Out walking with my twelve-year-old yesterday crossing a busy street in Rome, we were forced to step around a couple standing directly in our path, half on and half off the curb. Tall-ish, stylish, and twenty-ish, they were caught up in a major lip lock. I have never used the term before, but that ugly phrase actually does seem apt here. In the split second before my daughter and I consciously registered what we were seeing and could look away, we were treated to an un-sought-after, all-too-close-up image. Their lips literally seemed unable to get free. The kiss resembled a large lava-lamp globule slowly pulling apart as if to separate into two but then, as if through rewind, re-merging. In other ways, it was reminiscent of that childhood experience some have had (or heard about) of putting lips on a frozen pole in winter or on an ice cube. This causes lips so painfully stuck that it would take an outside substance–in this case, warm water–to separate them from the object in question. The hope is to keep the delicate skin covering one’s lips intact, without too much bleeding.
In another time and place, or for a different couple, the outside substance, in this case, might be self-consciousness (with embarrassment as the emotional trigger) at being observed in public in such a private activity. Our half-laughs and shared observations once out of earshot indicated that my daughter and I agreed it felt too close for comfort.
The initial stage of infatuation, we all know, often causes the usual barriers to drop, and even afterward, true passion for someone can make us lose that ordinary workaday self-consciousness we exercise when preparing ourselves for public consumption. Love, or lovers anyway, can be shockingly self-important in acknowledging no bounds, sometimes wrecking everything in sight–either without even meaning to or knowing full well they are doing so. Of course the trappings of love aren’t always the real thing, for performance of something is not the same as the thing itself. Passion’s publicity is always a bit suspect. As anyone who has ever experienced the genuine article knows, love needs no audience. It is itself, regardless.
The question of love aside, witnessing this Super Size kiss between two strangers made me think of the way we experience life. Of time. Of the quality of a given moment of our lives. Of the relation of self-consciousness to that quality. Of the nature of human interaction–and the strangeness of the physical aspect of it.
Isn’t this moment of the merging of the lips just one variant of what we all spend so much of our time seeking? A kind of apex; an exemplary moment; the desired loss of self; intense connection with something greater than ourselves; the longed for absence of boundaries? Surely we seek something like this when we go to the ocean, walk in the woods, worship the divine, drink wine, and the list goes on ad infinitum…right? No, but we think we do.
In his posthumous book, My Life among the Deathworks, the classical sociologist Philip Rieff gives a searing condemnation of precisely this breaking down of interpersonal boundaries which my daughter and I witnessed in the overly publicized, inside-out intimacy. Rieff discussed this urge between lovers to collapse their separate selves into one, the tendency not only in love but also in politics and culture that is the psychology of our age. This merging helps explain why, when we have arranged a consumerist world ostensibly catering to every whim, we can be so anxious and depressed.
Rieff explained that it is not the disappearance of the distance between our selves and what we want that brings us closest to the divinity and infinity of loving or being loved. Rather, it is in the “sacred space” between ourselves and the desired one that true fulfillment lies. Only by carefully maintaining and treasuring this space can we sustain the sacredness of our connections with one another.
There is no other way to explain how someone can possibly endure without the one he or she loves actually present. Yet this feat can be and is achieved as a kind of everyday heroism, usually unacknowledged, taking place as it does completely under the radar of today’s collective life.
This runs contrary to the thinking of our age. And I am not ready to condemn public displays of emotion as always a case of more is less. Naturally the particulars matter. Far be it from me to cast dour judgment on those swept away by genuine feeling for one another. Strong feeling of so many kinds seems to be lacking in the affective desert we seem too often to inhabit now.
Yet the oasis, according to Rieff, is not in the possessing, or the absorbing of the other into onself. This is sheer infantile fantasy, in which we want other people to serve as mere extensions of ourselves and our every need and wish to be gratified thusly.
Instead, it is through the deep, loving discipline of appreciating the space between us that one paradoxically finds the ultimate union. Rieff’s example is the scene of Adam’s creation in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes, in which the fingertips of God and Adam do not actually touch. For Rieff, in this miniscule gap lies all mystery, all that is sacred, and all potential for human communion. Where we realize two beings cannot be one, the capacity for mutual respect for all that is precious in the other person is generated; this results from the recognition of another person as a being whose uniqueness, integrity, and dignity are inviolable and irreducible. There is no genuine bridging of the vast chasm that can exist between us without diligent preservation of this other, sacred space between us. Without this protected space, love is not love, but just a distorted form of self-obsession, in which all that seems valid is the satisfaction of one’s own needs and desires.
Appreciation of the sacred space between people, even–or especially–by those passionately in love with one another, makes one realize one can forego satisfaction of even the most urgent needs and desires. This may be why silence, sacrifice, and solitude, more than inseparability, might be necessary to make us realize most fully the divinity of love.