I Took It To Mean: An Ethics of Textual Intimacy

Some time ago, I mentioned to Theric during his series on the erotic in LDS literature and to MoJo shortly thereafter that I was on the verge of tackling something similar. I finally teetered over that edge and this essay—this rhetorical attempt—in which I grapple with the moral/spiritual uses of eroticism (of reading erotic texts, of reading with an erotic bend, etc.), is the result. I read it at the Intermountain Graduate Conference held last Saturday (April 11) at Idaho State and it was well received by the seven others who were in the room.

In view of the fact that part of this textual performance centers on a reading of Javen Tanner’s poem, “Eden” (scroll down) and that my Mormonness serves as a backdrop to my words, I’m posting it here as part of the Mormon Poetry Project I’ve been chasing all month.


* * * *

“I Took It To Mean”: An Ethics of Textual Intimacy

Recently I’ve become conscious that an erotic critical persona has been looking over my shoulder, whispering seductive suggestions in my ear as I read and write. He’s a logophilic character, at once playful with words (if at times adolescent) and deeply concerned and intimate with language, even one deeply concerned because he’s been intimate with language for so long and he’s got a family he doesn’t intend to destroy with the affair. He’s broken the news to his wife, who has graciously agreed to stay and not to out him in front of their three little girls because, frankly, she believes he can change and thinks the girls are still young enough not to catch on.

But he thinks the older two know. They’ve seen him sneaking around, carrying on with this book or that essay, story, or poem, always with pen and journal in hand. They’ve even taken to carrying around their own books (and sometimes his), their own papers, pens, and pencils, though he’s not worried just yet. Their passion, like their handwriting and the scribbled notes they leave laying around the house–in the kitchen, the hallway, the bedrooms–is still embryonic, unrefined, indiscriminate. They’re still quite young and haven’t yet developed the good sense or the guile to cover their tracks, to conceal the pulsions of sensual and nascent intellectual desire beneath the gauzy film of words. Still, he’s sure they wonder what he’s up to when they catch him staring off into space, fantasizing about how best to undress each text, to seduce his way into the gaps between textual bodies, to slip beneath the cover of language where he can explore the flesh behind words, can trace skin ripe with intention and passion and vulnerability to his textual delight.

It’s not necessarily that he finds it easy to be exposed every time and before every text he reads, though there is a certain pleasure that comes of letting down one’s psycho-emotional guard, of submitting to a writer’s rhetorical caress. And it’s not that he hops into bed with every pretty or witty text he picks up online or at the library. He needs to know there’s more going on than just linguistic chemistry, that there’s more beneath the words than just a well-proportioned textual body or the free flow of passion and consciousness or the desire to connect, to commune, to procreate–to know and be known by the world. He needs more than rhetorical foreplay to encourage him to bare his secret parts to another textual body, to connect with a text in the most human sense, simply because he knows there’s more to language than mere erotics. He does, after all, subscribe to a certain ethics of textual intimacy. He does have some moral standards.

And while his erotic morality might seem somewhat paradoxical, especially in light of his virginal, ultra-chaste Mormon upbringing, his textual ethics (he assures me) can’t really be separated from this Mormonness and from his conviction that sensual experience, as the still waters of the twenty-third Psalm, can be sacramental to the soul.


I take up this rhetorical performance from the beginning in “Eden,” the opening poem of Javen Tanner’s chapbook Curses For Your Sake. Here I meet the poet at a dinner party where, not satiated by the “proxies” (line 2) of “satisfaction” (1) available there–“guests, food, chatter” (3)–he longs for something more, something that can take him beyond temporary and superficial human companionship, beyond gastronomic appetite and delight, beyond the idle and incessant flow of meaningless conversation. “And then,” he says, just as this incarnate psycho-emotional yearning surfaces in a string of disjointed words, “she was at my side” (4; italics added). Reflective of the Biblical moment when Adam awoke from his God-induced sleep to find Eve at his side–his rib, his bosom companion, “bone of [his] [“¦] bones, and flesh of [his] [“¦] flesh” (Gen. 2:23)–the language of this sudden awakening points to a revisionary reading of Eden, a version in which the poet’s use of allusion and imagery anchors us to the essentials of Edenic mythology even as he self-consciously employs the interpretive dynamics of language to reveal redemptively regenerative variations of that mythology.

This process of textual regeneration begins as the woman speaks: “Meet me in the garden,” she says (line 5). I read her appeal on two levels, one figurative, the other more literal, though, in terms of this poem, neither can really be separated from the other. On a more literal level (or at least to be taken literally within the realm of literature), I expect any reenactment of Eden to take place in a garden, a space separate from the chaos of civilization, and to engage representatives of Adam and Eve in a struggle to understand relationships between, among other things, material and spiritual bodies, male and female, human and divine. Tanner’s depiction is no different: shortly after his presence is requested outside, we find the poet anxiously “wait[ing]” in the garden, though, in the beginning, he is “distracted” by “the laughter from the house, / the ruinous clatter of dishes, // the air sick with warm sugar” (10-13) as it settles around him, drifting outside through an open door or window.

