We are never more naked than during sex or death. Okay, we’re extremely vulnerable during sickness as well, but we still somehow manage to write about it with dignity. Unfortunately we don’t have any respect for death or sex anymore. Ever read the original Ian Flemming Casino Royale? The movie tries to make a big deal of Vesper’s death, but in the book, after Bond finds her body and the note telling of her duplicity, his only reaction to her suicide is: “The bitch is dead.”
And then of course there’s the entire ‘romance’ genre. Maybe you could argue that the entire genre is about the romance and the sex and the happily-ever-after. But even here the thin gravy of ‘romance’ and ‘true love’ isn’t enough to hide the taste of the truth: it’s about the sex. Years ago I read a romance (for a certain quantity of ‘romancery’) where the pirate prince captures the luscious and beautiful girl, keeps her in his room and rapes her every night. But it’s okay, because he’s starting to care for her and she’ll learn to love it and later on she does, so, no matter the Stockholming or the fact that he’s been raping her for months, it is true love. Actually, compared to that story, 50 shades of grey isn’t all that shocking.
But how did we reach a point where death is something that can be met with a snappy one-liner and it is considered normal to go to a bar or club or something with the sole reason to have sex that night with a random stranger? To a point where a 21 year old woman is mocked for her virginity (yeah, I’m looking at you, 50 shades).
I have no answer, but here are my thoughts on how I believe it ought to be:
We ought to be naked during sex. Not just without clothes, but emotionally naked to another. Sex should be the expression of love and of safety, not just the scratching of an itch. Has anyone read Susan Kay’s Phantom? It is perhaps one of the most powerfully sad and stunningly beautiful stories I’ve ever had the privilege to read. In fact, a lady borrowed it from me and told me afterwards: “I read the story and then I cried until my tissues were finished. Then I went back and re-read the book.”
Phantom is an adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera, but much closer to Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s version than Gaston le Roux’s. It is the story of a child that grows up to be a man shunned and only once in his life did he find someone he loved more than life itself. For one moment he knew love. The entire book is built up to that moment when Eric and Christine kisses (if you’ve seen the stage play, you’ll know how beautiful it is), and it is beautifully done. One kiss can bring me to tears for a week in its beauty. It is done with dignity and tenderness and because of that much more powerful than any explicit sex scene in a romance or erotica book.
John Donne wrote:
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Whereas we are naked to another during sex, we are completely naked to ourselves during death. Perhaps it is because all our hopes of the future has ended and all the worry about the past has no meaning anymore. We are stripped of all pretentions. And when we witness another’s death, we instinctively know this. In fact, we respect deathbed confessions enough that it can be admissible in court (well, at least US law and according to Wikipedia). Again I would like to use Phantom as example.
Every death in the book is done with dignity, with an acknowledgement of how one never goes untouched by death, even if the death is that of an enemy. And of course, the death of Christine is so very bitter-sweet as she finally joins Eric. As Raoul remarks: “When it (Christine’s funeral) was done I had a strange feeling of peace, as though I had completed the final act of some lifetime quest. I had held her in trust for seventeen years until death chose to reunite her with the one to whom she truly belonged.” Both Eric and Christine’s deaths are poignant and terrible and beautiful. One cannot be untouched by them. They are done with dignity.
I wish we could reclaim that sense of dignity and beauty in every death and in every sex scene. I know sometimes a story is about the perversion of sex and death, as with the Stieg Larsson books, but even then it can be done with the acknowledgement that it isn’t just something random, but exactly that: the perversion of something that should have been beautiful.
I know that we’ll probably never again find dignity in death and sex in stories. With every ‘yippee ki-yay’ and ‘hasta la vista’ we strip death of it’s impact and with every sitcom where the characters find their self-worth in the amount of sex they can have we deny that sex can be and must be about ‘making love.’ Many of you will probably disagree with me, but I know that I’ll always attempt to write death and sex with dignity. Both are powerful and beautiful and I’ll never try and diminish that. This is my pledge: I will write death and sex with dignity.