Title: How to Think More About Sex.
Author: Alain de Botton.
Genre: Non-fiction, philosophy, psychology, sexuality, how-to guides.
Publication Date: May 10th, 2012.
Summary: We don't think too much about sex; we're merely thinking about it in the wrong way. So asserts Alain de Botton in this rigorous and supremely honest book designed to help us navigate the intimate and exciting – yet often confusing and difficult – experience that is sex. Few of us tend to feel we're entirely normal when it comes to sex, and what we're supposed to be feeling rarely matches up with the reality. This book argues that 21st-century sex is ultimately fated to be a balancing act between love and desire, and adventure and commitment. Covering topics that include lust, fetishism, adultery, and pornography, the book frankly articulates the dilemmas of modern sexuality, offering insights and consolation to help us think more deeply and wisely about the sex we are, or aren't, having.
My rating: 7/10.
♥ In truth, however, few of us are remotely normal sexually. We are almost all haunted by guilt and neuroses, by phobias and disruptive desires, but indifference and disgust. None of us approaches sex as we are meant to, with the cheerful, sporting, non-obsessive, constant, well-adjusted outlook that we torture ourselves by believing that other people are endowed with. We are universally deviant – but only in relation to some highly distorted ideals of normality.
♥ The narrative of enlightenment and progress, however flattering it may be to our powers of reason and our pagan sensibilities, conveniently skirts an unbudging fact: sex is not something that we can ever expect to feel easily liberated from. It was not by mere coincidence that sex so disturbed us for thousands of years: repressive religious dictates and social taboos grew out of aspects of our nature that cannot now just be wished away. We were bothered by sex because it is a fundamentally disruptive, overwhelming and demented force, strongly at odds with the majority of our ambitions and all but incapable of being discreetly integrated within civilized society.
Despite our best efforts to clean it of its peculiarities, sex will never be either simple or nice in the ways we might like it to be. It is not fundamentally democratic or kind; it is bound up with cruelty, transgression and the desire for subjugation and humiliation. It refuses to sit neatly on top of love, as it should. Tame it though we may try, sex has a recurring tendency to wreak havoc across our lives: it leads us to destroy our relationships, threatens our productivity and compels us to stay up too late in nightclubs talking to people whom we don't like but whose exposed midriffs we nevertheless strongly wish to touch. Sex remains in absurd, and perhaps irreconcilable, conflict with some of our highest commitments and value. Unsurprisingly, we have no option but to repress its demands most of the time. We should accept that sex is inherently rather weird instead of blaming ourselves for not responding in more normal ways to its confusing impulses.
This is not to say that we cannot take steps to grow wiser about sex. We should simply realize that we will never entirely surmount the difficulties it throws our way. Our best hope should be for a respectful accommodation with an anarchic and reckless power.
♥ During our most fortunate encounters, it is rare for us to appreciate how privileged we are. It is only as we get older, and look back repeatedly and nostalgically to a few erotic episodes, that we start to realize what an extraordinary and rare achievement of biology, psychology and timing satisfying sex really is.
hearts; This first moment, which decisively shifts us from relative strangers to sexual intimates, thrills us because it marks an overcoming of loneliness. The pleasure we take is not rooted purely in stimulated nerve endings and the satisfaction of a biological drive; it also stems from the joy we feel at emerging, however briefly, from our isolation in a cold and anonymous world.
This isolation is something we all become acquainted with after the end of childhood. If we are lucky, we begin comfortably enough on this earth, in a state of close physical and emotional union with a devoted caregiver. We lie naked on her skin, we can hear her heartbeat, we can see the delight in her eyes as she watches us do nothing more accomplished than blow a saliva bubble – in other words, than merely exist. We can bang our spoon against the table and inspire uproarious laughter. Our fingers are tickled, and the fine hairs on our head are stroked, smelt and kissed. We don't even have to speak. Our needs are carefully interpreted; the breast is there whenever we want it.
Then gradually comes the fall. The nipple is taken away, and we are blithely induced to move on to rice and morsels of dry chicken. Our body either ceases to please or can no loner be so casually displayed. We grow ashamed of our particularities. Ever-expanding areas of our outer selves are forbidden to be touched by others. It begins with the genitals, then spreads to encompass the stomach, the back of the neck, the ears and the armpits, until all we are allowed to do is occasionally give someone a hug, shake hands or bestow or receive a peck out the cheek. The signs of others' satisfaction in our existence declines, and their enthusiasm begins to be linked to our performance. It is what we do rather than what we are that is now of interest to them. Our teachers, once so encouraging about our smudgy drawings of ladybirds and our scrawls depicting the flags of the world, seem to take pleasure only in our exam results. Well-meaning individuals brutally suggest that perhaps it is time for us to start earning some money of our own, and society is kind or unkind to us chiefly according to how successful we turn out to be at doing just that. We begin to have to monitor what we say and how we look. There are aspects of our appearance that revolt and terrify us and that we feel we have to hide from others by spending money on clothes and haircuts. We grow into clumsy, heavy-footed, shameful, anxious creatures. We become adults, definitively expelled from paradise.