Adding the figurative to this reading of the woman’s request, however, heightens the dramatic effect of the poem’s paradisiacal setting, lending its Edenic mythology a greater sense of immediacy. The poet models such a revisionary personal figuration when he interprets the invitation in this way: says he,

I took it to mean,

Come with me
and we will be buried in water,
fire, nomenclature, earth

The double entendre implied in the phrase “Come with me” suggests, not only that the poet understands the woman’s desire to meet, but that desire is the reason for the meeting and that the mutual coming of sexual desire will ultimately consummate the pair’s union. To be “buried” in this sensuous pleasure; to be immersed in the rush of fluids, the passion, the organizational construct of sexual intercourse, the most earthy mortal craving; is to pass into a ritually enacted relationship between the sexes that essentially serves as the source and metaphor for the broader connection between material and immaterial bodies across time and space. For what is sex but the primal (re)generative ritual meant to unite physical bodies in the propagation of the species and the shared invigoration of the flesh?

In other words, as Alicia Ostriker observes in speaking about the intersection of poetic language and human passion, this “impulse to connect” bodies–whether those entities be words, lovers, or generations; flesh, psyche, and spirit; subject and object, artist and viewer, poet and reader–and thereby “to perceive unities across the conventional boundaries of separation” is “always implicitly erotic, always a form a making love.”1 As Tanner seems to suggest in his interpretation of the woman’s words, it’s this impulse and the myriad reflections of it that, in effect, motivate the ritual processes bound up in the relationship between man and woman, in religious ceremonies (as baptism by “water” and by “fire”), in human entrance into language (that arbitrarily organized system of signs through which we name our experience with the world), and in our approach to death–or in the terms of this poem, our “buri[al] in [“¦] / [“¦ the] earth.”

With this metonymic impulse subtly marked in mind and with the lyric voice of the poem–its union of word, sound, rhythm, and sense–pulsing through my body as I verbalize the poet’s unique combination of words, when the woman says, “You’ve come” (17) after “appear[ing in the garden] / under the heavy shadow // of a peach tree” (14-16), I read her words as an assertion of my scopophilic presence in the poem, one felt more keenly as I engage the accent placed on “come” and then pause at the period’s full stop. Even more specifically, however, I read her statement as a recognition of the psycho-emotional climax I experience as my voice engages with hers and with the poet’s and we consummate the image of a “heav[ily] shadow[ed] / [“¦] peach tree” as a pregnant “shadow” or type for the woman’s sexually ripe body.

Following the poet’s lead, I take this recognition “to mean” that Woman, as representative of Eve, in his interpretation of her words, “will multiply [my][“¦] sorrow, / spread serpents at [my] [“¦] heels, / spit curses for [my] [“¦] sake” (19-21). The destructive, yet paradoxically redemptive, implications of this sentence–that the seed of woman, which is ultimately the Word, is essentially the motivating and mitigating factor behind human suffering and joy–are contained in its final phrase. Extracted from the decree God directed towards Adam and Eve at the moment he expelled them from the Garden of Eden, “curses for your sake” suggests that moral paradox and ambiguity form the developmental crux of mortality. In other words, the pain, suffering, and even, as the poet calls them, the “proxies” of satisfaction that arise from our experiences in and with a fallen world (the objects or relationships that point us toward or prepare us for the ultimate satisfaction of spiritual and physical salvation) all work toward our ultimate advantage and enhancement as human beings and human communities. Tanner’s lyrical performance thus proposes that temporary physical and psychical discomforts and losses can prepare us for more lasting psychological, rhetorical, and spiritual connections and consolations.

But how much, really, can I trust my reading? How intimate have I actually been with the text? And, more importantly, why does that matter?


During the first day of an undergraduate sculpture class, the professor mentioned that the next week we’d be working from a live model. As a fairly new husband, I took the proposition home to my wife, who guessed, with a not so subtle look at my jeans, that every male in the class got excited when we heard we’d be sculpting a naked woman. That I’d continue with the class was never a question: neither of us thought I should stage a personal demonstration on moral or religious grounds. (I am, after all, a Mormon, and naked bodies generally don’t jibe with the public lifestyle). Besides, we considered, if I was going to finish a degree in art (something I never did), this would just be the first of many forays with an unclothed, non-spousal, flesh and blood human figure. The real question, then, as my wife put it, was whether or not my first nude model would be young and hot or old and not. (She held with the latter.) Either way, she reminded me, adultery would end in a quick and ignominious death, followed by divorce.

