A few weeks ago, I read Henry David Hwang’s 1988 play M. Butterfly for a class. The play’s plot – an espionage trial in which a French diplomat’s Chinese lover of twenty years is revealed to be a man, to the diplomat’s apparent shock – is based on a real incident reported by the New York Times in 1986. Throughout the play the diplomat, Rene Gallimard, explains that he was ignorant of this fact because, due to his lover’s “Oriental modesty,” the two always made love in the dark. So the play’s ending, in which Gallimard finally sees his lover, Song, fully nude in a well-lit room, is a crucial moment that stuck with me for reasons beyond the standard titillating appeal of onstage nudity. It was not so much the revelation of Song’s body that stayed with me, but the moment immediately afterward in which Gallimard, with eyes covered, caresses Song’s face. “This skin, I remember,” he says. “The curve of her face, the softness of her cheek, her hair against the back of my hand…”
That struck me as an incredibly poignant moment; Gallimard is tortured by the genuine love he feels for the person in front of him. But what reminds him of the enduring authenticity of this love for Song is not anything the latter says – it is simply the feel of his skin and the curve of his cheek. Though the draw proves insufficient to keep them together in the long run (Gallimard can’t handle the revelation and leaves, saying, “All I loved was a lie”) physical traits are what draw the men together for a final moment of tactile love.
Not surprisingly, some of my peers’ reactions to this moment were akin to, “Fuck Gallimard! If he really loved Song for who he was inside, he would have stayed with him. His love of Song’s body is not really love at all, it is only lust.” And, of course, they were right to criticize Gallimard’s unwillingness to stay with someone he had loved, inside and out, for twenty years. But I have to wonder – is the reduction of his love for Song’s body to “mere lust” fair? Is loving someone’s physical being as much as their inner self immoral or wrong?
To answer yes to that question is understandable, since such a response has been ingrained in us since childhood. From proverbs warning us against judging a book by its cover to movies like Beauty and the Beast to Cyndi Lauper urging us to “let our true colors shine through,” we are told to love and value each other based solely on inner qualities, regardless of the physical form that houses them. And this can be a wise rule to live by – especially in a society dominated by media that urges us to be the thinnest, most beautiful, and most physically perfect in order to be liked and loved by our peers.
But does a way of thinking about love that disregards the body as a valid player in the action also leave out an essential part of the equation? Do people really just fall in love with each other’s “inner essences,” souls, or minds? Is the body not an important element in comprising a bond between two human beings?
Maybe loving another person, and recognizing that an intimate knowledge of their physical self makes up part of that love, is not always equal to being shallow, lustful, or sleazy. After all, artists have worshipped the body throughout history – from Shakespeare’s classic sonnets, the most famous of which compares his lover’s body to a “summer’s day,” all the way up to Henry David Hwang’s depiction centuries later of a corporeal love between two men that is at once troubled and real. Because Gallimard adores Song’s physical features, does that make his love for him any less pure? The contours of his lover’s body – contours he has memorized every day for twenty years – provoke passion in him. Should we dismiss this as ‘merely physical’ love and not ‘real’ love?
The answers to these questions are up to each of us to decide. For my part, the art I’ve lately been exposed to has me thinking that body and soul can play equal parts in the bond between two people. So what do you think? Do people love each other’s souls primarily, and their bodies as an afterthought? Or are the two equally important in establishing human connection and attraction?
I leave you with this most sensuous scene from Stanley Kubrick’s epic film Spartacus (which I recently saw for the first time and am obsessed with) because Spartacus, like Gallimard, speaks of knowing “every line, every curve” of his lover’s body – and to me it is exquisitely, beautifully, unbearably romantic. Because, as in M. Butterfly, the body is every bit as important to the lovers’ bond as any words could be. And because, well…..young Kirk Douglas. ‘Nough said. Let the swooning commence.