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


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


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.

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.


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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Touch Hunger


I ain’t lookin’ for prayers or pity/ I ain’t comin’ round searchin’ for a crutch/ I just want someone to talk to/ And a little of that human touch. —Bruce Springsteen, Human Touch

Convicted murderer Peter Collins died of cancer after 32 years in a Canadian prison. In that time, he became a champion of prison rights, and made a short film called Fly in the Ointment about a prolonged period that he spent in solitary confinement:

Somehow, I felt [my wife’s] fingers on my leg. Shocked and excited, I opened my eyes only to realize it was a fly walking on me. I was greedy for human touch so I closed my eyes and pretended it was her fingers. I tried to stay perfectly still because I didn’t want to frighten the fly off and be left alone.

After that, Collins would bite his cheek and apply a mixture of his own blood and saliva onto his skin to attract the flies that had become his only source of living touch.

Owing to smaller household sizes, greater migration, higher media consumption, and longer life expectancy, people today are more isolated than at any other time in human history. Just like we crave food when we are hungry, and crave sleep when we are tired, so we crave touch when we are or feel alone. When someone is no longer in our orbit, we do not say that we are out of sight, or out of hearing, but out of touch. Maybe we feel that we ought to make contact. More than a mere indulgence, human touch is, like food and sleep, a visceral but neglected need that is increasingly being met by third parties such as massage therapists and even professional cuddlers.

As a wine taster, I thought that smell was the most neglected of our senses. But in our society touch is even more so. In the 1960s, Sidney Jourard, a psychologist at the University of Florida, observed the behaviour of couples in coffee shops around the world. He found that, in the space of an hour, couples in Puerto Rico touched each other 180 times. This compared to 110 times in Paris, just twice in Florida, and not at all in London. Jourard also found that French parents and their children touched three times more than their American counterparts.

The fear of touch in northern, English-speaking countries is deep-seated. In Victorian England and 19th century America, people took to the language of flowers, or floriography, to express feelings that could not otherwise be expressed. In a book on child rearing, first published in 1928, the influential American psychologist John B. Watson advised:

Never hug and kiss [your children], never let them sit on your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say goodnight … In a week’s time you will find how easy it is to be perfectly objective with your child and at the same time kindly. You will be utterly ashamed at the mawkish, sentimental way you have been handling it.

Still today, many people flinch if the person returning their change accidentally brushes their hand. Generally speaking, the fear of touch is much greater in men. Touch is seen as soft and effeminate, and many men are keen to appear macho or at least masculine. With women, they fear that their touch will be interpreted as a sexual advance. With other men, they fear that it will raise doubts about their sexuality, or that it will feel awkward, or that it will be rejected, or that they might enjoy it a little too much. With children, with many schools now operating a strict no-touch policy, they fear that it could raise suspicions of paedophilia. So with the exception of handshakes and the occasional awkward ‘man hug’, men must forego touch, especially warm, intimate touch, simply to reassure everyone, and perhaps also themselves, that they are decent, manly men.

As they grow out of the warm embrace of their parents, boys try to meet their need for touch through rough interaction with other boys. As they grow older, they may fumble into a relationship, limiting any physical contact to just one other person. This puts a lot of pressure on their partner and relationship. It also reinforces the ambiguation between touch and sex. Our libido can be assuaged with our own hand in a way that our craving for touch cannot: as every sex worker knows, many people who think they are hungry for sex are in fact hungry for skin. But it is possible to separate the two, even with people to whom we feel sexually attracted.

For men, outside of a sexual relationship, the only touch that is condoned is that between a father and his very young childen.
Source: Pixbay

