I went to see it with my two boys and it was bad, bad, bad. The only bad thing I’ve ever seen in London. Perhaps that is because it wasn’t about sex.)

But sex is clearly all. This occurred to me early, as well as often, beginning Saturday night, a few hours after my arrival, when I was directed to exit the Picadilly Circus underground station via the statue of Eros. Naturally, I was on my way to see The Country Wife, a restoration comedy about…. YES! Sex. What is there to say about The Country Wife? Let’s see. Wycherley has a low opinion of enduring married love. A low opinion of women’s fidelity. A really low opinion of what motivates men. (Do you really want me to tell you what motivates men? YES! Sex.) It was very funny, very cynical, and featured the guy I saw over the summer in a Harold Pinter play called Betrayal, Toby Stephens, as the rake who decides he will have better access to the women of the town if he lets a rumor go about that he is impotent. This is a plot device I wouldn’t have thought could work but, it turns out, this rumor gives him unfettered access to women, all of whom fall in his lap, as it were. I will say this — he was charming. I think he might have been wearing the exact same pair of jeans he wore in Betrayal. And yes, when I wasn’t laughing, I was wondering if they were his favorite jeans.

Last night I saw The History Boys, which was pretty great. You’d think that this play would be mostly about education, and how we learn, or at least that’s what I thought. In fact, it is mostly about the link between education and seduction. Its tragic turn naturally comes about because of misplaced passion.

It’s pouring here, and indeed it is pouring plays about sex. Tonight, I am going to see Shadowlands, which is about… what else? C.S. Lewis’s late in life marriage. Pouring it on, tomorrow, I will be seeing not one but TWO Harold Pinter plays and, no, they are not about finding the perfect nanny or battling orcs. And then, Thursday, best of all, I am going to see Much Ado About Nothing, which I am reading right now, and really enjoying for its depiction of a woman and man determined not to love. Shakespeare would agree that eros matters much, particularly in the comedies, where the failure to love properly is the focus of much of the action.

Which brings me to Wallace Stevens and Jane Austen, for whom the sex is all formulation was a bit complicated. I give these insights to you free of charge, particulary to those who are getting here via google because you have a paper due in English class tomorrow and you would love to be able to talk about Stevens and Austen and sex in the same breath. Let it never be said that I do not have sympathy for those who (a) procrastinate and (b) try to do everything.

Stevens seldom wrote directly about love and sex. And when he did, he observed not that sex is all, but that sex is not all that: “If sex were all, then every trembling hand/Could make us squeak, like dolls, the wished-for words.” My conclusion is that this had much to do with his complicated and not very satisfying relationship with his wife Elsie, who seems to have entered a sort of spinster-ish old age very early in their marriage. There is something bitter about these two lines, which makes me think that if he is expressing something he believes to be true, then he is being less than honest with himself. And that is because sexual desire is very hard to deny, and cannot be dismissed so easily. When you do try to deny it, it just crops up in other places. I haven’t thought a lot about it (this is, after all, a blog), but I’m going to guess that Stevens simply transformed sexual desire into other sorts of passion — for some communion of word and life, for beauty, and for a hearty embrace of good food.

As for Austen, after reading Claire Tomalin’s terrific (and short) biography, I’m inclined to think that Austen and her sister Cassandra (neither of whom ever married) also answer, in their choices and lives, the question of where eros goes when it cannot find direct expression in one’s life. For Cassandra, as for Elsie Stevens, eros is tamped down by going early into old age. (And I’d question whether old age is truly a place where eros doesn’t live. Look at Harold and Maude.) For Jane Austen, who seems to have loved once, and been unable to marry the man she loved, and then refused to marry anyone else, eros lives in a series of remarkable novels, novels which explore how we love well and how we love badly.

In The History Boys, one of the students, the sexually precocious Dakin, says, “The more you read, though, the more you’ll see that literature is actually about losers . . . It’s consolation. All literature is consolation.” If literature is about losers, then we are all losers, of course, because we are all concerned with the great issues literature takes on, particularly the question of how to love well. And the things we learn about love in literature, whether it is that sometimes we have to bury our desires to survive them, and sometimes we love so badly we cannot continue, and sometimes we are lucky and learn to love properly, are the best sorts of consolations, because they show us that we are not alone in our struggle with this most important of all questions. That is a consolation I would not want to have to do without, and, fortunately, here in London, will not have to do without, as long as the statue of Eros is pointing the way to the theater.

