The Challenges of Intimacy

A country can’t love you. At most it may need you. It’s much the same as people. —André Brink, The Rights of Desire

hugging

Emotional intimacy can be understood as a state of closeness between two people resulting from a process of interaction through which they feel able to share increasingly sensitive and significant aspects of themselves that they normally keep hidden, in some cases, even from themselves.

It begins with one person taking a risk by disclosing a private, personal, and emotionally charged thought, feeling, or biographical detail that leaves him or her exposed and vulnerable, in the hope or expectation of a supportive response, which, if forthcoming, encourages further self-disclosure from both parties. This process is largely dependent on goodwill and trust, which in the absence of a strong pull factor, such as mutual physical attraction, can take years to build.

Intimate discourse need not be verbal, and can also take the form of emotional expressions, meaningful glances, sustained eye contact, physical proximity, touch, and such like. Emotional intimacy can lead to physical intimacy, and, less commonly, physical intimacy to emotional intimacy. As a result, the two are sometimes confused. Historically, human beings lived in large families in tightknit communities that provided for all kinds of intimacy. But now, many people rely on just one person, usually their romantic partner, for all their intimacy needs, reinforcing the belief that one cannot have emotional intimacy without physical intimacy, or that they are one and the same. Intimacy exists on a spectrum, and in different shapes and forms: it is possible to create some degree of intimacy in all our relationships, even the most formal or fleeting ones; and, as in the days of yore, it may be that our most intimate relationship is not with our spouse or sexual partner.

Compared to men, women tend to be much better at intimacy, and a woman’s most intimate relationship is often with a same-sex friend. In general, men guard their privacy more closely than women. They are more reluctant to self-disclose, especially to other men. Interestingly, this is not, or not as much, the case for men from non-Western societies, suggesting that it has more to do with culture than with any biological differences between men and women. In the West, men are taught to associate emotions, emotional sharing, and emotional warmth with effeminacy or homosexuality; and to value macho traits such as assertiveness, autonomy, and resilience which conflict with barefaced self-disclosure. As a result, they prefer to reveal themselves in fits and starts, usually under the cover of some other activity such as drinking or sports.

This is a great loss for the male sex. Intimacy can feel like a bubble of bliss in which, at last, we can be ourselves, and, more than that, affirmed in ourselves. Tapping into the perspective, experience, skills, and resources of another broadens our horizons and increases our possibilities. Their unconditional support makes us feel stronger and more secure. Their interest and participation in the minutia of our experience seems to enrich it, lending texture and substance to our otherwise mundane, almost mechanical lives. Unsurprisingly, people who report having one or more intimate relationships tend to be happier and healthier, and intimacy is an important predictor of long-term relationship satisfaction.

Given its promise, the ability to create and sustain intimacy is key to a certain kind of flourishing life. Deep intimacy requires healthy self-esteem, to tolerate the vulnerability that comes with the self-disclosure of emotionally charged material. It also calls for courage and curiosity, and a fair amount of self-knowledge, with many avenues for further intimacy sealed off by not knowing what one thinks or feels, and, more to the point, not wanting to find out. It is, of course, not just about scrutinising ourselves, but also about reading the other, reaching beyond their words to arrive at their true meaning and significance, and adapting our every interaction so that it accords with their, and our own, perspectives, dispositions, and sensitivities.

Intimacy involves both give and take, often at the same time within the same interaction; and people who are narcissistic or self-obsessed should take care not to confuse friendship with an onslaught of one-sided ‘self-disclosure’. Intimacy cannot be imposed on people. Nor can it be forced out of them, for example, by probing too soon into their deepest secrets. It has to come naturally, gradually, at its own pace, if it is not to undermine the trust upon which it is built. It can take a long time to start seeing someone for the person that they really are, rather than as an object or instrument in our world. It is hard to trust someone who seems to be coming at us with an agenda of their own, and scant regard for ours. Modern dating, which is largely about instant gratification, and fitting a certain look or stereotype, can leave us feeling like little more than a lump of flesh at the meat market.