With that in mind the next week, I gathered my drawing materials and went to class, resolved to walk away with my virtue–and my life and marriage–intact. Then the inevitable happened: Sitting in a chair against the classroom’s back wall, I watched as a sixtyish, pear-shaped woman walked in with her arthritic Golden Retriever. After setting her things on a table and telling the dog to lie down, she asked the professor where she could undress. A few minutes later she returned, covered in a thin, utterly unflattering robe, which she then untied and let fall into a heap on the dusty floor. Reaching for my bag, I sighed at my wife’s prescience, grabbed my sketchpad and a graphite stick, and turned to outline the woman who had posed herself upright on a low pedestal, one foot behind the other in an awkward pirouette, hands interlaced behind her head, her body arching and increasingly vulnerable, her secret parts an open book, waiting to be read and revisioned by the class.

A few weeks later I withdrew from the course, though not because I feared the moral or marital repercussions of my art. Rather–and I can see this now–I’d begun to slip further beneath the surface of language, to define myself less as a visual artist and more as a poet, one more intent on sculpting bodies with words than with clay. I’m convinced it was this poet–the one most in tune with my body’s rhythms–who drove me from that classroom and from a career in the plastic arts because he sensed I could only be happy running my fingers over a text’s linguistic and rhetorical features and breaking that textual bread with others over the altar of humanity. Or, to mix my metaphors, he knew I might bear the ripest fruit, I suppose, while stretching my textual roots through the fertile soil of other rhetorical bodies. He innately understood, perhaps, that this erotic inclination is one deeply human(istic) way of reaping the harvest of experience that ripens beneath another’s textu(r)al skin.


I’m not just saying all this to justify some perverted sense of sexuality, though as Roland Barthes has it, taking erotic pleasure in textual bodies is a type of perversion,2 no matter the morality we try to impose on the act. As the fully-embodied and engaged poet and reader I claim to be, then, I just need to embrace my deviance, to commune with the erotic critical persona who’s slid from his relatively distant (and thus less risky) place at my shoulder, into my skin. Then, perhaps, I’ll be better able, like the poet of “Eden,” to “smell the fruit / hidden in [the woman’s] hands,” to find in this keenly sensual object that’s “forbidden” to my actual senses, the key “necessary” to unlock an ethically (pro)creative union with Tanner’s world. (22-4).

In my reading, such a consummation comes in the poem’s last four stanzas as the poet hears a door open and, through that fissure into another world, a voice–perhaps God’s, perhaps a party guest’s, perhaps both–“call[s his] name” (26), teasing him with this very specifically directed word to join them inside. But the poet ultimately refuses the connection–“once, twice, gone” (27)–choosing instead to stay with the woman, whose ripeness seeps through the poet’s line just as the peach she’s “split” drips juice in her hand (28).

I’ve sensed a rise in this pheremonic tide from the outset of the poem with the alliterative dance that increasingly lingers on the ridge between my lips and my palate, as here:

She split the peach,
licked nectar
from her fingers,

and said, “Here, taste” (28-31).

And it’s all I can do not to taste the sounds as they caress my tongue until meaning quite literally explodes from the friction between the line and my mouth in the concluding two stanzas. The poet sets the stage for this rhetorical consummation by reiterating the ethics of textual interpretation. After the woman speaks for this third time, saying “Here, taste,” as she offers him the juice from her fingers, the poet says, “I took this to mean” (32), a repetition of the phrase he’s offered in her response to each of her first two comments.

I take this echo, not only as a prompt to respond to this poem as I’d respond to a flesh and blood body, reading and interpreting the cues its dropped to help me experience its full textuality, but also as a suggestion of the poet’s procreative proclivity, his penchant to spark new worlds, to seed new bodies by making seemingly small gestures within the text–or, alternately (because I’ve recognized the patriarchal movement of my words) his ability, as vessel of word and experience, to grow these worlds in and as an extension of himself, to nurture these bodies into full-grown rhetorical realities.

Tanner ultimately embodies these halves of a sexual whole in the phonetics of his concluding interpretative attempt. After his reiterated phrase, “I took this to mean,” he riffs off of the woman’s directive thus:

Here is my heart,

delicious and desirable.
See how it beats and bleeds,
how it breaks to heal itself.

By lacing his line with a full range of sounds and, thus, of articulative poses–the tongue begins on a glottal “h,” then moves back and forth along the alveolar ridge with “delicious and desirable,” which spills over into the bilabial, assonant ejaculations of “beat,” bleed,” and “break”–the poet employs the hermaphroditic copulation of consonants to encourage full engagement with his textual body.

