|Art by Heather Ramsey|
Zeus sat the infant Artemis on his knee and asked her what gifts she would like from him. She said: to be forever a virgin, to rival my brother Apollo, to possess a bow and arrow. Born directly from Zeus’ head, the goddess Athena also chose a life of perennial virginity. The Olympian pantheon thus introduced to the world the potency of a fierce detachment. Alongside the powers of earth, air, fire and water, there now emerged the refusal to mix, the refusal to copulate. Notably, its standard-bearers were women.
Perhaps a thousand years later, the early Christian church would tell its followers they were called out of “this world,” would make virginity a primary virtue and would even discuss the abolition of marriage. With the Second Coming so close, what was the point of tainting oneself with sex? Hadn’t Our Lord himself said, “The children of this world marry and are given in marriage, but they which shall be accounted worthy to obtain that world and the resurrection from the dead, neither marry nor are given in marriage”? Some 1,300 years after Jesus of Nazareth reputedly used those words, and despite the now notoriously delayed Apocalypse, a young girl called Caterina, based in Siena, Italy, could still find that a saintly vocation for virginity was the only way of thwarting a domineering mother and avoiding an unwanted marriage. Caterina, however, added another string to the goddess’s ancient bow, something that would hardly have been necessary for the divine Artemis: The girl chose not to eat. It turned out to be the most radical, powerful and fatal detachment of them all. Revered and influential, manipulator of cardinals and popes, the virgin Caterina fasted to death at 28.
Virginity and the decision not to eat — 700 years after Caterina, a man in a bar in Germany said to me with a smile and a sigh, “The whole thing began when I noticed one of the girls in my class wasn’t well.” He looked deeply troubled, perhaps above all confused. We were both attending a conference in Cologne for teachers of English. On a tour of the city’s great cathedral — a brief break from conference proceedings — our guide was relating the story of the fourth-century St. Ursula and how she was martyred on this very site with her entourage of virgins.
Apparently one inscription said there were 11 virgins, another 11,000. Too obviously telling a routine joke, the guide said, “I suppose what mattered wasn’t the numbers, but the virginity.” At which the man standing beside me muttered, “You bet you!” Thomas introduced himself, and I asked him what he meant. He seemed excessively upset by this gruesome tale of 1,500 years ago, eager to unburden himself somehow. “Is there something the matter?” I asked. Almost at once he was confessing that he had one of his high school students, 17 years old, installed in a hotel only 100 yards from the conference center. “Beautiful,” he said, “blond,” he elaborated, and “very” — his face took on a haunted look — “very very virgin.” “Let’s cut the tour and have a beer,” I suggested.
So, he began — he had noticed one of his better students looking ill. The poor girl — Veronica was her name — was barely able to hold her head up over her books, and deteriorating from day to day. “Finally I ask her why she’s so pale. She denies there’s anything wrong, says she’s fine, but then a few days later, at a parents’ evening, the mother tells me they’re at their wits’ end, it’s anorexia nervosa.” The mother, Thomas remarked appreciatively, was a charming, truly charismatic woman, extremely engaging, perhaps a bit possessive. In any event, she had persuaded him to get involved in helping the daughter. In fact, the woman came to see him regularly to discuss the matter. They even went out to dinner a few times.
“Charming,” he repeated. Thinking of the mother seemed to cheer him up.
Anyhow, in response to his concerned attention, Veronica blossomed, was now terribly eager, but also became teacher’s pet. Next thing he knew, the two of them were kissing in a side street not 100 yards from school. “Madness!” Madness because Thomas had been married for 22 years, and had never once been unfaithful. “In a way,” he said, “I’m as much of a virgin as she is.” His whole identity was wrapped up in his marriage.
Wasn’t this, after all, the solution the early church fell back on when Jehovah dragged his feet over the Second Coming: sex, yes, but with a monogamy so rigid that the couple themselves would be detached from “this world” as a single unit, and would gain identity and power from that detachment. Wedlock — the key turned and tossed away — became almost as holy as the total lockout of virginity. So Thomas confessed that after moving heaven and earth to get the dear Veronica to this hotel for a few days — and he had been in a frenzy of romantic anticipation, something he hadn’t experienced in years — nevertheless, when it came to bedtime, well, the first night she had burst into tears at the last moment and refused him, talking endlessly about her virginity, then the second she had been determinedly, even frighteningly, amorous — she must lose her virginity now, she said! — but right at that moment he hadn’t been able to perform, had thought about his wife. “And this morning the girl refuses her breakfast,” he wailed. “She won’t eat!” Tonight was the last night, and Thomas was at his wits’ end. What to do?
The German philosopher Max Stirner suggests that there comes a moment when what were originally our personal goals and ideals cease really to be so. We remain mechanically obedient to them, but out of a sense of duty now, or even fear, as if they were imposed. And this, he explains, is the beginning of what we call, usually to our detriment, “the sacred.”
