In his 1902 book Love’s Coming of Age, Edward Carpenter described his vision of how a shift in attitudes towards sex, sexuality and love would push forward human evolution. Carpenter described his belief in a letter to Richard Bucke, author of 1905 book Cosmic Consciousness:
“…that there is in man a divine consciousness as well as a foot consciousness. For as we saw that the sense of taste may pass from being a mere local thing on the tip of the tongue to pervading and becoming synonymous with the health of the whole body; or as the blue of the sky may be to one person a mere superficial impression of color, and to another the inspiration of a poem or picture, and to a third, as to the “God-intoxicated” Arab of the desert, a living presence like the ancient Dyaus or Zeus–so may not the whole of human consciousness gradually lift itself from a mere local and temporary consciousness to a divine and universal? There is in every man a local consciousness connected with his quite external body; that we know. Are there not also in every man the making of a universal consciousness?”
Love’s Coming of Age
Sex is the allegory of Love in the physical world. It is from this fact that it derives its immense power. The aim of Love is non-differentiation–absolute union of being; but absolute union can only be found at the centre of existence. Therefore whoever has truly found another has found not only that other, and with that other himself, but has found also a third–who dwells at the centre and holds the plastic material of the universe in the palm of his hand, and is a creator of sensible forms.
Similarly the aim of sex is union and non-differentiation–but on the physical plane–and in the moment when this union is accomplished creation takes place, and the generation (in the plastic material of the sex-elements) of sensible forms.
There is a kind of illusion about physical desire similar to that which a child suffers from when, seeing a beautiful flower, it instantly snatches the .same, and destroys in a few moments the form and fragrance which attracted it. He only gets the full glory who holds himself back a little, and truly possesses who is willing if need be not to possess.
On the other hand it must not be pretended that the physical passions are by their nature unclean, or otherwise than admirable and desirable in their place. Any attempt to absolutely disown or despite them, carried out over long periods either by individuals or bodies of people, only ends in the thinning out of the human nature–by the very consequent stinting of the supply of its growth-material, and is liable to stultify itself in time by leading to reactionary excesses.
…it must be remembered that in order for a perfect intimacy between two people their bodies must by the nature of the case be free to each other. The bodily intimacy or endearment may not be the object for which they come together; but if it is denied, its denial will bar any real sense of repose and affiance, and make the relation restless, vague, tentative and unsatisfied.
Sex-pleasures afford a kind of type of all pleasure. The dissatisfaction which at times follows on them is the same as follows on all pleasure which is sought, and which does not come unsought. The dissatisfaction is not in the nature of pleasure itself but in the nature of seeking. In going off in pursuit of things external, the “I” (since it really has everything and needs nothing) deceives itself, goes out from its true home, tears itself asunder, and admits a gap or rent in its own being. This, it must be supposed, is what is meant by sin–the separation or sundering of one’s being-and all the pain that goes therewith. It all consists in seeking those external things and pleasures; not (a thousand times be it said) in the external things or pleasures themselves. They are all fair and gracious enough; their place is to stand round the throne and offer their homage-rank behind rank in their multitudes-if so be we will accept it. But for us to go out of ourselves to run after them, to allow ourselves to be divided and rent in twain by their attraction, that is an inversion of the order of heaven.
To this desertion of one’s true self sex tempts most strongly, and stands as the type of Maya and the world-illusion; yet the beauty of the loved one and the delight of corporeal union all turn to dust and ashes if bought at the price of disunion and disloyalty in the higher spheres–disloyalty even to the person whose mortal love is sought. The higher and more durable part of man, whirled along in the rapids and whirlpools of desire, experiences tortures the moment it comes to recognise that It is something other than physical. Then comes the struggle to regain its lost Paradise, and the frightful effort of co-ordination between the two natures, by which the centre of consciousness is gradually transferred from the fugitive to the more permanent part, and the mortal and changeable is assigned its due place in the outer chambers and forecourts of the temple.
Pleasure should come as the natural (and indeed inevitable) accompaniment of life, believed in with a kind of free faith, but never sought as the object of life. It is in the inversion of this order that the uncleanness of the senses arises. Sex to-day throughout the domains of civilisation is thoroughly unclean. Everywhere it is slimed over with the thought of pleasure. Not for joy, not for mere delight in and excess of life, not for pride in the generation of children, not for a symbol and expression of ‘ deepest soul-union, does it exist-but for our own gratification. Hence we disown it in our thoughts, and cover it up with false shame and unbelief-knowing well that to seek a social act for a private end is a falsehood. The body itself is kept religiously covered, smothered away from the rush of the great purifying life of Nature, infected with dirt and disease, and a subject for prurient thought and exaggerated lust such as in its naked state it would never provoke. The skin becomes sickly and corrupt, and of a dead leaden white hue, which strangely enough is supposed to be more beautiful than the rich rose-brown, delicately shaded into lighter tints in the less exposed parts, which it would wear if tanned by daily welcome of sun and wind. Sexual embraces themselves seldom receive the benison of Dame Nature, in whose presence alone, under the burning sun or the high canopy of the stars and surrounded by the fragrant atmosphere, their meaning can be fully understood: but take place in stuffy dens of dirty upholstery and are associated with all unbeautiful things.
Our public opinion, our literature, our customs, our laws, are saturated with the notion of the uncleanness of Sex, and are so making the conditions of its cleanness more and more difficult. Our children, as said, have to pick up their intelligence on the subject in the gutter. Little boys bathing on the outskirts of our towns are hunted down by idiotic policemen, apparently infuriated by the sight of the naked body, even of childhood. Lately in one of our northern towns, the boys and men bathing in a public pool set apart by the corporation for the purpose, were-though forced to wear some kind of covering–kept till nine o’clock at night before they were allowed to go into the water–lest in the full daylight Mrs. Grundy should behold any portion of their bodies! and as for women and girls their disabilities in the matter are most serious.
Till this dirty and dismal sentiment with regard to the human body is removed there can be little hope of anything like a free and gracious public life. With the regeneration of our social ideas the whole conception of Sex as a thing covert and to be ashamed of, marketable and unclean, will have to be regenerated. That inestimable freedom and pride which is the basis of all true manhood and womanhood will have to enter into this most intimate relation to preserve it frank and pure–pure from the damnable commercialism which buys and sells all human things, and from the religious hypocrisy which covers and conceals; and a healthy delight in and cultivation of the body and all its natural functions, and a determination to keep them pure and beautiful, open and sane and free, will have to become a recognised part of national life.
Taking all together I think it may fairly be said that the prime object of Sex is union, the physical union as the allegory and expression of the real union, and that generation is a secondary object or result of this union. If we go to the lowest material expressions of Sex–as among the protozoic cells–we find that they, the cells, unite together, two into one; and that, as a result of the nutrition that ensues, this joint cell after a time (but not always) breaks up by fission into a number of progeny cells; or if on the other hand we go to the very highest expression of Sex, in the sentiment of Love, we find the latter takes the form chiefly and before all else of a desire for union, and only in lesser degree of a desire for race-propagation.