As I consent to this engagement with the semiotics of “Eden,” I enter into an ethics of textual intimacy; that is, by submitting to the power the words on the page exert over my mind, my words, my body, heart, and soul; by slipping beneath the cover of language and making myself vulnerable to the textual body, reading its cues–its secret parts–and sculpting my response accordingly, my physical and psychological rhythms explode into meaning. And a new text is born of the smoldering matter between us, a rhetorical offspring whose genealogy extends through the revisionary conjugation of Tanner’s and my intertextual genes. Today it was this text; tomorrow, perhaps, it may have been another. Whatever the case, I’m more and more convinced that the ethos of my textual relationships, the characteristic ways in which I draw back any given artifact’s skin, is defined by how much of myself I’m willing to divulge in that moment of intertextual intimacy; and the more I feel I can give, the deeper the well of communion runs.

So while I’m here, sliding between worlds, between words, wrestling beneath cover of language, trying to resist the bibliography tickling my tongue and to keep the orthodox Mormon in me from damning myself for being so sensual; and while you’re there, I can only assume, confronting the voyeuristic urge to take pleasure in my naked, pear-bodied posing or even to avoid it altogether, I find myself slipping further into the material that binds us as a human community–into shared morals, into mutual passion, into language.

And I extend my hand through the veil of words.

Take it however you will.

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1) “I Am (Not) This: Erotic Discourse in Elizabeth Bishop and Sharon Olds,” Dancing at the Devil’s Party: Essays on Poetry, Politics, and the Erotic (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan, 2000), 38-9.

2) See The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Miller, New York: Hill and Wang, 1975, 9-10.

33 thoughts on “I Took It To Mean: An Ethics of Textual Intimacy”

  1. .

    I keep getting interrupted by family obligations so there are still some parts in the middle I’ve missed, but first: everyone should follow the link. I love the poem. Second: Tyler, your opening paragraphs are the most delightful things I’ve read about reading in some time. Third: I’m glad we have this to discuss. I hope we can get some more comments than just me here because I am rather notorious, like Tyler, for talking about these issues already. I would like to hear some others on this topic.

  2. first: everyone should follow the link.

    Yes. Do.

    Second: Tyler, your opening paragraphs are the most delightful things I’ve read about reading in some time.

    Thanks, Th.

    Third: I’m glad we have this to discuss. I hope we can get some more comments than just me here because I am rather notorious, like Tyler, for talking about these issues already. I would like to hear some others on this topic.

    As would I. I’d love to hear from more people.

    So don’t be shy. I can only hold my hand out for so long…

  3. Two things:

    1. This is why the relationship between the poet and the community is so important. And why if we lose all hope of genius, we may gain the hope of understanding.

    2. The sensuality of erotics is easy. The sensuality of nourishment is much more difficult, but much more satisfying and fulfilling in the end.

  4. The sensuality of erotics is easy. The sensuality of nourishment is much more difficult, but much more satisfying and fulfilling in the end.

    Can you elaborate on this a bit? I think I see what you’re driving at, but I want to be sure so I can avoid (possibly) reading your comment the wrong way and (possibly) sticking my foot in my mouth when I respond.

  5. Yeah, it’s a food joke. And yes, I’m feeling a bit cranky and gnomic at the moment.

    Edit to add: which is to say I think both this and Theric’s post of yesterday are excellent and quite thought-provoking.

  6. Tyler-this is an awesome post. Seriously, how is it that I get to blog with all you smarty/arty people?

    Anyway, to the topic at hand. I also (sort of) followed Theric’s posts on sex in LDS/Mormon Lit and have been considering a post on the topic myself. But now that you’ve written this I’m going to have to wait a looong time to post mine 🙂

    Your language is quite packed and so I know I didn’t get all of it, but the part that stuck out to me was that you feel have a sort of devil on your shoulder that encourages you to read things erotically and, well, it’s taken you some time to come to terms with that.

    I think that makes you an exception as an LDS reader. Most readers try extremely hard to tell the sensual devil to go back to hell because they feel there is no way to accommodate the things that come up when considering an erotic reading of a text within and LDS framework. I mean, Jesus said that even the thought of adultery was sinful, right? Art, because of its inherent capacity to push boundaries, often makes people feel like they are committing adultery in their hearts.

    But now I’m wondering if there is a difference between committing adultery in your mind (which is like reading) and in your heart (which is like fantasizing). *Forgive me if you or Th. or Mojo or someone have already covered this!*

    The world is a sensual place, but does that always mean erotic? I know LDS Publisher pointed out that many of us use sensual when we mean sensory, but there is a sort of hedonistic pleasure that comes with reading a really good book and that is sensual, not sensory. . . anyway, now I’m just thinking out loud 🙂

  7. One more thing I find interesting and figure you’ve read but other haven’t is the talk by Elder Holland called, “Of Souls, Symbols and Sacraments.” This is the best talk I have ever come across that explains the paradoxical view LDS people hold about sex (you know, it’s bad except for when it’s good!) I don’t know enough html to make it a link but here’s the gobbetly-gook:


    I think the ideas in it absolutely apply to the arts.

