I just finished reading Monique Roffey’s “With the Kisses of his Mouth”, an astonishingly forthright – if frustratingly incomplete – account of the author’s exploration of her sexuality following her breakup from her former husband, through casual sex dating, swinging, tantra and new age practices.
The book is so personal that I have hesitated in how to review it. It feels like I have become a party to confidences which normally stay safely confined in workshop spaces, as if a private diary had been left on a train and discovered by me inadvertently. In short, it seems indecent to respond publicly, and even more so in a critical, if I hope sympathetic tone. On the other hand, the decision to publish so uncensored an account belongs to the author, and puts her views on record. By virtue of this it makes a leap from subjectivity to intersubjectivity, occupying a shared space which is also mine. I also get a sense that part of the author’s purpose is to invite readers to react. So here goes with my thoughts.
There are already several reviews out there. Julie Myerson’s in The Guardian is excellent and I largely share it. The book has an engaging character despite its literary flaws, and this is essentially because, at all times, one senses the author is being breathtakingly honest – to the point, indeed, of a degree of dullness at times. Literary critique should however be carefully distinguished from the slutshaming disguised as esthetics that has evidently motivated a number of her reviewers, and which I feel no obligation to reproduce.
As I have some familiarity with the settings portrayed in the book as well as with the quest that underlies it – and care about it also – my own review is from a different angle.
There is no denying this is a courageous book. It captures a lot of the flavor of tantra in the UK, and also of the other places the author visits and discusses, insofar as I am familiar with them – Cap d’Agde for instance. I am glad she is proud of her sexual quest and willing to say so. This is a major contribution to creating a sex-positive climate for her peers, from which we can all only benefit. However, I do find the book, as an account of a quest which is ultimately and obviously spiritual – as the title of the book, taken from the Biblical Song of Songs implies – painfully self-absorbed.
Moved by the author’s predicament, one reads on hoping at some point she will transcend the limitations of her own tragic discourse on love and achieve a new triumphant synthesis; and yet ultimately this is not so. This gives the book a feeling of incompleteness and anticlimax which I found frustrating. The attempt at a synthesis at the end feels little like one, and more, in fact, like a distraction from the themes discussed throughout the book.
Viewed from Europe, with most of my experiences in Osho-related and German milieu, which stress humanistic psychology and meditation rather than sex and esotericism (much less BDSM), the UK tantra scene the author describes – accurately I believe – looks erratic, veering off into new age meanders the purpose of which can only be to escape the path inward. Roffey’s book is absorbed with the question of who she is: but not yet really as a spiritual enquiry; it comes across still primarily as an attempt to salvage the ego. The author’s journey – perhaps also her decision to publish the book – appears as a quest for an intellectual and/or relational refuge which would finally allow her to affirm that how she is, is actually OK. This quest, by its very existence, however, is evidence she is still consumed by doubts on this score. Her inner dialectic between salvation and self-doubt is markedly narcissistic and ultimately, I found, also became for this reason tedious in the retelling (scarcely a word attempts to establish a bridge between writer and reader; all this is left to intuition). Yet there seems to be little or no awareness of this indelicate degree of self-centeredness. It would have been the job of her spiritual teachers to point this out; I am a little disappointed if they have not. (Astonishingly, Osho is dismissed in the book as “much vilified”; in my view there is no more profound and practical teacher, and it sounds like Roffey knows him only at second hand).
The dilettantism of the author’s quest is illustrated especially by her discussion, in the closing pages, of Quodoushka and her valedictory declaration that she has discovered herself to be “monogamous”.
Now Quodoushka, apart from being hilariously funny (and hard to spell), has little else going for it. It is a patent and unimaginative fraud, as the link to the Wikipedia article makes amply evident, best known for (and in Roffey’s account largely limited to) a somewhat bizarre character typology based on genital types. In contrast, however, to the Reichian analysis of character, or the one offered by the enneagram (discussed by me here and here) – the purpose of which is to uncover and deconstruct patterns of childhood conditioning and to return to essence – the Quodoushka typology relies on allegedly objective anatomical features to categorize people into categories which they then can hide behind, but never change.
