When a friend told me of her plans to publish a supplement devoted to the subject of sexuality in old age I was reckless enough to remember having read a few years ago a story I felt was wonderful. I believed it was a story by Akutagawa, but I was unable to remember its title: “The House of the Sleeping Youths” or “The House of the Sleeping Dolls”. I remembered vaguely that it was the story of some sort of brothel where old men went to meet sleeping girls, to recapture through their proximity the memories and the excitement of past encounters. And suddenly, based upon my recollections of this story, I was asked if I would like to write about it. I added to my previous recklessness by agreeing to comment this book.
Until now we are faced with a prelude to the staging of an incident that only later will we be able to relate, albeit tangentially, with our subject. As soon as I began my quest for this book, I discovered that there was nothing in Akutagawa’s works with a similar title. I found out thus that my memory had played a trick on me, it was a memory of a lapse of memory. But a memory of a lapse of memory is not simply a mistake, it is the creation of something different.
A timely intervention by someone close to me helped put me on track, and provided me with the book. It is The House of Sleeping Beauties, by Yasunari Kawabata.
The Maidens’ Sleep
The reader may wonder what is the point in including such a trivial incident, rather than proceeding straight to the subject at hand. We said that it is tangentially connected because, how is sensuality supported in old age (and perhaps not just then), if not through a combination of false memories, forgetfulness and fantasy that feeds eroticism?
This note will be, therefore half a comment on Kawabata’s book, half about the reflections such a book may prompt… and half new questions that will be presented.
And for the mathematically-savvy, please don’t lose your patience by getting restless over an odd addition of halves. What are we going to do with so many halves that don’t add up to either one or two? It is a deliberate mistake and it is not due to such a basic ignorance. In the subject that concerns us, that of sexuality, a meeting of two beings can be multitudinous, if we take into account the fantasies that populate such an encounter, while at the same time never will the addition of one plus one reach that desired unity that will wipe out the difference.
A sexual encounter, always failed, leaves a remainder that love tries to hide.
Eguchi, the character from The House of Sleeping Beauties, is a Japanese man, 67 years old, who goes to a strange inn in the outskirts of Tokyo. A place visited by wealthy old men who go there to spend the night with beautiful young women, naked under an electric blanket. The whole story is astounding, not only because of this idea of a brothel for the old, but also because of the subtle conception of the conditions for such an encounter: the drugged girls know nothing of who has slept with them. Through the story, we follow Eguchi in five visits to the inn, at different intervals. We know nothing of the character, all that matters is what is slowly revealed through the story.
The most remarkable aspect of this strange tale is what we discover together with Eguchi: that the maidens are virgins. Virgin prostitutes! It is the meeting of two fantasies that, according to Freud, degrade men’s erotic lives.
The nights that Eguchi spends with the maidens are populated by unidealized memories. From the unpleasant nights spent with women (those that are most difficult to forget), going through those memories brought about by a scent, a shape: the mother, the discovery of sex, his daughters’ weddings, etc., but the most intense one has to do with the riddle presented by the sleeper that joins him. The maidens’ sleep protects the customers from exposing the ugliness of old age. The impulses that surface can include a desire to rape them, to wake them, to hurt them, to join them in their stupor, to kill them. Five encounters, each one different, each one bringing us to the edge of despair, lustfulness and death.
Death, so close to eroticism that floods the one who believes himself close to it with envy. Comfort or despair, the shadow of death and the impossibility of the encounter create a poetically oppressive atmosphere, without sparing us some surprises we will not disclose.
Old Eguchi’s unrest is not only due to his memories, and his questions about his companions. The constant background of “other men”, those who can no longer even function as men, represents the backdrop that completes this oppressive and poetic atmosphere that only the best fiction can create.
Having gone over the basics of the book, we can move on to some reflections: the sexuality of the old is shrouded by a veil of modesty that condemns it to silence. A sleeping partner is anguishing but it maintains the rule of silence; the issue is seldom mentioned in literature, which is the most private one in each person’s life. If it is difficult for the human subject to imagine the parent’s sexuality, the grandparent’s sexuality is even harder to conceive. Grandparents are the ones that embody an absolute origin in a child’s questions. “Mommy, what was there in the world before Grandpa… was born?”
It is true that that modesty, the one that shrouds the sexuality of the old makes it less approachable but, perhaps, it also allows it to remain more intimate and less noisy at a time in which the sexual revolution has made so much noise, so much show, and sometimes so much harm.
The absence of desire
By following Eguchi we encounter the matter that makes up that sexuality: the flesh, the scents, the memories, the fantasies, the rages. But, sirs, what a coincidence? Isn’t this the same matter that makes up all sexuality? The example of the sleeping maidens is a privileged example, because it represents the object in its infinite surrender, and yet it remains unattainable, because, from that object, what is absent is desire, and that is the goal of our own desire.
To speak of the sexuality of the old is not devoid of problems: in which category does it fit? the one that is expressed in an ID or according to a legal definition? Old age is that vanishing category that is characterized by the fact that it does not include us. The old ones are the others, and the boundaries keep moving as we find ourselves entrapped by the passing years.
Thus we begin with a mistaken memory, from there we move on to a book devoted to the sexuality of the old, which brings us to the discovery that its matter is no different from the one that makes up all sexuality and finally to the fact that we don’t even know what old age is. This reminds us of the story of the cauldron, often mentioned by Freud.
Perhaps the answer is to be found in one of Eguchi’s memories, part of the book that concerns us. In a visit to the temple of the camellias in Kyoto:
They say camellias bring bad luck because the flowers fall whole, as severed heads; but the double blossoms of this great tree, which was four hundred years old and bloomed in five different colors fell one petal at a time. That was why it was known as the camellia “of fallen petals”.
Sexuality, as a camellia, has many colors and can only be stripped one petal at a time, one tear at a time.