To undermine the taboos surrounding it, I’m going to build a positive case for touch. Touch is probably the most primitive of all the senses. It is the first sense to develop, and is already present from just eight weeks of gestation. With a surface area, in adults, of around two square metres, our skin is the largest organ in our body. In a controversial experiment going back to the 1950s, the psychologist Harry Harlow offered maternally deprived infant Rhesus macaques a choice of two inanimate surrogate mothers made of wire and wood: one bare, and the other covered in cloth. The monkeys preferred the cloth-covered surrogate to the bare one, even when the bare one was holding a bottle of food. In 1994, the neurobiologist Mary Carlson, one of Harlow’s former students, travelled to Romania with the psychiatrist Felton Earls to study the effects of severe deprivation on the decretei children abandoned in understaffed orphanages. Typical findings included muteness, blank facial expressions, social withdrawal, and bizarre stereotypic movements, behaviours very similar to those of socially deprived macaques and chimpanzees. Recent studies have reinforced the importance of childhood physical contact, which has been associated with, among others, better performance on cognitive and physical tests, a stronger immune system, and reduced aggression. All else being equal, premature infants that receive a course of massage therapy gain considerably more weight and spend less time in hospital.

In adults, the benefits of gentle touch include: reducing stress and even protecting against it, lifting mood and self-esteem, strengthening interpersonal bonds, improving cognitive function, and boosting immune function. These effects are mediated by hormonal changes, including a lowering of the stress hormone cortisol and the release of the ‘love hormone’ oxytocin. The benefits of touch accrue to the giver as well as the receiver, as it is impossible to touch without also being touched. Even self-massage reduces stress levels, which probably explains why we are constantly touching ourselves: wringing our hands, rubbing our forehead, brushing our hair and scalp, stroking our neck and upper back, and so on. Even masturbation may be more about touch and stress than about lust itself: in a recent survey by TimeOut New York, 39% of office workers admitted to masturbating in the workplace. Compared to children, adults are less dependent on touch, but older adults, who tend to be more vulnerable, more alone, and more self-aware, are likely to need considerably more skin contact than their younger counterparts. Therapy animals have become a common in care homes, and, despite the taboo, I think residents should be encouraged to hold hands or rub each other’s shoulders.

Just as we use speech and gestures to communicate, so we use touch. Words can say, ‘I love you’, but touch can also say how and how much, and also, ‘I respect you’, ‘I need you’, and ‘thank you’. For a long time, scientists, being scientists, thought that touch served merely to emphasize a verbal message. But now it is clear that touch can be the message, and that it can be more nuanced and sophisticated than either speech or gestures, and more economical to boot. What’s more, touch is a two-way street, and a person’s reaction to our touch can tell us far more about them than their words ever could. Finally, while words can lie, or be taken for granted, primal touch is hard to either ignore or discount.

Touch can also serve to convince and motivate, so long, of course, as it is natural and appropriate. One study found that two-thirds of women agreed to dance with a man who touched her on the arm while making the request. When the man kept his hands by his side, his success rate fell by half. Students who, upon returning a library book, had their hand brushed by a librarian reported higher levels of satisfaction with the library and life in general, even if they had not been aware of having been touched. NBA teams with players who touched one another more, for example, by high-fiving or hugging during a game, went on to win more games, with the more touchy players doing best. Students who had been touched by a teacher tended to participate more in class activities, patrons who had been touched by a waitress tended to tip more generously, shoppers who had been touched by a store greeter tended to spend more money, and so on and so forth.

As a psychiatrist, I try to shake hands with all my patients, and often use comforting touch in moments of distress, almost invariably to very good effect. Touch not only calms the patient but also makes her feel that she has been seen and heard, and builds a bond of trust. It makes her, and me, feel more human, and, as a result, I think, we remember each other.



  • Peter Collins, Fly in the Ointment. Retrieved from Posted on 13 July 2015.
  • Watson JB & Watson RA (1928): Psychological Care of Infant and Child. WW Norton & Company, Inc.
  • Carlson M and Earls F (1999): Psychological and endocrinological sequelae of early social deprivation in institutionalized children in Romania. Chapter in The Integrative Neurobiology of Affiliation, edited by Carol Sue Carter et al.
  • Jillian Anthony for TimeOut New York: 39 percent of your coworkers masturbate at the office, according to our survey. Posted on 21 December 2015.
  • Kraus MW et al (2010): Tactile communication, cooperation, and performance: an ethological study of the NBA. Emotion 10(5):745-9.
  • Cruso AH & Wetzel CG (1984): The Midas touch: The effects of interpersonal touch on restaurant tipping. Personality an Social Psychology Bulletin 10:512-517.
  • Guéguen N (2004): Nonverbal encouragement of participation in a course: the effect of touching. Social Psychology of Education 7:89-98.
  • Stephen R & Zweigenhaft R (1985): The effect on tipping of a waitress touching male and female customers. Journal of Social Psychology 126:141-142.
  • Hornik, J (1992): Tactile stimulation and consumer response. Journal of Consumer Research 19:449-158.