But deep inside, we never quite forget the needs with which we were born: to be accepted as we are, without regard to our deeds; to be loved through the medium of our body; to be enclosed in anther's arms; to occasion delight with the smell of our skin – all of these needs inspiring our relentless and passionately idealistic quest for someone to kiss and sleepIt with.
♥ It could also sound disgusting – and that's the point. Nothing is erotic that isn't also, with the wrong person, revolting, which is precisely what makes erotic moments so intense: at the precise juncture where disgust could be at its height, we find only welcome and permission. The privileged nature of the union between two people is sealed by an act that, with someone else, would have horrified them both.
♥ The word fetish is normally associated with extremity, even pathology, and certain pieces of clothing or physical features – like long nails, leather outfits, masks, chains and stockings. However, none of these appear on our couple's list of proclivities.
In a clinical sense, a fetish is defined as an ingredient, typically quite unusual in nature, which needs to be present in order for someone to achieve orgasm. The earliest, most well-known investigator of fetishes was the Austro-German doctor and sexologist, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, who in his book Psychopathia Sexualis, published in 1886, identified some 230 different kinds of fetishes, among these stigmatophilia (love of tattoos and piercings), dacryphilia (love of tears), podophilia (love of feet), sthenolagnia (love of muscles) and thilpsosis (love of being pinched).
The extremity of these examples can make it seem as if only the insane have fetishes, but this is of course far from the case. Fetishes do not have to be either extreme or incomprehensible. We are all fetishists of one sort of another, but for the most part rather mild ones who are well able to have sex without having recourse to our favoured objects. In this wider sense, fetishes are simply details – most often related either to a type of clothing or to a part of anther's body – which evoke for us desirable sided of human nature. The precise origins of our enthusiasms may be obscure, but they can almost always be traced back to some meaningful aspect of our childhood we will be drawn to specific things either because they recall appealing qualities of a beloved parental figure or else, conversely, because they somehow cancel out, or otherwise help us to escape, a memory of early humiliation or terror.
The task of understanding our own preferences in this regard should be recognized as an integral part of any project of self-knowledge or biography. What Freud said of dreams can likewise be said of sexual fetishes: they are a royal road into the unconscious.
♥ The pleasure we derive from sex is also bound up with our recognizing, and giving a a distinctive seal of approval to, those ingredients of a good life whose presence we have detected in another person. The more closely we analyse what we consider "sexy", the more clearly we will understand that eroticism is the feeling of excitement we experience at finding another human being who shares our values and our sense of the meaning of existence.
The orgasm itself marks the supreme moment when our loneliness and alienation are momentarily overcome. Everything we have appreciated about our lover – the comments he has made, the shoes she is wearing, the mood expressed by his or her eyes or brow – all of these are combined into a concentrated distillation of pleasure that leaves each partner feeling uniquely tender towards and vulnerable with the other.
There are of course ways to have an orgasm that have very little to do with finding common purpose with another person, but these must be thought of as a greater or lesser betrayal of what sex should really be about. At the near end of the spectrum, this explains the hollow, lonely feeling that normally follows masturbation; at the far end, it justified the outrage we feel on hearing about cases of bestiality, rape and paedophilia – activities where the pleasure one party tales in the pother is appallingly lacking in mutuality.
♥ Here again, evolutionary biology offers powerful and seductive answers. By its logic, we are attracted to beauty for a simple and definitive reason: it is a promise of health. What we call a "beautiful" person – or, if we're feeling more informal, a "sexy" one – is in essence someone with a strong immune system and ample physical stamina. We like such individuals (or as we may put it, they "turn us on") because we surmise – through that intuitive faculty that nature has granted us to make snap decisions in complex, time-sensitive situations – that with them we would have an unusually good theoretical chance of producing healthy and resilient children.
An impressive range of studies has shown that when random groups of people from around the world are presented with photographs of various male and female faces and asked to rank them in terms of their beauty, the results are surprisingly consistent across all social and cultural milieus. A consensus emerges about which sorts of faces we find most appealing. From these studies, evolutionary biologists have concluded that a "sexy" person of either gender, far from being an unclassifiable abstraction, is in essence someone whose face is symmetrical (that is, the right and left sides match precisely) and whose features are balanced, proportionate and undistorted.
