I remember the first time I had sex – I kept the receipt. — Groucho Marx
In Memories of My Melancholy Whores, Gabriel García Márquez’s portrays a 90 year old journalist who seeks a 14 year old virgin for sale, and finds love for the first time. Having paid for sex his entire life, the narrator boasts, “I have never gone to bed with a woman I didn’t pay,” and explains that he was “twice crowned client of the year” in his city.
As New York Times reviewer Terrance Rafferty writes: ” . . . the young virgin whom the old man calls Delgadina, after a girl in a song – is an abstraction, and that, as we all know, is no basis for a mature, healthy relationship. The wonderful joke of ‘Memories of My Melancholy Whores,’ though, is that its hero’s life is changed by the late onset of a profoundly immature and not especially healthy emotion: the painful, idealizing, narcissistic romanticism of adolescence. And the narrator knows all too well how ludicrously out of season this desperate yearning is, how silly it is for a man his age – the whores’ client of the year, no less – to be born again into puppy love. Who needs Nabokovian verbal ironies when time itself plays practical jokes like this?” (The New York Times, November 6, 2005.)
I’ve already alluded to the odious aspects of “sex work,” but like everything in life, and perhaps more so, the relationship between an erotic artist and her patrons, especially the regulars, is often quite complicated. For over time, an important and essential transition happens.
With the many creative hats I wear, and the many roles I play, I create an intimate space; in this space, my patron shares with me as he rarely does with others. I’ve heard volumes of secrets, personal and professional. In phone work, invisibility, that is, a lack of eye contact, and the stigma of “sex work,” create a comfortable, safe environment. The latter rests on the implicit assumption that nothing shocks a “sex worker” (and after awhile, nothing does), and, therefore, the oh so revealing ramblings of the so-called profane imagination are given free reign. As a modern day confessor who requires no penance, and as pleasure provider, in my company the patron freely travels to his secret places, while safeguarding his vital social role — keeping Hestia’s domain safe. Keeping the home fort safe is usually paramount, because those arbitrary boundaries between sacred and profane are near solid in the collective consciousness, and security’s illusory veneer rules most lives.
Hestia was a virgin goddess, her comforts conspicuously conscripted to domesticity, her warmth issuing from an inanimate fireplace, not her passion or person. The mythologies of Hestia are fairly simple and not too varied. Most revolve around hearth and home, the rest of her mythology lacks development. In one sequence of myths, Hestia deliberately rejects the cult and practices of Aphrodite, swearing herself to perpetual virginity. Hestia becomes Vesta in Roman mythology, and the Vestal Virgins are her cult priestesses. Vesta emerges as one of Rome’s most important state deities, her rulership of the home and her chaste virtue become cornerstones of Roman values, values subsequently informing early Christianity.
Then there is Aphrodite, the goddess of love, beauty, and pleasure. Aphrodite and her myths are where things get complicated and interesting. Aphrodite gives birth to Eros, love’s unrestrained passion. In some myths, Eros predates his mother and embodies the primordial generative urge relentlessly seeking expression in the world — all creative longing flows from Eros. In other myths, Eros is Aphrodite’s son, the universal generative urge’s power subsumed into passion’s expression, and ruled over by Aphrodite. Perhaps because of the erotic impulse, there’s much ambiguity in Aphrodite’s mythology. Scholars quibble whether her influence and person are transcendent or material. Most agree that she “arose from the foam,” meaning the ocean, but the sexual implication seems inescapable: she is the deified incarnation of male desire. Yet, in many sources, the description “from the foam” includes a reference to shining. Or, “she from the foam who shines.” In other words, the transcendent ideal of desire, the luminous one who emerges from desire’s waters. Aphrodite’s ambiguous identification — are we to understand her as carnal or spiritual — seems to confuse scholars, the presumption being that she must be one or the other.
I suggest that Aphrodite is both, material and transcendent, the material constantly edging towards transcendence for full expression; transcendence desirous of entering time and experience. Aphrodite seems as close to immanence as Greek myth allows, her complex nature not so coincidently tethered to Eros.
So what does this mythological meandering have to do with “phone sex?”
Perhaps nothing. Perhaps everything. Perhaps something in-between.
The phone exchange permits the imagination unbound wanderings. Desire enters a landscape where pure fantasy can overwhelm the narrative: the artist and her patron don’t inhabit the world, they often inhabit other worlds. Not necessarily “perfect worlds,” where the artist portrays herself in stereotypical ways to cater to a pedestrian male fantasy. No, imagined worlds. For example, a client whose foot fetish so controls his erotic life, that he imagines himself as a bug. (Move over, Kafka.) The moment of release happens when the female narrator crushes the male protagonist under her ever so soft and well manicured big toe, as that graceful high-arched foot slowly and sensuously descends over his little blattidae body, until the big toe’s pad deliberately crushes and annihilates him. (See my entry, “Death And Sex,” on thanatos and eros, love and annihilation.)