A Short History of Love


In the fifth century BC, the Greek philosopher Empedocles held that there are four primordial elements: air, earth, fire, and water. These elements are driven together and apart by the opposed cosmic principles of Love and Strife. Love brings the elements together, and unopposed Love leads to ‘The One’, a divine and resplendent sphere. Strife gradually degrades the sphere, returning it to the elements, and this cosmic cycle repeats itself ad infinitum. According to legend, Empedocles killed himself by leaping into the flames of Mount Etna, either to prove that he was immortal or to make people believe that he was.

Empedocles may have conceived of love as a great cosmic principle, but it is in fact Plato who transformed it into the spiritual, transcendental, and redemptory force that it has become. Before Plato, and for a long time after, some people did, of course, fall in love, but they did not believe that their love might in some sense save them. When, in Homer’s Iliad, Helen eloped with Paris, neither she nor he thought of their attraction as pure or noble or elevating. The Greeks recognized several types of love: the one that most approaches our modern concept of romantic love is eros, or passionate love. Rather than celebrating eros, Greek myth sees it as a kind of madness induced by one of Cupid’s arrows. The arrow breaches us and we ‘fall’ in love, often with disastrous consequences such as, well, the Trojan War. In the Antigone of Sophocles, the chorus sings: ‘Love… whoever feels your grip is driven mad… you wrench the minds of the righteous into outrage, swerve them to their ruin…’ In Homer’s Odyssey, despite her many suitors, Penelope remains faithful to her husband Odysseus. But her commitment is better understood in terms of dutiful love, or connubial fidelity, than modern, madcap romantic love. In the last resort, when Odysseus returns and slaughters all the suitors, Penelope is reluctant even to recognize him.

Plato’s Symposium (4th century BC) contains a myth about the origins of human love. Once upon a time, there were three kinds of people: male, descended from the sun; female, descended from the earth; and hermaphrodite, with both male and female parts, descended from the moon. These early people were completely round, each with four arms and four legs, two identical faces on opposite sides of a head with four ears, and all else to match. They walked both forwards and backwards, and ran by turning cartwheels on their eight limbs, moving in circles like their parents the planets. They were powerful and unruly, and threatened to scale the heavens. So Zeus, the father of the gods, cut them into two ‘like a sorb-apple which is halved for pickling’, and even threatened to cut them into two again, so that they might hop on one leg. After that, people searched all over for their other half. When they finally found it, they wrapped themselves around it very tightly and did not let go. This is the origin of our desire for others: those of us who desire members of the opposite sex used to be hermaphrodites, whereas men who desire men used to be male, and women who desire women used to be female. When we find our other half (the expression descends from Plato’s myth), we are ‘lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy’ that cannot be accounted for by a simple drive for sex, but by a desire to be whole again and restored to our original nature.

Later in Plato’s Symposium, Socrates relates a conversation that he once had with the priestess Diotima, from whom he supposedly learnt the art of love. According to Diotima, a youth should be taught to love one beautiful body so that he comes to realize that this beautiful body shares beauty with other beautiful bodies, and thus that it is foolish to love just one beautiful body. In loving all beautiful bodies, the youth comes to understand that the beauty of the soul is superior to that of the body, and begins to love those who are beautiful in soul regardless of the beauty of their body. Once he has transcended the physical, he discovers that beautiful practices and customs and the various kinds of knowledge also share in a common beauty. Finally, arriving at the summit of the ladder of love, he is able to experience Beauty itself, rather than its various apparitions. By exchanging the various apparitions of virtue for Virtue itself, he gains immortality and the love of the gods.

