A Ladies Man and Shameless
JOHN PERRY BARLOW• DEC. 10, 2001
Das ewig weibliche zieht uns hinan.
The eternally feminine leads us forward.
He who binds himself to a joy does the winged life destroy,
But he who kisses the joy as it flies lives in Eternity’s sunrise.
— William Blake
— E. M. Forster
I‘m finally ready to declare myself. I am a ladies’ man. A womanizer. A libertine. A rake. A rogue. A roué. A goddamn running loose dog. I’d admit to being a lecher, but that word implies a solipsistic predation that I hope never applies to any of my relations with the mysterious sex. This is about something more sacred than anything a drooling wanker could appreciate.
This is about worship. From the time the testosterone kicked in, I have knelt at the altar of that which is female in this world. I love women. What I love in them is something that moves and must be free to do so. I love their smells, their textures, their complexities, the inexhaustible variety of their psychic weather patterns. I love to flirt with them, dance with them, and to discourse with them endlessly on the differences between men and women. I love to make love.
The sexual fires have always burned bright in my brainstem. Priapically preoccupied, I’ve written poetry by the ream, stormed police lines, ridden broncs, thrown punches and generally embarrassed myself on countless occasions. (Actually, I suspect that history consists largely of foolish things men have done to show off for women.)
There are probably twenty-five or thirty women — I certainly don’t count them — for whom I feel an abiding and deep emotional attachment. They’re scattered all over the planet. They range in age from less than half to almost twice my own. Most of these relationships are not actively sexual. Some were at one time. More never will be. But most of them feel as if they could become so. I love the feel of that tension, the delicious gravity of possibilities.
I must also admit that for me this gravity generally increases with novelty. The New, the fresh and unknown expanses of the emotional frontier, hold a fascination for me that I wish they did not. This breeds superficiality and the appearance of a hunger for conquest. But, unfortunately, I love the voltage, the charged gap between two people that can draw across itself such huge flows of information from so many parts of us. I love the feel of human bandwidth — intercourse on all channels — and there is so much more to exchange when nothing is yet known.
Despite many clear and cosmic messages that women (and death) were meant to be the curricula of my life — my dharma — and that practically everything I’ve done has been about trying to understand them, I resisted formal matriculation into this perilous course of study until well past the age when most men have already given up and settled into monogamies as comfortable and unquestioned as their football loyalties.
And now, late in my forties, I doubt I’ll ever be monogamous again. For reasons I’ll explain, I feel strangely exiled into a condition of emotional wandering. I think my heart will travel widely. I want to know as many more women as time and their indulgence will permit me.
Even so, I also want to go on loving the women I love now — and I do love them — for the rest of my life. These are relationships that have already lasted much longer than most marriages, even though some of them had to endure the hiatus of my own previous monogamies, one imposed by society, the other by what felt like an act of God.
The Road to Hell
I tried monogamy despite feeling from the get-go that being monogamous made as much sense as declaring that I liked, say, mashed potatoes and gravy so darned much that I would resolve to eat nothing else for the rest of my life.
So I got married and stayed that way for seventeen years, attempting with some grim success to impose fidelity on myself. It was, I figured, the price I had to pay in return for a good place to raise kids. And though I loved my ex-wife, and still do, I wasn’t in love with her. Didn’t believe in it, actually. I thought being in love was a myth people had invented to punish themselves for lacking it.
Fidelity always felt like work: an act of will rather than nature. As time passed, nature gradually gained the upper hand, as she almost always does. I was never quite able to stop flirting — a form of exchange that has always felt holy to me — nor was I able to disguise from my wife my undiminished appreciation of other women. This led to sexual distance between us, and I started to get hungry. There began to be incidents of what is called, in rock n roll, “offshore drilling.”
Not realizing that women hate deceit even more than they hate infidelity — and they always know — I turned into a sneak and a liar. I became someone I couldn’t respect, and so I left my marriage.