Once achieved, intimacy isn’t necessarily the sinecure that we might have hoped for, particularly if the affection that follows after it has acquired the existential flavour which people generally call love. Inevitably, life follows its course, with competing priorities and attachments taking their toll on our relationship. Having poured so much of ourselves into another, we become painfully sensitive to the slightest sign of disdain or indifference on their part, which we interpret as a loss of their goodwill and, more than that, an indictment of the person that we are—and that they know so well. Our natural reaction is then to snipe back or pull up the drawbridge, further undermining the partnership that took so long to build. Later, we may change tactics and tighten our grip, and, suddenly, like a bar of soap, our relationship slips between our fingers. On both sides, affection turns into anger, trust into resentment, and friend into enemy. What we forgot is that intimacy has a life of its own, that it cannot be forced or imposed, and that, sometimes, the best way to save a relationship is to step back before it is too late.

The First Gays in Recorded History

ancientegypt

Nyankhkhnum and Khnumhotep

Attitudes to same-sex relationships in Ancient Egypt are significant because they may have informed or influenced sexual mores in Ancient Israel, that is, in the Bible, and as far out as Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. The period spans almost 3000 years, from 3100BC to 332BC, and attitudes may have varied quite considerably across the centuries, or even from one ruler to the next. Primary sources are largely silent on the subject of same-sex love, and the principal evidence, which is open to interpretation, comes from just three areas: a myth about the gods Horus and Seth, a historical tale about Pharaoh Neferkare and his general Sasenet, and the excavated tomb of court officials Nyankhkhnum and Khnumhotep.

In the Contendings of Horus and Seth, a mythological story of which there are several versions, Seth and his nephew Horus vie for the throne of Egypt. Seth keeps on trying to get the better of Horus. At last, he decides to subjugate him by inebriating, seducing, and, at last, inseminating him. “How beautiful are your buttocks, how vital!’ used by Seth on his nephew, is probably the oldest recorded chat-up line in history. In the event, Horus is not all that drunk, and succeeds in catching Seth’s semen in his hand. The next day, he shows his manky hand to his mother Isis, and together they plot their revenge. Horus masturbates into Seth’s lunchtime lettuce. After lunch, Seth puts his case before the tribunal of the gods, but Horus disputes his claim. When Thoth calls forth their semen, that of Seth rises from the Nile, while that of Horus pours out of Seth’s mouth. The myth suggests that, in Ancient Egypt as in Ancient Rome, the sticking point, if you’ll forgive the pun, is not so much with same-sex love per se as with a male playing the part of a passive partner. In 46BC, Caesar submitted, or appeared to submit, to Nicomedes IV of Bithynia, leading to the disparaging title, ‘the Queen of Bithynia’. A popular quip at the time ran: Gallias Caesar subegit, Caesarem Nicomedes (‘Caesar subjugated Gaul, and Nicomedes Caesar’). It is notable that Horus had no qualms with being seduced by Seth, or even with bedding him, but only with being inseminated by him.

Wikicommons
A Ramesside period ostracon, depicting two men in coitus
Source: Wikicommons

From three extent fragments, it is possible to reconstruct the 23rd century BC story of Pharaoh Neferkare (the long-reigning Pepi II) and his clandestine nocturnal visits to General Sasenet. A spy observed Neferkare going on his own from the royal palace to Sasenet’s house. Once there, ‘he threw a brick after stamping with his foot. Then a ladder was lowered to him (and) he climbed up.’ Neferkare spent four hours with Sasenet, leaving only ‘after his majesty had done that which he had wanted to do with him’. One fragment specifies that there was no woman, or wife, in Sasenet’s house, and the same incomplete sentence also contains the word ‘love’. The spy confirms to himself that ‘the rumours about [Neferkare] going out at night are true’. The tale is censorious of the king’s conduct, not so much because it involves same-sex love, but more because it does not befit a king and god.

In the 25th century BC, Nyankhkhnum and Khnumhotep shared the title of Overseer of the Manicurists at the court of Pharaoh Nyuserre Ini. As with the Gentleman of the Bedchamber at the royal court of England, the title is much more prestigious than it sounds, since Nyankhkhnum and Khnumhotep would have been granted the rare privilege of touching the person of the pharaoh, and may first and foremost have been his confidants. When they died, Nyankhkhnum and Khnumhotep were buried together in a mastaba tomb. In this tomb, they are severally depicted embracing and, in one instance, even touching noses, which in Ancient Egypt generally signified kissing. As their wives and children also feature in the tomb, it has been suggested that they were brothers rather than lovers—but having a family need not have precluded them from being lovers, and in the tomb they are represented in the same manner as a husband and wife. Nyankhkhnum and Khnumhotep may well be the oldest recorded same-sex couple in history. Their tomb suggests that, in Ancient Egypt, at least in certain strata and certain periods, same-sex relationships, or same-sex bonds tighter than marriage, could be not only tolerated but celebrated in tomb art that displaced legitimate spouses.

