Eros, Sexuality & The Spirit
by Richard Lines
We are sexual beings. Sexuality and the sexual instinct are fundamental to our whole existence. That is well recognised today, but what is less well recognised is that sexuality is of the spirit as well as of the body. The modern heresy is to deny the spirit, to say that humans are just animals like all others. That erotic love is bound up with our spiritual nature is not so well known today, but Dante Gabriel Rossetti knew this when he wrote:
Yet, for much of its history, there has been a tendency in the Christian church to despise and fear sexuality. It has been regarded, not as God-given, but as part of mans fallen nature stemming from Adam and Eves first disobedience in the Garden of Eden. Abstaining from sexual activity was once seen as a necessary step along the road to spirituality and eventual union with God. In the Middle Ages the holiest men and women were those who led celibate lives in monasteries and convents. To this day the Roman Catholic church insists on a celibate (and all-male) priesthood. Marriage for the laity and, from the days of Martin Luther, for the Protestant clergy was seen as a second best, something that was necessary for the continuance of the human race and (as the Book of Common Prayer puts it) a remedy against sin, and to avoid fornication,, but not as something central to our spiritual nature.
Alongside this rather negative view of marriage was the even more negative view of the female as inherently inferior to the male, a view apparently stemming from a literal reading of the story in Chapter 2 of Genesis in which Eve was created from one of Adams ribs. Woman was created to bear and rear children for her man and to be subject to him in all things. Perhaps underlying this attitude was a fear of woman's sexuality, a fear of the power woman has to arouse sexual desire in the male, a desire that his religion taught him was forbidden and unchaste.
Of course, this is an unbalanced picture. The importance of sexual reproduction looms large in the Old Testament, particularly in the stories of the patriarchs with their numerous concubines in addition to wives. The Song of Solomon is a hymn of praise to erotic love. The Bible makes much use of sexual imagery, one of the most notable being that of the church as a bride adorned for her husband. Jesus took a remarkably lenient attitude towards sexual sinners, as in the stories of the woman taken in adultery and of the sinful woman at the house of Simon the Pharisee. He is recorded as having women friends and appears to have treated the sexes equally.
Yet the first set of attitudes I have described does seem to have had a wholly disproportionate influence on Christian thinking. Perhaps the early fathers of the church are to blame, starting with St. Paul and culminating in St. Augustine, who abandoned a scandalous life (he had lived with a woman who had borne him a child) for one of complete celibacy in his search for holiness.
Most ordinary men and women did not deny their sexual nature. Then, as now, sexual activity (including adultery) continued unabated and, I assume, very many people lived in marital harmony and bliss. But for texts which praise the sexual life we have to look to the pagan myths of Greece and Rome with their cavorting gods and goddesses and to more sophisticated books like Ovids The Art of Love, written in the reign of the Emperor Augustus. Outside a few alchemical and hermetic texts, erotic love remained unsanctified by the church. It was wholly in the sphere of what we would today call the secular.
The appearance in 1768 of Emanuel Swedenborg's Conjugial Love in its original Latin was an astonishing event. Here, perhaps for the first time in the West, was a book on the theology of sex which both took a wholly positive view of erotic love between man and woman when it led to and became embodied in a faithful marriage and which recognised the equal importance of both sexes. It is not a dry theological tome, but a delightfully poetic work. It has not yet received its due recognition, either in Christian theology, or as one of the key texts of the Romantic movement. Swedenborg, a man whose Dream Diary shows to have been highly sexed, recognised the fundamental nature of human sexuality, but saw it (as he saw everything in creation) as a gift from God which we can use or abuse in the exercise of our God-given rationality and freedom.
Swedenborg saw chastity, not as abstinence from sexual intercourse, but as the state resulting from the exclusive and faithful love of one man and one woman for each other. This he called conjugial, or true marriage, love. He propounded the idea, startling at the time but widely accepted nowadays, that those who are joined in a legal contract of marriage (even one sanctified by the church) do not necessarily enjoy conjugial love.
