I’ve been teaching John Wilmot and William Wycherley in my “British Restorations and 18th Century Couples Comedy” class (now there’s a mouthful), and my class last week started talking about the idea of sex without love or commitment. That led to a discussion of two movies that came out this past summer, Friends with Benefits and No Strings Attached.
In both films, the couples try to set up sexual partnerships without the complications of a meaningful relationship. (It sounds to me like prostitution, only with both partners functioning as whores and no money exchanged.) Of course, emotions like love enter into the picture and the stories unfold more or less predictably. What struck me, as we talked, is how various poets and playwrights at the time of Charles II were exploring similar issues.
For instance, Horner in Wycherley’s Country Wife is so bent on sexual gratification that he is willing to sacrifice that which men of the time value most—reputation—to sleep with women. His ploy is to pretend that he has been rendered impotent by venereal disease so that husbands will let down their guard when he is around their wives. He then proceeds (as his name indicates) to bestow cuckhold horns upon them.
But not so that he can humiliate them. No, he keeps it all a secret, which means, weirdly, that there is a kind of purity in what he’s doing. It’s as though he is an acolyte of sex, and all that other stuff—using sexual conquest as a way to elevate himself above others—is of no interest.
As we were talking, I was reminded of a Sharon Olds poem called “Sex without Love.” She describes people like Horner as “the true religious, the purists, the pros, the ones who will not accept a false Messiah.” Here’s her disturbing poem:
How do they do it, the ones who make love
without love? Beautiful as dancers,
gliding over each other like ice-skaters
over the ice, fingers hooked
inside each other’s bodies, faces
red as steak, wine, wet as the
children at birth whose mothers are going to
give them away. How do they come to the
come to the come to the God come to the
still waters, and not love
the one who came there with them, light
rising slowly as steam off their joined
skin? These are the true religious,
the purists, the pros, the ones who will not
accept a false Messiah, love the
priest instead of the God. They do not
mistake the lover for their own pleasure,
they are like great runners: they know they are alone
with the road surface, the cold, the wind,
the fit of their shoes, their over-all cardio-
vascular health–just factors, like the partner
in the bed, and not the truth, which is the
single body alone in the universe
against its own best time.
While the poem sounds admiring, there is also something chilling about it. One’s partner is no more than the road under the feet of a great but self-absorbed runner.
In the late 17th century, poets came up to similarly grim conclusions. In Wycherley’s play, the entire society is exposed as hollow. John Wilmot, meanwhile, became increasingly depressed as he followed his carpe diem philosophy to its logical end. A poem attacking constancy concludes, morbidly,
Then bring my bath, and strew my bed,
As each kind night returns;
I’ll change a mistress till I’m dead
And fate change me to worms.
The Johnny Depp film The Libertine, which is about the life of John Wilmot, is distasteful because it acknowledges this emptiness. The film didn’t get much circulation, despite starring Depp (whom my students love) because it is so dark and disagreeable. Sex without love confronts us with a terrible emptiness.
By contrast, my students all knew about these summer comedies, which indulge the fantasy but then reassuringly mute the dark implications with a traditional loving partnership for conclusion. The films are salacious but not daring. Which is par for the course for Hollywood.
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