♥ Getting turned on is a process that engages the whole self. Our arousal is an endorsement of a range of surprisingly articulate suggestions as to how we might live.
♥ Art historians have long been at a loss to explain why people should have such strong preferences for one particular artist over another, even when both are acknowledged masters who have created works of great beauty. Why does one person love Mark Rothko, for instance, but have an instinctive fear of Caravaggio? Why does another recoil from Chagall but admire Dalí?
A highly suggestive answer tot this conundrum can be found in an essay entitled "Abstraction and Empathy", published in 1907 by a German art historian named Wilhelm Worringer. Worringer argued that we all grow up with something missing inside us. Our parents and our environment fail us in distinctive ways, and our characters hence take shape with certain areas of vulnerability and imbalance in them. And crucially, these deficits and flaws determined what is going to appeal to us and repel us in art.
..To flesh out his theory, Worringer proposed that people who are calm, cautious and rule-driven will often be drawn to a kind of art that is passionate and dramatic, and that can thus compensate for their feelings of desiccation and sterility. We can predict that they will be highly susceptible, for instance, to the intensity of Latin art, admiring the blood-red darkness of Goya's canvases and the phantasmagoric architectural forms of the Spanish baroque. But this same bold aesthetic, according to Worringer's thesis, will frighten and run off other sorts of people whose backgrounds have made them anxious and overexcitable. These jumpy characters will want nothing to do with the baroque, locating far greater beauty in an art of calm and logic. Their preferences are more likely to turn to the mathematical rigours of Bach's cantatas, the symmetry of formal French gardens and the quiet emptiness of canvases by minimalism artists such as Agnes Martin or Mark Rothko.
♥ We need both art and sex to make us whole, so it is not surprising if the mechanisms of compensation should be similar in each case. Th specifics of what we find "beautiful" and what we find "sexy" are indications of what we most deeply crave in order to rebalance ourselves.
♥ We have not reached a stage of human development in which Jen could openly tell Tomas that she wants only to have sex with him and nothing more. To most ears, such an admission would sounds rude (perhaps even cruel), animalistic and vulgar.
But then again, Tomas can't be honest about what he wants, either, because his longing to find love with Jen would seem soppy and weak. The taboo preventing him from announcing to her, "I want to love you and look after you tenderly for the rest of my life," us just as strong as the one that stops her saying to him, "I'd like to fuck you in my motel room and then say goodbye to you for ever."
To stand any chance of success, both parties have to lie about their desires. Jen has to take care not to let on that her interest in Tomas is purely sexual and Tomas cannot give voice to his own ambition for love, for fear that Jen might just as speedily make for the exit. Both hope that they may somehow manage to get what they want without ever having explicitly to specify what it is. Such ambiguity typically occasions only betrayals and shattered expectations. The person who wants love but gets just sex feels used. The person who is really after sex but who must pretend to want love in order to get it feels, if forced into a relationship, trapped or, if able to flee one, corrupt and dishonourable.
How might our society enable Tomas and Jen and other like them, to advance towards a better outcome? First, by recognizing that neither need has the moral advantage: wanting love more than sex, or even instead of it, isn't "better" or "worse" than the reverse. Both needs have their place in our human repertoire of feelings and desires. Second, as a society, we have to find ways to make sure that these two needs can be freely claimed, without fear of blame or moral condemnation. We have to mitigate the taboos surrounding both appetites, so as to minimize the necessity of dissimulation and thereby the heartbreak and guilt it causes.
So long as the only way to get sex is to feign being in love, some of us will lie and make a run for it. And so long as the only way to have a chance of finding long-term love is to hold ourselves out as devil-may-care adventurers ready to have no-strings-attached sex with near strangers in a motel, others of us are going to be at risk of feeling painfully abandoned the next morning.
It's time for the need for sex and the need for love to be granted equal standing, without an added moral gloss. Both may be independently felt and are of comparable value and validity. Both shouldn't require us to lie in order to claim them.
♥ We'd be adding paranoia to misery to take the rain personally.
As we have learnt to regard the weather, so too should we understand those who tell us so sweetly that they feel like making an early night of it. We don't choose whom we want to sleep with; science and psychoanalysis have by now made it clear that there are hidden forces that make the choices for us long before our conscious mind can have any say in the matter.
However unbelievable it may seem when we are at the epicentre of suffering, sometimes a no is just a no.
