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From Phyllida's Desk

Gandhi Was Human

I read something recently that made me angry. It was an article in the New York Times about Joseph Lelyveld’s biography of Gandhi, Great Soul.

I’m a novelist, a writer who tells made-up stories. This blog is not political, and I don’t want to get bogged down in discussions where I have to be “fair and balanced,” something that is not the novelist’s job (thank goodness!)

But this thing makes me crazy and I have to write it out of my system.

According to the article, some people in India are calling for the biography to be banned. Why? Because it discusses, honestly and non-sensationally, an intense “homoerotic” relationship that Gandhi had during his years working as an attorney in South Africa with a German-Jewish architect, Hermann Kallenbach. Gandhi burned all the letters Kallenbach sent him, but Kallenbach kept Gandhi’s, including those in which Gandhi wrote that Kallenbach’s “was the only portrait on Gandhi’s mantelpiece, opposite the bed, and that cotton wool and Vaseline were ‘a constant reminder’ of him.” (If it makes people feel any better, the Vaseline and cotton wool could just as well have been used to remove eye makeup after a long day in court or drafting blueprints.)

So: in 2011, with economic, ecologic, geologic and nuclear catastrophes abounding; and with apparently unending and escalating terrorism and war--the idea that two men loved each other is so disturbing, a book that mentions it shouldn’t be published?

What is wrong with people?

Well, for one thing, it’s only in 2009 (!) that India overturned a “Raj-era” British law against “sodomy.” (It would take many more blog posts to adequately explore the convoluted hypocrisy behind the codification of sexual discrimination by a culture that created an Empire of Established Bisexuality on which the sun never set.)

What I object to more than anything is the oversimplification, on both sides, that claims Gandhi was or was not “bisexual” based on whether the love between him and Kallenbach involved their penises or was “just Platonic.” Oh, please! Can’t we all grow up?

Maybe not. Most of us have heard the truism at some point that the “the most powerful sex organ is the brain.” Yet how many of us really understand what that means?
We’re still stuck, all of us: people who identify as bisexual or as queer or gay or lesbian or transgender; people who think all LGBTQs should be burned alive; and people who wouldn’t know a B from a Q if they were stranded in the DeKalb Avenue subway station (a Brooklyn joke), with outmoded ideas about sexuality.

We argue endlessly over a study on sexual arousal, widely reported in the mainstream media, that supposedly concluded male bisexuality doesn’t exist. In the study, which measured men’s and women’s responses to erotic images through electronic sensors attached to their genitals, men “responded” only to same-sex or opposite-sex erotic images, not both, while women “responded” to everything, including human-animal images.

What do I think the study “proves,” if anything? That men’s penises react differently from women’s clitorises to visual images.

I don’t think it means dick about human sexuality in the larger sense, bi- or any other kind.

Ever since the idea of exclusive homosexuality, male and female, was developed we’ve been struggling with our revised idea of what it means to not be exclusive. By accepting as a normal variant of human sexuality the small minority of people who, over an entire lifetime, have relationships with members of only one sex, we’ve skewed our perception of the rest of us.

Most of us are “bisexual” in the broadest sense. We believe that everybody has a feminine side and a masculine side. Most of us feel what we call “love” for a person of the same sex as well as a person of the opposite sex at some point in our life. We don’t always have physical sex with these people. And most interesting of all, we hear from people who have lived their entire adult lives in a monogamous marriage to one person, yet consider themselves bisexual because they feel attracted to, or capable of being attracted to, people of “both” (or all) sexes.

One of the reasons that people are reluctant to identify as bisexual is that we’ve, often unconsciously, implied that it requires a strict 50-50 division of genital sexual experiences, day in and day out, with no preference shown to “either” sex, and a lifelong partnership with two people of different sexes to qualify. That has to make it the smallest minority in the universe, except for compassionate and intelligent Republicans.

But once we relax the definition of bisexuality to more realistic terms, we open the doors to just about everyone. And that’s the point.

Human sexuality isn’t just about penises and testicles and vaginas and clitorises. Yes, it can involve these body parts, and very enjoyably, but for most of us, most of the time, there are so many other components of a sexual experience: flirting and dancing, talking, “getting to know” someone, their personality. What does “personality” mean, after all? The other person’s character affects us so powerfully we can’t even begin to analyze it. We talk of “tops” and bottoms,” of “chemistry,” “body language,” and always, that “certain something.” The way s/he walks, and talks—or is it in his kiss?

What are we doing when we have sex? Aren’t we connecting with another person? We can’t not use our brain. We can’t switch it off, no matter how we talk about “f-ing our brains out” and “mindless sex.” A brain-dead person is the only person (besides a totally dead person) who can’t actually have sex--they have no way to experience it. When two people, married for fifty years, make love for the ten thousandth time, or when a man goes to a public toilet on purpose to suck whichever cock appears in the glory hole, can we honestly say that only two of these people are experiencing sex in the brain as well as the genitals?

We call some kinds of consensual sex between adults sacred and some obscene. We sanction some practices with religious rites, and declare some practices illegal, and it’s instructive to note how our definitions of “adult” and “consensual” have varied over time and from culture to culture. And of course we all have our personal definitions of what’s exciting, disgusting or off-limits. But yours and mine are unlikely to match. Who’s to say which is more degrading: a “brown showers” orgy, or reading Ayn Rand out loud to your partner?

There’s been a lot of talk in the fifty years and more since the electronic computer was invented, about whether artificial intelligence is going to surpass human intelligence. But even if you’re a materialist, like me, who doesn’t believe in the soul or the supernatural, you know there’s something essential missing from computers: the spark that makes us “animals”--alive.

The best computers are but gigantic collections of facts with a lightning-speed ability to retrieve them on demand. Computers don’t have “intelligence” in the human sense--or in the chimpanzee, dog, bird or lizard sense. They don’t get jokes or tell jokes; they don’t react to hormones, to smells, to the widening or narrowing of the eyes, tone of voice, or any of the myriad signals that animals send each other. They don’t love or hate or get scared or laugh. They don’t make associations, the memories of favorite song, of perfume, of images, of Vaseline and cotton wool, that bring another person to mind. They don’t have minds, just a database and a set of programs.

From Lelyveld’s well-researched biography, there’s no doubt that Gandhi and Kallenbach had a loving relationship. On what planet does it make Gandhi less of a “great soul” because he loved a man?

I find many of Gandhi’s religious principles distasteful, especially the celibacy that made him, years later, describe a wet dream, a natural, involuntary, physical event, as a “degrading, dirty, torturing experience.” For me, the knowledge that, at least once in his life, he felt that most human of emotions--love--redeems him. It makes him one of us. Human.
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