  8. But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. Matthew 5:28

    I don’t know how you can really lust after a piece of art. I joke about it with my writerly friends, but you can’t…cheat…on anybody with a piece of art or a fictional character–or at least any more than you can with football or sewing or food or just about any other time-waster that keeps you from your spouse.

    (As an aside, verse 32 says: “But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery” so why don’t we take that into account as a doctrinal benchmark of proper behavior?)

  9. Mojo–the difference for me is that sewing/football/whatever doesn’t engender the same emotional and physical responses that an erotic text does. That’s why I raise the question about mind versus heart. If I were to ever obsessively sew something (which I never will) it would be occupying my mind and my time and even perhaps my heart–if I were letting my sewing replace or redefine my relationship with my spouse and my relationship with my God in a negative way–and that would be sinful. But, if the sewing is occupying my mind only and not replacing my primary relationships then it is not a problem. Of course, art (visual or literary) is different than sewing and, in my mind, can create precursors to sin. The art is not the sin, but it can create an environment where sin is a more comfortable choice. And artists need to be aware of that when they chose erotic texts and storylines. Especially Mormon artists. There is some sort of (nebulous) implied social contract between writer and reader and I think that is a sacred space that the writer needs to honor, not take advantage of.

  10. For the record, judging from Tyler’s essay Tanner is treating that relationship honorably. It’s not that sex or eroticism can’t be present in literature but I think writers need to be thoughtful and prayerful about the choices they make regarding those things.

  11. Sorry, you’re right!

    I don’t mean to. In my mind I didn’t. But I think a lot of LDS readers do. And that is a problem. Which brings me back to my question of what it means to commit adultery in your heart. . .

  12. If the book captivates you, but doesn’t ravish you, then it’s all good.

    If the book ravishes you and there are afteraffects that impact your relationships with others in a negative way, then it might not be good.

  13. .

    I had an epiphany in a Bible as Lit class, mm, nine years back. I realized that it’s a really good thing to have the Song of Songs in the Bible whether it’s inspired or not because holy writ is really lacking in romantic love and romantic love is really really important. Where do we think babies come from? And as Mormons, it’s even more so, as romantic love is the basis for eternity. And a huge and necessary component of romantic love is sexsexsex. We have to come to grips with that and figure out what it’s proper role in our art it. Because leaving it out is an omission so huge as to result in unforgivable dishonesty. But, as Laura suggests, there can be some problems with its inclusion as well. But to thus reject it entirely is obviously a huge mistake.

    We’ll never find that balance unless we try.

    Ergo, we must try.

  14. “[R]omantic love is the basis for eternity.”

    Is it? Or do we insert modern ideas about romance too much into our theology? (That’s a sincere question, not an assertion with a question mark tacked on.)

    I like my eros as much as any red-blooded American male. But I recognize the possibility that the eternities may be as much or more about other “loves” (philia, agape, etc.).

  15. “[R]omantic love is the basis for eternity.”

    Is it? Or do we insert modern ideas about romance too much into our theology? (That’s a sincere question, not an assertion with a question mark tacked on.)

    I like my eros as much as any red-blooded American male. But I recognize the possibility that the eternities may be as much or more about other “loves” (philia, agape, etc.).

    Or do we fragmented, industrialized, mechanized, modern Mormons simply read romantic love as a deviation from our truly whole-bodied theology, as a merely mortal reflection of some eternal longing that will dissipate once we’ve crossed through the veil?

    As a believer that the fullness of human (which is to say, the race of God) joy exists in the inseparable union between spirit and body, I have to believe that my physical-emotional desires and sensual experience are part and parcel of the experience of God. That is, eternal increase, eternal lives, and eternal progression consist of and in the (pro)creative union between eternal bodies. In this light, as I allude to in my post by referencing Ostriker’s thoughts on poetry as participant in and embodiment of the broader eroticism of connection, by avoiding our sensuality, we essentially deny ourselves a full, empathic connection with ourselves, with others, with God.

    Cetti Cherniak captures this sentiment, this ethics of textual intimacy, in different terms than I’ve tried here (and perhaps better than I’ve done) in her two-part series “The Theology of Desire,” which appeared in Dialogue 40.1 (Spring 2007):1-42 and 40.2 (Summer 2007):1-46* and which “examines the tension which arises when the puritanical practices and modernist assumptions of contemporary LDS culture are contrasted with the erotic underpinnings of LDS metaphysics and anthropology” (1).** In short, it attempts to show how Eros is essentially the catalyzing force in the universe.