♥ Eroticism seems, in the end, to have very little to do with simply being unclothed: it springs instead from a promise of mutual arousal, an eventuality that may elude two people who are naked and in bed together or, conversely, may take hold of another pair as they are ascending a mountainside in a chairlift, dressed in thick ski suits, mittens and woollen hats. While on screen the presenter praises a pistachio cornetto, back in the room the nakedness on the marital bed has some of the same sterile, affectless quality of a Baltic nudist beach.
♥ Logic might suggest that being in a long-term relationship or being married must automatically guarantee an end to the anxiety that otherwise dogs attempts by one person to induce another to have sex. But while either kind of union may make sex a constant theoretical option, it will neither legitimate the act nor even ease the path towards it on any particular occasion. Moreover, against a background of permanent possibility, an unwillingness to have sex may be seen as constituting a far graver violation of the ground rules than a similar impasse might do in other contexts. Being turned down by someone we have just met in a bar is, after all, not so terribly surprising or wounding; there are methods for dealing with such a rebuff. Suffering sexual rejection by the person with whom we have pledged to share our life is a much odder and more humiliating experience.
♥ To begin with, and most innocently, the paucity of sex within established relationships typically has to do with the difficulty of shifting registers between the everyday and the erotic. The qualities demanded of us when we have sex stand in sharp opposition to those we employ in conducting the majority of our other, daily activities. Marriage tends to involve – if not immediately, then within a few years – the running of a household and the raising of children, tasks that often feel akin to the administration of a small business and that draw upon many of the same bureaucratic and procedural skills, including time management, self-discipline, the exercising of authority and the imposition of rules upon recalcitrant others.
Sex, with its contrary emphases on expansiveness, imagination, playfulness and a loss of control, must by its very nature interrupt this routine of regulation and self-restraint, threatening to leave us unfit or at the least uninclined to resume our administrative duties once our desire has run its course. We avoid sex not because it isn't fun but because its pleasures erode our subsequent capacity to endure the strenuous demands that our domestic arrangements place on us.
..The commonsense notion of love typically holds that a committed relationship is the ideal context in which to express ourselves sexually – the implication being that we won't have to be embarrassed by revealing some of our more offbeat needs to the person we have betrothed ourselves to for eternity, at an altar in front of 200 guests. But this is a woefully mistaken view of what makes us feel safe. We may in fact find it easier to put on a rubber mask or pretend to be a predatory, incestuous relative with someone we're not also going to have to eat breakfast with for the next three decades.
..Sex may sometimes be just too private an activity to engage in with someone we know well and have to see all the time.
♥ By Freud's reckoning, our sex life will gradually be destroyed bu two unavoidable facts connected to our upbringing: first, in childhood, we learn about love from people with whom taboo strictly forbids us to have sex; and second, as adults, we tend to choose lovers who in certain powerful (though unconscious) ways resemble those whom we loved most dearly when we were children. Together these influences set up a devilish conundrum whereby the more deeply we come to love someone outside of our family, the more strongly we will be reminded of the intimacy of our early familial bonds – and hence the less free we will instinctively feel to express our sexual desires with him or her. An incest taboo originally designed to limit the genetic dangers of inbreeding can thus succeed in inhibiting and eventually ruining our chances of enjoying intercourse with someone to whom we are not remotely related.
The likelihood of the incest taboo's re-emergence in a relationship with a spouse increases greatly after the arrival of a few children. Until then, reminders of the parental prototypes on which our choice of lovers is subconsciously based can be effectively kept at bay the natural aphrodisiacs of youth, fashionable clothes, nightclubs, foreign holidays and alcohol. But all of these prophylactics tend to be left behind once the pram has been parked in the hall. We may remain ostensibly aware that we are not our partner's parent, and vice versa, yet this awareness will have a habit of becoming a more porous concept in both of our unconscious minds when we spend the greater part of every day acting in the roles of "Mummy" and "Daddy". Even though we are not each other's intended audience for these performances, we must nevertheless be constant witnesses to them. Once the children have been put to bed, it may not be uncommon for one partner – in one of those slips of meaning Freud so enjoyed – to refer to the other as "Mum" or "Dad", a confusion that may be compounded by the use of the same sort of exasperated-disciplinarian tone that has served all day long to keep the young ones in line.
It can be hard for both parties to hold on to the obvious yet elusive truth that they are in fact each other's equals, and that however off-putting the thought of having sex with a parent may be, this is not really the danger they are facing.
