Brain Pickings

Alain de Botton on How to Think More About Sex

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“The more closely we analyze 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.”

“When we hook up with another, in sex or love (or, more rarely, both) we prove that our isolation is not permanent,” Dorion Sagan — son of Carl — wrote in his fascinating history of sex. And yet that very quest to end our isolation has been subject to centuries of stigma and incessant friction with our social values. But it needn’t be this way.

Last week, The School of Life taught us how to stay sane by revising our inner stories. From the same fantastic series of intelligent, non-self-helpy, yet immensely helpful guides to modern living comes How to Think More About Sex (public library; UK) by philosopher Alain de Botton, who has previously given us some sage advice on success, a vision for religion for atheists, and some answers to little kids’ biggest questions.

De Botton writes in the introduction:

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 values. Unsurprisingly, we have no option but to repress its demands most of the time. We should accept sex as 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 a respectful accommodation with an anarchic and reckless power.

He later offers a delightfully animated account, reminiscent of Bill Plympton’s classic animated version, of why a kiss holds the appeal that it does:

The pleasure of the moment can be understood only by considering its wider context: the overwhelming indifference against which any kiss is set. It goes almost without saying that the majority of people we encounter will be not merely uninterested in having sex with us but positively revolted by the idea. We have no choice but to keep a minimum of sixty or, even better, ninety centimeters’ distance between us and them at all times, to make it absolutely clear that our compromised selves have no intention of intruding into their personal spheres.

Then comes the kiss. The deeply private realm of the mouth — that dark, moist cavity that no one else but our dentist usually enters, where our tongue reigns supreme over a microcosm as silent and unknown as the belly of a whale — now prepares to open itself up to another. The tongue, which has had no expectation of ever meeting a compatriot, gingerly approaches a fellow member of its species, advancing with something of the reserve and curiosity exhibited by a South Sea Islander in greeting the arrival of the first European adventurer. Indentations and plateaus in the inner lining of the cheeks, hitherto thought of as solely personal, are revealed as having counterparts. The tongues engage each other in a tentative dance. …

Beneath the kiss itself, it is its meaning that interests us — which is why the desire to kiss someone can be decisively reduced… by a declaration of that desire — a confession which may in itself be so erotic as to render the actual kiss superfluous.

But the true mesmerism of sex, de Botton argues, isn’t even in the physical act itself — it’s in the existential promise that it holds:

The pleasure we derive from sex is also bound up with our recognizing, and giving a distinctive seal of approval to, those ingredients of a good life whose presence we have detected in another person. The more closely we analyze 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.

[…]

Our culture encourages us to acknowledge very little of who we normally are in the act of sex. It seems as if it might be a purely physical process, without any psychological importance. But … what happens in love-making is closely bound up with some of our most central ambitions. The act of sex plays out through the rubbing together of organs, but our excitement is no boorish physiological reaction; rather, it is an ecstasy we feel at encountering someone who may be able to put to rest certain of our greatest fears, and with whom we may hope to build a shared life based upon common values.

Ultimately, sex is a grounding mechanism that reminds us of our own imperfect humanity, and in that imperfection lies the messy richness of being human:

Without sex, we would be dangerously invulnerable. We might believe we were not ridiculous. We wouldn’t know rejection and humiliation so intimately. We could age respectably, get used to our privileges and think we understood what was going on. We might disappear into numbers and words alone. It is sex that creates a necessary havoc in the ordinary hierarchies of power, status, money and intelligence.

[…]

We might even embrace the pain sex causes us, for without it we wouldn’t know art and music quite so well. … 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.

Complement How to Think More About Sex with some of literary history’s most beautiful definitions of love.

Public domain images via Flickr Commons

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