The Ancient Egyptians enjoyed sensuous pleasures and, although proper, they were not in the least prudish. Their myths are full of all kinds of sex. They represented the cosmos with Nut, the goddess of the night sky, overarching her ithyphallic (erect) brother Geb, the god of the earth. They attached false penises to male mummies, and false nipples to female ones, to equip the dead for sex in the afterlife. Like all ancient peoples, they valued fertility and dominance, and disapproved in particular of the passive male role. But they did not have a rigid convention of sexuality as either heterosexual or homosexual, and, at least at certain times, and in certain strata, may have tolerated and even celebrated same-sex love.

Gender Fluidity in the Gods

Many cultures have gods, demi-gods, and heroes with both male and female attributes. For example, in Hindu mythology, Shiva is seduced by Vishnu’s female avatar, Mohini, giving birth to the god Shasta (Ayyappa). Shiva himself is often represented as Ardhanarishvara, an androgynous composite of Shiva and Parvati with a body that is male on the right-hand side and female on the left. Arjuna, the great warrior of the Mahabharata, spent a year as a woman, during which he took the name of Brihannala and taught song and dance to the princess Uttara.

Ardhanarishvara

The Mesopotamian Ishtar, the beautiful goddess of fertility, love, war, and sex, is sometimes represented with a beard to emphasize her more bellicose side. She could change a man into a woman, and the assinnu, kurgarru, and kulu’u who performed her cult had both male and female features. After Gilgamesh rejected her offer of marriage, Ishtar unleashed the Bull of Heaven, ultimately leading to the death of Enkidu, whom Gilgamesh loved more than anyone: “Hear me, great ones of Uruk/ I weep for Enkidu, my friend/ Bitterly mourning like a woman mourning.”

Hapi, the Egyptian god of the annual flooding of the Nile, brought such fertility as to be regarded by some as the father of the gods: he is generally depicted as intersex, with pendulous breasts and a ceremonial false beard. Hapi might be compared to Tlazolteotl, the Aztec goddess of fertility and sexuality. Tlazolteotl is associated with the moon, and, like the moon in that culture, has both male and female characteristics. Tlazolteotl is nothing if not complex and paradoxical: although she inspires vice, as Tlaelcuani the ‘Eater of Filth’ she is also able, not unlike Jesus, to purify us by absorbing our sins.

To seduce the nymph Callisto, Zeus, the king of the Greek gods, took the form of the goddess Artemis. Zeus took many lovers, but, as Xenophon points out, the only one to be granted immortality was the Trojan prince Ganymede. Other instances of same-sex love in Greek myth include: Apollo and Hyacinthus, Hermes and Krokus, Dionysus and Ampelos, Poseidon and Pelops, Orpheus and Kalais, and Heracles and Abderus, Hylas, and Iolaus. The prophet Teiresias spent seven years as a woman, even giving birth to children in that time. One day, Zeus and Hera dragged him into an argument about who has more pleasure in sex: woman, as Zeus claimed; or, as Hera claimed, man. Tiresias averred, “Of ten parts a man enjoys only one.” Hera struck him blind to punish him for his impiety, but Zeus compensated him with the gift of foresight and a lifespan of seven lives.

How might such gender fluidity be interpreted? The union of masculine and feminine elements shows them to be complementary, inseparable, or one and the same, while emphasizing divine attributes such as power, creativity, and boundlessness. In its completeness, the union of the sexes also represents perfection and self-sufficiency, and, by extension, peace and even ecstasy. Spiritual schools tend to look favourably upon sexlessness, especially in the priestly caste, since the attraction between man and woman—or indeed between man and man or woman and woman—gives rise to worldly attachments, such as children and a home, which can detract from spiritual work and the liberation at which it aims. In heroes, gender fluidity may mark out the hero as more than a mere mortal. It may also, like the journey into the underworld, symbolize the search for the self-knowledge that is the hallmark of the hero.

Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions and other books.

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