The Third Reality

TV is often the catalyst that drives me to my computer to write a blog. That’s true of this blog. I’ve just dashed from TV to computer in response to a statement made by a well-known commentator who is distinguished for his logical approach to political issues.

In context of a larger discussion focused on freedom, he casually referred to the alleged sexual relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings as one in which Sally Hemmings “[Had] to do what Jefferson wanted.” Putting aside the issue of slavery itself, I was struck by the subjective judgment of an otherwise objective commentator.

In contrast, when I first heard of the Jefferson/Hemmings sexual relationship, I didn’t connect it to the social structure of their time or of any other time. I just thought of it as something that might have happened between a man and a woman, not between a master and his slave. Without deference to Jefferson’s reputation as a statesman, orfor that matterconsideration of Hemmings’ bondage, I simply stored the historical fact that he and she were parents of a child.

Despite ample documentation about names, dates, and Jeffersonian family history, I have no way of knowing what their relationship might have been like at the private level. That would be true if they and I were contemporaries, even close friends. Sex defies description. It has the variety of a kaleidoscope, the aspects of a chameleon, and the fun of a roller coaster, especially when it comes in a love package.

It is also the most intimate of human experiences. Whether sex is practiced by a pair or by a group of people, beneath the surface there is a reality that only an individual can sense in the extreme privacy of his inner thoughts and feelings. But even in that deepest of sanctuaries, one’s unspoken sense about sex is often inexplicable to himself, let alone to the ‘outside world.’ That is the first reality.

The second reality is a relationship wherein individuals engage in role-playing so that they may breathe life into a mutually shared sexual fantasy. This reality is exclusively centered on the self.

The third reality is sexual fantasy itself, no matter what form it takes. It may take a relatively unconscious form of romantic sex or that of deliberate and extreme role-playing on a conscious level, including switching roles from encounter to encounter for its own sake. Whatever the case, sex without love is always enigmatic and dualistic.

If Jefferson and Hemmings had sex without love, all they shared was a fantasy. Love, with or without sex, is not a fantasy. It is not centered on the self. It is not transitory. Its reality is singular.

There is no way of knowing which reality Jefferson and Hemmings shared. Add to that the fog of two centuries, and you are left with only fragmentary facts about their relationship. Despite all we know about the facts, Sarah and Thomas might well have been in love.

As Maxwell Anderson put it in Mary of Scotland,

It’s not what happens

That matters, no, not even what happens that’s true,

But what men believe to have happened.

One might paraphrase Anderson’s poetry,

It’s not what happens

That matters, no, not even what happens that’s true,

But what men prefer to have happened.

Access to unequivocal facts is greater than it has ever been in the history of humankind, but facts by themselves tell you little about the third reality and nothing about love. I always keep that in mind, especially when confronted by ‘controversial’ issues.

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