[excerpts] Alain de Botton's How to Think More About Sex
[excerpts] Alain de Botton's How to Think More About Sex
5 June 2016
*I've taken excerpts from the book and pasted them into the form of a conversation between the author and I. I usually simply list all the quotes I like but that seems to lose the average readers' attention very easily. Perhaps this question-response format will be more engaging. Note that I've taken some liberties with certain segments in order to make it all flow.
This conversation/excerpts proceeds in seven sections. 1) Thoughts on Kissing 2) Explaining Preferences 3) How Romanticism Distorts Love 4) Pornography and Suffering 5) Adultery and Fidelity, Combating Romantic Notions of Marriage 6) Conclusion 7) Misc.
I. Thoughts on Kissing
Lets' jump right into it. Why is kissing so thrilling? This is a seemingly simple question, but I'm curious why 'kissing' as an experience is felt as so vivid.
Well you see, “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.”
Hmm. What exactly do you mean by ‘isolation in a cold an anonymous world?’ I feel quite fine usually. I just had a great day with friends and family actually. Isn’t this a bit dramatic? Try to explain this better. My feeling is your talking about some kind of deeper emotional undercurrent we all have from time to time.
I’ll give it a shot! “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 like naked on her skin, we can her 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...Our body either ceases to please or can no longer be casually displayed...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 of interest to them...We grow into clumsy, heavy-footed, shameful, anxious creatures. We become adults, definitely expelled from paradise.” p18
Hm. Okay, that’s still a bit dramatic, but I think I see your point. It reminds me of a quote I saw on Facebook recently, “Poetry begins when childhood ends.” I think any adult that can’t recognize and admit to the difficulties of being a living, breathing adult- are posturing because they're still so alarmed and surprised by the rough edges of Life, or else mindlessly distracting themselves from their own feelings. Life is absurd and terrifying in so many ways...
I am digressing. How does this all relate to my original question of why kissing is such a thrill again?
Right. Well, “...deep inside, we never quite forget the needs with which we are 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 another’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 sleep with...
A kiss is pleasurable because of the sensory receptivity of our lips, but we shouldn’t overlook that a good deal of our excitement has nothing to do with the physical dimension of the act: it stems from the simple realization that someone else likes us quite a lot, a message that would enchant us even if it were delivered via another medium....” p19
Pretty interesting. Throw me another interesting fact about sex!
Okay sure, This is kind of random, but have you ever thought about why there’s such an excitement in encountering each others' arousal?
Imagine John and Jane. “They lie down on the bed on the bed and caress each other further. He reaches down between her legs and presses gently upwards, realizing with intense joy that she is wet. At the same time, she stretches her hand across to him and takes comparable satisfaction in discovering the extreme stiffness of his penis.
The reason such physiological reactions are emotionally so satisfactory...is that they signal a kind of approval that lies utterly beyond rational manipulation. Erections and lubrication simply cannot be effected by willpower and are therefore particularly true and honest indices of interest. In a world in which fake enthusiasms are rife, in which it is often hard to tell whether people really like us or whether they are being kind to us merely out of a sense of duty, the wet vagina and the stiff penis function as unambiguous agents of sincerity." p29
That's fascinating. You just did a 'phenomenology' of one of the most intimate experiences humans can have. I appreciate how your analysis captures the actual lived feelings of this kind of moment...
II. Explaining Preferences
Let's shift the conversation towards preferences. What can explain why different people have different tastes in their partners, both physically and character wise? How can one guy's personality be so compelling to one girl, and equally repelling to another? It's a puzzle.
Good question. I too remember puzzling over that. The diversity of tastes is fascinating. I think one way of understanding this phenomenon is too think about artwork. The logic behind differential art preferences is similar to differential partner preferences.
Consider this question,"...Why does one person love Mark Rothko, for instance, but have an instinctive fear of Caravaggio? Why does another recoil from Chagall but admire Dali?"
"A highly suggestive answer to 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 environments 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 determine what is going to appeal to us and repel us in art.
Every work of art is imbued with a particular psychological and moral atmosphere: we may say that a given painting is either serene or restless, courageous or careful, modest or confident, masculine or feminine, bourgeois or aristocratic. Our preferences among these reflect our psychological histories- more specifically what is vulnerable in us as a result of our upbringing. We hunger for artworks that compensate for our inner fragilities and help to return us to a healthy mean. We crave in art those qualities that are missing in our lives. We call a work 'beautiful' because when it supplies the missing does of our psychological virtues, and we dismiss as 'ugly' one that forces on us moods or motifs that we feel threatened or already overwhelmed by.
To flesh out this theory, Worringer proposed that people who are calm, cautious, and rule drive will often be drawn to a kind of art that is passionate and dramatic, and that can thus compensate for their feelings of dessication 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 turn off other sorts of people whose backgrounds have made them anxious and overeexcitable. 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 run to the mathematical rigours of Bach's cantatas, the symmetry of formal French gardens and the quiet emptiness of canvases by minimalist artists such as Agnes Martin or Mark Rothko." p68
It's delightful how you use artwork preferences as an analogue for partner preferences. Different domains, but yes- the logic of compensation is interesting to consider. Sounds pretty Freudian. I must say though, I would definitely complicate your analysis with a consideration of racial, gender, and class politics.