♥ Rather, the new actor has been brought in for a particular purpose: to remind the voyeur of what is arousing about his or her partner. The voyeur uses the stranger's lust as a map to trace the way back to desires long obscured by the god of routine. Through the agency of the stranger, the voyeur can feel the same excitement for a partner of twenty years as on the night they first met.
A variant on this approach involves one partner taking nude photographs of the other, posting them on a dedicated internet site and then soliciting the frank comments of a worldwide audience.
Tradition, jealousy and fear are sufficiency strong to prevent such practices from ever catching on in a big way, but they show us with particular clarity certain mechanisms of perception that we would be wise to incorporate into all of our relationships. The solution to long-term sexual stagnation is to learn to see our lover as if we had never laid eyes on him or her before.
♥ ..because our homes guide us to perceive others according to the attitude they normally exhibit in them. The physical backdrop becomes permanently coloured by the activities it hosts – vacuuming, bottle feeding, laundry hanging, the filling out of tax forms – and reflects the mood back at us, thereby subtly preventing us from evolving. The furniture insists that we can't change because it never does.
♥ Modern society will be apt to give full credence to our frustration: anything less than complete satisfaction smacks of compromise and capitulation. Frequent and fulfilling sex with a long-term partner is viewed as the norm, and any falling away from it as pathology. The sex-therapy industry, developed primarily in the United States during the second half of the twentieth century, has focused most of its efforts on assuring us that marriage should be enlivened by constant desire. It was the pioneers of sexology, William Masters and Virginia Johnson, who first articulated the bold view that it was every married person's ongoing right to enjoy good sex with his or her spouse, from the altar to the grave. In their bestselling Human Sexual Inadequacy (1970), they set out systematically to identify and provide antidotes for all the hurdles that a couple might face in their quest for this unending run of fulfilling sex: vaginismus, orgasmic dysfunction, dyspareunia, ejaculatory incompetence and the effects of aging.
..Yet there is arguably also something peculiar, even perverse, in an attitude of mind that relentlessly anthologizes a failure to have regular sex. Might we not turn the issue on its head and suggest that far from being an indication that something is wrong, a gradual decline in the intensity and frequency of sex between a married couple is merely an inevitable fact of biological life and, as such, evidence of deep normality? To rebel against it is like protesting that we are not permanently happy. Given the rarity of good sex, is it really right that we should continue to regard frequency as the norm? It would of course be convenient if sex and marriage could peacefully coexist, but wishing does not make it so. Would there not therefore be a certain wisdom in redrawing our expectations, depathologizing and destigmatizing our so-called "failures" and sometimes just turning over to the other side of the bed, ready to accept without rancour, with stoic calm, some of the necessary compromises of long-term love?
♥ ..The tragedies that affect the human race are many, but seldom are they as intense as those that strike in a bedroom after a couple have repeatedly tried and failed to secure the erection of the male. At such moments, suicide may no longer seem a remote or unreasonable possibility.
The real problem with impotence is less the actual loss of pleasure involved (which can be compensated for easily enough through masturbation) than the blow dealt to the self-esteem of both parties. Impotence is deemed a catastrophic because of an understanding of what flaccidity means.
..Impotence had its origins in the increase in empathy attendant on the promotion of the Golden Rule ("Do not unto others as you would not have done unto you"); it was the strangely troublesome fruit of our new inclination to wonder what another might be feeling and then to identify with his or her potential objections to our invasive or unsatisfactory demands.
..Impotence is at base, then, a symptom of respect, a fear of causing displeasure through the imposition of our desires or the inability to satisfy our partner's needs. The popularity of pharmaceuticals designed to combat erectile dysfunction signals the collective longing of modern men for a reliable mechanism by which to override our subtle, delicate, civilized worry that we will disappoint or upset others.
A better and drug-free approach might consist in a public campaign to promote to both genders – perhaps via a series of billboards and full-page ads in glossy magazines – the notion that what is often termed "nerves" in a man, far from being a problem, is in fact an asset that should be sought out and valued as evidence of an evolved type of kindness. The fear of being disgusting, absurd or a disappointment to someone else is a first sign of morality. Impotence is an achievement of the ethical imagination – so much so that in the future, we men might learn to act out episodes of the condition as a way of signalling our depth of spirit, just as today we furtively swallow Viagra tablets in the bathroom to prove the extent of our manliness.
♥ The common conception of anger posits red faces, raised voices and slammed doors, but only too often it takes on a different form, for when it doesn't understand or acknowledge itself, it just curdles into numbness.
♥ ..we frequently don't articulate our anger even when we do understand it, because the things that offend us can seem so trivial, finicky or odd that they would sound ridiculous if spoken aloud. Even rehearsing them to ourselves can be embarrassing.