That flows from the inner quality of the relationship, the true love each partner has for the other. Also startling at the time was his view of sexual relationships outside marriage. Unlike modern Christian fundamentalists, he did not condemn all sexual activity outside marriage, but saw that there were degrees of behaviour. While he had harsh things to say about adultery, he saw that the erotic love that men and women feel for each other (even in unpropitious circumstances) has within it the seeds of a deeper, truly spiritual love. It has the potential to develop into conjugial love. Just as subversive, and quite contrary to orthodox Christian theology, was his teaching that truly conjugial love is enjoyed in heaven. This teaching has always had popular appeal and was given perhaps its finest poetic expression by Robert Browning (who together with his wife Elizabeth Barrett Browning had read Conjugial Love early in their marriage) in The Ring and the Book. The dying heroine Pomipilia looks forward to union in the next world with her true lover and father of her child, the priest Caponsacchi:
Conjugial Love was sometimes too strong even for Swedenborg's followers. It was the interpretation put upon certain passages in the scortatory love sections of the book that led to the concubinage crisis in the very early New Church in London. During the nineteenth century there was a tendency to downgrade Conjugial Love to the status of a work purely of morals. The growing prudery of the age affected even members of a church whose teaching about marriage emphasised the spiritual and psychological importance of sexual intercourse. In 1852 James John Garth Wilkinson, homeopathic physician and a member of the Swedenborg Society, wrote to his friend and fellow Swedenborgian Henry James the elder (father of William James the philosopher and Henry James the novelist) of his exasperation with the smugness and straight-lacedness of many of the followers of Swedenborg who might not appreciate the translation he had just done of Swedenborg's work The Generative Organs considered anatomically, physically, and philosophically. Of this work he wrote to his friend:
James expressed himself in similar vein:
The second half of the nineteenth century was perhaps one of the most sexually repressive eras in Western history. But sex is like water. It will find a way of expressing itself, just as water will always find a way out. In the case of sex, one of the forms it took was widespread prostitution. Hypocrisy and double standards were normal. In England in 1885 there was an organised purity campaign which tried to suppress the showing of works of art depicting the female nude on the grounds that seeing these would inflame young men. Robert Browning (whose son Pens bronze nude Dryope had been refused by the Royal Academy) delivered a stinging response in his poem Parleying with Francis Furini. Describing woman as Gods supremest work, he goes on to sing of
Young girls were often kept entirely ignorant of sex and, in wealthy families, were married off to (older) men almost as soon as they had put their hair up and had been laced into their first corsets. In his novel The Awkward Age, published in 1899, Henry James paints a vivid picture of this life. Mrs Brookenham (aged about forty) invites worldly young men to her salon, all of whom are sexually experienced and one of whom is certainly her admirer, if not her lover. Her nineteen year old daughter Nanda, however, objects to being married off to one of these young men and forms a friendship with Mr Longdon, a reclusive country-dwelling bachelor already old at the age of fifty five (a character clearly based on the author himself), and together they sing the praises of the single life.
Not quite twenty years after the publication of James's novel, Marie Stopes, a brilliant young scientist, wrote her sensational best seller Married Love (1918), the result of the failure of her first marriage which had ended in annulment. Marie Stopes is best remembered for her advocacy of family planning, but Married Love hardly mentions the subject. Dedicated to young husbands and all those betrothed in love, it is a passionate plea for a greater understanding of the nature of the sexual bond between the married pair which will lead to sexual fulfilment for the woman as well as for the man. In her preface she wrote:
It is clear from that preface that a deep religious inspiration lay behind her work.
Marie Stopes ended Married Love with these words:
Nowhere in Married Love does she mention Swedenborg, but a reading of her book (it would now probably be thought too lyrical and romantic for young people) suggests that she had indeed read Conjugial Love. In the authorised biography of Marie Stopes, published in 1924, Aylmer Maude quotes an autobiographical note that she gave him about her early life and the reading she had done as a young girl. She recalls how she tapped the uttermost resources of the Hampstead Lending Library and other sources:
Marie Stopes did not find in her second marriage the lasting happiness for which she had hoped, but she should be remembered, not just for her important pioneering work in the field of birth control, but also as a passionate and eloquent advocate of the spiritual importance of sexual love.
Just a few years before the appearance of Married Love John Galsworthy published his novel The Man of Property (1906), the first of a series known as The Forsyte Saga. The novel, which has been memorably dramatised for British television on two occasions, tells how Soames Forsyte, a solicitor and the man of property, forces himself sexually upon his wife (because she is legally his wife and hence his property) after he has discovered her affair with the architect Bosinney, who has given her the love and affection she did not receive from her cold-hearted husband. Galsworthy, a barrister, was himself a modern man who lived with his cousins wife for ten years before marrying her. I imagine that the sympathies of most readers of Galsworthy's book (and certainly those of television viewers) are with the wife, Irene, notwithstanding that technically she is an adulteress.
The Galsworthy novel, like all good fiction, tells us how difficult relations between the sexes can be in real life and how crass it is to apply moral rules rigidly without sympathy and understanding. Our early twenty first century world is very different from that which Galsworthy and Stopes knew almost a hundred years ago, let alone the eighteenth century world of the European aristocracy and upper middle class which was Swedenborg's own social milieu. Yet human nature has not changed, even if social mores have. As Dr John Chadwick wrote in his introduction to his translation of Conjugial Love, what Swedenborg revealed there about the spiritual nature of sexual love has universal validity. We are all born sexual creatures, thank God, said Marilyn Monroe in an interview recorded only a month before her tragic and untimely death at the age of thirty six in 1962, but its a pity so many people despise and crush this natural gift. Art, real art, comes from it everything.