Left to Right

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This is the chaos that is our living room Christmas morning. It is also a pretty fair approximation of the chaos that is my life on many more days than I care to admit. My aim is to be Archie, still and happy in the midst of all the chaos. My aim is also to have a chair to actually sit on so I can finish Claire Tomalin’s wonderful Jane Austen: A Life. And if there is a table where I can put a cup of tea without everything else on the table crashing to the floor, life is complete.

Only this morning, my husband was making enthusiastic noises about how aggressively he is going to attack his resolutions, possibly aided by the intervention of six cups of strong Sumatra. Me? I asked him to aggressively make me a cup of tea so I could lie in bed and read.

Which is where I still am, this beautiful New Year’s morning in northern California, where the light is so clean and the day is a little chilly, but not forbiddingly so. He got me the tea and then launched into a little speech in which he catalogued my fine qualities, which is a little unusual, so I think that must be the coffee at work. Anyway, among the fine qualities I was lauded for possessing, besides my ability to actually not move for hours in the morning even when he has had six cups of coffee and is trying to rouse me to clean up the living room, is that I taught him to clean the kitchen from left to right. Okay, so it is not exactly the same as, say, teaching someone the principles of physics or how to speak Italian, but it still counts.

Basically, this important cleaning principle involves beginning your task at a fixed point, (I choose left because I am, after all, socially and politically liberal, but this works equally well if you begin on the right — something that is not true in any other part of life), and not moving on to any other chaotic place until you have put that area to rights. Oh, and it is also important to wipe the crumbs off that section of the kitchen before you move on.

I have a few other tips for how to go about cleaning up the living room and the kitchen, and I give them to you, completely free of charge, but only if you promise to spend at least part of your day today doing the equivalent of lying around in the midst of the chaos on your little dog bed thing, only in your case it should be the sofa or an armchair. A hot beverage is recommended. Here they are:

–play your favorite rowdy music — loud is good. It gets you going, makes you feel less guilty when you consider how wrapping paper is an environmental shame and you really need to think of an alternative, and also gets children involved in rushing around the house, putting their new books on shelves and even maybe walking that sleepy dog.
–never leave the room without something in your hands, and always put that thing as close as possible to the place it goes — you don’t have to get it exactly where it goes, but if it is closer to its destination that is a good thing
–caffeine is good, but six cups of coffee is pushing it
–line up a little reward at the end — Lying around reading the Life of Jane Austen is currently recommended because it is incredibly interesting. My favorite thing so far was Tomalin’s observation that Austen’s father was wonderfully encouraging, that he let her read widely in his library and he did not censor her writing, even when, as an adolescent, the plays she wrote involved the exploits of women of doubtful character, who seemed not to be punished for running around wildly, but to enjoy themselves immensely. Given that he was a minister, this liberality is all the more remarkable.

Before you know it, the living room will look ready for lounding around in.

Here’s to a liberal, open-handed, tolerant, slightly less chaotic, and wildly fun 2008.

Oh, Mr. Darcy (A Little Writing Interlude)

One of my boys is home sick today, something that slows down momentum like nothing else. He tries hard to leave me alone, but he’s seven, and he has a lot of things to talk about. So finally I rooted around in our pile of Netflix movies and put Pride and Prejudice (the one with Colin Firth) in the computer.

That did the trick. For some reason, when you’re seven, the question of how the Bennett girls are going to find husbands is fascinating. After asking whether there were any guns in the movie (only once, in the shooting scene), he settled in. He liked the parties, the soldiers, the nasty Miss Bingley. I think because he so often feels like the rudest one in our family, he was happy to see a movie in which so many adults are mean to each other. And because there is no kissing, and the search for love is expressed in words rather than scary outfits in which girls show their belly buttons, he was not scared away.

The funniest thing of all though is that when Mr. Darcy proposes to Elizabeth that first time, so rudely and with so much passion, I happened to be looking over his shoulder and then when Elizabeth turned him down, I began to weep. Poor thing, my son looked at me with some concern and said, Mom. This whole movie? It’s about marriage, isn’t it? As though nothing could be sad about marriage, for heaven’s sake. Now, if you fall off your bike, that’s another story entirely.

We’ve got the second part of this movie, the part where things turn out all right, coming in the mail. Neither of us can wait.