Although Plato’s model eventually gained the upper hand, other models of love in antiquity are the perfect friendship of Aristotle, and the naturalism of Lucretius and Ovid. For Aristotle, friendships founded on advantage alone or pleasure alone are as nothing to those founded on virtue. To be in such a friendship, and to seek out the good of one’s friend, is to exercise reason and virtue, which is the distinctive function of human beings, and which amounts to happiness. In a virtuous friendship, our friend is as another self: rather than removing from it, his good adds to our own, such that there cannot ever be any conflict of interest. Unfortunately, the number of people with whom one can sustain a perfect friendship is very small, first, because reason and virtue are not to be found in everyone (never, for instance, in young people, who are not wise enough to be virtuous), and, second, because a perfect friendship can only be created and sustained if the friends spend a great deal of time investing into each other.

Two exemplars of perfect friendship, from very different times and places, are David and Jonathan, and Michel de Montaigne and Etienne de la Boétie. David rivalled Jonathan, son of King Saul, for the throne of Israel. After slaying Goliath, David appeared before Saul with Goliath’s head in his hand: ‘And it came to pass, when he had made an end of speaking unto Saul, that the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul … And Jonathan stripped himself of the robe that was upon him, and gave it to David, and his garments, even to his sword, and to his bow, and to his girdle’ (1 Samuel 18). Much later, upon learning of Jonathan’s death on Mount Gilboa, David lamented: ‘I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan: very pleasant hast thou been unto me: thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women’ (2 Samuel 1:26). One evening, Saul rebuked Jonathan for favouring David over his own father and family: “Thou son of the perverse rebellious woman, do not I know that thou hast chosen the son of Jesse to thine own confusion, and unto the confusion of thy mother’s nakedness?” David and Jonathan both had wives and children, and we are to believe that the love between them was homosocial rather than homosexual.

The essayist Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) and the humanist Etienne de la Boétie (1530-1563) became the closest friends from the moment they met at a feast in Bordeaux. Montaigne wrote that friendship, ‘having seized my whole will, led it to plunge and lose itself in his.’ ‘Our souls mingle and blend with each other so completely that they efface the seam that joined them, and cannot find it again.’ He struggled to explain this enthrallment: ‘If you press me to say why I loved him, I can say no more than it was because he was he, and I was I.’ The young men had much in common, including their privileged backgrounds, soaring intellects, and refined sensibilities. Perhaps more importantly, they shared a devotion to classical ideals of the good life, which had prepared the ground in which their friendship could blossom into one so fine that ‘it is a lot if fortune can do it once in three centuries’. In a sonnet, la Boétie declaimed: ‘You have been bound to me, Montaigne, both by the power of nature and by virtue, which is the sweet allurement of love.’ The married Montaigne never fully recovered from la Boétie’s premature death from the plague, and for the rest of his life felt like ‘no more than a half person’. No one, he warned, should ever be ‘joined and glued to us so strongly that they cannot be detached without tearing off our skin and some part of our flesh as well.’ Compared to the four years of friendship with la Boétie, the rest of his life seemed ‘but smoke and ashes, a night dark and dreary’. It is sobering to think that, had the Aristotelian template not been available, and socially condoned, their friendship may never have flown. Love, like madness, can only fill the models that society makes available.

The Roman poets Lucretius (99-55BC) and Ovid (43BC-17/18AD) did not idealize love, seeing it neither as a track to transcendence, like Plato, nor a vehicle of virtue, like Aristotle. Instead, they thought of it merely as thinly garbed animal instinct, a kind of insanity that could nonetheless be enjoyed if tamed by reason and sublimed into an art. ‘Love’ said Ovid, ‘is a thing full of anxious fears.’ ‘I am the poet of the poor, for I was poor when I loved.’ The modern heirs to Lucretius and Ovid are Schopenhauer, and, later, Freud and Proust. In his masterwork, The World as Will (1819), Schopenhauer argues that beneath the world of appearances lies the world of will, a fundamentally blind process of striving for survival and reproduction. Everything in the world is a manifestation of will, including the human body: the genitals are objectified sexual impulse, the mouth and digestive tract objectified hunger, and so on. Even our higher faculties have evolved for no other purpose than to help us meet the demands of will. The most powerful manifestation of will is the impulse for sex. The will-to-life of the yet unconceived offspring draws man and woman together in a shared delusion of lust and love. But with the task accomplished, the delusion dies and they return to their ‘original narrowness and neediness’.

