Love and Death
–Philip Larkin, “Faith Healing”
Two years ago an American journalist wrote that “The death instinct hovers over the United States.” I had known this for some time, of course; when you turn yourself into a late-empire killing machine, what other outcome could there be? But the phrase “death instinct,” so stark and Freudian in its implications, really caught my attention. Long before Freud, poets and novelists had written of the intimate connection between love and death, eros and thanatos. Indeed, when the former gets blocked or thwarted, it turns into the latter, its opposite. Check out the body language of Dick Cheney or Condoleezza Rice, if you don’t believe me.
Since the 1960s, America has been seen as the land of hedonism, the place where “anything goes.” But the truth is that this is a thin veneer placed over a much deeper puritan reality. “Scratch an American,” wrote one astute historian in the late sixties, “and you find a Puritan.” It’s much worse now than it was forty years ago, of course; “political correctness” is nothing if not a puritan movement. Thus I was recently contacted by a German journalist living in Washington, DC, who expressed her horror at a number of current news items. One involved a situation in which the parents of a two-year-old had their child playing in their backyard, in a diaper, and the next-door neighbors called the police to report this case of “indecent exposure.” The police, instead of suggesting that the neighbors check themselves into the nearest mental institution, came to the parents’ house and ordered them to put some clothes on the child.
Another situation she reported to me involved that of a six-year-old boy who wrote a note to a classmate, telling her “I love you.” The little girl showed the note to her parents, who then descended on the school principal, choking with anxiety. The principal could have pointed out how sweet this love note was, how touching. Instead, he inflicted permanent emotional damage on the little boy by suspending him from school for three days. Clearly, hatred of life is a terrifying thing.
The flip side of this, as battalions of sociologists have pointed out, is pornography. By this I don’t mean merely the tons of pictures and videos on the Internet, but, along with the militarization of American life, the sexualization of it. Sex permeates the public sphere in the United States in a way that is so pervasive that it has become part of the air we breathe. Television, advertising, films, you name it–sex is somehow always present. And yet, what does it really come down to? Recent studies of American sexual behavior reveal that actual sexual activity is way down, from years past; Americans are too busy working and consuming to have time for pleasure in their lives. Pornography is something that takes place in the mind, and since almost all of it is variations on a theme, it’s actually quite boring. All it amounts to is a kind of mental “utopia” that never manages to get below the neck. Many years ago Octavio Paz wrote that North Americans were big on pornography because they didn’t really live in their bodies; that in the US, the life of the senses had atrophied.
I remember when I first visited Mexico, in 1979. The most striking thing about crossing the border was the explosion of color. Prior to that, the color range I was used to consisted of varying shades of gray and green. Suddenly, I felt like the victim of a visual assault: Mexico was a riot of color. Houses of deep blue, ochre, salmon, brilliant yellow–what a feast, I remember thinking. True, I had had somewhat similar experiences in San Francisco, New Mexico, and Italy, for example, but this was much more dramatic; it seemed to be a statement about reality, about the nature of things. As I traveled around Mexico, I remember thinking: Which country really has the wealth? What is “wealth,” when you get right down to it? Nearly thirty years later, I live in a Mexican house whose walls are so drenched in color that I see no point in putting up any pictures. The walls themselves are the “art.”
And of course, if there is very little repression of sensuality in Mexico, there is also very little repression of death. Since North Americans don’t really live, in a sensual or erotic way, death is a great source of fear for them, a taboo subject. (The guy who wants the party to go on forever is the one who never had the courage to approach the pretty girls.) In Mexico, on the other hand, death is never very far from one’s consciousness. Pictures of skulls, skeletons, national holidays–all of this seems ever-present, reminding us that you’d better enjoy life while you can, because it’s over pretty quickly, and you are going to be dead for a very long time.
“Make love, not war,” the Austrian psychiatrist, Wilhelm Reich, told us, many years ago, in so many words. I guess the old boy knew what he was talking about.
©Morris Berman, 2008