    At one point she says (and I endorse her observations by quoting her liberally):

    I [want to] stress again that, in saying that we should fully embrace our passions and drives, I am not suggesting that we abandon traditional moral codes and become vulgar or promiscuous. Heaven forbid; for just as surely as one comes to himself, he comes to God. As Brigham Young observed, “No man can know himself unless he knows God, and he cannot know God unless he knows himself.” In considering the nature of Eros, it is important to distinguish between erotic love as ego-dissolving, desire-merging empathy, which encompasses a wide variety of human interactions and always, consciously or not, includes God in the equation [Tyler says: the kind I’ve tried to embrace in my post]; and the selfish and loveless “erotic” experience grounded in sexual brutality [as the world–and we–generally view it]–for any loveless (antipathetic) experience of the sensual or sexual is necessarily brutal and brutish. In truth, there should be two entirely different terms for these two very different experiences. I am using Eros to mean the fertile creative-generative love which, in its symbolic and actual purity, is the ultimate in goodwill, and not to mean sexual tyranny or brutality. That is its counterfeit, an unwhole approach, act unattached to and unconcentric with selfhood, otherhood, and godhood (9-10; italics mine).

    And then this:

    Human heterosexual intercourse has been thought of by many cultures as the quintessential symbol of the cosmic order. It is the archetypal interface of opposites, the act that momentarily creates “a compound in one” (2Ne. 2:11). Picture the arched body of Nut, Egyptian goddess of the sky, poised over the body of Geb,god of the earth, or notice the aniconic Linga-Yoni at the entrance to a Hindu temple. Once, passionate gods controlled the fertility of the earth and of people. Now, with birth control and genetic engineering, human beings control it. As humanity corrupts Eros, forgets who and what God is, and sets up cultures on false premises, as during the Great Apostasy and subsequent ages, it loses its cosmic roots, and sex becomes a mere thrill, an addiction, and eventually a banality. As the lowest common denominator, promiscuous sex is the last sad, desperate attempt of the modern soul to relieve its isolation. The deep loneliness of disconnection from one’s own emotional-physical sensitivity and that of others, as well as God’s, drives the desire for pornography (11).

    For now, that’s all I have to say. I need some time to digest.

    *Should be required reading for students of Mormon culture, I think.

    **My citations are from Part I.

  16. Human heterosexual intercourse has been thought of by many cultures as the quintessential symbol of the cosmic order.

    I have no words to express how deeply that touches me.

  17. “Or do we fragmented, industrialized, mechanized, modern Mormons simply read romantic love as a deviation from our truly whole-bodied theology, as a merely mortal reflection of some eternal longing that will dissipate once we’ve crossed through the veil?”

    Two responses:
    (1) Huh? What the …
    (2) Speak for yourself.

    Let’s assume that “romantic love is the basis for eternity” is a correct statement of Mormon doctrine. Where does this doctrine appear in the cannon? So far all I see are: (1) glosses on mystical scriptures that are not specifically about sex (let alone “romantic love”), (2) deductions from subjective sexual longings, and (3) appeals to what “many cultures” allegedly believe.

    For example, I think the Proclamation on the Family may be as close as you get:

    We, the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, solemnly proclaim that marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God and that the family is central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children.

    All human beings–male and female–are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny. Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.

    The first commandment that God gave to Adam and Eve pertained to their potential for parenthood as husband and wife. We declare that God’s commandment for His children to multiply and replenish the earth remains in force. We further declare that God has commanded that the sacred powers of procreation are to be employed only between man and woman, lawfully wedded as husband and wife.

    We declare the means by which mortal life is created to be divinely appointed. We affirm the sanctity of life and of its importance in God’s eternal plan.

    There is nothing about “romantic love” there. Of course, Mormon leaders also say things like this from time to time:

    Sex is for procreation and expression of love. It is the destiny of men and women to join together to make eternal family units. In the context of lawful marriage, the intimacy of sexual relations is right and divinely approved. There is nothing unholy or degrading about sexuality in itself, for by that means men and women join in a process of creation and in an expression of love. (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982], p. 311).

    Sex is an expression love, sure. And it is not unholy or degrading. Good to know. Because I am a big fan. But does this get us to “romantic love is the basis for eternity”?

    Here’s my point: the idea of “romantic love” has a history from the courtly love of 11C France to the early 20C idea that romance is the only legitimate basis on which to chose a husband or wife. This history is largely foreign to either the Restoration or the larger Judeo-Christian tradition. Not only that, but modern people falsely assume that the current understanding of romantic love is a timeless and essential fact of human nature. Yet a vast majority of the people who have lived on the earth might find the incidents of this understanding (the romantic comedy currently showing down at the megaplex, for example) completely incomprehensible.

    That’s why I wonder if we superimpose our assumptions about “romantic love” onto Mormonism in theologically suspect ways.

  18. Well, Tyler, if this isn’t kissing and telling, I don’t know what is. 😉

    Arthur King used to say, “Every relationship is sexual in nature.”

    That said, I appreciate Wm’s remarks above about nourishment. The erotic approach to others’ language or your own generative acts isn’t always about providing for others, where laying out a banquet is. You know, like Babette’s Feast. There’s another depth of intimacy in such sustaining acts.

