Thursday, November 01, 2007

The butterfly and the bow: The biology of desire


Yesterday we saw Bernini's Teresa in religious and sexual rapture. Here's another take on the relation between religion and sex, Jacques-Louis David's Cupid and Psyche, of which I was reminded by the grin on the face of Bernini's angel. Click the pic to enlarge.

The story, briefly: Psyche, the mortal daughter of a king, was so ravishingly beautiful that even the goddess Venus was madly jealous and sent her son Cupid to make Psyche fall in love with the ugliest man she could find. But Cupid himself fell in love with Psyche and wafted her to his palace, where they slept in darkness every night so that she would not discover his identity. The painting shows Cupid leaving at dawn while his lover still slept. But one morning Psyche woke first and lit a lamp to see who it was that she had been wedded to. She was stunned to discover a handsome god. In her excitement, a drop of hot oil fell from the lamp onto Cupid's shoulder, waking him. He fled home to mother. Ultimately, after some misadventures, the lovers were united, and Psyche was raised to the status of an immortal god.

Psyche is the Greek conception of soul or self. It is the thing that makes each of us who we are as individuals. What exactly psyche is has been hotly debated since the time of the Greeks at least. In the Christian West, the soul has been imagined to be an immaterial and immortal essence that can (and will) exist independently of the material body. This dualistic notion of self has been dismissed my modern science. There is no evidence that any perceptible aspect of self can exist independently of the physical body, although the details of psyche remain elusive. (For example, can some aspect of the self be considered informational, and as such able to be embodied in other material forms.)

The Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche suggests that it is love that makes a self immortal -- an insight that rests well with the modern conception of soul. Sexual attraction is certainly built into our biology. Unraveling the biological and cultural bases of romantic love is still on the psychologists' agenda. Meanwhile we see it on Cupid's face as he leaves the lovers' bed, a smug male adolescent smirk, that post-coital glint of pride that comes with the possession of beauty, torn somewhere between romantic love and lust, not quite able to separate the genitals from the heart, or, for that matter, the imperatives of the body from the religious desire for self-transcendence.