We may, for example, be deeply wounded when our partner fails to notice our new haircut or doesn't use a breadboard while cutting a bit of baguette, scattering crumbs everywhere, or goes straight upstairs to watch television without stopping to ask about our day. These hardly seem matters worth lodging formal complaints over. To announce, "I am angry with you because you cut the bread in the wrong way," is to risk sounding at once immature and insane. An objection of this sort may indeed be both of those things, but given that immaturity and insanity by and large constitute the human condition, we would be well advised to stop subscribing to (and then suffering from), any more optimistic notions.
Comparable arguments, on topics objectively petty and absurd to outsiders, punctuate the history of every relationship. It comes down to ambition. To fall in love with another is to bless him or her with an idea of who he or she should be in our eyes; it is to attempt to incarnate perfection across a limitless range of activities, stretching from the highest questions (how to educate the children and what sort of house to buy) to the lowest (where the sofa should go and how to spend Tuesday evening). In love we are therefore never far from the possibility of a painful or irritating betrayal of one of our ideals. Once we are involved in a relationships, there is no longer any such thing as a minor detail.
..The situation has a tendency to spiral into ever greater nastiness. The one who has done the unwitting hurting will be punished sexually, which will lead to the firing of yet more surreptitious arrows, causing wounds that themselves will be neither understood nor dealt with an will then inspire further covert acts of aggression and withholding.
♥ In a perfect world, all couples would be visited by a psychotherapist on a weekly basis, without even having to put themselves forward for the service. The session would simply be a regular feature of a good, ordinary life, as the Friday-evening meal is for Jews, and would offer some of the same cathartic function as this ritual. Above all, neither party would be made to feel by society that he or she was crazy for having therapy – which is currently the main reason people neglect to see therapists and therefore slowly go crazy.
This ideal therapist would take a history of a relationship, explore its current tensions and try to serve as a catalyst for the sort of change that the couple themselves were too weak, busy or confused to bring about on their own. She would remind her clients that every exchange, however minor, had meaning and could set off a chain of recriminations and resentments that would prevent them from wanting to have sex. She would teach them to treat the complicate business of being in a relationship with extraordinary care. ..She would review their individual psychological histories and endeavour to help make the couple aware of some of the ways in which, because of their particular pasts, they might both be likely to distort or mistreat reality. And when arguments did flare up, she would urge each of them to see the other as being wounded and sad rather than malicious and spiteful.
This therapist would belong to a new kin of priesthood, designed for an age that no longer believes in religious forgiveness and understanding in the afterlife but that is still very much in need of those same qualities in the here and now.
If such a service does not yet exist, it is only because capitalism is still in its infancy. We are able to have exotic fruit delivered to our doorsteps and construct micro-conductors, but we struggle to find effective ways of examining and healing our relationships. The problem is that we think we already know everything necessary about how to be with another person, without having bothered to learn anything at all. We are no more capable of figuring out how to handle this task on our own than we would be able intuitively to work out how to land a plane or perform brain surgery. Whereas most workplaces are now awash with artificial procedures designed to prevent employees form murdering one another, modern lovers still baulk at attempts to introduce standardized practices and external assistance into their relationship. The idea persists that too much thinking might make it impossible for us to feel – as if it weren't already quite plainly apparent that a large and constant amount of thinking may be the only thing that can keep us from destroying each other.
♥ Our reluctance to work at love is bound up with out earliest experience of the emotion. We were first loved by people who kept secret from us the true extent of the work that went into it, who loved us but didn't ask us to return affection in a rounded way, who rarely revealed their own vulnerabilities, anxieties or needs and who were – to an extent, at least – on better behaviour as parents than they could be as lovers. They thereby created, albeit with the most benign of intentions, an illusion that has complicated consequences for us later on, insofar as it leaves us unprepared for the effort we must legitimately expend to make even a very decent adult relationship successful.
We can achieve a balanced view of adult love not by remembering what it felt like to be loved as a child bur rather by imagining what it took for our parents to love us – namely, a great deal of work. Only through similar application will we be able to sort out which partner in our relationship is firing the arrows and why, and thereby stand a chance of enjoying a better union and, as a windfall, more frequent and more affectionate sex.
♥ During a certain few period in it history, Christian art understood that sexual desire did not necessarily have to be the enemy of goodness, and could even, if properly marshalled, lend energy and intensity to it. In altarpieces by Fra Filippo Lippi or Sandro Botticelli, not only is the Madonna beautifully dressed and set against an enchanting background, she is also good-looking – indeed, in many cases, indisputably sexy. Although this point is not typically dwelt upon in art-historical discussions in museum catalogues, the Mother of Christ can quite often be an unambiguous turn-on.
