Monday, 9 March 2009

What they didn't have in the olden days

We play a game with our three-year old where you take it in turns to say what they didn't have in the 'olden days', which for some reason he finds endlessly interesting. I don't really need to tell you that the list includes planes, street lighting, trains but not shoes, pens, food (well in most instances anyway).

We've been away for the last couple of weeks during which time I read 'Team of Rivals' by Doris Kearns Goodwin ('DKG') about how Abraham Lincoln succeeded in part because he co-opted his greatest rivals into his administration. It's a fascinating story about some compelling characters during a dramatic period of American history. But incidentally it made me realise how one thing they didn't have in the old days was sexual obsession. And what they did have was an incredibly ingenuous and passionate approach to romantic love and friendship. (Not that I'm going to include these observations in one of our games).

For instance can you imagine the incessant fuss that would ensue if it was revealed that public figures were regularly sharing double beds? (In fact, I believe a Tory politician in the Major Government had to stand down when he was forced to admit sharing a bed with a fellow on holiday once).

In the Old West this used to happen regularly. Given, there was pressure on living space so it was something of a necessity but nevertheless can you imagine the following incident happening today without some sort of public insinuation and gossip?

Lincoln as a young man arrived in Springfield, Illinois, where he'd decided to make a new life. He had no money so when he went to the general store to try to buy furniture to furnish a room he hadn't yet managed to let he asked whether he could get any credit. The storekeeper having heard him speak the day before suggested he had just as well bunk up with him in the double bed upstairs. Lincoln took up the offer with alacrity and they ended up sharing the bed for the next four years, becoming dearly intimate friends as a consequence. It is impossible to imagine this arrangement being thought generally unremarkable and without a sexual subtext in our day.

Another instance is the way close friendships were conducted. To take but one example, the friendship between William Henry Seward and a fellow New York politician Albert Haller Tracy. The latter wrote to the former: "It shames my manhood that I am so attached to you. It is a foolish fondness from which no good can come". Seward expressed a "rapturous joy" that they shared this feeling about each other, a feeling that can only be described as one of being in love. Although this is perhaps the most extreme version of this sort of intense friendship something like it is replicated again and again in the book.

It wasn't just the men who were being so emotionally intense with each other either. It is difficult to imagine married couples communicating today in such unabashedly emotional and romantic terms as are found in DKG's book.

DKG subscribes to the theory that 'fiercely expressed love and devotion' between men was a social norm in the era and sexually innocent, that the 'preoccupation with elemental sex' reveals more about later centuries than about the nineteenth. But this 'preoccupation' is surely relatively recent.  

In a small way I can vouch for the sexual innocence of what I guess we can call the pre-1960s generation. I remember once visiting my great auntie Gwyneth with my nain (Welsh for grandmother), Blodwen. They were sitting in the garden and I was indoors. It was a hot day so I could overhear their conversation through open windows. It concerned something Blodwen had been reading about it that day's newspaper:

Blodwen: 'Look Gwyn, what is it these gays actually do?'
Gwyneth: 'Well, Blod, you know...[pause for effect]...they stick it up the anus!'
Blodwen: 'Ooo...oohh' [difficult to transcribe but will be familiar to anyone who has come across the inimitable Welsh old lady's whoop of shock and disbelief]

And after all Eric and Ernie were still sharing a bed on prime time TV into the 1980s.

It all makes me think that our self-image as emotionally and sexually liberated is not quite the full picture. Sex may have been liberated from its private places but at the cost of overwhelming everything it can be associated with, including intense male friendship. Has the price we've paid for our sexual liberation been a devaluing and repression of the romantic? Is sexual innocence its essential corollary?

Moreover, has making sex a legitimate topic of general interest devalued the words that hedged it around, made them commonplace? Just today I've read about how 'passionate' people are about things as boring as building repairs and sandwiches. When sex is all around us, the associated passion loses any specialness and can be co-opted to describe our attitude to pretty much anything, no matter how quotidian. I hate companies being passionate; it's quite cynical and pathetic.

Whilst not wanting to give up what we've gained in terms of liberty and equality one is bound to feel a bit wistful for a more innocent and genuinely passionate age. Awareness of sexual issues was much more narrowly channelled but this seems to have freed up emotions making them both more openly expressed and deeply felt.

BTW Roger Scruton has written much, much better than me about a lot of this stuff but taking a whole-heartedly negative attitude to the impact of sexual liberation. Which I do not.


Anonymous said...

So with whom do you want to share a bed?

GAW said...

Nice use of grammar.

The answer, of course, is my lovely wife.

However, in future please avoid ad hominem comments so as to ensure this blog is not diverted from its search for transcendent beauty and objective truth.