With Valentine’s Day approaching, I have been thinking about the relationship between love and desire. When does desire become love? Can you have love without desire? Agnolo Bronzino’s beautiful painting “Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time” depicts the ambivalences between lust and love, with Venus and Cupid forbiddingly embracing. Cupid, the winged god of desire, is the son of Venus, goddess of love.
In Greek mythology, Venus emerged from fecund sea foam, and while married to Vulcan enjoyed the company of many lovers. According to Wikipedia, in one of her manifestations, Venus Erycina, she embodies impure love, and is the patron goddess of prostitutes. As Venus Castina, she has sympathy and understanding for feminine souls locked up in male bodies. Her divinity recognized and celebrated that inexplicable bodily drive to change. How can anyone ever describe in words such a deep desire (is desire even the right word) as changing sex?
The history of Valentine’s Day is shrouded in mystery, but for many Americans it seems only a commercial success with billions of dollars spent on heart-shaped boxes of milk chocolates, awful greeting cards with sayings such as “I Loved You Yesterday, I Love You Still, I Always Have … I Always Will” and plastic roses. But I have a confession: I adore Valentine’s Day.
To dodge my friends’ looks of horror, I tell them that I celebrate the pre-Christian, Roman festival of Lupercalia. And for good measure, I throw in a bit of trivia: “It is somewhat unclear if the holiday honored Lupercusgod Pan from Greek Mythologybut the focal point is the suckling of Romulus and Remus by a she-wolf.”
Cross-species care, what better to celebrate? A feast with wolves, I tell my friends, and a yearly opportunity to reflect on our fantasies and libidinal appetites.
Lupercalia is full of bloodletting and sacrificingwolfish hedonism fueled by ritual. To celebrate the festivities I host a lusty dinner party. The room is decorated with anatomically correct heart cut-outs and crystals from a now-lost red chandelier hanging from the ceiling. I change all the light bulbs to pink. I serve rosé champagne and red-hued food: purple olives, red pepper bruschetta, borscht, raspberry chocolate torte and figs. My guests come dress-coded in red or pink, sometimes sparkly too. Any individual can act as a male, a female, or simultaneously as both. A love poem or a bit of smut from a recently read novel is shared aloud, but always the conversation turns to desire.
We tell each other salacious stories. Sexual cannibalism in black widow spidershungry after lovemaking, the female spider devours her mateor a hermaphroditic sea slug called a “sea hare.” At breeding time the sea hares form a chain of mating animals. The sea hare at the front of the line is female only. The ones that follow “her” are male to the animal in front of it and female to the one behind. The sea hare at the end of the line is male only. It is unclear if spiders and slugs have desire, but certainly their stories can inspire a decadent evening.
Desire is a constellation of wants and needs, hopes and dreams reaching toward someone or something. When I started dating my husband, it was all desire. The way he would sit with his thumbs in his pockets, as if a pose, looking directly at me. His gesture was jocular, but I was swept away nonetheless. With a shift of his lower jaw or a pushing out of his shoulders I dissolved. He was cockythis young Oedipusbut, from our first encounter, I offered him my attention as his roost.
On our third date, accidentally, his finger touched mine; our knees, under the table, happened to brush against each other. I became absorbed in the significance of these subtle mishaps. I started to create meaning out of these brief zones of contacteach touch raises a question in need of an answer. As simply as that, I was falling in love.
The ache of desire can give way to love. If desire is projection, then love is about recognizing the emotional contours and experiences of the one you desire. Loving someone is the closest we can get to knowing what it is like to be another person. Love breaks through our serially surging selfishness.
Later in our relationship, I was sitting in the surgical waiting room of the hospital. He was having surgery, a necessary cut, part of his transition. For him, cutting his body was a way of healing, not hurting. By removing deep structures that fill his body with competing hormones, his testosterone would no longer need to fight for a place to stay, a home. It is his cut, his alone, and yet I feel him, feel the thick purple scars on his abdomen. For him, the surgery is a desire for change; for me, his cuts are about love, loving his scars as marks of his own desire. As it is for the patrons of Venus Castina, so too is it for my husband: Changing sex is a desire to love.
With Valentine’s Day approaching, put aside those chocolate roses and stuffed winged bears holding heart-tipped arrows and sit down with your friends or your lover and talk about your desires. Dim the lights, listen to Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde,” especially Isolde’s last aria, and enjoy a decadent tipple and a scrumptious nibble.
Consider the importance of following your desires, for repressing them does you no good. Following your desire is a brave way of recognizing that something is happening to you, something remarkable. Perhaps it will break open your world, or perhaps it will simply open your heart. Things will change. But change is what must happen to desire for love to find a home.