Liberating Eros: Thoughts on Creative Power
Creation is the realm of Eros. No, I don’t mean eros as in erotic. There is a deeper meaning and experience of Eros that includes and goes beyond sexuality. This other, less known Eros comes from the Greeks, and emerged before the beautiful young god of erotic love that most of us are familiar with. Eros was the first deity to emerge from Chaos, coming into being simultaneously with the earth and the underworld. This Eros is often shown as neither male nor female. Creation couldn’t have happened without it. This Eros is the primordial creative impulse, the motive that drives all matter into its extraordinary manifestation as the Cosmos and all the lifeforms, including ourselves, that exist within it. That Eros, just like the erotic drive of sexuality, exists in all of us humans. Too often, we are not alert to the subtlety and depth of this impulse because the world we are in celebrates lust and sensation. Eros as the capricious god of the erotic blinds us to Eros as the creative movement within us. If we want to tap into our highest creative potential, I would suggest that we need to awaken to the creative power of Eros beyond the lure of the physically erotic. We need to liberate Eros from the bars and bedrooms to align with a love that can alter the course of our lives and of Life itself.
One of my favorite essays is “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” by the poet Audre Lorde. As a young woman, her words rang deeply true to me:
The erotic has often been misnamed by men and used against women. It has been made into the confused, the trivial, the psychotic, and plasticized sensation. For this reason, we have turned away from the exploration and consideration of the erotic as a source of power and information, confusing it with the pornographic. But pornography is a direct denial of the power of the erotic, for it represents the suppression of true feeling. Pornography emphasizes sensation without feeling.
Growing up in the midst of the women’s rights movement, the question of sexual liberation was a big one. Over time, women historians would document the many mind-boggling ways that women’s sexuality was seen as a threat and kept under wraps. For most of us, however, we had no further to look than to our mothers or grandmothers to know the importance of sexual liberation. We experienced their deep fear of their own sexuality, the fear of being ostracized from what was called “polite company.” How many marriages made at the end of the Second World War were loveless and bloodless, kept in place by women who were afraid to rock the boat and men traumatized by war? So, we experimented, broke taboos, dressed in ways that shocked our mums, explored, and struggled to find what we were really looking for.
Sexuality was supposed to be a doorway to something. Sure, many of us found a degree of ease and joy in the skin we are in. Yet the constant pursuit of orgasm or love or intimacy through the press of flesh on flesh often created little more than deeper loneliness. “Sensation without feeling,” as Lorde points out, ends up depriving us of the deeper potential of Eros. Despite what it might seem at first, the other sex didn’t make out all that well, either. Constantly seeking a greater intensity to break through isolation, insecurity, and alienation only reinforces that isolation, insecurity, and alienation. Again, as Lorde notes, this is a “direct denial of the power of the erotic.”
The power of the erotic for Lorde exists in the joyous intimacy of connection with others, and most importantly, in a depth of connection with one’s self. “When I speak of the erotic, then,” she explains, “I speak of it as an assertion of the lifeforce of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives.” Writing in 1978, Lorde’s concerns were with women. Today, it’s clear that most men, too, lack connection with this lifeforce and find poor substitutes in a false sense of power or the need for control. The depth of inner resonance and aliveness that we can experience with others not only grounds our lives in a core sense of satisfaction but is also the source of new knowledge. Lorde, an activist for women’s rights, comes to new ways of understanding what needs to change in our culture and how we might connect to make those changes possible through what we learn from this deep erotic. “In touch with the erotic,” she says, “I become less willing to accept powerlessness, or those other supplied states of being which are not native to me, such as resignation, despair, self-effacement, depression, self-denial.” Eros is both a force of self-definition and a creative force for change.
In the spiritual community that I was part of for many years, we tracked three different levels of Eros. The powerful force of cosmic creation moves us human beings at the physical level, the mental level, and at the level of creative consciousness itself. Perhaps we will discover that there are more points of intersection, but at this point I am confident in these three. As human beings, creativity is our purpose. And each of these three levels of Eros gives us more capacity to create and to make change, at deeper levels. What we create will determine our fate, individually, collectively, and as a planet.
The first level of Eros relates directly to Audre Lorde’s power of the erotic within an intimate relationship. Rising out of our mammalian past, Eros in our bodies drives us to procreate and reproduce. Blind, urgent, it pushes forward the cosmic imperative to create new life. Miraculous and overwhelming, this is the most basic form of creativity that females of every species are responsible for. Over the tens of thousands of years of human existence, women have carried this miracle in their bodies, ensuring that life could continue. Generation after generation, in desert or jungle or fertile plains and mountains, human cultures have sought to tame Eros so that its urgent lustfulness wouldn’t tear apart the fragile bonds and social order by which humans tried to create stability in the face of the fragility of life and the unpredictability of nature.
Taming Eros as it pulses through the body when we humans reach sexual maturity has been a complex dance for every culture from the first tribes to today’s postindustrial, globalized nations. Incest taboos, the horrors of extreme practices of genital mutilation (for women and men), norms that promote monogamous marriage, and prohibiting sex between adults and children are all ways that human societies try to find some way to balance the compulsive desire for sex and its pleasures with the need to tame the wildness of a force that doesn’t care about anything but seeking its own release. Over the course of human history, males and females have played very different roles in developing this balance. Controlling women and curbing their sexuality has been the means by which many cultures tried to strike this balance. Men’s experience of the compulsion of Eros—its demand felt in the body—was often blamed on women. At a certain level of human development, where there is little self-awareness and self-control, the fear that females had this strange power over males led to different attempts to control women.