III. On Romantic Partners vs Real-life Partners
Anyhow. Let's move on to a different aspect of partners. What are your thoughts on this notion of a 'right' person being out there somewhere? I feel like it causes a lot of havoc by creating these euphonious, but ultimately naive 'scripts.'
Hm. I share a similar sentiment. "By overwhelming consensus, our culture locates the primary difficulty of relationships in finding the 'right' person rather than in knowing how to love a real- that is, a necessarily rather unright- human being. Our reluctance to work at love is bound up with our earliest experience of 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 behavior 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 but rather imagining what it took for our parents to loves us- namely, a great deal of work..." p122
IV. Pornography and Suffering
So, this is my one of my favorite topics. I think my interest in it is shared by a lot of other modern social observers. The famous Stanford psychologist Phillip Zimbardo who's written a series of books like, "The Demise of Boys" and "Man, Interrupted," is one of those people. John Mayer is another.
What are your thoughts on porn?
"Pornography, like alcohol and drugs, undermines our ability to endure certain kinds of suffering which we have to experience if we are to direct our lives properly. More specifically, it reduces our capacity to tolerate our ambiguous moods of free-floating worry and boredom. Our feelings of anxiety are genuine but confused signals that something is amiss, and so need to be listened to and patiently interpreted- processes which are unlikely to be completed when we have in hand, in the [form of the] computer, one of the most powerful tools of distraction ever invented. The entire internet is in a sense pornographic, a deliverer of a constant excitement that we have no innate capacity to resist, a seducer that leads us down paths that for the most part do nothing to answer our real needs. Furthermore, the ready availability of pornography lessens our tolerance for the kind of boredom that grants our minds the space it needs to spawn good ideas- the create sort of boredom we luxuriate in during a bath or on a long train journey. Whenever we feel an all but irresistible desire to flee from our own thoughts, we can be quite sure there is something important trying to make its way into our consciousness- and yet it is precisely at such pregnant moments that internet pornography is most apt to exert its maddening pull, assisting our escape from ourselves and therefore helping us to destroy our present and our future." p133
I appreciate how you discuss porn in the context of our larger ontology. Specifically, I really think this notion of 'Suffering' as part of the human experience is not discussed or taught to young people as much as it should be. Which reminds me, I grew up religious but found myself increasingly 'secular' if you will. But the last year has been fascinating because I keep coming back to the Church because it seems like they actually do a lot of things right. I don't like the dogma, but the church as a community, I think, often has deeper insights than a lot of secular communities. What are your thoughts on religion and its portrait of sexuality? That's a big, vague question so take it as you will.
Sure. I mean, in my opinion, "Only religions still take sex seriously, in the sense of properly respecting its power to turns us away from our priorities. Only religions see it as something potentially dangerous and needing to be guarded against. We may not sympathize with what they wish us to think about in the place of sex, and we may not like the way they go about trying to censor, but we can surely- though perhaps only after killing many hours online at www.youporn.com- appreciate that on this one point religions have got it right: sex and sexual images can overwhelm our higher rational faculties with depressing ease.
Religions are often mocked for being prudish but insofar as they warn us against sex. they do so out of an active awareness of the charms and the power of desire. They wouldn't judge sex to be quite so bad if they didn't also understand that it could be rather wonderful. The problem is that this wonderful thing can get in the way of some other important and precious concerns of ours, such as God and life...Even if we no longer believe in a deity, we may have to concede that a degree of repression is necessary both for the mental health of our species and for the adequate functioning of a decently ordered and loving society. A portion of our libido has to be forced underground for our own good; repression is not just for Catholics, Muslims, and the Victorians, but for all of us and for eternity. Because we have to go to work, commit ourselves to relationships, care for our children and explore our own minds, we cannot allow sexual urges to express themselves without limit, online or otherwise; left to run free, they destroy us." p135
V. On Adultery and Fidelity, and Combating Romantic Notions of Marriage
I'm twenty one years old and so my experiences are still limited. But I think myself and my peers have already stumbled across this sort of tension in our relationships, this pull between commitment/intimacy versus novelty. Obviously during the honeymoon stage, this tension is not apparent. But in other long term relationships, I think it appears for most of us. What are your thought on how to respond to this desire for novelty while in a committed relationship?
I think it's useful to take a step back, and like we did before, and consider if Romanticism has muddied the water and made what is natural, seem scary and abnormal.
I think the right kind of questions to ask are, "What more realistic mindset, then, might we take with us into marriage? What kinds of vows might we need to exchange with our partner in order to stand a sincere chance of mutual fidelity?"