In Genesis 22, God asks Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac. But as Abraham is about to slay Isaac, an angel stays his hand: ‘now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, from me.’ It is true that the Old Testament instructs us to love God (Deuteronomy 6:4-5) and to love our neighbours (Leviticus 19:18). However, the Binding of Isaac highlights that, although love and morality are important principles, unquestioning obedience or allegiance to God is more important still, for God is morality, and God is love. In contrast, the New Testament elevates love into the supreme virtue and commingles it with life and death. More than a commandment, love becomes the royal road to redemption: ‘He that loveth not his brother abideth in death. Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him’ (John 3:14-15). One must even turn the other cheek to love one’s enemies: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you’ (Matthew 5:44). Over the centuries, the Church doctors sought to align Christian theology with classical philosophy, especially Platonism; and Christian love, more properly called charity, and ultimately aimed at God, blurred with something much more self-oriented.

This laid the ground for the troubadour tradition that began in the late 11th century in Occitania (broadly, the southern half of France). A troubadour extolled refined or courtly love, which he directed at a married and unavailable lady, often of a superior social rank, as a means of exalting himself and attaining to a higher virtue, notably by carrying out a succession of chivalrous acts or tests. For the first time in the Judeo-Christian tradition, love, insofar as courtly love could count as love, did not ultimately aim at, or depend upon, God, and the Church duly declared it a heresy. In a significant cultural reversal, the daughter of Eve, although in this context an essentially passive and interchangeable idol, turned from devilish temptress or object of contempt to sublime conduit of virtue, a goddess in the place of God. The troubadour tradition, which had remained an elite and minority movement, died out around the time of the Black Death in 1348.

Saint Francis of Assisi (d. 1226) taught that nature is the mirror of God. Although a reforming Christian, his Canticle of Creatures comes across as almost pagan in inspiration: ‘Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures, especially through my lord Brother Sun, who brings the day; and you give light through him. And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendour! Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.’ In the next period, God gradually comes down to earth, to be worshipped through His creation, and, above all, through the human body. This, in any case, served as justification for all those Renaissance nudes, first among them Michelangelo’s magisterial statue of David (1504) which the Florentines displayed at the political and historical heart of their city in the Piazza della Signoria. One could admire David, or anyone else for that matter, as the mirror of God, but, for just that reason, one could not turn him or her into an object of lust. God’s descent concludes with the Dutch philosopher Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677), who thought of God and nature as one and the same. More precisely, Spinoza brought nature into God, thereby, in some sense, eliminating or radically redefining Him: ‘Whatsoever is, is in God… God is the indwelling, and not the transient cause of all things.’

As God retreated from love, Platonism, which had been lurking in the background, stepped forward to fill the void. Abraham had surrendered himself and his son Isaac out of devotion to God. But in the Romantic era, love became all the opposite: a means of finding and validating oneself. In the time of God, finding oneself—or, more to the point, losing oneself in God—had required years of patient spiritual practice, but, after the French Revolution, romantic love could save almost anyone, and with very little investment on their part. Plato’s ladder of love had been an elitist project aimed at subliming sexual desire into virtue, but the Romantics, concerned with neither God nor reason, held that love with a good and beautiful person could only intensify sexual desire. The sacred seeped out of God and into love, and, with more success than reason, progress, communism, or any other -ism, love took the place of the dying religion in lending weight and meaning and texture to our lives. People had once loved God, but now they loved love: more than with their beloved, they, like the troubadours before them, fell in love with love itself.

The Wines of Sicily


According to myth, it is Dionysus who brought the vine to Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean and largest region of Italy. Over the centuries, the Island of the Three Capes has been settled or controlled by, among others, the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, and Spanish. Traces of this rich and unique heritage are still evident in the local dialects, architectures, and gastronomies. Caesar’s favourite wine was Mamertine, from the area of Messina, not least because the Mamertines (‘sons of Mars’) had played a big part in the eventual defeat of Carthage. In Palermo’s archaeological museum, I admired a 2nd century stone sarcophagus in the shape of a lenòs, or tank for treading grapes.

