Tuesday – Valentine’s Day
When I was in high school, I learned how to make all my sexual fantasies come true. My teacher was Jacques Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffman, which I listened to over and over. (I was fluent in French.) To be sure, knowing the secret and incorporating it into my life are not the same, and it took me several decades of married life to fully embrace the opera’s insight. It never left my mind, however, and now serves as a guide.
Tales of Hoffman pulls from the uncanny fantasies of 19th century Prussian author E. T. A. Hoffmann. Hoffman is regaling his friends in a tavern with stories of his three fantasy women: a wind-up doll that he initially thinks is real, a courtesan for whom he sacrifices his reflection, and an opera soprano who dies tragically but beautifully when she sings against her doctor’s orders.
The lesson I learned from the opera is that, while no real person can ever match the fantasy in your head, the head has a way of compensating. Hoffmann realizes this at the end of the opera.
Up to that point, every one of Hoffman’s fantasy mistresses comes up short, thanks to the machinations of villainous men who always seems to be the same man. Hoffman’s mechanical doll is smashed, his courtesan betrays him, and his singer dies. We then learn that Stella, the opera singer that Hoffman awaits, is a combination of all three women: she has doll-like innocence, courtesan sensuality, and artistic soulfulness. She appears to be the ideal made incarnate in the flesh.
Yet this woman Hoffmann loses as well, and not just because he falls into a drunken stupor at the wrong moment. The man who escorts Stella away, like all the other men who have intervened in his love affairs, is Reality. No woman can live up to the fantasy in Hoffman’s mind.
With one exception. Hoffmann’s poetic muse appears to him in his dream and promises to be the one woman who never lets him down:
I, the faithful friend
whose hand wiped dry your tears?
Through whom sorrow, numbed,
escapes in dreams into the skies?
Am I nothing?
May the tempest of your passions be stilled!
The man is no more; poet, be thou reborn!
Hoffman! Be mine.
Hoffman’s avowal of love to Poetry occurs in a soaring aria, made all the more poignant by Stella being reluctantly escorted away by Count Lindorf immediately thereafter:
O God! With what ecstasy you fire my soul!
Like heavenly music your voice has pierced me.
My whole being is consumed with gentle, glowing fire!
Your glances into mine have poured their flame
like radiant stars!
And, o my beloved Muse, I feel
your perfumed breath pass
over my lips and eyes!
Beloved Muse, I am thine!
I met the love of my life 44 years ago, and while my bond with Julia goes deeper than any fantasy, it is also true that she didn’t resemble my fantasy woman. (Nor, for that matter, did I resemble her fantasy man.) Now, she was much better than any fantasy, and we have grown together in ways that no fantasy couple could have. That didn’t mean that the fantasy dissolved, however.
Sometimes Julia has indulged me and made gestures towards my fantasy, wearing certain clothes and shoes. I have appreciated her generous spirit for doing so and have held those moments forever in my memory. At other times, I have felt frustrated that she didn’t conform to my fantasy, she felt suffocated, and tensions arose. That’s part of the work of marriage.
Somewhere along the way, however, I realized that, even if Julia were to resemble my fantasy exactly, it would not be enough. In fact, the closer she got, the more my fantasy would be exposed as unreal. It would become too evident that Reality, like Count Lindorf, would inexorably show up and escort this fantasy Julia away.
So I took my lesson from Offenbach and now live and go to bed with two women. One is infirm flesh but is warm and loving and possesses a beautiful soul. The other brings in a special luminescence but, like Doctor Faustus’s Helen of Troy, is vaporous and empty. If I had to choose, I would choose the first, but I don’t have to choose. I touch the one and imagine the other.
This ideal arrangement I imagine lasting for the remainder of my married life. All my sexual fantasies have come true.