Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Ugly Sex

Lama Michael is not often wrong, so I recall vividly the times he was. One time he was speaking about seeing someone after many years of absence, and how what was disturbing about it is that people change, and we're not willing to let that happen.

He was so wrong about that. What's uncanny about seeing someone after many years of absence is how relentlessly the same they are, how often you are rocked by it. “Oh yes! He always did tilt his head that way, when he was thinking. How could I have forgotten?”

I'm down with the illusion of the self, down with the fact that whatever lives on, body and memory die. But the tenacity of the self, in this life, is no delusion. More of a tragedy.

Burdens of sky, burdens of water.

This is not much of a poem, and I doubt anything can be made of it, but I've been mulling the topic over, the last few days. What does it mean to boys, growing up as the ugly sex, the grotesque sex, the repulsive sex? And what would it be like to grow up some other way? I called this "The Ugly Sex":

We are the ugly sex. Forever outside.
The joke of a naked woman
is that you want to see her:
the joke of a naked man is that you don't.
We are monsters crouching in the yew,
listening to the harps inside the hall.

Are we in the palace, or are we not?
Plates of shivering meringue
move on unseen hands:
we frighten girls witless
by the mere in-drifting
thought of our reptilian flesh.

It's all true: that we are brutal,
half-tamed, dazed and wounded beasts
you can't trust for a minute: also true
that we wander in our gilded halls
unable to take form, longing to be seen,
knowing that one glimpse of us
would send our lovers shrieking into hell.

It's a tangential response to Marly's Psyche, of course: at the heart of that myth is the simultaneous wonderfulness and repulsiveness of men. Which are we? Could you creep in with a lamp by night and discover the truth? Maybe you could, but what would be the price of knowing?

I wrote that in response to these lines of Marly's, the end of Psyche's account of her first night with Eros:

I lay within a nest of shattered twigs.
A shape with wings was sobbing on my breast,
Some wall between us battered down to dust.
I touched the face invisible to me.
His serpent pinions beat convulsively.

Marly Youmans, Throne of Psyche

But I think I'm too trapped in the male experience, just now, to receive this on its own terms. How ghostlike the male experience is! How we wander in our palaces, supposedly masters, but at the price of being unable to appear in our own shape! That's the myth of Tolkien's Ring, of course: oh yes, you can have power, all the power you want – but only at the price of not being able to appear as yourself. You can claim your power or you can appear with your own face, but you can't do both.

The sun gleaming on the endless, endless miles of the North Pacific.


mm said...

I find the poem very moving, Dale.

Zhoen said...

Thing is, any woman who does not fit the ideal feels the same.

Dale said...

Thanks, mm!

Zhoen, I've been thinking about that, too. I think there is a fundamental difference, though. A woman who doesn't fit the ideal, or doesn't think she does, feels that she, personally, is wrong. That's different (both better and worse) than feeling that you simply belong to a repulsive subspecies.

I also wonder if it's shifted. The idea of a *physically* attractive man barely existed when I was young. Men were attractive for their moral qualities: it was pretty much a given that they were all basically ugly. That's changed drastically.

am said...

I wonder if it is cultural and, as you wrote, that it depends on when you were born in time.

What mm said and what Zhoen said.

Then this came to mind:

Natalie said...

Well I don't know. Weren't men considered the beautiful sex? Think of all those sculpted hunks, Greek, Italian, etc. And the male body still dominates the fashion industry, even if it's (some) women who wear the clothes.

Do men really see themselves as an ugly sub-species? I've never met a man who does!

marly youmans said...


I'm infinitely pleased that you find the Psyche sequence so generative!

And I think one can argue all sorts of things about men and beauty, but what matters is that your poem makes its own laws on the matter...

Dale said...

Wow, these comments are making me think this is very culture-bound indeed: very possibly limited, at least in this extreme form, to Americans born in the 50's.

Natalie, yes, I very much feel myself to be a member of an ugly subspecies. It's rare for me to take esthetic pleasure in men, and rare for me not to take esthetic pleasure in women. I basically feel that, as a physical creature, I need to buy tolerance for my ridiculous appearance by presenting superlative qualities, of one sort or another.

This is deep, deep, in-the-bone stuff for me.

Dick said...

Qua poem, it's a winner: it presents the proposition elegantly, lyrically, indeed beautifully. Much to admire and enjoy. Qua statement of belief, it's puzzling. You whose vocation involves the contemplation of the physical form not just as spectator of it but also as one who has physical intimacy with it is speaking from body dysmorphia. Please advise further!

For my part, I've always had the perception that there is something faintly comic about a physical form whose pleasing plains and contours are interrupted so abruptly by that small jumble of external genitalia. And I guess my public contemplation of the male body is still inhibited by a culturally absorbed concern about the nature of my interest being misunderstood. But some response to an over-arching aesthetic of form and structure will have me regarding the male form with pleasure, particularly in dance. And in age and on the cusp, I suppose, of a decline into dereliction, I've even begun to come to terms with the image of my own body. In fact, only this morning after my shower I decided that if I could just shift the midriff bulge this body might still just about pass muster!

Sorry - more about me than it. But what a stimulating post, Dale. Thanks for it.

Tom said...

It seems almost impertinent to comment on a subject that at a stroke rips away defences that have been built over so many years. Yet I must walk as gently as I can through the inner country of the mind, avoiding those paths that would lead to the needless experience of past pain.

The comments offered so far are varied and valuable, expressing the different perceptions gained from life. Anything said here can be similarly countered by yet another personal experience. Is there, perhaps, some common awareness at the root of all the feelings expressed here? I would like to think so, even if only to make sense of this particular aspect of life.

I will therefore leave aside ideal models, cultural influences, dysfunctional impositions, masculine and feminine extremism and the rest. About a subject that asks more questions than it can ever answer, I would ask yet another question. Is there not, deep within us, a prototype or blueprint of spiritual perfection with which we compare our outer selves? Whether or not I choose to ignore or deny that inner Self makes no change to its sense of essential 'beingness'.

If that is so, and I think it is, it says something very wonderful about the beauty of sentient life, no matter how corrupted humankind's behaviour so often becomes. We have what we have; we are what we are. What would seem to be important is how we use what we have. The smile of the ugliest person imaginable is more beautiful than the sneer of the most physically beautiful person.

Jarrett said...

Or, you could just become gay. Solves the "ugly sex" problem! Creates others ...

Jarrett said...

More seriously I'm reminded of two simple nudes that Van Gogh did in his student days, before he developed his famous style. Both had their faces turned from us, revealing their bodies

The female form was classical and smooth, but the muscles on the male protruded so much that they felt semi-detached from the body, rather like incomplete plates of armour. At times they looked like alien creatures crawling over him, making him scream.