Conceivably there might be elements of truth in this typology, though I highly doubt this given how ridiculous it is. But in any case the spiritual point of this – other than the convenience of escapism – eludes me. Ultimately we are one; it cannot be that acquired character traits have in fact some indelible nature. And more particularly, it cannot be that some of us are “monogamous” and others not, or suffice for our salvation that we accept such a conclusion and move on. It can only be, as I have argued time and again on this blog, that those who stress monogamy have sensed certain truths but missed others, and those who stress polyamory may have lofty ideals but still often fail to engage with the challenge of unconditional love for actual real people because it is too painful a mirror of themselves.
One may, perhaps, accept that one is conditioned in a certain way and likely to remain so conditioned; but then ones spiritual quest is at an end. And this is not the kind of end to which, in my eyes, such a book should point.
I in no way want to denigrate what the author means by identifying as “monogamous”, but her adoption of this label seems to preclude further enquiry and, against the backdrop of a hoped-for epiphany, is wildly disappointing.
Roffey uses the term “monogamous” as if she knows what it is. But she, and we, do not know what it is, at all. We have no idea, or rather a wealth of conflicting ideas. “Monogamy”, as uncountable studies show, is an essentially contested concept. The behavior she recounts in the book moreover – with, if I am not wrong, some pride and satisfaction – is hardly “monogamous” in any identifiable sense, past or present. She seems simply to conclude that it lacks something and remains unsatisfying – and thereby prepares the bed for her inane critics and the chorus of self-justifying I-told-you-so’s.
This “something missing” she leaves, in line with the dominant social mythology, to serendipity, to the future, to a force outside of herself. The hackneyed, and overbearingly dehumanizing, “knight in shining armor” projection which so disappoints in every encounter man has with woman: that moment of realization that it will never be you that is object of love, but only ever a distorted representation of you.
It must be obvious, and it is obvious to all true spiritual teachers, that this claimed contingency of self-realization is only ever a sign of resistance to self-knowledge. What Roffey seeks is what we all seek, and few of us, whatever our relationship status or history, ever actually find, namely the ability to utterly abandon ourselves and to dance in love among the stars. But, to this end, members of the opposite sex, and relationships, are merely vehicles. The turgid institution we call monogamy is antithetical to the desire for transcendence in most cases, and tangential to it at best. Marriage simply is not the logical consequence of the numinous rapture we call “falling in love” which it purports to be. In self-identifying as “monogamous”, Roffey makes an ersatz projection which at the same time precludes what she is looking for – unimpaired and ecstatic love.
My advice to the reader is to reach beyond this well-disguised counsel of despair. Love where love is – as Roffey has been doing in practice – and become aware and compassionate towards the feelings of incompleteness which result, because they are a guide. Monogamy is not a precondition of plenitude. Pace Aristophanes and his drunken nonsense, there is nothing out there for you to find in order to become complete, but only things inside of you, negative self-judgments, to drop. Sex has no importance at all, it is just a celebration of what is. It only becomes important because it is so problematic: the barriers we put in place to our sexual expression tell us almost everything about our conditioned selves and our inability to love. The monogamy fixation, by abandoning the moment and subordinating it to expectations and unmet needs, voids sexual experience of its essence, voids it in fact of what we sense is there and some of us imagine to imply monogamous pre-eminence. Monogamy clutches at stars, for fear they will elude us. But they will not elude us; it suffices to open our heart and they are always there.
Life may certainly be lived in such a way as to be marked by deep union with just one soul. There is no reason why not. However, there is equally no need to choose this or to accord it preference, and still less normative status, blindly unaware of the mixture of motivations that contribute to the moment of rapture and the meaning given to it. By projecting on a man the burden of impossible roles to play, a woman can only estrange herself – and her partner – from self-realization and numinosity.