Not long after that, I experienced the miracle of voluntary monogamy for one brief and blissful period, during which, at the age of forty-six, I did fall in love for the first time in my life. During the year that followed, it was as though there were no other women except in the most abstract sense. I still delighted in the presence of pulchritude, but it was an appreciation as sublime in its detachment as my enjoyment of nature’s other wonders. I didn’t want to do anything about these beauties, any more than I would want do something about sunsets or Bach fugues. Cynthia was the only woman. But two days before we were to be married, I put her on a plane in Los Angeles and somewhere between there and New York the virus that had been secretly consuming her stopped her heart.
The most important consequence of losing Cynthia is that I now believe in the human soul. I had to see it and, once seen, it became obvious to me. No longer did I dismiss it as a biological artifact, a kind of software that arises in the electrochemical sputterings of the squishyware and cannot run otherwise. Rather I can feel the soul as an independent though immaterial identity that wears bodies like a costume.
I finally had the answer to a question I’d been asked shortly before I met her. I’d been speaking to a bunch of kids at the New York University film school about Virtual Reality when I got the usual question about virtual sex. This was such a predictable question that I had a mental tape I always ran in response to it that went something like: “I don’t get the fascination with virtual sex. Sex is about bodies, and being in VR is like having had your body amputated. What could be less sexy?”
At this point, a very embodied young woman in the front row raised her beautiful hand. “But don’t you think,” she asked, “that when it comes to sex, the body is just a prosthesis?”
My tape stopped running. “A prosthesis for what?”
“That’s the interesting question, isn’t it.” she smiled, all sphinxy.
Yeah. That was the interesting question alright, and Cynthia, in both the way she inhabited her body and the way she remained after leaving it, answered it for me. There is indeed a hand that moves the hand, there is a kiss that lives inside both sets of lips.
At that point I decided that, whatever the pressures of society or the propensity of most women to insist on it, I wouldn’t attempt monogamy again unless and until I encountered someone who induced it in me as naturally as she did. And I like to believe that nothing would make me happier than to have that happen. To fall in love. To be singularly devoted again.
(But I have to confess to aspects of my current behavior pattern that are subconsciously designed to prevent this very thing from happening. If just once in your life you’ve put all of your emotional eggs in one basket, only to have that basket smashed almost immediately, it inclines you toward more distributed systems of emotional support.)
There is a central woman in my life, a luminous Swede who lives in San Francisco. She is the person I always call when I feel bad in the middle of the night. She is beautiful and funny, as game on an adventure as Indiana Jones; she is a sexual poet, and I love her.
That she is not the only woman in my life pains her — as will this piece — and I wish to cause her no pain. But I learned from my marriage what suffering can be inflicted by someone who tries unsuccessfully to contain himself in the service of someone else’s feelings.
And scrupulous honesty, though it requires courage on both sides, is a lot more practical than most men believe it to be. The fact that I don’t lie to her about these other encounters brings us closer rather than separating us. And sin, as Nietzsche said (and I often quote), is that which separates.
A Pariah’s Advantages
While I’ve been honest about all this to my girlfriend and the other objects of my affection, I haven’t come clean in public until now. It’s an odd omission. I’ve tried to write as candidly as possible about my other deviations from standard American morality. I’m in the lucky position of being so de-institutionalized that I can say whatever I like without fear of adverse economic consequences. Indeed, lunatic candor seems to be my primary product these days. Like Hunter S. Thompson, the badder I get, the better I get paid.
A bad reputation can set you free. After all, if you’ve already declared yourself to be a pot-smoking, acid-addled slut, your opponents are forced to oppose your ideas on their merits, rather than strategically revealing your hidden depravities. Shame is no weapon against the shameless.
In fact, part of what motivates this public revelation is a belief that I am behaving morally, despite following a course that society would generally condemn. My conscience is clear, a fact that is not simply due to poor memory or an unwillingness to examine it carefully.
These admissions are also related to the fact that I find myself a few gray hair-breadths away from turning fifty, an age beyond which surreptitious ladies’ men become pathetic in direct proportion to the uneasiness they feel with their own lascivious impulses.
The phrase “dirty old man” begins to haunt me, especially as I continue to find my pot-bellied old self attracted to the same youthful feminine specifications that put steel in my poker when I was twenty-five.