In answer to these questions, I would say, "Certainly something far more cautionary and downbeat than the usual platitudes would be in order- for example: 'I promise to be disappointed by you and you alone. I promise to make you the sole repository of my regrets, rather than to distribute them widely through multiple affairs and a life of sexual Don Juanism. I have surveyed the different options for unhappiness, and it is you I have chosen to commit myself to.' These are the sorts of generously pessimistic and kindly unromantic promises that couples should make to each other at the altar.
Thereafter, an affair would be a betrayal only of a reciprocal pledge to be disappointed in a particular way, not of an unrealistic hope. Spouses who had been cheated upon would no longer furiously complain that they had expected their partner to be happy per se. Instead they could more poignantly and justly cry, 'I was relying on you to be loyal to the specific variety of disappointment that I represent.' " p162
I can't imagine actually saying that at the alter, but point taken. Let me ask another question about marriage.
I enjoy asking my friends with different class/race/gender markings and cultural backgrounds, about their parents marriages and how marriage 'works' in their family. Sometimes there seems to be completely different expectations and beliefs depending on the region and also generation. Can you offer any insight into this phenomenon of different generations/regions thinking differently about marriage?
I'll focus on the temporal/generational aspect of that phenomenon. "When the idea of a love-based marriage took hold in the eighteenth century, it replaced an older and more prosaic rationale for betrothal, whereby couples got married because they had both reached the proper age, found they could stand the sight of each other, were keen not to offend both sets of parents and their neighbors, had a few assets to protect and wished to raise a family.
The bourgeoisie's new philosophy, by contrast, legitimated only one reason for marriage: deep love. This condition was understood to comprise a variety of hazy but totemic sensations and sentiments, including the lovers' being unable to bear being out of each other's sight, their each being physically aroused by the others' appearance, their being certain that their minds are in perfect tune with each other, their wanting to read poetry to each other my moonlight and their desiring to fuse their souls together into one.
In other words, marriage shifted from being an institution to being the consecration of a feeling, from being an externally sanctioned rite of passage to being an internally motivated response to an emotional state.
I want to add, that, this incredible shift in commonly held beliefs about marriage, also brought with it a whole assortment of new feelings and ways of 'perceiving' the lived experience of being in a long term relationship.
"Justifying the shift in the eyes of its modern defenders was a newly intense dread of what was known as 'inauthenticity', a psychological phenomenon whereby a person's inner feelings differed from those expected of him or her by the outer world. What the old school would have respectfully called 'putting on a show' was now recategorized as lying, while 'faking things to be polite' was more melodramatically recast as betraying oneself.' This emphasis on achieving congruence between inner and outer selves required strict new qualifications about what a decent marriage would have to entail. To feel only intermittent affection for a spouse, to have mediocre sex six times a year, to keep a marriage going for the well being of children- such compromises were considered abdications of any claim to be fully human." p164
And I'm kind of rambling here now, but I want to impart a few more thoughts on Romanticism and how as we get older, I think all of us stumble into more complicated understandings of relationships.
"As young adults, most of us start out by feeling an intuitive respect for love-based marriage. We can hardly avoid this reverence, given our cultural bias towards it, and yet as we get older, we will usually begin to wonder whether the whole thing might not be a just a fantasy dreamt up by a group of adolescent-minded authors and poets a few hundred years ago- and whether we mightn't be better off under an older, institution-based system that served humanity well enough for most of its history theretofore....
The defenders of feeling-based marriage venerate emotions for their sincerity and authenticity, but they are able to do so only because they avoid looking too closely at what actually floats through 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 life. We would 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 to bring out 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 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." p176
Any last thoughts Alan? I've really enjoyed this conversation.
I as well. I guess I'll end by sharing one last, more positive, thought.
I think, "We might even embrace the pain sex causes us, for without it we wouldn't know art and music quite so well. There would be so much less point to Schubert's Lieder or Natalie Merchant's Ophelia, to Bergman's Scenes from a marriage or Nabokov's Lolita. We would be so much less well acquainted with agony, and therefore so much crueller and less ready to laugh at ourselves. 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." p176
These are some random excerpts that could not be fitted into the conversation, but caught my attention. The first is an interesting piece of advice, and the last two are just some very pretty phrases.
1) "Pessimism about human nature, sex included, is beautifully explored by Pascal in his Pensees, by Arthur Schopenhauer in his Maxims on the Wisdom of Life and by John Gray in his Straw Dogs. All three authors are alive to the thought that cheering someone up should never be confused with telling him or her something cheerful. As they recognize, it is far better to say extreme and grim things that will lead to the redrawing of expectations, and thereby occasion gratitude for small mercies." p177
2) "To describe what Jim wants as 'sex' is severely to foreshorten the roots of his excitement. The old English synonym for the noun is unusually apt in this case, for in essence Rachel is provoking in Jim a longing to know her- know her thighs and ankles and neck, naturally, but also her wardrobe, the titles of books she has on her shelf, the smell of her hair after a shower, the nature of her character when she was a little girl and the confidences she exchanges with her friends." p147
3) "During the reign of Montezuma 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 into by someone and gasp as the pressure of her body against ours." p174