Although framed carnally, bodies as bodies may disappear in these narratives. Rather, the explorations are personal fictions writ by an artist-patron collaboration, with varying degrees of reality as their backdrop.
Consequently, the patron may push against the fiction, in all sorts of ways, the most persistent being the invitation to meet, “no sex, just a cup of coffee,” because the created intimacy pushes itself into embodied erotic longing, even if the fantasy could not be realized in any world. If the fantasy is relatively straightforward, for example, a homoerotic fantasy, the patron often has no desire to pursue the fantasy beyond fantasy. But he will still want to meet the artist, the one who really gets him.
The above may sound like a high-brow way of saying that the guy just wants to meet his phone sex worker, big deal. But that’s not the point. Rather, the shared safe space creates a unique intimate pull. When done right, the patron may come to see the artist as the person who understands the real him, even if those fantasies involve violence and denigration, because the artist creates a non-judgemental space for the patron to play out these psychic rumblings. If truly skilled, and depending on the relationship, the artist becomes a surrogate therapist, a healer on the patron’s journey, by helping him put pieces of the puzzle together, if he is so inclined. Because often the relationship spills over into an exchange between humans, no matter the context. Ironically, the reason the patron shares his closeted fantasies, the distance created by sex for sale, urges him to try and break the distance: intimacy’s power compels him.
The more astute clients recognize that the encounter is art (or “business”); others, less so. These may eventually leave the relationship, believing that all of the exchanges were “just fantasy.” Usually, after some sorting time, they return.
Love comes in many hues; it’s been my vocation to learn about love’s complex variegation, while often looking through and beyond some very damaged souls, or souls who are simply lonely, in the moment.
Hestia’s mythologies are simple. However, domestic security doesn’t feed our innermost being, for that inanimate hearth doesn’t ignite the experience of living. As Joseph Campbell writes, “I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on this purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.” Eros escorts us to a vital life experience; it’s a passage from our purely material existence to something larger than our selves. The best of us often foolishly run into the deeper experiences of this abandonment, to live free from our selves, in the presence of the other, and experience “the rapture” of life lived intensely. A teacher said, “the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls, when he found one of great value, he went away, sold everything he owned, and bought it.” Believing that the kingdom of heaven exists now, life’s ecstasies and joys should compel us daily, eros leading us to some of experience’s deepest reservoirs. If our wires have been short-circuted, the best we may have is someone who will listen to our erotic yearnings, no matter how untidy and uncivil: that’s all love may be, at that moment in time. Love still redeems: it still makes us better, no matter how inadequately sought out, or expressed.
Unfortunately, Aphrodite’s complex dual nature has been sequestered, and her daughters are bound to the purely materialistic understanding of her being. Yet the transcendent push and pull are always there, if one attentively listens, goes a little deeper, reads between the lines, asks a few questions. Hestia’s still powerful in her control of social mores, and as obstinate as ever. But she can only reject Aphrodite and offer a cold stone hearth of security in front of our collective consciousness; she cannot control or govern Eros’ complicated urges, the way they burrow, expand, demand. The primordial creative impulse will find its way, eventually, even if those ways have become mangled paths, strewn with garbage and waste, they demand to be traveled. For what they seek is the experience of being fully alive, waiting to be realized.
Gabriel García Márquez’s protagonist isn’t sympathetic, a 90 year old man falling in love with a 14 young girl seeming both repulsive and morally bankrupt. But his “painful, idealizing, narcissistic romanticism” ultimately redeem him. Terrance Rafferty’s choice of “born again” strikes me as particularly telling, the pull towards Aphrodite’s spiritual immanence, right there, in Christ’s paradoxical dictum that we must find our spiritual nature if we’re to fully live in the world, the kingdom of heaven, here and now. García Márquez portrays this paradox when an old man loves a young girl, a person who the old man never really sees as human, and who remains a fantasy abstraction in his dim mind. From the outside, it looks disgusting, if not absurdly hilarious; but touching love however obliquely, returns the old man to life and living, and not just living, for he finds personal redemption before death. Love and death, side by side, once again, forever coupled and haunting the human imagination.
Groucho Marx kept that receipt. While it may not be a true story, I’ll see Groucho and raise him. I believe Groucho kept that receipt, and I believe he kept it until his death. For it was his first love letter, however clumsily written, and he treasured that memory in secret sweetness until his final breath.