This actually leads to the second level of Eros: Eros as the capacity for creativity. While all human cultures are creative responses to life conditions, the liberation of the individual to be an agent of creativity only fully happened in the Modern Era, which began roughly in the 17th century. The extraordinary flourishing of creativity in the Renaissance was an early sign of this new opening to Eros. At this level, Eros feels like the insistent desire to create…something. In the throes of Eros, we find ourselves in a flow or preoccupied with a puzzling question that we must solve. Hours pass like minutes: we lose ourselves not in the arms of a lover that will give birth to a child but lost in the love of something that wants to be born out of our hearts and minds. The liberating power of our own creativity resonates through our bodies with an erotic thrill.
Women and men have played far different roles in the emergence and development of creative agency. Much of this comes from two different trends evident in most societies: the need for women to bear and raise children and the greater physical freedom that men had because of their greater physical strength. Women, connected to children, needed stable living conditions whether in the rhythms of nomadic life, in the close circle of village life, or under the often despotic rule of empires. Men’s strength and mobility gave them access to new possibilities and power, which opened the door to creativity. In the Modern Era, men’s exploration, inquiry, aesthetics, and inventions developed the Western world as we know it, for good and for bad. Bold, unique, adventurous creativity in the arts, sciences, politics, and business has been left largely in men’s hands.
Women’s creative engagement has historically been wrapped up in self-invention as self-image through beauty and fashion or in feathering the family nest. In modernity, the world of bourgeois family life became women’s province. Women’s creativity became tied to the work of attracting a man. Women then, as now, felt our bodies as our selves, too much the measure of who we think we are. As Mary Wollstonecraft noted in the eighteenth century, “Taught from infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.” Of course the aspiration toward beauty is a transcendent ideal that illumines our humanity, but women’s fixation on appearance and sexuality has limited our expression of Eros to the physical level. This, combined with the fulfillment of having children, has kept women’s capacity to soar with creative Eros grounded in the physical.
The final level of Eros is really new to women and men: Eros at the level of consciousness, as an urgent longing for a union that goes beyond the physical. In human beings, Eros has become conscious and active–it is what distinguishes us from all other forms of life. Liberating this pure force of Eros, this creative potential of consciousness that also unites us, we can take on our shoulders the responsibility and capacity to create the very structures of consciousness that are the ground of who we are and can be.
I’m not referring to a co-creation of brainstorming or teamwork but a sharing of intelligence that comes alive at the edge of our capacity to intuit what our spiritual hearts long for and take a step into the unknown together. Here is where the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts, where the life experience and knowledge of the individual opens into a dynamic unfolding of shared possibility. Such a subtle experience of Eros at its most profound gives a rare and thrilling glimpse of a new way for us to live. We can live and create in alignment with the urgency to integrate, to come together, that drives the cosmos itself.
It’s something that never has happened before. Only now, as human beings have become so sophisticated, self-reflective, and individuated, can we even begin to discriminate and align with this force in consciousness so that we can begin to guide the unfolding future. (Yes, I mean it–this is enormous, and demands a purity of motivation that is ultimately challenging. Only then can we become fit vehicles for this creative intelligence to work through us.)
And it is particularly something that has never happened with or through women. In the thousands of years in which human culture has developed from foraging bands into technosophisticated globalization, women have not been the ones who have innovated the next breakthrough, put our lives on the line to stake new ground, or taken the risks that open up space in what was once unknown. We have not played a role in creating the new in culture. It’s not our fault. We were doing what needed to be done: bearing and raising children. Even after the noble struggle for equal rights in the 60s and 70s, we are still caught between the old pattern of seeking security to raise children and the open potential of shaping the future that we say we want.
Does that bother you? It bothers me, because women have so much to offer. This capacity of Eros to create, at the most primary level of consciousness itself, is what we women need to cultivate, develop, and express to create the new. What I am saying may be difficult to understand. But that is because the ability to do this is just emerging at the leading edge of human consciousness.
And my message might even be counterintuitive. In our postmodern spiritual world (which has been influenced by the feminist zeitgeist), women are seen as the new. The feminine–which emphasizes women’s traditional biological and nurturing role–is considered to be the solution to a world gone awry. Men are the problem; women are the answer. In defining women in this way, we reinstate the old, tying women to all of the qualities that we developed during millennia of being subordinate. That subordination–the attentiveness to other’s needs, the need to look good in other’s eyes, the fear of standing out on our own–has shaped the structures of our selves at the deepest levels. It is the feminine.
This what we need to free ourselves from. It calls us to liberate Eros from both domesticity and the trappings of sexuality as the most primary source of our creativity and fulfillment. It’s risky, as every deeply creative act is. In these times of chaos and uncertainty, we are being fed fear—of strangers, violence, economic catastrophe, and environmental destruction. All of these very real forces are causing tumult but, more importantly, they distract us from making change in our lives and our world as creative agents of Eros. “Recognizing the power of the erotic within our lives,” says Lorde, “can give us the energy to pursue genuine change within our world, rather than merely settling for a shift of characters in the same weary drama.” This is our challenge, to step outside the old script, grab onto Eros’s wing, and take flight into a world that we don’t know, can’t quite imagine, and yet desperately long for.