Sicily offers close to ideal conditions for viticulture, with a varied and often rugged terrain, and hot, dry, sun-drenched summers. In the 20th century, this led to some very high yields, which have been dramatically curtailed by an increasing number of quality-conscious producers. In the last three decades, Sicily has morphed from bulk producer into one of Europe’s most distinct, intricate, and vibrant wine regions. This year, Angelo Gaja himself purchased 21ha on Etna. Although there are more than 20 Sicilian DOCs, many are rarely seen, especially on the export market. Outside certain pockets such as Cerasuolo di Vittoria, Etna, Marsala, and Pantelleria, most wine is labelled Sicilia DOC or the more versatile IGP Terre Siciliane, which cover the entire region.

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The most notable black grape varieties in Sicily are the indigenous Nero d’Avola and Nerello Mascalese. Nero d’Avola originated in the southeast but has spread out to become Sicily’s signature variety. More substantial examples are compared to New World Shiraz, dark and full-bodied with fine tannins and notes of plum, mulberry, and chocolate. Leading examples such as Milazzo’s Duca di Montalbo, Feudo Montoni’s Vrucara (pictured above), and Planeta’s Santa Cecilia are balanced, complex, and long-lived, and much in the same league as Taurasi and Aglianico del Vulture.

In the southeastern region of Vittoria, Nero d’Avola is blended with the delicate and aromatic Frappato (30-50% of the blend) to produce Cerasuolo di Vittoria, Sicily’s only DOCG. Cerasuolo means ‘cherry-like’, and the blend can be reminiscent of quality Beaujolais. COS is a top producer of Cerasuolo, and also crafts the blend in amphorae, resulting in a fresher, more persistent style.


Amphorae at COS

Nerello Mascalese is indigenous to Mount Etna. May is a good time to visit: in contrast to the rest of Sicily, which is more or less calcareous, the slopes of the smoking volcano are black with fertility, creating an ideal backdrop for genista, euphorbia, and other bright blooms. The most notable viticultural agglomeration, with its north-facing slopes and sealed-off continental climate, is the Northern Valley, across the villages of Randazzo, Passopisciaro, and Castiglione di Sicilia. The terroir is divided into named areas, or contrade, such as Feudo di Mezzo, Guardiola, and Calderara Sottana, defined by such factors as elevation, aspect, and—this being Etna—lava type. Some contrade, such as Rampante at 1,000m, are, perversely, too altitudinous to claim the DOC. Pockets of old bush (albarello) vines are highly sought-after, despite the expense of rehabilitating, farming, and maintaining stone terraces. The Etna DOC calls for Nerello Mascalese, sometimes in a blend with the rustic Nerello Cappuccio. The wines are fresh, delicate, and mineral, inviting comparisons with Burgundy or Barolo. Despite later harvests, crus from the Northern Valley are more herbal and structured than those from the south, which are broader and spicier. Comparing Nerello Mascalese to Pinot Noir, both from the same Etna producer, the Pinot Noir was fuller with more blue fruit but less earthy spice.


One of Terre Nere’s vineyards in Etna’s Northern Valley

Etna bianco calls for Carricante, sometimes in a blend with other grapes, especially Catarratto. Carricante can be reminiscent of Chablis in its acidity, minerality, and texture, but with more mandarin than lemon and an herbal note. Benanti’s Pietramarina, a 100% Carricante from the eastern village of Milo (the only village that can claim the superiore), is one of Italy’s few age-worthy white wines.

Faro DOC, produced to the north in the calcareous hills overlooking the Strait of Messina, is a similar blend to Etna DOC, but also includes the indigenous Nocera, which contributes acidity. From the vineyards above Faro Superiore (superhuman driving skills required), you can, on a clear day, just about make out the Aeolian Islands, which are noted for Malvasia delle Lipari DOC, especially the passito, which Guy de Maupassant called a sirop de soufrele vin du diable.