    But I can also appreciate younger Mormon poets, fiction writers, essayists, etc. trying to make a place for their depths of feeling in the culture, which culture does tend to see bogeymen around every corner of strong response. Maybe turning up the fire can disperse some of those contorted shadows.

  19. All this chatter about romantic love is interesting . . . I’ve never been a big believer in romance as it is portrayed in the popular culture. Love, whether it be true love or godly love, happens in smaller, quieter, and often-times more frustrating ways than typical “romantic” love. Not that we need to throw out romantic love. I just think it gets a disproportionate amount of screen time.

    So what does that have to do with sex, and especially sex in literature? First off, sex isn’t just romantic love. Sex, eros, or whatever we’re calling it, in the Mormon world is an expression of godly powers and as such encompasses many, many kinds of love.

    That’s why I mentioned Elder Holland’s talk. He says sex, intimacy, is about understanding the doctrine of the soul (i.e. you can’t bifurcate your spiritual/emotional response from your physical response. The soul, according to LDS doctrine, is the spirit and body together and sex is the ultimate expression of that joining).

    The second thing he says is that sex and erotic love are symbolic of not only of the sealed union of two souls–their bodies and their spirits!

    The final thing Elder Holland said (and this is the part that really changed the way I think about erotic love) is that sexual intimacy is a kind of sacrament. I’ll quote him directly, “Sexual intimacy is not only a symbolic union between a man and a woman–the uniting of their very souls–but it is also symbolic of a union between mortals and deity, between otherwise ordinary and fallible humans uniting for a rare and special moment with God himself and all the powers by which he gives life in this wide universe of ours. . . sexual union is also, in its own profound way, a very real sacrament of the highest order, a union not only of a man and a woman but very much the union of that man and woman with God. Indeed, if our definition of sacrament is that act of claiming and sharing and exercising God’s own inestimable power, then I know of virtually no other divine privilege so routinely given to us all–women or men, ordained or unordained, Latter-day Saint or non-Latter-day Saint–than the miraculous and majestic power of transmitting life, the unspeakable, unfathomable, unbroken power of procreation. . .And I submit to you that you will never be more like God at any other time in this life than when you are expressing that particular power.”

    I wonder how many Mormon readers/writers really take those things into consideration when it comes to eros.

    That’s one reason why I liked Tyler’s post. I think it approached eros/sex from a lot of different angles, including a holy one.

    I’m probably commenting on tangents and cross-purposes to the rest of you, but I just wanted to throw that out there.

  20. .

    I didn’t intend to be so controversial, but I never mind when it happens, so I won’t be apologizing. 🙂

    Basically, I agree with Tyler. Only I have fewer quotations to back up my opinions.

  21. (1) This is my first entry into the blogosphere – how warm, inviting and intellectually stimulating AMV has made it!

    (2) Tyler Chadwick’s explication is quite inventive and thought provoking – when I interviewed Javen Tanner for the Meridian article, and when conversing with him since, neither he nor I ever pulled as much from the Eden poem as Tyler has.

    (3) Amen to every one of the preceding comments! This venue is obviously a safe sanctuary to explore and identify what it means to keep appetites, passions and desires within the bounds the Lord has set. In the process of learning what the bounds are, there is necessarily the risk of crossing a line, which is why discussion of the line is so critical.

    (4) Passion is, indeed, good and godly when kept within bounds. Today my wife turns fifty years old – we have seven children and three grandchildren. I can attest of her, as Yeats did of his “beloved”, she has never had more fire to attract me, even when “all the wild summer was in her gaze”. I can affirm that passion, as a spiritual characteristic (apart from mere lust), is capable of blazing brighter with time even as the body declines. This capability of passion for a holy increase, like wisdom, distinguishes itself as one of the marks of godhood.

    (5) Finally, back to the point of Tyler’s essay, my wife has known for years that I have an on-going affair with Mistress Letters in Eastcheap, and our marriage has remained happily intact.

  22. Laura: That is a great sermon. I agree.

    Th.: Never apologize for good conversation!

    All: Please don’t rat me out to my wife about my “romantic love” reservations. They are, after all, only academic. In real life, I do my best to keep all the right fires burning. Flowers. Foot massages. Crappy movies. Talking about my feelings. Etc. Also, I am basically Mr. Darcy (the Colin Firth one).

  23. Hmmm. I suspect we’ve been talking past each other a bit, Shawn, and that part of this rhetorical failure stems from assumptions I took for granted, but should have explicitly stated.

    First, I take Eros to mean more than just romantic love (as I hope will become more clear through this comment).

    Second, I say fragmented because we’re by and large products of a culture and historical era informed to a great degree by the Cartesian mind/body, spirit/matter split.

