25 March, 2009

Little Face

Sometimes it takes another species to humanize us.

It's one of those weird paradoxes of my fondness for binding lovely lasses that I must be exceedingly fond of them in the first place to motivate the degeneracy I would ever consider visiting upon them. The act of restraining someone is necessarily reductive - the person presenting love to me and receiving love from me becomes with a few meters of ligature a fabulous distortion of a person - I amputate at this joint, efface that feature, make of my lover less a one and more an all. I'm often tempted to call it objectification, but it's not quite. When my machinations work, the broad humanity of my lover becomes much more evident than her specific individuality.

There are times, however, it's not quite working, when I lose track of what my friend D might call the transformation, when I fret a bit over what I'm doing, worry about her humanity and wonder about my own, my civility, the barbarism of my instincts and their disquieting manifestations. At such moments it has for years been a comfort to me when someone like Conor pads into the scene to rework my perspective, to check in on his first love, his mistress, and to affirm to all present that God is in his heaven and everything is as it should be.

Intelligent, instinctual fellow that he was for all the 14 years of his life, Conor is likely no less so for having died this past weekend. His rare ability persists in, for example, the words emerging into this essay, shaping this moment much as he did when his mistress would lay suffering helplessly on the floor, down at his level. He would make his casual but subtle entreaties to her inert form and remind everyone that, to his delicate and refined sensibilities, the woman whose limbs were normally available to hold him, whose voice normally cooed his name (or the even more affectionate "Little Face"), whose eyes would meet his, and who in this moment could do none of those things, was still very much a person he loved, and in his estimation very much at peace in her present dishabille. Having contented himself that everyone seemed happy enough with the general proceedings, he would take up him accustomed position on the living room couch to quietly observe the elegant violence among the humans.

Perhaps he sensed (as his mistress and I often have done) that all the drama was one big field of manic loving energy, and that his mistress was implicate in it... somewhere amidst the endless coils and coverings and laminations and loud eruptions. I flatter myself to think that Conor came to love me in part as a function of the affectionate brutality I visited on the provider of his evening provender, cleaner of his litter box and stroker of his ears. I was not known to him for those things (well, maybe I did stroke his little head a bit and opened a can of cat food once or twice - the litter box, however, was sacrosanct between him and his mistress), but Conor would receive me as though I belonged, comfort me when I wondered about my own humanity, drift by me as indifferently as any other member of the household in good standing, and insist upon attention only when the human drama to which I was party had quieted. He knew very well that it was all about love, and he himself loved being discretely in its midst, not wanting to interrupt, seemingly delighted to have it go on in all its sweaty and lurid spectacle. Even in his passing on he waited gracefully until a weekend when his mistress would be least inconvenienced and was for the moment in full possession of her limbs and voice, so that she might hold him in those final moments and coo into his ear.

He was an awfully good boy.

17 March, 2009

In BDSM We Trust

Silly me.

I have always thought in my anthropologically Pollyannaish way that the possibility of such a cunning and competitive creature as homo sapiens making it this far without exterminating itself speaks to some deeply rooted cooperative impulse. Imagine my surprise in finding out that the received wisdom among evolutionary anthropologists is that social skills and cooperative behaviors developed to better compete with other humans.

Huh? So, the ability to wage war and ultimately to obliterate all life on our home planet is an adaptive improvement on the behaviors of Paleolithic hominidae? Who knew? And how about a species that can completely encode such a trait in but a few thousand years (i.e., a blink of the evolutionary eye)? Despite the credit due our species under this view for collectively mutating faster than A-Rod, the grimness of the entailments I can scarcely imagine (how about this one - North Korea wins).

Who can blame AIG for trying to reverse-hedge the insurance business?

While I would not question the position that competitive pressures within the BDSM social milieu exist and are indeed intense, the success of BDSM as practice once a partner relationship has been established is predicated on something rather less zero-sum, a trait that is apparently being looked upon as theoretically radical, possibly even heretical, among anthropologists.

In a recent New York Times article there is reported a recent shift toward a new direction among careful thinkers in such matters. In a recent monograph, Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding, primatologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy observes that human babies are uniquely expert in eliciting from their adults deeply suborned evolutionary adaptations, the net effect of which evince to us our own capacity to trust.

The great apes get their progeny up and running on their own much faster than humans; among mammals human infants are unusually helpless for an unusually long period of time. This extended span of rearing is, understandably, rather a lot for any human mother to bear. Thus among the many ways humans cooperate in rearing children is, according to Hrdy, chief among beneficial adaptations. By their wily ways of keeping adults not merely entertained, but largely empathetic to their helplessness, infants provoke and reinforce the expression of the trust trait. This is true for apes, but apes will not generally ask for or offer assistance in the rearing of their young. Humans do, and we generally get a positive (read: non-infanticidal) response from our fellow adults because, well, we all find the little blobs of gristle pretty adorable.

Perhaps we are able on a sub-conscious level to recall our own helplessness as infants, and thereby file our responses to little ones under "empathetic", but according to Hdry we were "nice before we were smart." Even so, we were smarter than other cooperative animals (such as certain birds, wolves, etc. - it's how we managed not to become dinner) before we became fully homo sapiens spaiens some 12,000 years ago. But that's what makes the problem interesting. We had brains that were already cunning, territorial and selfish, and there is much about our behavior even today that augers against evolutionary success, but we seem to have evolved more profitably in the area of trust. Babies express it reflexively, parents recognize the trust their babies show toward (certain, not all necessarily) other adults, and trust the other adults to aid in the rearing of the children.

Of course, as soon as we entered the neolithic era, developed agriculture and settlements, we came up with the idea of territory and, concomitantly, war to enforce its boundaries. The selfish genes entered their ascendancy, but the extant traits for trusting were able to keep pace, and the time spent rearing our offspring has not gotten any briefer in the intervening millennia. As an adaptive trait trust and the sharing of pooled resources is still pretty novel.

In light of all this it's a bit startling to learn that the assumption of anthropologists, sociologists and political theorists has been for generations that humans are primarily competitive, and social adaptations are largely in service of that dominant impulse. Perhaps my rosey colored views can be attributed to my long experience at play in the fields of trust. Loving just one person takes a great deal of trust, and also faith that their love is genuine. The pains of loving fully and well are profound, and faith is required because the pain can so easily be taken personally. Loving many takes an expansion of faith, and the vectors of trust become much more densely interwoven. My wife trusts and loves my partners proceeding purely on the love and trust she sees in me for them (much as I believe Professor Hdry suggests obtains in other loving contexts), and I do likewise with her partners. Trust does much to ameliorate competitive impulses (which have their place in the evolutionary scheme of things once trust has been violated, I suspect).

I think most would agree that it's difficult to trust in just one relationship, much less many. With more than one or in several relationships conscious trust becomes something to which one has to surrender since there is no such thing as stage-managing it. What exactly is it were asking to trust anyway? That we not get hurt? If we're unwilling to hurt then we're unwilling to love. If we submit to trust (to quote the great Peter Gabriel line) we get love, and we get the inevitable pain of love too, but we take it, gladly.

I don't need to spell out the value in metaphor of BDSM play to the case supporting Professor Hdry's theory - I think many readers of this column understand the virtues of trust, of cooperation, of loving profligately and wastefully, and of electing to suffer in love. The demands on, and challenges to, trust in BDSM play are always formidable, and within that sphere I've elaborated on an infantile impulse my conscious mind surrendered over 40 years ago, but which may also be a key trait in shoring-up mankind's evolutionary prospects against its own prodigious inclination for self-immolation.