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Bonavita’s tiny parcels above Faro Superiore, with Stromboli on the horizon

In terms of volume, the west of Sicily is much more important than the east, and, like Sicily as a whole, dominated by white wines. Catarratto, the principal variety, is one of the ten fortified marsala grapes (although high-end producers prefer the traditional Grillo and Inzolia), and also the major component of Bianco d’Alcamo DOC. Most Catarratto is bland and blousy, but, with strict yield control and skilful winemaking, examples from higher slopes can be crisp and mineral with notes of lemon and flowers or herbs. Two notable producers in Marsala are Marco de Bartoli and Nino Barraco, who champion the unfortified, unsweetened ‘Marsalas’ that were being made before the arrival, in the late 18th century, of English wine merchant John Woodhouse.

Wine is also made in the centre of Sicily, in all sorts of styles. G. Milazzo in the area of Agrigento even makes hand-riddled traditional method sparkling Chardonnay: the top Federico II cuvée spends seven years on lees, and, despite the heat, wins medal upon medal. Across Sicily, there is a secondary focus on international varieties such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and especially Syrah, which is well suited to the Sicilian climate. These international varieties played an important role in attracting attention to Sicily as a quality producer, but are now somewhat less fashionable. Blending, including between indigenous and international varieties, is common practice.


Tasca d’Almerita’s Tenuta Regaleali in the centre of Sicily

Moscato and Malvasia are made into passitos all over Sicily, but the most notable passitos, Moscato di Pantelleria DOC and Malvasia delle Lipari DOC, are made on outlying islands. Moscato di Pantelleria is made from Zibbibo (Muscat of Alexandria) on Pantelleria (the name derives from the Arabic Bent el-Rhia, ‘daughter of the wind’), 60km east of the Tunisian coast. Some of the best examples are Donnafugata’s Ben Ryé and Marco de Bartoli’s Bukkuram and exquisite Padre de la Vigna.

Favourite producers are Marco de Bartoli (Marsala and Pantelleria), Nino Barraco (Marsala), Feudo Montoni (Centre), and Tenuta di Fessina (Etna). Other top producers include, on the smaller side, Bonavita (Faro), Benanti, Calabretta, Frank Cornelissen, Girolamo Russo, Passopisciaro, and Terre Nere (the latter six all on Etna); and, on the larger side, COS, Cusumano, Donnafugata, Milazzo, Morgante, Planeta, and Tasca d’Almerita. COS, Milazzo, and Morgante are in the centre of Sicily, while Cusumano, Donnafugata, Planeta, and Tasca d’Almerita are more or less pan-Sicilian.

Neel Burton is author of The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting

Concise Guide to Wine 2e

The Wines of Savoie

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Vineyards in the Combe de Savoie, hugging the Bauges mountains.

Twenty years ago, the wines of Savoie were often thin and acidic, and good mostly for cutting through cheesy dishes such as the local fondue and raclette. On a recent ski trip to Chamonix, I was intrigued by some complex and unusual wines, and took a few days out of skiing to visit some producers and find out more.

Even before the Roman conquest, the vine was being cultivated in Savoie by the Gallic Allobroges. The region’s 2,100ha (versus 120,000ha for Bordeaux) are dispersed across four French départements: mostly Savoie and Haute Savoie, but also Ain and Isère. Ain also contains the even smaller Bugey wine region, which is fairly similar to Savoie in terms of terroir, varieties, and styles. You can see a map of the region on the Vin de Savoie website.

Although Savoie’s wine producing areas are fairly disparate, they are united by their common Alpine landscape, with the vine cultivated on sheltered south-facing slopes and along moderating water bodies such as lakes Geneva and Bourget. Stony soils provide good heat retention and water drainage, and I spotted the odd almond or apricot tree amidst the vines.


The vines of André et Michel Quenard at the foot of the Savoyarde in the Bauges. This slope was first planted by the Romans but had been abandoned in favour of higher yields.

White wine accounts for 70% of Savoie production, followed by red wine (20%), rosé (6%), and sparkling wine (4%). Only 5% of total production is exported, so the wines, though generally good value for money, are fairly hard to source.

