Illustrations ©1929, Saalfield Publishing Co.
Inspired by the question posed by smilingldsgirl: Never Fall in Love? I’ll begin the examination of touch in Irish Firebrands by analyzing Dickens’s character, Ebenezer Scrooge, using the four Greek definitions of love: storge, eros, philia and agape.
Scrooge lost storge at an early age, upon his mother’s death and from his father’s emotional withdrawal, and later, upon the death of his younger sister (mother of his nephew, Fred). He also rejected the storge offered by his nephew. Scrooge retreated from eros when he failed to contract and consummate a marriage with the only woman in whom he’d ever had a romantic interest. He developed an anemic sort of philia with his sole business partner, Marley, who also predeceased him. Scrooge did not develop agape until he had the equivalent of a near-death experience, after which he also became a philanthropist, and developed storge for his nephew and nephew’s wife.
Young Scrooge receives storge from his sister, Fan.
But a resumption of eros didn’t enter the picture: Dickens avoided going there by giving Scrooge an advanced age, enabling readers to assume that it’s too late for libido to return to his life. It’s a false assumption, though, as studies of human sexuality have shown. Old age in males is no bar to successful copulation or procreation (even erectile dysfunction does not prevent orgasm), and geriatric gentlemen need not become sugar daddies to young trophy wives, in order to do this: many women retain their fertility for much longer than the average “childbearing age” range of 15-45 years; post-menopausal libidinal increases have been noted; and there’s a lot of nodding and winking in Hollywood about “cougars” and their boy-toys.
The popular expectation is that individuals of any age who lack one of the aspects of love in their lives ought to be able to successfully sublimate their unrequited feelings in a compensatory increase in one or more of the other expressions of love. This expectation is especially true of eros, which, because of its nature, suffers from being relegated to the remote ends of the continuum of sexual activity: either inhibition (as in the puzzling protocols of “polite” behavior, such as the prohibitive prudery about underwear that’s paired with the permissible public nudity of swimwear), or else flagrant promiscuity (including prostitution and pornography).
Old Scrooge rejects storge from his nephew, Fred.
What is the nature of eros that subjects it to such extremes of expression? The answer lies in the chemical reactions and electrical potential of the human nervous system. Nerve function depends on the relative proportions of the sodium and potassium ions in the fluids inside and outside of nerve cells, mediated by the “sodium-potassium pump.” An electrical potential builds up, and then is discharged (kind of like lightning). Depending on the organs served by the nerves in question, the result of the discharge can be anything from muscular action to thought.
In the human reproductive system, the buildup of electrical potential causes the discomfort of sexual tension (“lust”), and the secretion of neurotransmitters that stimulate “seeking” behavior (engendering emotions such as “falling in love”) directed towards finding opportunities to discharge that physical discomfort. When nervous electrical discharge finally occurs, the result is the relief of orgasm, and the secretion of neurotransmitters and hormones that stimulate bonding behavior (engendering emotions such as contentment and commitment).
Scrooge in his prime retreats from eros with Belle.
The purpose of this folderol is to serve the biological survival imperative, the success of which the social construct of marriage also is meant to promote and protect. But the electrical discharge resulting from sexual behavior results in the most intense pleasure the body can feel: a function intended by Nature to improve the chances of reproduction by frequent repetition of the experience, the powerful sensations of which can be intimidating or addictive to the human psyche – hence the extremes of sexual repression or prurience.
So, laboring under the suspicion that behavior that’s so much fun must be somehow selfish, society expects persons who lack a legally and morally sanctioned sexual partner to overcome the self-indulgence of eros, and find equal contentment by engaging in a different sort of love – preferably agape. But is this realistic? The electrical potential of nerves that supply the musculoskeletal system can be discharged by the work of building houses for the indigent or digging wells for the under-served, and one can get a few good nights’ rest afterwards, but that sort of exertion has no effect on the nerves that serve the reproductive system.
Old Scrooge develops agape and philia for Cratchit.
What happens when the sodium-potassium pump below the belt begins to feel the pressure of unused hormones and neurotransmitters? At best, emotional emptiness or some heartache. Sometimes Nature effects physical release by means of a spontaneous discharge, or sufferers may feel enough discomfort to induce relief by themselves. In the worst cases, forced celibacy and continence can push some persons over the brink, into ineffective individual coping that becomes addictive, and may involve victimization of other persons. As with other forms of emotional deprivation, going without romantic love may be hazardous to one’s mental health.
For many years, premature babies were isolated from all human contact except for the treatments that kept them alive, in the mistaken belief that touching them caused “sensory overload” that upset the babies and caused brain bleeds. But the brain bleeds continued, and many of those who did not die still failed to thrive, surviving with massive physical and intellectual impairments. It wasn’t until clinicians understood that it wasn’t touching that killed these kids, it was because the only touch they experienced always involved a painful procedure. After “kangaroo care” was adopted, more premature babies not only survived, but also began to thrive.
Astronauts who spent lengthy tours of duty in space stations experienced comfort simply from touching the live plants they grew for experiments. Elderly persons, whether living alone or institutionalized, can suffer intensely from the lack of touch. Irish Firebrands, a contemporary romance that is also Boomer Lit, deals with this problem of aging. Other sub-genres of romantic fiction provide vicarious love experiences that are sometimes ridiculed for being “tear jerkers,” but they serve a valuable function because stress hormones are expelled in tears. Even if you don’t read Romance, and don’t like hugging or being hugged, you must get a minimum amount of caring physical contact, in order to cope effectively with the stress of life. Love is all you need.