I am a node within this vast, ever morphing dynamic of connections, these flows of touch and affect and knowledge, of profound resonance, dissonant irritation, misundertanding, orgasmic satiation, of longing, fear, hate and, yes, love — so many loves, so many kinds of love, so many modes of love.
And yet nearly every song, every moronic Hollywood movie — even Howard Stern's Private Parts —, every idiotic television show (this was Seinfeld's greatest contribution: breaking this model), my mother's prodding questions, even my own self assessment —that devil in my head — tells me the same thing: I gotta find that one person. Within the glorious teem of intimacies that is my life, I am supposed to be looking for one — one person who has to fill an insane number of roles — best friend, confidante, hang out buddy, lover, co-debt holder, cohabitator, co-sleeper, co-bathroom user, co-parent.
I known I'm not the first to say this — there is a chorus from Heraclitus to Leibniz to Guattari — but I'll say it again: the one is a pervasive belief, insidiously permeating everything from our notions of the divine and the nation to identity and love itself. One god. One unifying theory of everything. One right answer. One me. One love.
This is our assumed goal: to find, and secure through whatever means necessary, that one person we can call our own. This is the story we tell ourselves over and over again. This is what we imagine is necessary to be happy. We even think it's sweet.
Now, I've had long term relationships with one person. I was even married for 13 years. But I'm thinking it's time to jettison this assumption and entertain a different model. I've done it with philosophy, literature, film, and art so why not with relationships? Just as I believe in distributed networks of identity, I will think of distributed networks of intimacy.
So rather than considering my life in terms of my proximity to this one — Are you seeing anyone? Is it serious? asks the narrative in the form of my mother, my friends, my own head — I now imagine something else entirely: an endlessly shifting distribution of intimacy.
Now, I am not talking about polyamory per se. Frankly, to me, that sounds so complicated. Which is not a moral or aesthetic judgment. The great Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, tells us we should consider the strength of our shoulders before deciding whether to become a wrestler. This is how I feel about what people call polyamory: my shoulders aren't strong enough. I am not talking, then, about sex with different people — I, for one, believe sex gets better when done with the same person for a while.
No, what I am talking about here supersedes both marriage and polyamory. I am talking about a model that embraces all the different modes, all the possible architectures, of how we can relate and exchange intimacy. I am talking about a dynamic architecture where the intimacies of strangers, lovers, neighbors, and family flow. And, no, it is not a spectrum that runs from the casual conversation to the committed sexual relationship. It's not a spectrum but a network.
This is not to say that all relationships are, or should be, equal. That's silly. As in any network, such as the Inernet, there are multiple nodes of differing intensity. We don't just visit one website; we visit different sites for our different needs.
And I by no means want to belittle or dismiss that beautiful enchantment that comes when you first fall in love and all you want do is be with that one person, touch that one person, shower that one person with everything you have. That is one of the great gifts of being alive.
But that intensity relaxes and our attentions become more dispersed. And I'm suggesting that rather than think of this as a bad thing, let's consider it a beautiful thing: the beauty of ambivalence, of multivalence, of the great complexity of life. I want a more generous architecture, a more giving model: one that proliferates and enjoys all modes of intimacy rather than reducing and owning it.
In the graphic novel, Paying for It: A comic strip memoir about being a john, we see Chester Brown move from pyramid to network. In the beginning of the book, he's living with his girlfriend. But she falls in love with another man. Chester's not jealous. In fact, he's content with all the forms of intimacy he enjoys from friends — and even gets along better with his now ex-girlfriend. Of course, all his friends assume he's repressing his hostility. But he's not jaded or afraid or angry. On the contrary, he's brave — and simply content.
He decides he doesn't need another "relationship" in which both parties are owned by the other. But he does miss sex. And so he begins paying for it. Over time, he finds his way through being a john and, at the end of the story, he's been in a monogamous relationship with the same prostitute for six years. They are not boyfriend and girlfriend. They do not live together. They have sex; he pays her.
But this doesn't mean they are not intimate. While they might not have the intimacy that comes from seeing someone shit and sleep for 20 years, they still have intimacy — not a greater or lesser intimacy. Money doesn't necessarily sully the relationship or make the intimacy fake. In fact, money can liberate both parties from the destructive mayhem of jealousy, judgment, and sentimentality.
The logic of the one love is the logic of ownership. Perhaps, ironically, paying for intimacy actually shifts this ownership dynamic. I am not saying there are not ownership relationships in the sex trade. What I'm saying is that paying for sex does not necessitate ownership and, in fact, allows for a dynamic free of the ownership model that defines the one love model. (This is a discussion for another post at another time.)
At different times, different people account for more of my time, more of my thoughts, more of my desire, appetite, my longing and love. At different times, different people provide me with different kinds of intimacy — some that touch me deeply, some that grace the surface, exquisitely. There is not just one person who does it all for me. Why would I even want that? Just as I flow, I want my modes of intimacy to flow with me.
I know this is not easy. That we can all be emotionally fragile, sensitive, needy. Basing relationships in flows rather than promises is risky, scary; people will get hurt, including me.
But I want to be more ambitious. I want to be brave — so brave that I don't need the "ego boost" of having one woman who calls me her own (Chester Brown). Nor do I want to be so principled that I deny such a thing should it arise. I want to be so strong and effusive that I need no one but desire many. I want to be more generous, more romantic — so generous and romantic that I can embrace multiple kinds of relationships, different modalities of intimacy. I don't want to feel that need for the one that is so pervasive and eats away at people's well being. No, I want to make my way ecstatically through the ever-flowing, ever-fluctuating, intimacies of life.