By far the most important appellation in Savoie is Savoie AOP. The other still wine appellations are Roussette de Savoie AOP (for the crus of Frangy, Monthoux, Marestel, and Monterminod) and Seyssel AOP (for the cru of Seyssel), although it is not clear even to the producers themselves why these two appellations are not subsumed under Savoie AOP. Interestingly, in 2009 growers in Crépy had their AOP demoted to cru status to be able to market their wines as Savoie AOP. A fourth Savoie appellation was created in 2014 for Crémant de Savoie, which is becoming increasingly important. Broadly speaking, Crémant de Savoie is at least 40% Jacquère, with any remainder being Altesse and Chardonnay, although Chardonnay cannot account for more than 40% of the blend. The style is already winning medals in Paris.

The Savoie wine region counts some twenty crus, from Ripaille and Marin on Lake Geneva in the north to Apremont, Les Abymes, Chignin, Montmélian, and Arbin in the south. The heart of the region is to the south, between the Bauges and the Chartreuse mountains in the valley of the Isère, in the so-called Cluse de Chambéry and Combe de Savoie. The soils here are predominantly limestone scree from crumbling mountains, including the picturesque Savoyarde in the Bauges and Mont Granier in the Chartreuse.


Mont Granier in the Chartreuse, as pictured from the Bauges. The valley is the Combe de Savoie.

Over twenty grape varieties are cultivated, but the most important are Jacquère, Altesse (Roussette), Bergeron (Roussanne), and Chasselas for the whites, and Mondeuse and Gamay for the reds. The high-yielding Jacquère accounts for half of plantings, while Chasselas is found, as you might expect, in the north towards the Swiss border (see my article on the wines of Switzerland). The Gringet grape is only found in Ayze, where it is made into a sparkling wine. Some of Savoie’s indigenous varieties are on the verge of disappearance: there are, for example, just nine hectares of Persan left.

Jacquère wines are dry, crisp, and mineral, with notes of citrus fruits, pear, white flowers, and wet stone. Some of the best, most ‘Alpine’ expressions of Jacquère come from the aptly named crus of Apremont (‘Bitter Mountain’) and Les Abymes (‘The Abysses’), which lie on limestone scree from a 13th century landslide of Mont Granier that killed thousands of villagers.

Altesse underlies the Roussette de Savoie AOP, and is richer than Jacquère, with notes of honey, apricots, tropical fruits, and aniseed, among others. According to local lore, the variety was brought back from Cyprus as a royal dowry, whence the name ‘Altesse’ (‘Highness’). Whatever the case, Altesse is capable of serious complexity, and, unlike Jacquère, improves with age, developing notes of toast and nuts. The Seyssel AOP is reputed for its floral sparkling wines made from Altesse, Chasselas, and Molette.

The cru of Chignin-Bergeron (not to be confused with the overlapping cru of Chignin, which consists of Jacquère) is the only cru with a grape variety in its name: Bergeron, or Roussanne, as it is known in its native Rhône Valley. Chignin-Bergeron is rich and honeyed, although more fresh and mineral, and less alcoholic, than Roussanne counterparts from the Rhône. It is capable of serious finesse and complexity, as, for example, in Louis Magnien’s Grand Orgue cuvée.

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The first century writer Columella referred to Allobrogica, which is most probably Mondeuse, as ‘the grape that ripens amidst the snow’. In 2000, there were just 200ha of Mondeuse left in France, although the variety has since recovered somewhat. Mondeuse has often been compared with, and mistaken for, the Piedmontese Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso. It is deep in colour with notes of cherry, plum, violets, and spice, crisp acidity, and substantial tannins. Like Altesse and Bergeron, Mondeuse is age-worthy, and on my trip I tasted a 1998 Mondeuse from Louis Magnin that could still be counted as fresh. The finest examples of Mondeuse are arguably from Arbin, and I also loved Fabien Trosset’s 2015 cuvée Avalanche.

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Recommended producers: Louis Magnin, André et Michel Quenard, Fabien Trosset, Domaine Giachino, and Les Ardoisières (IGP Vin des Allobroges, just outside the Savoie AOP).

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