Yet that’s not all there is to it: for me, it is the combination of these two beauties, the inner and the outer, that draws me most compellingly. There are plenty of perfectly formed surfaces that have no light within them and they don’t do much for me. At the same time, there are beautiful souls within bodies that are the female equivalent of my own, and while some of these are close friends, they lack the sexual spice that really fuels most discourse between the sexes.
I thus remain convinced that there is something holy about beauty, whether attached to a woman or a waterfall, and I have the entire history of art — at least until the Twentieth Century — to back me up on this. I don’t think of beauty as being something that is part of a woman, but rather something like a mist that gathers around her that becomes more beautiful if illuminated brightly from within. The real beauty, the part that lasts, is in the soul and not the skin.
Even when one is seeking sex between souls, the “prostheses” they wear are not irrelevant.
King Dick Meets My Inner Lesbian
But ironically enough, a lot of being sexy means getting past the root-level sex drive. One of the great moments in my sexual education came some years back when Dick Caveat was interviewing Raquel Welch at the height of her va-va-voomishness. “Tell me, Raquel,” he leered, “what’s your favorite erogenous zone?”
She paused, gave him a level look that completely revised my opinion of her intelligence, and said crisply, “My mind, Dick.”
The mind, I have since discovered, is just about every woman’s favorite erogenous zone, but it is mystical terrain and must be explored with care and time. The dick, in its youthful phase, is not big on care or time. It is the very definition of urgency. It makes non-negotiable demands of its bearer that are related to the inner nature of its target only to the extent that some knowledge of her has strategic value in getting her into bed.
Now my formerly dictatorial appendage is more like an old sidekick. A fellow veteran. It doesn’t have the same reload rate of old, but there’s no ejaculatio praecox to worry about either. The old soldier can pace itself. And if it can’t spit five shots in quick succession, it’s no longer calling my shots as it once did. Into the vacuum of its diminished authority has risen my heretofore undiscovered inner lesbian.
My inner lesbian is a wonderful accomplice, since she knows a lot about what turns women on, is more attuned to sensuality than the old in-out, and believes strongly that the journey is the reward. This doesn’t mean that she is not interested in orgasms, but she knows that one great thing about being a woman is that if you can come at all — which a lamentably high percentage cannot — you can usually come a lot and in a variety of ways. She makes it a lot easier to get away from my own sexual objectives and into the multifarious delights of the joint critter, the one Shakespeare called “the beast with two backs.”
And creating that larger organism, making the Other into the Self, merging the Self into the Other is, after all, what sex is ultimately about. And of course, the point is not to have a self at all. To be Everything.
The Infinity of Love
All said, you’re probably wondering why any woman would want to become emotionally or physically involved with a man whose promiscuity is so freely confessed. Of course, many of them don’t. I eliminate a lot of opportunity by wearing my Don Juan warning placard so visibly (even then, the hesitant don’t leave me entirely bereft).
But most of the resistance to becoming involved with a self-admitted playboy has to do with that all-important female perception of being special. It is hard to feel that knowing there are others out there. But there is an answer to this, and finding it has enabled me to feel a deeper sense of connection not only with women but with all the rest of my species.
The answer is that everyone is special. So also is every relationship. The creature that forms between any one person and another is like no other creature in the world. It is theirs and theirs alone. Furthermore, while time and space and attention may be painfully finite, love is not. Love has no quantity to exhaust. It is a quality, a living thing, that grows stronger the more it is felt. The vigorous practice of love expands the heart and opens its apertures to the world.
In other words, to love a lot of women, you have to love them, without a trace of bullshit, one woman at a time. You have to bring each of them with you into the perfectly present, creating there a private zone of space and time that can be filled with that particular love. You won’t have any of the comforting (though generally broken) social conventions to assure you that your vulnerability is safe. There are no assurances at all except for those that come directly from the feeling of connection you can make together. You are, in effect, beating back the darkness with the light you generate yourselves.
When I judge myself, there is one question I ask: Would I want my daughters to encounter a man like me? And because I want them to be brave in their love, because I want their faith to be annealed by experience on the edge, I hope they find a few of my kind. But I hope they don’t bring too many of us home.