Walking back to Athens from the festivals in Piraeus with his philosophical companions, Socrates comments on Sophocles’ remark that the loss of desire in old age and the ability to have sex is not a bad thing: “I feel as if I’d escaped from a mad, cruel slave driver.” Socrates adds that there is a “great and perfect peace from such things” in old age, agreeing that it’s a relief to be old, when one isn’t perturbed anymore by thoughts about sex. We’re lying in Brooke’s extra-width bed together and have been talking about sex, as we do every once in a long while, not so much as a matter of regret for loss but as a way of looking clearly at some of the subtle changes that physical transformation brings.
Brooke is talking about what it’s like to admire the curve of a woman’s breasts when they lean over you to do things for you, like feeding or nursing cares or adjusting your trach. You kind of appreciate the beauty of the flesh and the color of the flesh and the beauty of the shape, he says, and you sort of reach out with your desiring mind, but of course your desiring mind doesn’t connect up much at all with your arms or your genitalia, so your eyes do the looking. Of course nurses wear scrubs that conceal almost everything, though not wholly successfully, and some of the young nurses and aides are so trained, or so medically trained, they have no idea of how to touch somebody. But when some nurses massage your head or rub lotion on your face--that’s after all the part of you that you can feel--and around and behind your ears, on your cheek—even though it isn’t meant with sexual intent, it’s a very sensual experience. After all, that’s what foreplay is all about: touch. But if you can’t use your genitalia or they don’t work, you still feel somebody’s affection in those gestures, as sexually chaste as they may be.
Of course, talk about sex is sometimes talk about kissing earlobes and stuff like that, so this may not seem very original. It’s the kind of story we boys used to tell when we were fifteen, that a girl could get an orgasm if you kissed her earlobes really well.
But now it’s when kissing earlobes is all there is; there can’t be anything more or at least anything conventional more, that things become more interesting. Even the penis becomes essentially a conduit, something cathed six times a day by either male or female nurses in a perfectly matter-of-fact way, for which the principal use is the delivery of a satisfactory quantity of good clear urine.
Peggy, when I see you, when I think about your body unclothed as I’ve seen it so often, it gives me more pleasure to think about it because I’m so familiar with it, the shape of your nipples, the shape of your breasts, are so deeply rooted in my psyche, from the first time I met you, the way you feel, the way you smell, so when I see other women in the way I’m talking about here it’s not quite the same. I’m not just saying that to flatter you. But there’s still the extraordinary spectacle of looking –looking with a kind of transformed desire.
One of the male therapists, to take an example of ordinary looking, is always making jokes about sexy women, the kind of jokes that married men make, slightly misogynist jokes of a guy growing older: “what a nice tight ass she has.” “She’s the best-looking nurse around here.” Etc. But even though I also see tight asses and good-looking nurses I don’t see them that way anymore, but with this new view that uncouples admiration and even delight in the female form from desire for it. It’s not “the male gaze” anymore, as least what people in English Departments mean when they talk about the sexually-infused way men look at women, but just the same it’s something deeply pleasurable. I can see the female form in a new aesthetic way, like looking at a painting—Titian odalisques, for instance—something that I think almost no other men except maybe eunuchs or monks or very old men are able to do. There’s some gain in this, even if there’s plenty of loss. That’s the paradox of this whole experience, loss and gain—you can tally up a list of 900 losses but one sometimes overlooks the gains. Socrates, like Sophocles, is after all one of the old men and thinks of old age as relief; but whether he is aware of gains in sexual-aesthetic perception is another question indeed, one neatly avoided in The Symposium about leaving the sexual realm of material bodies behind for the truer love of the abstract, immaterial Forms.
It’s sometimes said that if you lose one form of perception, others become more vivid: if you lose your sight, for example, your hearing becomes sharper and your sensation of touch more discriminating. I don’t know whether this is true in general, but it seems to me relevant here. If I’ve lost my sense of feeling for the most part in my hands and legs and feet and also in my genitals, something else has come into play. It’s an increase in visual sensation, if you can call it that, particularly with regard to faces, both male and female. I’m usually lying in bed looking up at people whose faces are close to mine as they bend over me performing various tasks: this leads to a new and very visually sensual perception, especially of women’s faces. Here are four faces who bent over me today alone, though I won’t mention their names, just their initials. This isn’t all the women’s faces I’ve seen today, and it’s just the younger ones; and I’m not even talking here about the men’s faces or the faces of older women, also wonderful. But think about the four young women’s faces I’ve seen so far today. I notice every detail: J. coming in with lipstick and her hair arranged in a certain way; P., who’s from somewhere in South America, with her face, her hair back and a slight irregularity in her lip; or M., with the most winning smile you can imagine. I think if I were say 28 I’d ask them out, but that’s an entirely different scenario with (as every man knows) a entirely different objective, and this way their faces are close to me and I can devour and delight in them without any ulterior motive. I was amused by the way M. had her hair pulled back with a little braid of her own hair; she has an oval face with a brilliant smile; if you try to look at her right in the eyes she’ll hold it for a long time before looking away. There’s the color of P.s skin, a creamy brown, with eyes with a certain niche near the tear ducts, beautifully made up with dark eyeliner, amazing eyelashes, deep dark eyes, a mouth with that wonderful irregularity; hair tied back in a way that just invites you to untie it, which I can do with my eyes though not of course in any other way. She looks right into your eyes; I’d thought earlier she was trying to seduce me (as if that were possible) but I realize that she’s extraordinarily caring and not afraid to be this close to a man she hardly knows: she puts her hands on you and kisses you. M. had a shirt with a little flounce that partly covers the crevice between her breasts; it invites staring. J: a very mobile face, with a little bit of hair coming down over her forehead, just a touch of boyishness,: the lipstick made her look more like a woman but couldn’t hide her extraordinary liveliness. I think she’s quite flabbergasted that I notice these things, given my situation, but I tell her I notice them. I want her to know. It’s all caressing with the eyes, because the sensation of touch has left me, for the time being anyway.
And L., hanging her head over me with her long dark hair, doing deep breathing a la Marilyn Monroe, partly to help me practice keeping the voice vocalized far forward but obviously something far more: love, the kind of emotional and at the same time bodily love one couldn’t express except in this physically liberated way.
Is this just the same view that older men often have, lusting in the background after beautiful young women? Sure, it must be partly that. But it feels as if it is different—those aging men still often entertain hopes, even if they know those hopes are far-fetched—but for me, there aren’t any hopes at all. No possibilities. Nothing. Nada. And that’s part of what makes it somehow curiously beautiful, what makes possible not just the dwindling disappointedness of aging but a transformed view.
It’s not just about women. There’s been so much love spoken here recently. Here are men who’ve been here in the past couple of days or so: DM, BK, PZ, BG, GD, CH, MM. It would be way harder to say these things man to man, if everything were just normal in the normal physical way. But RA bent over the bed, put his face very, very close to mine, said I love you Brooke, I love you Brooke, I love you Brooke.
What you lose in a condition like mine might be something about sex; what you gain is a kind of still-physical love of faces and human bodies and indeed people that transcends physicality, a kind of Platonic love but not exactly, and certainly not Platonic love in the adolescent sense. It isn’t just about the male gaze, or losing it; it’s also about a version of Plato’s vision of love where the love of beautiful human forms ascends from ordinary perception infused with desire, to something beyond but still real and still uncannily physical; it’s about the preserved deliciousness of sexuality in a new form, a new aesthetic form, that has its own real delights.