Paul Mann: Fig Leaves and Other Risible Camouflage

It is said love conquers all.

Down the ages

vaunted lovers discovered otherwise:

Adam and Eve, Antony and Cleopatra,

Abelard and Héloïse,

Dante and Beatrice, Petrarca and Laura,

Tristan and Iseult,

Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky,

Emma Bovary and Rodolph Boulanger,

Daisy Fay Buchanan and Jay Gatsby.

They learned that love,

said to bear all things, endure all things,

instead discloses

asymmetrical desires and irreconcilable needs,

unresolvable conflicts and creeping fear

of lies, secrecy and betrayal.

For we are born in trauma,

expelled from the womb,

wounded by the expulsion,

thrust into separateness,

stamped with an elusive memory of unity

made indelible in the fetal unconscious.

Love chases the memory,

attempts to heal the wound,

but is more phantom and palliative than cure.

Oft as not it pours salt

in the lesion.

Conception, creation are convulsions

from which

convulsive passions follow

in the madness of romantic love and lust.

Love is a fig leaf for the beast in us,

as Masaccio painted.

The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden


the bloody discharge of the newborn from the womb

into disunity, division and strife.

“Man born of a woman

is of few days and full of trouble.

He cometh forth like a flower and is cut down,

he fleeth like a shadow

and continueth not.”

Tearing off the fig leaf,

we discover the organs of love

are coterminous with those of excrement.


intones the bard,

sets its throne on ordure.

The heroic nudity of the ancient Greeks

and Michelangelo’s David are camouflage, too.

We are divided against ourselves,

torn between the anatomical and the spiritual.

Love cannot fill the crevice

for more than a few drifts of time.

Fig Leaves are indispensable

to the sundered soul,

the mind and heart’s cleaving.

We yearn to be caroling Bach’s

“O love beyond all measure,”

while chastened by Jeremiah’s warning,

“The human heart is deceitful

above all things.

Who can know it?”


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