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Self-Knowledge: Melancholy


Sex and Melancholy

Sex is a time, first and foremost, of great honesty. For most of our lives, we must dissemble and pretend, hide and compromise. We cannot reveal most of our true desires or wishes, we must proceed in terror that we might somewhere along the line cause grave offence or be thought peculiar and damnable.

But at last, in bed with someone we truly like and who likes us back with equal sincerity, we can let our guard down. There’s no more need to pretend. This is as private and as intimate as it will ever be. One can finally do what one has – in a little corner of the mind – being aching to do for so long: perhaps act in a totally submissive way or explore a ruthless uncompromising side, dress in the clothes of another gender or start uttering a litany of obscene and taboo phrases one would also like the partner to repeat carefully. What one chooses to be honest about will vary; the dream is always that one can land on something that feels especially significant and hitherto blocked by the rules of propriety.

The melancholy person approaches the honesty available in sex from a very particular angle. They are perhaps not especially interested in ropes or leather, in studs or fur collars. They may feel compelled by something altogether more distinctive: crying.

The most fundamental fact for the melancholy is that life is filled with unending pain – almost all of which they must hide. They cannot normally explain the scale of the distress they felt in childhood, the disappointments of adolescence, the fear and exhaustion of their careers, the frustrations and tetchiness of their relationships, the difficulties with their families, the existential terror they experience in the night, the unease they are hounded by at almost every moment… They are, somewhere in the background, carrying an intolerable sack of eeriness and grief. Most of the time, they can’t let on. They’re good at smiling; they are accomplished people pleasers. But the sadness doesn’t go away, it lingers a millimeter below the emotional epidermis, looking out for occasions – it is often a poem or a photograph – when it might briefly emerge.

Malerie Marder, I’m still right here, 2018

But now, in the bedroom with a sensitive soul, someone who is beautiful not because of what they look like but because of how they interpret and digest pain, what feels most urgent – alongside everything physical – isn’t to whip or command, pull hair or shout, it is to break down in tears; tears at how hard it’s been for so many decades, how brave one has had to seem, how many struggles one has swallowed. One is making love and at the same time, weeping because no one has ever understood until now and because one has been endlessly humiliated, overlooked and terrified. And because it might, for a while, perhaps be over.

Ideally, the partner is doing much the same: they have likewise brought their grief to the bedroom – and both lovers are exchanging the most generous of gifts: an honest response to the shittiness of being alive. There is no longer a fear of vulnerability. Their physical nakedness is as nothing next to the emotional equivalent they’re demonstrating. They are more honest than they have ever been and it’s the most erotic moment of their lives.

The eroticism is key. The crying isn’t just tender, it’s actively a turn on, what we find erotic so often compromising an emotion or attitude we respect but have been cut off from for too long in ordinary life. The tears are exciting us because they are a symbol of the reality of another person’s negotiation with pain. 

There are some very graceful and no doubt very attractive optimistic people, who can be exceptionally tender and thoughtful lovers. But the melancholy partner will have something that they never can; an ability to fuse sex with cathartic sorrow. It’s because melancholics have until now been too shy about their orientations that the taste for sad sex has not been as prominent as it should be. But as melancholy achieves its rightful place in consciousness, more of us may start to discover a buried longing to be extremely happy with a lover because, in the close semi-darkness, we and they can finally be as sad as we have always craved to be.

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