    Third, industrialized because this split has been magnified by the processes of industrialization inherent in modernity, including the increasing mechanization of the body, with all the implications of this mechanization: alienation from the self and the products of one’s body, an increased division of labor, literal fragmentation of the flesh (brought on by industrial accidents, advances in medicine, and our increasing “post”-humanness, i.e. the cyborg in all of us: anyone wear glasses, contacts, have a prosthetic limb or artificial something in/on their bodies, see the computer as an extension of the body—the arms, the hands [as it essentially is]?).

    Fourth, Mormonism’s whole-bodied or, better yet, whole-souled theology collapses these divisions once and for all. God tells us in His “Olive Leaf,” His “message of peace,” that “the spirit and the body are the soul of man [and woman]” and that “the resurrection of the dead is the redemption of the soul.” Such a union is necessary, He reminds us, because unless we’re “sanctified from all unrighteousness,” we can’t be “prepared for celestial glory,” which entails living in “the presence of God the Father” (D&C 88:15-6, 18-9). Later on, He further reminds us, after stating that those who refuse the light and neglect the path of righteousness are “under condemnation,” that “[t]he elements [of which our being is comprised] are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fullness of joy” (D&C 93:32-3).

    Such an eternally-embodied state necessarily continues, deepens, and tempers our human passions, as is evident in the emotions God expresses throughout the scriptures, including anger, anguish, sadness, happiness, joy, and a fullness of love. Such divine love encompasses, is even heavily informed by, God’s (pro)creative power: as Nephi testifies, even though he doesn’t “know the meaning of all things,” he knows “that [God] loveth His children”—the fruits of His eternally procreative body (1 Nephi 11:17). Hence, my assertion that Eros (which existed before and beyond romantic love circa 11th C. France and present-day Hollywood—thus the reference to cultural mythologies built on the erotic) is essentially the catalyzing force in the universe. It draws together and renews bodies in a sacramental bond that nourishes the soul. Such eternal eroticism—as a deep expression of eternal love—thus nourishes us (Patricia, Wm…) and our relationships, encouraging fully empathic connections to other bodies that move us beyond our flesh into service to another’s corporeal desires. (And I think this idea is firmly embedded in The Family Proclamation you appropriately cite.)

    As regards the arts, this view of Eros (in Cherniak’s words) as “ego-dissolving, desire-merging empathy which encompasses a wide variety of human interactions and always, consciously or not, includes God in the equation,” allows for textu(r)al/aesthetic interactions that can bind and nourish us in deeply human—and thus ultimately divine—ways.

    That’s how I’m beginning to view it anyway, as the source and metaphor for the broader connection between material and immaterial bodies across time and space—and through eternity.

  24. Doug:

    I appreciate you stopping by and that your welcome here was warm. That’s one thing I appreciate about AMV and why I keep coming back. I also appreciate the interviews you did with Javen for Meridian and for the review you posted there about Curses. Very insightful commentary.

    And, as Th. said: I am relieved. And amen and amen.

  25. And Laura:

    Definitely no tangents or cross-purposes in your comments. Your reference to Elder Holland’s watershed talk reminded me of some things I needed to formulate my response to Shawn.

    So thanks.

  26. Tyler: Thanks for your response. So does it all boil down to a few simple statements like:

    (1) Mormons eschew dichotomies that undervalue physical existence and experience,
    (2) Sex can be both an act of charity and communion with God, and
    (3) Sex in art can be uplifting?

    If so, then I am right there with you.

    And don’t call a good conversation a failure. Unless you don’t think it was good.

    Full disclosure: my allergic reaction to lit-crit discourse sometimes causes me to be difficult, but not pointlessly so. (And Mr. Darcy seems cold until you realize the guy has a heart of gold! Not to mention a really sweet house!)

    Anyway, I think I agree with you.

    And I stand by the claim that “romantic love” is not the same thing as the doctrine of embodiment, sex as a sacrament, etc., etc.

    Industrialization is only a part of modernity. Other aspects of modernity (wealth, mobility, leisure time, birth control technology, erosion of family and community structures, mass media, consumerism, and on and on) cause people to obsess over sexual pleasure and “romantic love” in ways that undermine the virtues you seem to espouse. It is eros gone wild. And maybe eros done right has a lot in common with philia and agape. Maybe at a certain point they come together.

    So here’s a more concrete question on the same subject. Sex in art can be uplifting. “Can be” implies conditions. What are they? What does it look like on the page?

  27. Such eternal eroticism–as a deep expression of eternal love–thus nourishes us (Patricia, Wm”¦) and our relationships, encouraging fully empathic connections to other bodies that move us beyond our flesh into service to another’s corporeal desires. (And I think this idea is firmly embedded in The Family Proclamation you appropriately cite.)

    Nicely theoried, Tyler. Out of such tight structures lovely butterflies break.

  28. I am agape with the joy that emanates from my children’s faces when I announce that I have made a batch of double chocolate cupcakes. What a delicious conversation, and one so very needed in our culture.

    Also, I’m a little warm. And dangit! My husband’s at Scout Camp until tomorrow.

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