September 12, 2005
Lives of the Cannibals: The Spell of the Sexual
They say that spring is the season of love, and they may be right. April's days may be soaked in the hormones and pheromones of a renewed reproductive cycle, and in this we are undoubtedly biology's sensual puppets. But let us firmly agree that we will have no truck with biology here. On the streets of New York, biology is perhaps useful as metaphor, but quite beside the point and ridiculously unsophisticated for our purposes. So we will dispense with eggheaded myopia, and in that spirit we will also reject the modern world's most egregious conceit--love. This cloying trope may be appropriate for the foil covers of paperback novels and the illustrated pages of children's books, but for a teeming metropolis it is a quaint notion, a rumor to sustain the lonely and unattractive.
They say that spring is the season of love, and they may be right, but on the streets of New York, spring is summer's ragged doormat and love is a faintly Midwestern excuse for the gluttonous satisfaction of lust.
Suggested by such details as the curl of a lip and the severe line of a jaw, cruelty is at the heart of sex, though you'd never know it to hear people talk. That cruelty is inextricably woven into the sexual experience disturbs many, largely because it doesn't jibe with the civilized construct of love. But of course the mechanics of sex demand a certain precise violence, and often the quality of our sexual experience is indicated by kabuki-like displays of pain and heartlessness. Despotic New York is, in its concrete miles and Darwinian efficiency, cruel's storied hometown. Just watch the summertime girls on Wall Street and in Times Square as they distribute their weight on nail-thin four-inch heels, and applaud the steel in the eyes (and the pants) of the conquering businessman, whose rigorous assessment of the physical merits of these very same girls is a feat of conscienceless objectification unmatched since stalwart American traders arrived on Africa's Gold Coast. Even the City's visual parameters signal cruelty's central role: Who will be kind in a city without a sky? It speaks to New York's defiant self-sufficiency--to see nothing but what we made with our own hands, to observe the struggle that plays out daily in the rippling heat of our walled streets. It prepares us to fuck.
Flesh & Heat
For a city where sunbathing is essentially limited to fire escapes and rooftops and the odd patch of park, skin is surprisingly ubiquitous. In spite of or in concert with the pronouncements of New York's own fashion vanguard, flesh is the order of the summer season, and, for better or worse, there is a democratic quality to this ritual of exposure. Imperfections of the body are courageously displayed, plumped and framed in elastic and cotton, and to hell with sensible shame for the homely. Our women fear nothing, and no matter your wishes you will witness the shiny rhythms of their flesh. Many visitors make the mistake of assuming that New York's men will not bare their chests, that urban settings don't lend themselves to traditional demonstrations of virility. These naifs are shocked in high summer, when the articulated pecs and corrugating abs hit Seventh Avenue in force. (That a substantial number of these men are gay is of little moment here, and only serves as further testament to the city's simmering carnality.)
There are no secrets in this city, no privacy in the stacked lives of our high-rises and tenements, where we gain sonic (if not visual) access to the perversions and loneliness of our neighbors. New York can reasonably claim the concentrated libidinal force of six million--a deeply conservative estimate, given the total commuting population of the metropolitan area, the relatively low birth rate, and our seniors' migratory tendencies. This vast sensual endowment transforms the city's public space into a hothouse for various strains of latent sex. On subway platforms, where skin candies in seconds, we pace and seethe, preparing to press our glistening flesh against the glistening flesh of strangers. We are accustomed to the tight quarters of this vaginal system, which provides us a durable metaphor for the sublimation of violent desire. Although the train's arrival is a small ecstasy, discreet relief from the pressure of restraint, it's not nearly enough. Anyway, etiquette is a precious gloss here, an exotic curiosity for the foyers of Park Avenue apartments. By the humid height of July we have all but forgotten our modesty, and no longer do we draw the traditional distinctions between bodies. Instead, the perceived intrusions of eyes and limbs subside, and we become a single damp mass. Millions writhing as one.
Gassy fumes of ambition stifle the breath of this city. Without some method of burn-off, some practice to spend its propulsive energy, New York would unmoor itself from the continent and take flight like a lost balloon. Thankfully, the city's sexual black hole siphons ambition from our lungs daily, granting us peace enough to sleep some nights. The same vigor with which we pursue innovation and growth is just as easily blown on the swollen implication of sex, and so in the summertime, on radiant streets and when business is slow, ambition finds its satisfaction in exhibitionistic displays of power and availability. Mincing and posing, we pout for one another, we straighten our backs and expand our chests, and the sport becomes an end in itself. Ambition's casualties--those who are stepped on and surpassed in their attempts to live up to this vertical city--find relief on the same streets, obliterating their professional disappointment with the easy dominance of sexual reduction.
Finally, it must be said that the spell of the sexual finds fuel in death. Confronted with incomprehensible violence, we revert to our simpler selves, manufacturing comfort from the appeasement of our bodies' appetites. There is nothing wrong with this. But we would be wise to monitor our devolution closely. One day we may find ourselves so taken with the reductive ecstasy of the sensual that we have forgotten the creative dynamism it displaced. Considering New York's global stature, this would be a tragic loss, even for those insensible to the city's genius. This tiny patch of islands and shorelines on the East Coast of the United States is a vital asset, worth far more than the product of its sensual economy. It would be a terrible shame to suffocate under the oppressive cover of our lavish fantasy life.
Posted by Jedediah Palmer at 12:11 AM | Permalink
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