In deliberately striving for this effect, Christian artists were not contravening the caution generally shown by their religion towards sexuality; rather, they were affirming that at selected moments, sexuality could be invited to promote a project of edification. If viewers were to be persuaded that Mary had been one of the noblest human beings who ever lived – the embodiment of kindness, self-sacrifice, sweetness and goodness – it might help if she was also pictured as having been, in the most subliminal and delicate of ways, rather alluring sexually.
The advantage of having sexual fantasies while looking at a Botticelli Madonna rather than at a stereotypical product of the modern porn industry is that the former doesn't compel us to make an uncomfortable choice between our sexuality and other qualities we aspire towards. It allows us to give free rein to our physical impulses while remaining aesthetically sensitive and morally aware. It gives us a chance, in short, to bridge a gap between sex and virtue.
♥ The boldness displayed by middle-aged married men when they are trying to deduce other women should never be confused with confidence: it is just the fear of death, which breeds an awareness of just how infrequently they are ever going to have the opportunity to sample such moments again. It is this that gives Jim the energy to press on in ways he never would have dared to do when he was young and single, when life seemed like a limitless expanse stretching out before him and he could still afford the luxury of feeling shy and self-conscious.
♥ Taking a step back, what distinguishes modern marriage from its historical precedents is its fundamental tenet that all our desires for love, sex and family ought to reside in the selfsame person. No other society has been so stringent or so hopeful about the institution of marriage, nor ultimately, as a consequence, so disappointed in it.
In the past, these three very distinct needs – for love, sex and family – were wisely differentiated and separated out from one another. The troubadours of twelfth-century Provence, for example, were experts in romantic love. They were well versed in the ache inspired by the sight of a graceful figure, in the anxious sleeplessness suffered at the prospect of a meeting and in the power of a few words or a glance to invoke an elevated state of mind. But these courtiers expressed no wish to link such prized and deeply felt emotions to parallel, practical intentions – no wish, that is, to raise a family, or even have sex, with those they so ardently loved.
The libertines of early-eighteenth-century Paris were just as devoted, but in their case to sex rather than romance: they worshiped the delight of unbuttoning a lover's garments for the first time, the excitement of exploring and being explored by another at leisure by candlelight, the subversive thrill of seducing someone covertly during Mass. But these stoic adventurers also understood that such pleasures had very little to do with either love or the rearing of a nurseryful of children.
For its part, the impulse to raise a family has been well known to the largest share of humanity since our earliest upright days in East Africa. In all this time, however, it seems to have occurred to almost no one (until very recently, evolutionarily speaking) that this project might need to be fused together with constant sexual desire as well as frequent sensations of romantic longing at the sight a fellow parent across the breakfast table.
The independence, if not the incompatibility, of our romantic, sexual and familial sides was held to be an untroubling and universal fact of life until the mid-eighteen century, when, among the members of one particular segment of society in the more prosperous countries of Europe, a remarkable new ideal began to take shape. This ideal proposed that henceforth, spouses ought not to be satisfied with just tolerating each other for the sake of their children; instead, and in addition, they were to regard it as their due to deeply love and desire each other. Their relationships were to wed the romantic energy of the troubadours to the sexual enthusiasm of the libertines. Thus was set before the world the compelling notion that our most pressing needs might be solved all at once, with the help of only one other person.
It was no coincidence that the new ideal of marriage was created and backed almost exclusively by a specific economic class: the bourgeoisie, whose balance of freedom and constraint it also uncannily mirrored. In an economy expanding rapidly thanks to technological and commercial developments, this newly emboldened class no longer needed to accept the restricted expectations of the lower orders. With a little extra money to spare for relaxation, bourgeois lawyers and merchants could now raise their sights and hope to find in a partner more than merely someone who could help them to survive the next winter. However, their resources were not unlimited. They didn't have the boundless leisure of the troubadours, whose inherited wealth had ensured that they could, without difficulty, spend three weeks writing a letter in celebration of a beloved's brow. The bourgeoisie had businesses to run and storehouses to manage. Nor could they permit themselves the social arrogance of the aristocratic libertines, whose power and status had bred in them a content nonchalance about breaking others' hearts and shattering their own families, and given them the means to mop up any unpleasant messes that their antics might leave behind.
