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Abstinence

( Originally Published 1931 )



How intoxicating indeed, how penetrating like a most precious wine—is that love which is the sexual transformed by the magic of the will into the emotional and spiritual ! And what a loss on the merest grounds of prudence and the economy of pleasure is its unbridled waste along physical channels ! So nothing is so much to be dreaded between lovers as just this—the vulgarisation of love—and this is the rock upon which marriage so often splits.—EDWARD CARPENTER.

AND because marriage so often splits upon this rock, or because men and women have in all ages yearned for spiritual beauty, there have been those who shut themselves off from all the sweet usages of the body. In the struggle of man to gain command over his body, and in the slow and often backsliding evolution of the higher love, there is no doubt that humanity owes much to the ascetic. But this debt is in the past. We are now gaining control of the lower forces, we are winning knowledge of the complex meanings and the spiritual transformations of our physical reactions, and in the future the highest social unit will be recognized to be the pair, fused in love so that all human potentialities are theirs, as well as the higher potentialities which only perfect love can originate.

Yet, as we live today, with still so many remnants of the older standards within and upon us, we must endeavor to understand the ascetic. He (less often she) is by no means seldom one of the products of marriage. It not infrequently happens that after a love-marriage and some years of what is considered happiness, the man or woman may withdraw from the sex-life, often looking down upon it, and considering that they have reached a higher plane by so doing. But such people seldom ask themselves if, while they lived it, they reached the highest possible level of the sex-life.

One of the most famous instances of the married ascetic is Tolstoy, whose later opinion was that the highest human being completely inhibits his sex-desires and lives a celibate life. Ascetics, however, seldom have much knowledge of human physiology, and it seems to me that, with all their fine and religious fervor, they often lack the mysticism necessary for the full realization of the meaning and potentialities of the new creation resulting from man's and woman's highest union. Doubtless if for an hour we were to take the place of the individual chemical atoms of Oxygen or of Hydrogen, we could have no inkling of the physical properties of the water-drop they together form. And, by analogy, the ascetic can have no knowledge of the wonders of a true marriage-union and of its higher potentialities and relationships with the Eternal.

Christianity, like most religions, had a strong wave of asceticism early in its history. While there was, as there still is, a harsh asceticism which is hostile to the other sex, it is of much interest to see that there was also a romantic asceticism which, while revolting from the sensuality of the pagan contemporaries, did not entirely prohibit the charms and pleasures of mutual companionship. Thus, in a mutilated form, it seems these early Christian ascetics gained some of the immaterial benefits of marriage. Ellis (Vol. 6, "Sex and Society," 1913) gives an interesting account of these ascetic love-unions :

"Our fathers," Chrysostom begins ("Against those who keep Virgins in their Houses"), "only knew two forms of sexual intimacy, marriage and fornication, Now a third form has appeared: men introduce young girls into their houses and keep them there permanently, respecting their virginity. What," Chrysostom asks, "is the reason? It seems to me that life in common with a woman is sweet, even outside conjugal union and fleshly commerce. That is my feeling; and perhaps it is not my feeling alone; it may also be that of these men. They would not hold their honor so cheap nor give rise to such scandals if this pleasure were not violent and tyrannical. . . . That there should really be a pleasure in this which produces a love more ardent than conjugal union may surprise you at first. But when I give you the proofs you will agree that it is so." The absence of restraint to desire in marriage, he continues, often leads to speedy disgust, and even apart from this, sexual intercourse, pregnancy, delivery, lactation, the bringing up of children, and all the pains and anxieties that accompany these things, soon destroy youth and dull the point of pleasure. The virgin is free from these burdens. She retains her vigor and her youthfulness, and even at the age of forty may rival the young nubile girl. "A double ardor thus burns in the heart of him who lives with her, and the gratification of desire never extinguishes the bright flame which ever continues to increase in strength." Chrysostom describes minutely all the little cares and attentions which the modern girls of his time required, and which these men delighted to expend on their virginal sweethearts whether in public or in private. He cannot help thinking, however, that the man who lavishes kisses and caresses on a woman whose virginity he retains is putting himself somewhat in the position of Tantalus. But this new refinement of tender chastity, which came as a delicious discovery to the early Christians who resolutely thrust away the licentiousness of the pagan world, was deeply rooted, as we discover from the frequency with which the grave Fathers of the Church, apprehensive of scandal, felt called upon to reprove it, though their condemnation is sometimes not without a trace of secret sympathy.

Thus Jerome, in his letter to Eustochium, refers to those couples who "share the same room," often even the same bed, and call us suspicious if we draw any conclusions; while Cyprian ("Epistola," 86) is unable to approve of those men he hears of, one a deacon, who live in familiar intercourse with virgins, even sleeping in the same bed with them, for, he declares, the feminine sex is weak and youth is wanton.

The harsh ascetic, however, is the one the word ascetic most generally conjures up. Even if he accomplishes miracles of self-restraint, and subdues desire, he is often weakened rather than strengthened by his determination to flout nature. Save only in the truly great, there is a warping and narrowing which results from coercing beyond the limits of reason the desires which were implanted in Adam and Eve when they were told to be fruitful and multiply.

As Ellen Key says ("Love and Marriage") :

Those ascetics who recommend only self-control as a remedy for the mastery of sexual instinct, even when such control becomes merely obstructive to life, are like the physician who tried only to drive the fever out of his patient : it was nothing to him that the sick man died of the cure.

But these ascetics may have arrived at their fanaticism by two different paths. One group—which includes most of the female ascetics—hates Cupid because he has never shown to them any favor. The other group—embracing the majority of male ascetics—curse him because he never leaves them in peace.

Approaching the subject in a more modern and scientific attitude of impartial inquiry, the medical man can produce an imposing list of diseases more or less directly caused by abstinence both in men and in women. These diseases range from neuralgia and "nerves" to (in women) fibroid growths. And it is well worthy of remark that these diseases may be present when the patient (as have many unmarried women) has no idea that the sex-impulse exists unmastered.

Thus the ascetic and the profligate (whether or not in legal marriage) have both to run the gaunt-let of disease. There is, however, no disease I know of which is caused by the normal and mutually happy marriage relation—a relation which, certainly to most, has positive healing and vitalizing power.

The profound truth which is perceived by the ascetics is that the creative energy of sex can be transformed into other activities. This truth should never be lost sight of in marriage; where between the times of natural, happy, and also stimulating exercise of the sex-functions, the periods of complete abstinence should be opportunities for trans-muting the healthy sex-power into work of every sort.



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