Stirner goes on to offer convincing accounts of the devastating effects of saintly masochism, but rather than accept his reading of experience in its provocative entirety, let’s try to add a nuance to it. Might it not be that there comes a moment, years into a commitment, when we honestly do not know if the original inspiration is still our ideal or not? Was Thomas, for example, scared that his monogamy had become merely mechanical, a fear that made him eager to interrupt it, when actually it might yet prove precious to him? Was the young Veronica determined to shake off her virginity, but in a way ä that would not lead to compromising her hard-won independence in a regular boyfriend-girlfriend relationship; and in a way, what’s more, that would represent another victory over her possessive and no doubt (for an adolescent girl) annoyingly charismatic mother, whose interest in Thomas — those dinners together! — the girl interpreted not just as an attempt to enlist his help on her behalf, but quite possibly a strategy of seduction, too? Both man and girl were pretty confused. But perhaps it’s difficult to know quite who you are or what you want if you are never quite a god or goddess.
Lightly, I said: “Maybe it’s the odd transgression that reconciles one to having lived, you know. I mean, it would be awful to die thinking you’d never done anything wrong.” But Thomas objected that virginity and monogamy were both absolutes and as such didn’t admit of any transgressions. You couldn’t get them back once they were lost.
“Still, you’re not happy with your absolutes, are you, or you would never have set the girl up in the hotel.” I suggested that both of them were perhaps a little trapped in the ideals they had nailed their identities to. “You just want to see how you’ll feel about having a fling.” Thomas was angry. “No, it’s love,” he said. “I love Veronica.” He put his head in his hands and despaired.
That night, lying in bed in the kind of miserable room they give you at these conference centers, the sort of place where all kinds of promiscuities have occurred, I couldn’t help thinking of this couple’s adventure and comparing them with the characters of all the stories I knew. Both wanted to change, it seemed, but without being quite convinced. There were risks. What if she became responsible for breaking up his marriage? What if he found the girl starving herself to death on his account? Maybe they had both chosen a transgression so tremendous — middle-aged married teacher with fragile anorexic schoolgirl — precisely to avoid actually doing it. Surely Thomas could more reasonably have had the mother than the daughter, I reflected. I remembered his warm smile when he spoke of her.
Sometime after midnight, I wanted to call Thomas and Veronica at their hotel and tell them to just forget it, go home and start again. Or no, I wanted to call and tell them to just get on with it, have a good night in the sack and then forget it. I couldnmake up my mind which. I couldn’t sleep. Stories do that to you, I realized. They force you to reconsider your own identity, something that somehow seems more precarious in an anonymous hotel room than in the marriage bed at home. I would never, I thought, have bothered lying awake thinking of this at home.
Then finally I got an angle on it that seemed truly pertinent: Only the real goddesses, I remembered, were allowed to remain perennially virgins, only the true gods were permitted to stay forever pure. As only they could live on ambrosia. When humans tried to mimic them, the divinities got nervous. The virgins were either raped or sacrificed; the most chaste of men suddenly found themselves prey to violent passions, desperate for the most inappropriate woman of all. Look at Hippolytus and his stepmother. Perhaps we all have to accept a little mixing, I concluded complacently, a little carnival from time to time. To remind ourselves that we’re not gods. As in the end, like it or not, we all have to eat and shit. St. Caterina’s attempt to live exclusively on the consecrated host ended very badly for her. And on this curiously reassuring thought, I at last fell asleep.
One speaks of “losing” one’s virginity. Lexically, it’s always a loss rather than a sensible expenditure, let alone a gain. Yet a loss, paradoxically, that most of us actively seek at some point: the loss of too much detachment, of too much self, of the accumulation of a power that we sense will become negative, even self-consuming, if we leave it to gather too long. Indeed, for those who don’t feel their identities threatened, the only question is not whether to lose virginity, just when and with whom. But surely we can’t draw a parallel with monogamy here. Can we? Could we speak of “losing one’s monogamy”? Surely that’s betrayal.
On waking the following morning, my first unhealthy thought was: Now, have they, or haven’t they? I hurried down to breakfast but couldn’t see Thomas among my other colleagues. Of course not; he would be breakfasting with dear Veronica! I hoped she would have a good appetite; I hoped Thomas would have news for me. But then he didn’t come to the concluding session of the conference, either. I never saw him again. And what rankles is not so much that I never found out what happened, as that I still can’t decide what I would like to have happened.
There are some steps in life, however healthy and necessary, that will always wear a faint halo of regret, some transgressions, however destructive, that will ever drip with pure delight.
Tim Parks is a novelist (Goodness), a translator (Robert Calasso’s Ka), and a travel writer (An Italian Education). His latest novel, Europa, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.