The bourgeoisie was hence neither so downtrodden as not to have time for the luxury of romantic love nor so liberated from necessity as to be able to pursue erotic and emotional entanglements without limit. The idea of achieving fulfillment through an investments in a single, legally and eternally contracted partner was a fragile answer to their particular balance of emotional need and practical constraint.
The bourgeois ideal rendered taboo a host of faults and behaviors that previously would have been, if not completely ignored, then at least not seen as automatic cause for ending a marriage or breaking up a family. A barely tepid friendship between spouses, adultery, impotence – all of these now took on a new and grave significance. The notion of entering into a loveless or indifferent marriage was as much anathema to a bourgeois as the concept of not having outside affairs would have been to a libertine.
The progress of bourgeois romantic ambition can be usefully traced through fiction. Jane Austen's novels still feel recognizably modern to us because her aspirations for her characters mirror, and helped to create, the ones we have for ourselves. Like Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice and Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, we long to reconcile our wish for a secure family with a sincerity of feeling for our spouse. But the history of the novel also points to darker aspects of the romantic ideal. Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, arguably the two greatest novels of the European nineteenth century, confront us with a pair of heroines who, in accordance with their eras and social positions, long for a complex set of qualities in their partners: they want them to be at once husbands, troubadours and libertines. In both cases, however, life gives them only the first of the three. Emma and Anna are caged within economically secure yet loveless marriages that in earlier ages might have been a source of envy and celebration, but which now seem intolerable. At the same time, they inhabit a bourgeois world that cannot countenance their attempts to conduct extramarital affairs. Their eventual suicides illustrate the irreconcilable nature of this new modern love.
♥ ..what actually floats trough most people's emotional kaleidoscopes in any given period: all the contradictory, sentimental and hormonal forces that pull us in a hundred often crazed and inconclusive directions. To honour every one of our emotions would be to annul any chance of leading a coherent lifer. We could not be fulfilled if we weren't inauthentic some of the time, perhaps even a lot of it – inauthentic, that is, in relation to such things as our passing desires to throttle our children, poison our spouse or end our marriage over a dispute about changing a light bulb.
Romanticism highlighted the perils of inauthenticity, but we will face no fewer dangers if we attempt always to bring our outer life into line with our inner one. It is giving our feelings too great a weight to want them to be lodestars by which the major projects of our lives may be guided. We are chaotic chemical propositions, in dire need of basic principles that we can adhere to during our brief rational spells. We should feel grateful for, and protected by, the knowledge that our external circumstances are often out of line with what we feel; it is a sign that we are probably on the right course.
♥ Sex gets us out of the house and out of ourselves. In its name, we stretch out our horizons and intermingle unguardedly with random members of our species. People who otherwise keep themselves to themselves, who tacitly believe they have nothing much in common with the ordinary mass of humanity, enter bars and discos, climb nervously up tenement stairs, wait in unknown precincts, shout to make themselves heard over the throb of the music and talk politely with respectable mothers in living rooms adorned with ornaments and school-prize photos, while upstairs the mothers' grown-up children change into new pairs of trim grey underwear.
In the name of sex, we expand our interests and our reference points. To fit in with our lovers, we become fascinated by the details of eighteenth-century Swedish furniture, we learn about long-distance cycle riding, we discover South Korean moon jars. For sex, a burly yet tender tattooed carpenter will sit in a cafe opposite an elfin PhD student with a fringe, half listening to her tortuous explanations of the meaning of the Greek word audaimonia and letting his eyes trace patterns across her flawless porcelain skin as someone grills sausages in the background.
There would be so much less to do without sex. No one would bother to open jewellery stores, embroider lace, serve food on silver platters or hoist hotel rooms onto pontoons over tropical lagoons. The greater part of our economy would be meaningless without sex as a driving force or an organizing principle. The mad energy of the trading floors, the padded gold-leaf dressing rooms of Dior on Bond Street, the gatherings at the Museum of Modern Art, the black cod served at rooftop Japanese restaurants – what are all these for if not to help along the sort of processes whereby two people will eventually end up making love in a darkened room while sirens wail in the street below?
Only through the prism of sex does the past become properly intelligible. The apparent foreigners of ancient Rome or Ming Dynasty China cannot in the end have been so great, whatever the barriers of language and culture, because there, too, people felt the pull of flushed cheeks and of well-formed ankles. During the reign of Moctezuma I in Mexico or that of Ptolemy II of Egypt, it would have felt more or less the same to enter into or be entered by someone and to gasp at the pressure of her body or his against ours.
..When every contemptuous but fair thing has been said about our infernal sexual desires, we can still celebrate them for not allowing us to forget for more than a few days at a time what is really involved in living an embodied, chemical and largely insane human life.