Many writers and artists, especially those who create in isolation that lasts for months if not years, have one tool at their disposal that’s often not talked about: making love to oneself.
It is not about onanism. Calling the act of pleasuring ourselves “masturbation” reduces our encounters with our own bodies to a fleeting moment, something like a treat that keeps the hunger away as we await a lover. While if done with passion, intimacy with ourselves can be the real deal.
Admittedly, it was the repeated failure to establish successful romantic relationships with others in my early 20s that set me on the journey to search for a language of love with myself that was whole. But it was the power of art and literature that gave me the courage and boldness to elevate lovemaking with myself to the same level as making love to others.
My mind drifts back to that evening outside Holborn station in the 1990s, when a lover I had started dating recently decided to leave, citing sexual incompatibility. I didn’t try to persuade her to stay or argue that she couldn’t have known what I was like in the short time we had been together. You can never live up to a concocted image of an ideal lover in someone else’s mind. You feel powerless in these situations even though your true powers as a lover might lie elsewhere.
It wasn’t the first time that my dates were short lived, so that night I decided not to date again. Instead I immersed myself in my studies and in the world of books and arts. With every step I took into solitude, the brighter I appeared to myself, as if my imagination was a torch lighting up a dark world. In those moments of longing to be touched, I could see my body clearer than ever before under my own probe, yet I didn’t know what to do with it. And I yearned for an encounter with myself that was as complex, as rich, multilayered, full of mystery and dreams as the ones I came across in art works, such as those by Salvador Dali, of paintings that impel us to spend languid moments with ourselves and invite us to reimagine our relationships with our own bodies. But I couldn’t extract from my own body the passion these artists alerted me to. My hands lacked the luscious strokes of the painters’ brushes against their canvas. The more I revealed myself to my eyes, the more I was reminded of the limitations of my own body.
I started dating again after a long time of abstinence. One evening, as my date and I walked on Bayswater Road alongside Hyde Park after drinks, we took our conversations to a deeper level, unveiling places of ourselves to each other as the night unfolded before us. Her scent conquered London that summer evening, as if her neck was where the city’s wind blew from. She drew out the poet in me so that whenever I raised my head towards her, it was as if there was a curtain made of Nizar Qabbani’s poems dangling in front of my eyes that gave me a romantic look at her and at the world. I found intimacy in being close to her, in hearing her talk, listening to the stories she told, her laughter that echoed in my chest, her breathing that added nuanced vocabulary to my silence. In that closeness I felt as if I had let go of all my inhibitions, and like the half-moon fleeting between London’s nightly clouds, I glowed in parts. That was when it should have occurred to me that my idea of love had been reimagined during my years of celibacy with art as my companion. That I had learned a new language on love from the movies I saw, the paintings I studied, and the poems I read. The heartaches and art would combine forces to lead me to pursue an avant-garde interpretation of self-pleasure. My chest swelled with passion that threatened to drown those I was falling in love with. Overwhelming lovers wasn’t my intention, so I retreated once more to my world.
But this time, the more time I spent with myself, the more I was overriding my insecurities as if perseverance turned into armour as I journeyed inward. In the process, I encountered many hidden parts of myself. It was about giving home to all my fragments. This, though, would take time, to this day in fact. But the work began in those days in London when I first grasped that I wasn’t one but infinite possibilities of beings that altered shapes and colours of passions. I discovered then that my desires were as fragmented as myself when I boldly embraced the artists’ invitation to explore. I gave freedom to my imagination, to wild ideas, an unfiltered quest for love that was beginning to look free and spontaneous. I could enact a moment without scandalising anyone.
Making love with yourself is not only the physical aspect. It is about building emotional relationships with yourself, your mind and your soul. It is about reviving your spiritual side, giving power to your eyes to feast on your skin, to studying the contours of your body, and granting yourself the same attention you accord to lovers. It’s about the details. Something as little as feeding dark, sensual perfume to the veins on your neck before an evening stroll, can bring poetry to your pores.
It’s rare that relationships with others allow you to reveal your body and imagination at the same time. Either through fear, shame, or shyness, we hold back the best parts of our deep desires. Untouched, unseen, uncommunicated, our fantasies rot like forbidden fruits inside us, making us the carrier of a cemetery of our longings in our flesh. But then with yourself you can be creative, sensual, bold, imaginative, experimental, all with the added bonus that there is no other party to persuade and whose limits you might want to take into account. Although having said that, self-censorship about sex, amassed through education, society, and culture, are on their own a cocktail of powerful obstacles on your way to self-enjoyment. Those amorous moments with our own bodies as we do with others, then, rests on freeing ourselves from our own fears and taboos. For me, writing and art and literature made me see myself the way I am.
Discussions with friends and some fellow writers here in Brussels and abroad made me understand I am not alone. Solitude and art has empowered us to reconstruct our own ideas about love, battling our societies’ views on desire. Amongst them, I can comfortably state that I find pleasure and sensuousness in surprising things. Entire night of only talking feel highly erotic. Reading a poem to ourselves or a lover is a form of lovemaking. Fulfilment can be in silent intimacy. That there are days when sex exists in details as small as spinning a lock of a lover’s hair, and as colourful as our own nude skin emerging from the cover of dusk to our seductive gaze.
The language of making love to ourselves is a subversive call. Redrawing our relationship with ourselves takes us a step closer to embracing a new way with others. By giving a place to our tender sides in our sexual encounters with ourselves we learn that acts of love with others can also be as varied and as imaginative. Ultimately though knowing you are free with yourself, understanding that the art of making love to yourself is to love it in all its fragments, enhances your capacity to also become free with others and allow others the freedom they deserve. This is a manifesto rooted in solitude, art and literature that we need to share and spread in a world that seeks to define us and confine us to one idea of love and sex.
*** The English translation of this essay was originally published on Brittle Paper and subsequently published in Dutch in de Standaard.